To celebrate, three very different romances: a contemporary space opera (kinda), a globe-trotting adventure (kinda), and a Regency romance (kinda). Love is in the air, and it is not so easily classified.
Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride (1973) is another of the award-winning novelist's semi-Gothic, globe-trotting, quasi-Victorian escapades. I'm slightly obsessed with Brent's books ever since discovering that 'she' is the pen name for Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote the action series Modesty Blaise. The obsession has now paid off with a handful of really delightful books, of which Moonraker's is one.
Lucy Waring, our heroine, is born overseas, an orphan in a remote Himalayan village. This means she's got practical skills (including yak-herding!) and an adventurous spirit... but is completely on the back foot in British society. The combination means she can be shy, but courageous, and supremely competent... yet also in constant need of rescuing. This is the delicate balance that Brent creates in all 'her' books, and it might be at its most delicate in Moonraker's. Further familiar twists include the circumstantial-marriage-that-could-be-real-love, family secrets, and a lot of ponderously-delivered pop psychology.
Moonraker's Bride is also a warm and interesting historical romance with deeply likeable characters, an unusual heroine and a pair of evocative settings, as it moves back and forth between the English countryside and a remote Chinese village. There are a few surprising twists in this one, as it (more or less) perfects the balance of juggling the good-bad-guy and the bad-good-guy - at least enough to keep the reader guessing.
Lucy is slightly more robust than other Brent characters, and, if frustratingly self-effacing, is still courageous and effective when trouble begins. She needs to be, as Moonraker's is unrelenting in its danger. Whether she's being chased by bounty hunters, menaced by darkly attractive men, or trapped in a snowy cave, Lucy is perpetually under threat. What keeps Moonraker's on the brighter side of pulp is that the book adjusts accordingly: we're attuned to Lucy's mood, and learn to share her stoicism, her fear, and her occasional moments of unbridled joy. It is - again, a Brent trait - a rather sweet book, with a pleasant sense of fairness that comes out in the resolution.
Becky Chambers' A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) is the author's second book, and functions as a standalone sequel to the multiple-award-winning, thoroughly heart-warming The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Seriously If You Haven't Read It Yet Just Stop Reading Reviews For Other Books Because It Is Your Next One.
A Closed and Common Orbit is, like its predecessor: gorgeous, joyous, lovely and a truly uplifting read. It is also a much less 'epic' book - in that there's a lot less trotting around the universe and not even a slim pretense at intergalactic plottery. All the action takes place in a single location, and, in a sense, in one person's very confused (and not entirely contained) head. It isn't about doing anything big, at least, so it seems.
Arguably, Closed tackles the biggest challenge of all: learning who are you. Sidra, our narrator, is an AI that's been - for reasons - packaged up in human form. Everything she's ever believed; everything she's ever known; every way she's ever seen the world - that's all been wiped away, and she has to rebuilt not only her life, but how she actually lives. It is heavy stuff, but Chambers handles it with her usual grace, for someone defined by her not-like-us-ness, Sidra, tries to figure out who she is in very familiar ways (drinking too much, tattoos, the occasional temper tantrum...). Chambers, as in The Long Way, draws beautiful lines between all living creatures, and Sidra's unknowable experience becomes perfectly empathetic.
At the same time, there's a second narrative thread that's a more conventional SF/dystopian story. This other strand - the action-packed backstory Pepper - is a lot of fun (well, gloomy, but fun). Chambers is a stellar author. After the glory of The Long Way, I was primed for a let-down, and, I'm delighted to say, there wasn't even the hint of one.
Worth noting that - despite my attempt to shoe-horn Closed into a Valentine's Day article, it really isn't a romance - at least, not in the conventional sense of the genre. Like The Long Way, this is absolutely a book about love: loving your friends, loving your life, loving yourself. In the broadest sense, Closed is about learning how to receive - and give - joy. How to love where you are. A romance? Not so much. This is much, much more.
Sarah MacLean's The Season (2009) is a wander into YA by a much-lauded romance novelist. I like, with various degrees of fiery passion (from lack-lustre to romp-in-a-hedge-maze, MacLean's romance novels. The Rules of Scoundrels series is good fun - One Good Earl Deserves Another is my favourite, despite the argh-worthy title. I found the others I tried (Love by Numbers and Scandal & Scoundrel) to be a little more repetitive. Then again, I did read them all in a row. So, you know, take that with a grain of floofy-skirted, lemonade-sipping, sneak-off-to-the-terrace salt.
ANYWAY, The Season isn't a romance at all.
Which is to say, it is absolutely a romance, and for about 90% of the book, it is passingly identical to every other Regency Romance on the shelf: an unconventionally beautiful, charmingly anachronistic heroine who thinks she'll never get married, a socially-anxious mother that's more thoughtful than she appears, a series of awkward society moments that - whew! - don't backfire, and a gorgeous hunky duke-earl-thing who goes from 'detested' to 'delicious' over the course of a few epiphany-causing well-fitted suits. Everyone marries who they are supposed to marry, happy things happen to good people, and all is well.
The other 10% of The Season is, well... there's a plot afoot, see, and there are spies and things going on, which gives our spunky heroine an excuse to sneak around after hours and do things that really no-young-lady-of-good-breeding ought to be doing. The plot really has very little to do with the, er, plot, but the running around serves as a textual sublimation of the sweaty action that the reader wants to be reading.
And that's where The Season is weird - not bad, not good - just weird. This really is, almost word for word, trope for trope, a standard erotic Regency Romance. But there's no actual eroticism. It is a strangely Bowdlerised version the genre, made suitable for a YA audience that - judging by most other YA books - would be very ofay with the heft-and-thrust of the normal books. Basically, this was a perfectly decent book, but it needed bonking.