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So, You Want To Read a Romance Novel For the First Time This Valentine’s Day? Here’s Our Genre Primer

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | February 12, 2021 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | February 12, 2021 |


Bridgerton Daphne and Simon Netflix.jpg

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, once again, we come together to celebrate romance novels because it’s Valentine’s Day and what else are we going to discuss? Every year, we go through the same spiel when it comes to mainstream media’s willing ignorance over one of the most popular and profitable genres in literature. You all know the cycle: we get Valentine’s reading lists entirely devoid of actual romance novels while self-flagellating misery lit is given center stage, then we must suffer through the clickbait and smarm of articles sneering at romance written by people who proudly boast about never reading romances. I honestly thought the success of Netflix’s Bridgerton, as well as its generally positive critical reception, would change things for this Valentine’s Day, but nope, here we are again. The default mode of reporting on romance, even with the delightful leaps and bounds we’ve made, is still to use it as a pop-culture punching bag and claim that doing so is feminist. Yawn. Try harder.

But we’re not here to do that. We’re here to, you know, actually enjoy romance novels, as much as that sounds like a novelty in our biz. Following Bridgerton, I saw a lot of people excited to read Julia Quinn’s books for the first time, but also many newbies to romance as a whole eager to jump head-first into the genre. The problem was that they didn’t know where to start. It can be daunting. It’s a billion-dollar a year industry with countless subgenres and a rich history that is seldom given its dues. So, I, as someone who reads a lot of romance novels and is sick of seeing think-pieces on how terrible the genre is by people who don’t bloody read romance novels, thought that I should step in.

Here is my basic primer on good places to start if you’re new to the wonderful world of romance. Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list and there are literally thousands of other options available, so please don’t take this post as gospel. Simply, I want to present some easily accessible routes to those who feel overwhelmed by the sheer array of choices on the table. Please feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments, but don’t do that thing where you pretend to be so outraged that a book you love isn’t mentioned. It’s really off-putting and kind of demoralizing to the writer to see comments along the lines of, ‘Wait, where is this book? This list is invalid trash!’


REGENCY HISTORICALS


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You can’t swing a disgraced duke’s cravat around romance without hitting a plethora of Regency titles. It’s something of a default mode for the historical subgenre. I’m sure you can blame Jane Austen for that. If you loved Bridgerton then obviously Julia Quinn’s long-running series is an excellent place to start. As many fans of Quinn’s work will tell you, you can feel free to skip the first book in the saga, The Duke and I, which is a weaker effort by the ever-reliable best-seller. Jump into Start out with Anthony’s book, The Viscount Who Loved Me, which features one of the series’ great heroines, Kate Sheffield. Quinn’s work is breezy, engrossing, and exceedingly accessible for all romance newbies.

Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is technically the second book in a series but it’s widely considered to be a must for Regency lovers. The Beauty and the Beast influences are there but its real joys lie in seeing an amoral cad meet his match in the most thrilling manner possible. Chase wrote this book over 25 years ago, yet it remains surprisingly fresh in a way that many older romance titles aren’t.

If you’re not big on the whole heterosexuality thing then we’ve got you covered. Cat Sebastian’s The Soldier’s Scoundrel — they’re all scoundrels, it was the fashion — brings together a lifelong crook with a heart of gold and a stalwart soldier who wouldn’t dream of indulging in any kind of vice. Olivia Waite’s Feminine Pursuits series is a more languidly paced take on the genre that may be a touch slow for some readers, but The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is still a great f/f starting point for Regency lovers.

I have to give a shout out to my personal favorite Regency romance, and maybe my favorite romance novel full-stop. Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder isn’t focused on the upper classes like so many of its counterparts are. Rather, its heroine is a prickly plus-size widow who is being courted by political schemers as part of a local election. A war hero is brought on board to campaign for his brother, but finds himself more interested in the woman who has become the pawn of the season. The highlight of the novel comes when, rather than buy sweets for her as a courting gift, the hero buys the protagonist a ham. What a man!


VICTORIAN ROMANCES



Maybe you fancy tighter corsets and fewer balls in Bath. Victorian romances may be for you. The work of Lisa Kleypas won’t steer you wrong. Check out her Wallflowers quartet for tightly constructed romances centered on strong natured young women and an appealing push-pull dynamic with their heroes. Courtney Milan is also an excellent starting point for readers. Her works are impeccably constructed and always center on the most compelling characters. The Brothers Sinister series is a strong introduction to her work, although her books get far more ambitious as time passes. Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore is a relatively new release but it seems primed to be discovered by readers old and new alike. How can you not love a story involving a suffragette, a duke, and political drama?


AMERICAN HISTORICAL ROMANCES



Did you know that there are historical romances that happen outside of English country houses? I know, right? We can’t discuss U.S. historicals without paying homage to the queen herself, Beverly Jenkins. Indigo centers on a woman helping enslaved people flee on the Underground Railroad, while Forbidden takes place in the Old West. Destiny’s Captive includes pirates!

If you prefer something a little more inspirational, Piper Huguley’s Milford College series takes place in Reconstruction-era Georgia and the creation of a town for recently free enslaved Black Americans. Her work is impeccably researched and manages to strike that tough balance of romantic sweetness with historical realism. They are Christian historical romances but there’s much here for all to enjoy, regardless of faith.

Alyssa Cole is one of those writers whose entirely back-catalog could be recommended with absolute enthusiasm. I’ll limit myself to one book for now and urge you to check out her Loyal League series, which features spies fighting for justice during the civil war.


ROYAL ROMANCES



Death to the monarchy but I do love a good royal romance. It’s a fascinating dynamic for a love story, just not a real-life political system! I have to shout out Alyssa Cole once more for her Reluctant Royals series, a sharp contemporary take on the genre that eschews the more fairy-tale aspects of the tropes yet retains the magic. A Princess in Theory imagines a scenario wherein all of those spam emails from a supposed African prince turn out to be real!

Eloisa James, another sturdy mainstay of historical romance, reimagined Cinderella with A Kiss at Midnight. Her heroine is forced to go to the ball, immediately hates the prince, and has no interest in all this wooing he’s suddenly doing. Casey McQuiston made a major splash with Red, White & Royal Blue, a sparky contemporary romance that pairs up the spare British Prince with the son of the first woman President of the United States. Jeannie Lin transports her royal drama back to China of the Tang Dynasty, with a betrayed princess and her stoic, battle-scarred bodyguard.


PARANORMAL ROMANCES



Every now and then, you’ll read a think-piece declaring that the paranormal genre is dead. The romance community has never prescribed to such claims, and lovers of the romantically speculative can always find something to enjoy. Nobody does it quite like Nalini Singh, an endlessly prolific writer with one of the strongest world-building abilities in the game, and yes, I’m including non-romantic paranormal fiction in there too. You have your pick of the crop with her, from the Psy-Changeling saga to the Guild Hunter series. The former features a psychic ruling class who have all but outlawed emotions and the animal shifters on the outskirts with whom they live an uneasy co-existence. The latter has angels and vampires and an epic, near-apocalyptic, passion. Meljean Brook also has more than one impeccable paranormal series to recommend. Her Guardians novels also feature angels, demons, and vampires, while the Iron Seas series is a blend of steampunk, speculative, historical, and sexy. Under the pseudonym Milla Vane, she’s currently writing a brilliant high-fantasy trilogy that may not be instantly accessible for romance newbies but is one I must recommend all the same.

If you like werewolves more than vampires — seriously, who does that? — then the queen is Patricia Briggs and her Mercy Thompson series. It’s more urban fantasy than paranormal romance for the most part but treads a lot of similar territory. I know some romance fans who worship at the altar of Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series, a Dublin-set saga of the Fae, but I also know plenty of others who can’t get past its central heroine. I’ll let that recommendation be a judgment call, but I found it enjoyable, and it’s definitely a solid paranormal primer text.


ROMANTIC SUSPENSE



Do you need your romances to include a few climaxes that aren’t bedroom-oriented? Maybe a sprinkling of suspense is what you need. Nora Roberts, the high priestess of romance, writes the In Death series under the pen name J.D. Robb. Imagine a near-future New York, a hard-bitten and troubled detective, and the devilishly handsome socialite she can’t keep her eyes off. My grandmother doesn’t read romance but loves J.D. Robb.

The I-Team series by Pamela Clare is especially popular among romantic suspense lovers. Do you like series described with the term ‘breathless intrigue’? Give her a shot. Marie Force’s Fatal series isn’t as full-on as some suspense series, so if you want a gentler take to see if it’s for you, check that out. The heroine is a DC Detective and she frequently finds herself embroiled in the cutthroat world of Washington politics.


CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE



Contemporary romance is a vast subgenre and trying to condense it to three or four books is a monumental task that I’m hesitant to even try. Still, I can give a shout out to a few of the favorites that I think would be great introductory texts to the hesitant romance newcomer.

Julie James is an endless delight. Her dialogue is always witty and seems primed for a classic screwball comedy, albeit with more sex. Dive head-first into her FBI/U.S. Attorney series for some old-school Beatrice and Benedick hate-hate-love stories. That particular trope is catnip to me.

We could probably do an entire primer post on Nora Roberts’ work alone, thanks to the literally dozens of titles she produces with a near-ruthless romantic efficiency. She does it all, from historical to contemporary, suspense, paranormal, and even dystopian! For now, let’s stick with her Bride Quartet and the wedding planners who seem to struggle with love when it comes to their own lives. The first book, Vision in White, has one of the great beta heroes of romance.

A relative newcomer to the scene, Jasmine Guillory has quickly established herself as a popular contemporary writer. The Wedding Date series could easily be recommended as a whole, but if you’ve only got time for one, then start at the beginning (although this isn’t a series you need to read in order.) Helen Hoang is another recent addition to romance who quickly captured a lot of hearts thanks to her neuroatypical protagonists and her empathetic exploration of romance and its intersections. The Kiss Quotient pairs up a workaholic mathematician with a hunky escort who she hires to teach her the basics of romance. Talia Hibbert’s Brown sisters trilogy is pure delight in every way. Spoiler alert: I’ve read her new book, which comes out next months, and it’s great!


SEEEEEEEEEEEEEEX


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OK, but what if you just want the dirty bits? Romance is great but f**king is right there too, and we support your journey. Erotica is the throbbing heart of romance, so to speak, and I promise you, there’s more to the genre than E.L. James and her nonsense. We don’t claim her! Erotica can, understandably so, be a daunting prospect for a newcomer. Not everyone has the same tastes, so how you do choose just one book as a starting point?

For those who do ask, I direct them towards maybe my all-time favorite erotica, Solace Ames’s The Companion Contract. It’s a shame-free character study that just happens to be full of red-hot sex. The heroine is a porn star who’s had her fun and is seeking a smooth retirement from the business. She is hired to be a companion of sorts to a troubled Rockstar who needs to stay sober on his big reunion tour. I love how empathetic and deftly layered this novel is, and I wish more people would read it.

Perhaps you want interesting world-building with your sex, and you’ve been feeling distinctly apocalyptic lately. Kit Rocha’s Beyond series is a rarity in the romance world — a dystopian BDSM erotica — but I guarantee that it will scratch that itch. Ahem. The series starts with the introduction of the O’Kane gang, who rules one of the factions of the dark city surrounding the privileged supposed haven of Eden. There, life is restrictive and deeply pious, so when Noelle Cunningham is exiled from the only life she knows, she finds herself among those with a more distinctly freeing view on pleasure. It’s a classic tale of sensual discovery, which is a big part of erotic fiction, but the devil is in the details, especially the expansive society and the unique citizens who populate it. And the first book is free to read on e-book so you’ve nothing to lose!

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.



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