Confused About Paranormal Romances? Me, Too

By Poison Ivy,

Paranormal romances are big sellers these days. But it’s hard to know what is and what is not a paranormal romance, especially because there seems to be a fine line between that definition and urban fantasy, another very hot subgenre. For instance, Lara Adrian’s Ashes of Midnight is published by Dell as a paranormal romance (it says so on the spine). It’s got a bad marriage and a lot of vampires and other beasts doing vast amounts of killing. But it does end with a male and a female happy together. Humans? Not exactly.

Moon Burn, by Alisa Sheckley (who has also written comic books and some chick lit novels as Alisa Kwitney) does not indicate that it is a paranormal romance. It is from the Del Ray imprint from Ballantine Books, which is generally considered a fantasy and science fiction line. It seems to be a straightforward, character-driven werewolf story, and again, it ends with a male and a female happy together. So why isn’t it labeled a paranormal romance?

Eve of Darkness by S. J. Day has been categorized as urban fantasy by Tor on its spine. The heroine starts off surrounded by Satan’s minions, and things go downhill from there. But by the end, she and her lover are going on a date. Hmm…does this qualify as paranormal romance?

And then there is Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout, which is another Ballantine book, but this time from its Spectra line, which used to be a Bantam imprint. (I love that title, by the way; it’s genius.) Norse Code takes Norse mythology and runs a straight fantasy with it, starring a heroine who looks just like the other heroines from these books. But, as is common in a story written by a man, it starts with a man’s point of view in a prologue, and only then begins the heroine’s journey. So, always, there is the sense that no matter what she does, she is clueless about the true significance of her actions. There’s a very good chance she is a mere puppet in the hands of experienced schemers.

As you can see, the covers of three out of the four books are remarkably similar. They’ve each got the same dark-haired girl showing a lot of flesh—but not cleavage. Ashes of Midnight has a clinch cover, a little bit of scrollwork, and a completely boring, empty street. It’s the only one that visually advertises a romance element.

Here’s something different, just to conuse me even more. Night’s Rose, by Annaliese Evans, is billed on its spine as a historical paranormal romance, but on the author’s web site, she calls it a historical urban fantasy. And the first page deals with ogres who eat people, bones and all. Lovely introduction to a romance. Lots of supernatural creatures and violence despite the soft-looking blonde (with a sword) in the red velvet gown on the cover. Is this a paranormal romance?

And the final entries are from Sherrilyn Kenyon, who has achieved bestseller status. Her two recent releases from St. Martin’s Paperbacks are labeled novels. Not paranormal romance, not urban fantasy, and not fantasy. Once genre novelists hit the bigtime, their books never carry a genre label on their spine, nor are they typically shelved in bookstores with other genre novels. But as you can see, the cover of Dream Warrior has the typical dark-haired young woman with a skimpy black dress. And a cemetery for good measure. But even though there is a strong heroine, the back cover blurb reads as if this is fantasy starring the usual somewhat accursed hero type. (There is a manga version of Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series beginning that might be a shortcut to comprehending the story arc.) Kenyon’s second recent title, Acheron, is a hefty 806 pages of backstory and current adventures of a character from her previous continuity. This one has a nonrepresentational cover, to align it with other hefty novels that a man might not be ashamed to be seen reading. Acheron starts like any historical novel, except that it’s a fantasy novel that is in her Dream-Hunter series. It ends with happily ever after. Is it a romance or not? Has anybody ever counted the kisses (I’m cleaning things up here) versus the number of demons burned, vampires impaled, and so on? I thought not.

In addition to my confusion about which, if any, of these paranormal romance/urban fantasy/fantasy/novels would offer me the story closest to a pure romance, I’ve got another issue. The world building. Each author has carefully created a new reality, and within it, new hierarchies of power, new creatures, and new methods of attaining power and of attacking others, and more. And the authors usually create some related political or power struggle between opposing supernatural forces, the more labyrinthine the better. It’s a lot of work to buy into each new world, because although the rules of vampire bites might seem common in all, for instance, that is not guaranteed. When I read for pleasure, I don’t want to learn a lot of new details about an imaginary system of demonic forces. To me, that’s not relaxing. But given how popular these books are right now, lots of people do like all the world building. Or just put up with it, because they like all the creature-slaying, demon-burning, etc.

I still haven’t solved the basic question, which is, how do I figure out which of these novels might have the strongest romance elements? There is no way to tell from the covers, other than the Lara Adrian one. The back cover blurbs and first page excerpts don’t help. In fact, none of these titles has a first page excerpt. Most of them feature praise from reviewers. I remember when I was a kid and I was trying to figure out what a book might be like, and I would read these kinds of reviews. (If they said “bold and lusty” I knew to stay away. I was just a kid, after all.) The trouble is, when a reviewer of fantasy says a story is erotic, the reviewer might mean that there is a hot romance, but there might be some sexual behavior that does not constitute romance at all. I read something recently in which the devil (yes, Himself) wants to have sex with the heroine. Erotic? Maybe. Romantic? I don’t think so.

I’m still confused about where the romance is, and to be honest, I’m not sure I want to wade through all the demon-slaying and ogre-crunching to find it. Next stop, Amish romance. I can’t go wrong with an oil crust homemade pie and a hunky Amish carpenter.