A Bouquet of Fresh, Sweet Spring Romance Novels

A romance novel is a high-wire act: It’s all about balance. If characters are yearning, there must be something keeping them apart. If they loathe each other, there must be something shoving them together.

There’s plenty of literal shoving in Anna Zabo and L.A. Witt’s SCORELESS GAME (self-published, 536 pp., paperback, $18.99), the second in the robust, angsty queer hockey romance series that began with “Rookie Mistake.”

I love when authors set themselves a challenge. Not only do Nisha and Elias already know each other when the novel begins — they’ve been teammates for years — but they’re also best friends. If they said “I love you,” nobody would find it strange, but nobody would hear the real meaning, either.

If Elias said “I love you” to Nisha, it would really mean: “I’m asexual, so it’s taken me years to build the kind of intimacy I crave in our relationship but you’re only interested in hookups. So I guess I’ll give this dating app a try — want to help me build a profile?”

For Nisha, it means: “I’ve been in passionate love with you and our other best friend for years — now he’s happily engaged, and knowing you’re starting to look for someone too has me binge-drinking until all I can hear is my abusive parents’ voices telling me I deserve to be alone forever.”

In short, these hockey men need therapy, as well as love. There are years of deflected conflicts roiling the pages — along with devotion, vulnerability and the kind of desperate pining that turns a reader absolutely feral. This romance does not simply build a love story; it transforms one from the inside out. It’s a bit like trying to rebuild a runner’s knee while they finish a four-minute mile: painful and audacious and exhilarating, all at once.

For a gentler take on subverting familiar romance forms, try the first volume in Liana De la Rosa’s new historical series, ANA MARÍA AND THE FOX (Berkley, 352 pp., paperback, $17). It begins in 1862, when the second French intervention in Mexico sends the three wealthy Luna sisters fleeing to the safety of their uncle’s house in London. With their controlling father an ocean away, the young women are free to make their own choices and bond as siblings and friends — while navigating all the temptations and microaggressions of high society.

The eldest daughter, Ana María, quickly finds herself attracted to a stoic, serious member of Parliament named Gideon Fox. Alas, not only does she have a fiancé hand-picked by her father back in Mexico, but her expressiveness has earned her a less-than-serious reputation. Fox, whose grandmother was enslaved, is in the process of pushing a significant abolitionist bill through the Commons and doesn’t have time to torture himself with a flirtation that has no future.

This is an extremely classic romance in many ways — the clarity of the emotions, the dastardliness of the villain — but pleasingly subversive in others. Imperial British patriarchy is frequently oppressive for a historical heroine, but rarely is it so blatantly, openly threatening to a heroine’s life. Since we know the historical conflict eventually resolves, I’m curious to see if the Luna sisters return to their homeland by series’ end.

Sometimes, the balance in a romance is a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other. With enough power behind it, this movement gives you the same swooping thrill as a good roller coaster. And the biggest swoop of this column comes from Erin Langston’s marvelous Regency, FOREVER YOUR ROGUE (self-published, paperback, 406 pp., $14.99).

Cora Dane married a coldhearted cheater, and she’s not at all sorry he’s dead. Except that his equally coldhearted sister now threatens to take custody of her two beloved children, claiming that a single woman is no fit guardian for a young viscount. To buy time while her brother pursues a legal solution, Cora needs to come up with an aristocratic fiancé — and it just so happens her best friend’s brother is an earl’s heir. He also owes her a favor.

And thus we meet Nathaniel Travers, the rake who reforms himself: one of the most utterly gorgeous character transformations historical romance has offered up in some time.

Nate is charming but feckless, prone to gambling and hangovers and alley fights. He disappoints his siblings, he flirts his way through the ton, he’s always hard up for cash. And then: He gets one little taste of how it feels to be really needed — and through a great effort of will he becomes the staunchest protector and nurturer any widow could want for herself and her fatherless children.

Part of this journey involves some of the worst and then some of the best love letters you could ever hope to read, and an epilogue that raises the bar on how hard a romance can make you cry (in the best way). I am furious that this is the author’s debut because it means there’s not a second one immediately to hand. How rude, Ms. Langston.

Lastly, balance between the mortal realm and the Fae is the central pivot point of THAT SELF-SAME METAL (Amulet Books, 352 pp., $19.99), Brittany N. Williams’s Black, queer Elizabethan Y.A. fantasy and one of the most swashbuckling adventures I’ve read this spring.

Joan Sands is a stage-fighting specialist with the actors of the King’s Men, including Richard Burbage and good ol’ Willy Shakes; Joan is also Orisha-blessed, which means she has magical control over metal. When an ancient pact protecting mortals from the Fae is broken, Joan’s talents with iron propel her from fake fights to real battles to protect her friends and (potential) beloveds.

Williams’s story hones its magical edges on the rough stuff of real history, and the results are glorious (and very stabby!): African and British mythologies blended with the irreverent theatrical nerdiness of “Upstart Crow,” starring a heroine you instantly root for and admire. Caught between duty and passion, and between power and debt, Joan is the best kind of counterweight to the forces that seek to move her. This first book is only the starting thrust in the saga, and I eagerly await the parry and the riposte.

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