Romance gets a bad rap. In part, that’s because of good, old-fashioned sexism. These are “girl” books, after all, and things women enjoy are not taken as seriously. Even though the genre is wildly popular, representing the highest sales volume in the publishing industry, it’s too often dismissed as frivolous or slight.
But guess what? We’ve come a long, long way from the regressive, consent-lite bodice rippers of the 80s or the cookie-cutter paperbacks of the 90s. Over the last decade or so, publishers have finally realized that there’s a market for diverse love stories. That’s thanks, in part, to a general cultural shift. It’s also a consequence of self-publishing on platforms like Amazon, which allowed independent authors to offer stories about characters who weren’t always white, straight, wealthy, and conventionally attractive.
But don’t worry–all the books I’m about to recommend still have a happily ever after.
‘Spoiler Alert’ by Olivia Dade
Even in the more progressive publishing climate, stories about fat heroines can be hard to find. Spoiler Alert is a wonderful example of how to do it right. The book follows April, a smart and capable geologist who writes fan fiction about the world’s most popular TV show, and Marcus–the gorgeous actor who stars in said TV show. April and Marcus might seem mismatched to the rest of the world, but there’s never a question that he’s just as attracted to her as she is to him.
Olivia Dade got her start in the fan fiction community, and her bestselling novel is very much rooted in her own Game of Thrones fic. If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that sometimes it feels a little too preoccupied with getting revenge on David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for the final season of that show. Of course, it’s all thinly veiled in fiction (and fan fiction of that fiction), but we all know what she’s talking about.
The characters in this book both have their own baggage to work through, and it’s truly a joy to see them connect and grow as people. Dade reassures her readers that no matter what they look like–or how geeky and weird they might feel–there are people out there who will love and respect them just as they are.
‘Bringing Down the Duke’ by Evie Dunmore
Do you ever wish that historical romances were a bit more, well, modern? Forget Georgette Heyer–Evie Dunmore’s debut novel is as much a feminist adventure as it is a love story. The first book in her Oxford Rebels series sees an impoverished vicar’s daughter fight to be part of the first group of women to study at Oxford in 1879. To secure her scholarship, she must volunteer with the women’s suffrage society, and her work puts her in the path one of the most powerful men in the empire.
Sebastian, Duke of Montgomery, and Annabelle have immediate chemistry–but that doesn’t change the fact that their relationship is a disaster for both of them. This book makes the characters work for their happy ending and skillfully engages with the historical politics and social mores that keep the pair apart. Bringing Down the Duke is an unapologetically feminist read.
‘Get a Life, Chloe Brown’ by Talia Hibbert
Talia Hibbert should be on every book-lover’s radar. She’s immensely talented. I actually read her self-published gay romance Work for It first and fell in love with her writing. However, Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a massive best-seller and a perfect introduction to Hibbert’s brand of romance.
Too often, diversity in books fails to be intersectional. A character is a person of color, or fat, or chronically ill, for example. But real people are more than just one thing. Chloe Brown is all those things and more. After a near-miss with a car accident, she decides to start really living. And, because she’s a Type-A geek, she makes a list.
Her love interest is Red Morgan, a tattooed biker and handyman who also contains hidden depths. Like Spoiler Alert, their romance might not make sense to outsiders. Hibbert does a wonderful job of peeling back the layers of both these characters to reveal their vulnerable hearts.
‘The Soldier’s Scoundrel’ by Cat Sebastian
I could have picked any book from Cat Sebastian’s catalog to recommend, but this is the first in a very satisfying trio of queer historical romances. Sebastian writes mostly about gay men, but her Regency Imposters series also features non-binary characters.
Her books frequently deal with issues that non-neurotypical people face, but in a historical setting where there simply were not words for what they experienced. They cope with PTSD, depression, and anxiety, as well as lots of deliciously dramatic baggage. The trilogy beginning with The Soldier’s Scandal resonates with readers who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere or are too broken to be loved.
In the end, the three couples featured in the series find not only love but also friendship and family. It’s absolutely lovely, and even if you think that queer romance isn’t your cup of tea, you might give these books a chance.