If these two people don’t get together, I will die.
Romance has always been a part of science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s a love story for the ages. Sometimes it’s the hero and a sexy lamp. I’ll admit that one of my stronger memories of getting into classic SF is developing the ability to spot a possible romance scene within the first three sentences so I could skip the subsequent pages and get on with the story—I didn’t care about the lady with no personality who was the hero’s reward for saving the day, and I definitely didn’t see myself in her.
But then I started to find SF and fantasy romances that actually worked for me. Part of that was just finding the right books. Part of it was the rise of queer romances in mainstream SFF: a sudden glorious flood of queer people who are allowed to be happy and go off into the sunset without dying tragically. Queer or straight, I started to find characters I cared desperately about. Characters who, it was clear, wouldn’t be happy unless they acknowledged this other person who was obviously part of their soul in a way no two people had ever been before in the history of literature. (This happened multiple times.)
Here are six OTPs that left marks on my heart. They’re all book-based, a mix of queer and not, and I should note I haven’t even touched on the vast population of characters who should get together but tragically show no signs of doing so.
Also please note I’m going to spoil The King of Attolia somewhat, though what counts as spoilers for that series is widely debated.
Eugenides and Attolia – The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
My first ship is also my oldest. In a quasi-Byzantine series full of gods and plot twists, The King of Attolia is a pure court drama told from the point of view of a palace guard. The new king is a fool. The embattled queen, surrounded by powerful and treacherous lords, has been forced into marrying him and surrendering a measure of her previous control. Both monarchs are now easy pickings for the usurpers in the court.
Only neither the king nor the queen are as stupid as the court thinks. Their greatest achievement is hiding from the traitors that they’re both schemers and masterminds, and their deep secret is that they’re wildly in love. Since the book is devoted to its outsider point of view, we only see them crack and admit it in snatched moments, in whispers, in mirrors and through glass. It feels like we’re stealing glimpses and the depth of them destroys me every time. It’s a decade and a half later and I still haven’t got over this book.
Linus and Arthur – The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
If Eugenides and Attolia are a handful of knives, Linus and Arthur are a favourite old woolly sweater, the one with the hole in the cuff that’s just right for your thumb. I love that this is a story about people in later life—two middle-aged men who fall in love while dealing with the parental arrangements for six concerningly magical children.
Both men have settled down into their lives and sketched out their own limits just a little cautiously, a little protectively. Linus is in a rut: stuck in a job he hates, he wants to do good but is stopped by his timidness and reluctance to question authority. Arthur isn’t in a rut, exactly, but he’s sat down comfortably in the broken old chair by the potting shed and decided he doesn’t need to see the flowers in the rest of the garden. Even more than Linus, he has to be careful. My favourite part of the book would be how they gradually draw each other out of their shell, but actually it’s the rude teenage gnome who keeps threatening to bury visitors (I love you Talia).
But seriously, read this book, it’s adorable.
Miles and Ekaterin – The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold’s classic space opera spans sixteen books over three decades of publishing. One of the high points is when Miles, an irresistible force of nature who has spent years careening around the galaxy throwing himself into impossible battles, finally crashes into the quiet, deep-rooted Ekaterin—a gardener, a mother, and a nascent terraformer who is deeply linked to their shared home planet. I ship the irresistible force and the immovable object, I always have. Part emotional drama, part thriller, part comedy of manners, Komarr and A Civil Campaign are a joy to reread.
Elliot and Luke – In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Switching to light-hearted fantasy, In Other Lands is a loving parody of knight school tropes with a rich emotional layer underneath. Prickly, talkative social outcast Elliot instantly hates the class jock, Best At Swords and all-round golden boy Luke Sunborn, only to find that Luke is only good at swords and is too awkward to talk to people. They become friends for lack of other options. The joy of this is in watching them get under each other’s skins enough that their protective shells gradually become useless against each other, and the slow burn is epic; I was screeching at the page. While the slow burn goes on in the background, the main story is a sharp and funny deconstruction of fantasy school tropes and, importantly, the jokes are very good, which is what will distract you from shaking the two main characters until they admit their feelings for each other.
Mehr and Amun – Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
I’m a sucker for marriage-of-convenience-to-love. This gorgeous South Asian fantasy is a dark book, with the characters in constant danger, and yet the marriage of the two unwilling protagonists swiftly develops into a source of light and comfort. Amun is stoic and resigned, though he tries to shield Mehr from the worst of their enemies’ power in the temple they’re trapped in. Mehr is a newcomer with a core of steel and a stubborn tendency to hope. The true core of this ship—the diamond at the heart of it—is that moment when two strangers have been forced back-to-back by their respective enemies, and the wolves are circling, and they make the decision this is where we stand and fight. And the one who was a stranger is now the one who has their back.
Gideon and Harrow – The Locked Tomb trilogy by Tamsyn Muir
Whoops, it’s another awkward jock x horrible nerd pairing! The heart wants what it wants. While I’m a coward about horror and Gideon the Ninth, a book all about the detailed uses of necromancy, would normally be far above my ability to handle death-related subjects, I love Gideon and Harrow deeply and ridiculously and have read the book three times. Their love (Friendship? Rivalry? Obsession?) is a fundamental redemption not only for the characters themselves but for the whole universe: this changes things, this disrupts the plans of gods and men. From “I am undone without you” to “one flesh, one end”, this is a book I will reread no matter how many times it gives me skeleton-related nightmares, and that’s some of the highest praise I can give.
Everina Maxwell is the author of Winter’s Orbit, a queer romantic space opera. She lives and works in Yorkshire, where she collects books and kills houseplants.