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Jenny Hamilton

How to Uphold the Status Quo: The Problem With Small Town Witch Romances

In the past two years, a thriving subgenre has emerged within SFF romance where plucky young witches living in cozy witch enclaves find love. These books often have winning cartoon covers and cute punny titles. They are set in idyllic small towns with atmospheric names and vague geography (“outside of Carbondale” or “deep in the North Georgia mountains”). They’re prone to sudden eruptions of boosterish nostalgia for girlboss settler colonialism. They are overwhelmingly written by white women.

I believe the books are meant to be light-hearted and charming, and it is certainly possible to read them that way, if you are not reading fifteen of them in a row with the goal of answering the research question, why is this subgenre so white? But if you do have that research question, and you do read fifteen in a row, it becomes clear that they are (inadvertently, I believe) laundering racist ideas through a storefront of adorability, allowing white readers to feel—as the protagonists feel—like simultaneous victims of and champions against systemic bigotry.

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How to Overturn Gender: Nonbinary Sexuality in Felicia Davin’s The Scandalous Letters of V and J

Julie/n, one of the two leads in Felicia Davin’s new epistolary romance The Scandalous Letters of V and J, writes to their sister:

How did you know when you’d finished your work, Adrienne? I know you are going to write “it felt right.” That’s how it feels to finish a drawing or a painting, and I imagine it’s like that. And I’ve finished a lot of drawings and paintings, but I don’t think I’ve finished myself.

Maybe that’s me, though. What I like best is the work in progress. I’m not interested in taking the canvas off the easel and framing it.

I found this quite sweet as a metaphor for the project of being human, but I soon realized that Julien is being more literal. They, and Adrienne, and everyone in their family, have the power to alter reality through art.

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Five Space Books to Send a Chill Down Your Spine

I meant to open this recommendation list with a plea for more haunted space books, but then the brilliant Kali Wallace did it with far more eloquence than I ever could. Why are there so few ghosts in space? Put more ghosts in space! I love it when planets are full of ghosts and your tech can’t protect you. I love it when the tech is full of ghosts, and your tech can’t protect you because it’s full of goddamn ghosts. Space is already very scary, and if all your redundancies are designed to prevent mechanical failure and resulting hypoxia, that means they probably are not designed to stop ghosts. Here are my best recommendations for books set in space that might or might not be very, very, very full of ghosts.

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Series: Five Books About…

How to Level the Playing Field: Reexamining Power Dynamics in The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

SFF and romance grew from the soil of Gothic fiction, a genre whose hallmark has always been the allure and terror of the powerful outsider: Dracula, Rochester, Frankenstein’s monster. The two genres branched off from the question, Shall we kiss him or kill him?, with SFF choosing the latter and romance the former. In either case the natural order of society gets affirmed at the end, when the monster is either killed, or brought into the patriarchal fold via the taming institution of marriage.

This leaves both genres with deep-rooted ideological problems. Are we quite certain that the outsider deserves to be killed? Is it truly a monster, or is Lovecraft just really really racist? On the other hand, are we quite certain that we believe in the power of love to redeem the wicked? Does love really conquer all, or should the second Mrs. De Winter have grabbed Jasper and gotten the hell out of dodge?

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How to Find a Family: Choosing to Care in Sangu Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

Mika Moon, the protagonist of Sangu Mandanna’s The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, was orphaned at a young age (as all witches are) and has grown up with the certainty that she will always be alone. Witches mustn’t congregate, lest they create a magical surge that attracts the attention of normal people, which “witches have discovered time and time again over the centuries is dangerous.” For the most part, Mika plays by the rules. Her one rebellion is the YouTube channel where she posts videos of real magic that she pretends is fake magic, but that’s exactly what gets her into trouble when she’s contacted to teach magic to a household of three (!!) very young witches. Their home, Nowhere House, belongs to a witch named Lillian who spends most of her time overseas and leaves the day-to-day operations of Nowhere House and its orphan witches to her staff: housekeeper Lucie, groundskeeper Ken and his actor husband Ian, and Jamie, the hot, grumpy librarian. Mika knows she can’t belong with them forever, but oh, how she wants to.

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How to Write a Sex Scene: Building Connections in Kit Rocha’s Mercenary Librarians Series

Sex scenes were a major barrier to entry when I was first getting into romance novels. I’d been bamboozled by a mindset, common among English majors, wherein fictional sex and any non-contemptuous perspective on embodiment were well beneath the notice of the serious reader. In fairness to my younger self, the tenor of the sex scenes historically allowable by the literary establishment is grim, my friends. It’s all abjection and solipsism and mortification and derision; it’s all ableism and sizeism and misogyny and discrimination. Sex scenes in literary fiction are often designed to highlight the risibility of living inside a flesh prison (as compared with the lofty and un-embodied life of the mind), and one major litmag invented an entire award whose explicit purpose was to shame authors out of ever writing sex scenes at all. Exceptions to this rule exist to the precise extent that folks of marginalized identities, particularly queer writers, have been able to carve out space for themselves as writers and decision-makers within the genre and the book industry.

Sex scenes in romance novels aren’t some magical utopia where all the euphemisms are on point and every type of body finds acceptance. But they are a rebuke to the idea of bodies as flesh prisons, and at their best they are a truly joyful celebration of the liberatory potential of embodiment and pleasure.

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Of Ships and Sapphics: A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

There’s a phenomenon whereby sometimes multiple pieces of media will pop up at almost the same moment with almost the same premise. Your Antz and A Bug’s Life. Your The Prestige and The Illusionist. Those two casual sex rom-coms in which Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher, confusingly, are not costars. Usually when this happens, you’re just like “Huh.” But if you happen to be a person who really digs historical magicians or animated insects, it’s like Christmas coming twice.

That is how I feel about what I’m calling a spate (it is two) of murder mysteries set on board a ship that also—unfortunately for the murderer—contains a relentlessly determined queer detective. The second one of these will be the second Knives Out movie, whose title I refuse to learn, and the first, of course, is Freya Marske’s A Restless Truth.

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How to Change the World: Dismantling the Protagonist Problem in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Series

Further to my confessions from last time, I have to be transparent that due to time constraints, I did not go back and read the entire Psy-Changeling series before writing this column. On the advice of counsel, I started with Silver Silence, which begins a new chapter in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling world. This sequel series, called the Psy-Changeling Trinity series, consists of six books so far, which made it much easier and more accessible for a newbie Singh reader. (It would have been god-tier to read all 21 novels across both series, though, wouldn’t it? Some real “all shall love me and despair” shit. If we weren’t facing two plagues and a global rise in fascism, I’d totally have done it.)

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How to Keep Fighting: Romance & Rebellion in Suleikha Snyder’s Third Shift Series

Here’s where I confess my most significant shortcoming as an SFF romance critic: The only paranormal romances I had read before this year were Meljean Brook’s Guardian series. They are classics for sure, but perceptive romance readers will correctly detect that this also means I have never read not even one single shifter romance. No, I had never read the Psy-Changeling series. No, the Immortals After Dark books either. No, obviously not the books by that one lady who tried to copyright the omegaverse. Luckily, the romance genre is a welcoming one, and I anticipate with pleasing expectation that my readers will drop their paranormal recs in the comments (especially paranormals by BIPOC and other marginalized authors).

For my first! ever! shifter! novel!, I doubled up and read the first two books in Suleikha Snyder’s Third Shift series (more, hopefully, to come in the future!).

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How to (Not) Fit In: The Misfit Heroine and Olivia Atwater’s Half a Soul

The perpetual allure of the Regency era can be chalked up to many things, including its links to Jane Austen, the lengthy careers of writers like Georgette Heyer and Marion Chesney, and the inherent eroticism of absolutely nobody ever getting to bone. I believe the latter is the reason Barbara Cartland gave for writing so many Regency romances. (Do not fact-check this.) It’s a particularly elegant fit for romance, which, more than any other genre, depends upon clearly defined rules. Likewise, the Regency elite—or at least the version of them that survives in popular memory—were closely bound by rules of conduct, modesty and virtue. By dint of a book being set in the Regency, the reader already knows many of the beats it will follow; by dint of its being a romance, we know that the central characters will fall in love and live happily ever after. When the ending is a foregone conclusion, the pleasure lies in the iteration.

Romance and SFF made for uneasy bedfellows, until they didn’t. Paranormal romance has long been a robust presence in the romance genre (JD Robb’s In Death series has been cited as the longest-running current SFF series), but SFF has tended to view kissing books with gendered suspicion. We’re currently witnessing an explosion of speculative romance, as editors at major SFF publishing houses take on authors whose voracious love of both genres shines through in their work (Tasha Suri, Jessie Mihalik, Freya Marske, too many to name!), and fantasy and SF romance by both traditionally published and self-published authors flourish on BookTok.

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A Heartwarming Combo of Wholesome and Gruesome: A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Pity Robin Blythe, one of two protagonists in Freya Marske’s debut fantasy novel A Marvellous Light. Not only is he stuck with a new job he doesn’t want; not only does said job land him squarely in the teeth of the Edwardian bureaucracy; but his very first day at work features the unsettling revelation—delivered by the colorless and bookish Edwin Courcey, liaison to the Magical Assembly—that magic is real, followed by a spot of abduction in the London streets. Robin’s assailants want him to find a contract hidden from them by Robin’s missing (let’s be real, dead) predecessor, and they place a curse on him to motivate him to find the contract and bring it to them.

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