What We Talk about When We Talk About Romantasy

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What We Talk about When We Talk About Romantasy

What do a cozy fantasy about a coffee shop, a dark military saga with dragon riders, a six-POV adventure about killers on a quest to kill a magical king, and a fairy tale about an imprisoned village and an enchanted library have in common? All of them have been billed as romantasy novels. 

A portmanteau of the words romance and fantasy, the term romantasy is in some ways exactly what readers might expect: stories that blend elements of the fantasy and romance genres to create something new and distinct. But when the subgenre started to take over BookTok and got its own category in the GoodReads Awards, it was clear something was happening within the world of publishing—-and within the fantasy space, in particular. 

The thing is, just what romantasy is seems to depend heavily on the definition the reader gives it

Steamy, With a Side of Dark

Large periodicals like the Washington Post and the Guardian have focused on the spicier side, with Paste’s own Kayleigh Donaldson discussing how the current sensual side of the subgenre is the heir of books like Kushiel’s Dart. Certainly, the term was popularized on TikTok through the widespread popularity of novels like those by Sarah J. Maas and Rebecca Yarros. (For those keeping track, Yarros’s series is the one with the dark military dragon riders: Fourth Wing and Iron Flame.) 

There’s often an undercurrent of trauma or violence lurking in these stories, as well as sexier relationships. The danger in sensual romantasy is real. A promo sheet for Sarah J. Parker’s recent romantasy When the Moon Hatched mentions the trope “Who hurt you?” as a favorite for romantasy readers. The protagonists of Five Broken Blades by Mai Corland—the aforementioned six-POV fantasy about killers on a quest—are certainly used to darkness and broken things beyond just the bones they break on others. 

Sometimes these darker titles clearly lean into the romantic angle, but sometimes, there’s only just enough romance to make borrowing the subgenre justifiable. (Paste’s own Lacy Baugher Mills suggested that Five Broken Blades is the type of romantasy for readers who don’t think romantasy is their subgenre!)

But does this darker, sexier side of romantasy have the term all to itself?

Cozy, With a Side of Sweetness

Not so, according to other BookTok creators, who also tag books like Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes (that’s the coffee shop cozy fantasy) with the same #romantasy hashtag. The novel certainly does focus on a romantic relationship—-although it also deals as much with found family and building community. The term romantasy works equally well here to describe a really sweet romance with a completely different feel.

As part of the research for this article, Paste reached out to several industry professionals—some of whom agreed to be quoted and some who spoke off the record—and it was fairly notable how divided their opinions were about whether the genre was sweet or sexy. Some publicists wouldn’t have called a darker fantasy romance a romantasy, preferring to reserve the term for lighter titles. 

Books like Sydney J. Shields’s recent The Honey Witch falls into this category, as well as Jamie Pacton’s The Absinthe Underground. The upcoming This Will Be Fun by E. B. Asher (a pseudonym for the trio of romance novelists Bridget Morrissey, Emily Wibberley, and Austin Siegmund-Broka) even bills itself as a cozy romantasy, as well as a rom-com about washed-up heroes. Romance is central to the plot, oftentimes with a central queer relationship. There may not be a lot of spice, and the stakes of the novel may not involve saving the world, but there’s a sense throughout the novel that it will all turn out all right in the end.

Where Worldbuilding and Romance Weigh Equally

When talking about romantasy, bookseller Stacy Whitman of the Curious Cat Bookshop said this about the shift in the genre: “There’s always been romance in fantasy as a genre/subplot but I think it has a lot to do with how it’s being brought forward as equal to the worldbuilding.” 

Worldbuilding is one of the reasons that readers sink deep into romantasies like Lore of the Wilds by Analeigh Sbrana (the imprisoned village and enchanted library) or Thea Gunzon’s The Hurricane Wars. Category romances frequently use the setting as dressing, with the focus entirely on the relationship between the story’s main characters. Many of those tropes remain prevalent in romantasy but with the added benefit of doing a deep dive into how the worlds of their stories work.

Ashley Hearn, Senior Editor for Peachtree Teen, balances those fantasy and romance elements a little differently. “I define Romantasy as romance first, fantasy second, which means the primary story is the development of the romantic relationship, and the fantasy plot/elements play off that,” she told Paste. “For a book to be correctly labeled as ‘Romantasy’ it has to fulfill the requirements of the Romance in that there’s a central love story with a happily ever after (HEA) ending.” 

Author Jeffe Kennedy, who is president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association and a RITA award winner herself, has sweeping knowledge of both fantasy and romance tropes. After all, she’s been writing fantasy romances for fifteen years. In a conversation with Paste, she noted that a lot of genre terms have been used to touch on similar subgenres over the years: fantasy romance, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and more. 

No one really agreed on how to define these terms to begin with,” she pointed out. She also appreciates that romantasy tends to be more inclusive and that trying to limit or define it more fully isn’t that productive. Kennedy’s own forthcoming romantasy Never the Roses, which will be published under her pseudonym Jennifer K. Lambert, leans more toward the cozy side of the subgenre, with comparisons to This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. 

There’s also another element to the growth of the term. “For many years now, there’s been an ongoing conversation—and extensive griping—about any fantasy book by a female author being called YA,” Kennedy said. “It’s happened to literally all of us, including those like me, who emphatically write adult fantasy.” 

Don’t get us wrong, YA is a fantastic category in its own right. But mislabeling novels that feature adult characters and themes as appropriate for younger readers simply because they were written by women does a disservice to both authors and readers alike. Both the books and the YA readers who pick up novels expecting young adult content but getting something quite different deserve better. 

“In truth,” Kennedy continued, “part of what makes many of these [romantasy] books popular are the spiciness and sex-positivity of the female character involved in epic tales. Viewed through that lens, romantasy is much more appropriate than YA fantasy as a descriptor.” (There are, of course, also YA romantasies, like the excellent pirate/demon Caribbean novel The Diablo’s Curse by Gabe Cole Novoa, or Shakespearean spy drama Foul Heart Huntsman by Chloe Gong.)

However readers define it, the term romantasy, with its catchy, easy-to-hashtag label, is here to say. But there’s one thing Hearn does worry about with the subgenre’s popularity. 

“My biggest concern regarding romantasy is how publishing’s eagerness to embrace this subgenre is going hand-in-hand with slipping on or abandoning commitments to diversity,” she said. “BookTok is the power behind Romantasy’s rise and the driving force of sales right now. But BookTok also has a racism problem baked into its algorithm. As long as retailers prioritize titles based on TikTok popularity, and publishers mine this for sales, how can BIPOC authors expect to have the same explosive success as top-selling white Romantasy authors? What can we do as an industry—what can I do as an editor—to level the playing field, even if it means going against TikTok? It’s one of the top questions I’ve been chewing over these days.”

The answer to that, dear readers, may be up to you. Many BIPOC writers are also creating romantasies well worth reading. Go and pick one up!

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple-choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.

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