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Defining Genre: Not Quite Paranormal Romance

Posted on August 6, 2009 by alanajoli

Last week, I talked about the paranormal romance novels that are easy to identify. So, what about paranormal novels that have lots of romance in them but don’t follow the category formula? Or what about novels that sort of follow the formula but have really deep world-building and a plot that reads more like an urban fantasy novel? Some paranormal romances read like romances with paranormal elements slapped on for fun, and others read like serious works of urban fantasy with a romance formula moving beneath the surface. Those are the cases where it’s harder to tell what you’re reading.

I struggled with Meljean Brook’s “The Guardians” series when I first read it because the world building was much deeper than paranormal romances I’d read before, and while the hero and heroine go through the usual pattern, there’s so much at stake in the series that the couple getting together doesn’t necessarily promise an HEA. The whole series also has a larger overarching plot that thickens with each episode, instead of getting closer to a resolution.

For example, if you were looking at “The Immortals” series by Joy Nash, Jennifer Ashley, and Robin Popp, you’d get that same kind of overarching plot — but each romance resolves an issue that must be addressed before the final confrontation of the series (and the subsequent saving of the world). With “The Guardians,” the romances themselves are almost secondary — Jake and Alice, the heroes of Demon Bound, don’t resolve anything in the larger plot by finding each other and building their relationship. They’re both involved in those larger issues, and the plot drives their relationship forward, rather than the other way around. Once I wrapped my brain around how the world of “The Guardians” worked, I really started enjoying the series — but I had to start from the very beginning to make it all come together.

Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, on the other hand, built the world so intuitively that even though I started in the middle, I felt like I was grasping the larger story. Returning characters move through each book despite having nothing to do with the main romance — they’re movers and shakers in a political game that’s playing out around the heroes and heroines, who are involved in the fate of the world on a much smaller scale. Again, the plot drives the actions of the romantic leads — the romance is a big part of the story, but that’s not where the plot comes from. The plot comes from those larger mechanations of those non-romance-related forces.

I’d classify both series as paranormal romance, because the category romance pattern is clearly there. Despite the romance not driving the plot, but being driven by the larger plot, the same basic structure ties the stories to their category romance siblings. But for paranormal romance, I’d put these two series at the top of the game.

When looking at Richelle Mead’s “Succubus” series or Jeaniene Frost’s “Night Huntress” series, I’m more hesitant to declare my genre affiliation. They don’t follow the pattern. Mead’s novels are more like chick lit — the heroine finds true love but just can’t hold onto it (she’s a succubus, after all). I have hopes that by the end of the series, she’ll get her HEA, but if it takes a whole series to get there, I can’t in good conscience say it’s paranormal romance, whether or not there’s crazy sex.

The same is true with Frost’s novels. The hero and heroine, Cat and Bones, aren’t guaranteed to end up together in the first novel. By midway through the series, readers aren’t getting the usual HEA at the end of each book — they’re getting details of the ongoing relationship between the pair, and how the characters are growing and changing. By At Grave’s End, the third book in the series, the story has become as much about Cat defining her own identity — as a half-human, half-vampire, in which world does she belong? — as it is about her relationship.

Of course, it’s clear that my take on where these books should be placed doesn’t carry much weight in the bigger scene. Big box bookstores tend to put Mead’s novels in the romance section and Frost’s in SF/F — so maybe their category managers know something I don’t know!

Alana Joli Abbott

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2 Responses to “Defining Genre: Not Quite Paranormal Romance”

  1. Teal Ceagh says:

    Yeah, but doesn’t trying to define what they are drive you crazy, though? I sometimes suspect that even the bookstore managers aren’t too sure where the books belong! If it wasn’t for the subcategories actually printed on the spines of the books, as some publishers do, I’m sure the bookstores sometimes guess where the books should go.

    I’m pretty friendly with the staff at my local big store, and I know for a fact that they much prefer to shelve a couple of copies of each book in *both* sections, when they have an uncertain title on their hands…but that creates inventory problems later, so they end up tossing a coin and hoping for the best.

    Personally, I like that the lines are blurring in the categories. Makes for some very interesting reading.

  2. Alana Abbott says:

    There is definitely plenty of crazy surrounding the subgenre to go around. 🙂 I know librarians who would love to just put all fiction books in one big fiction section instead of dividing it all out — in part because some people who might love urban fantasy won’t ever voyage into the SF/F section to find it.

    As far as bookstores go, since a lot of what I read blurs genre boundaries, I’d love to just see them put all of those books on display… 🙂

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