My favorite "best of the year" list is the Bad Sex in Fiction award, even — or perhaps because — it eschews the romance genre. This year's winner was just announced: Nancy Huston's Infrared, whose heroine celebrates the "countless treasures between [her] legs." But I'm not writing a Best Romance of the Year list, because I don't think the idea even works for my genre.
Romance subgenres are strictly partitioned by readers; one woman's favorite romantic hero, who turns into a lion in his spare time, is another's anathema. The five books I discuss here are great examples of their individual subgenres. And not one of them belongs in a Bad Sex list. There's only Good Sex here, though nothing that reaches the ecstatic heights of Huston's "carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways." Maybe next year.
M.L. Buchman is one of very few male romance writers, and he leans on his testosterone: His Night Stalker series turns a passion for military helicopters into a fundamental characteristic of his heroines. These women are the ultimate alpha soldiers — although it should be said that the novels do not glorify the American military. What they do glorify is a military chopper with four seats — "the nastiest gunship God ever put on Earth and only the best flew in her," as the heroine of I Own the Dawn, Sgt. Kee Smith, puts it. Kee is a tough-talking girl who grew up on the streets and fought her way into being a helicopter gunner. Since I'm both squeamish and a pacifist, I tend to avoid military romance, but Buchman made Kee's obsession with a Black Hawk helicopter fascinating. The fact that Archibald Jeffrey Stevenson III, a first lieutenant copilot in her chopper, is a blue-blood alpha didn't hurt either. This is a classic tale of socioeconomic opposites who fall wildly into love — and passion.
The pairing of warriors from opposing backgrounds in I Own the Dawn flips in Ilona Andrews' Steel's Edge. In Andrews' paranormal world, Charlotte de Ney is a noblewoman at the very top of the hierarchy, whereas Richard Mar is a swamp rat, a man whose birth is so low that their pairing is inconceivable. If Kee's weapon of choice is an M9, Charlottedoesn't even have to draw her weapon: She is the ultimate Typhoid Mary, capable of taking down a whole ship with a magic dose of white leprosy. Andrews' series is set in the "Edge," a world that lies between our world, the "Broken"; and the "Weird," a world in which magic reigns. Charlotte and Richard are on a crusade to destroy a ring of slavers that takes them from sailing ships to ballrooms. Like Buchman, Andrews writes brilliant suspense — interestingly, the author also lays claim to a dose of testosterone; Andrews is actually two people — a husband-and-wife team.
The opposites-attract theme of the first two books here leaps into hyperdrive with Megan Mulry's A Royal Pain. The heroine of this contemporary-set novel, Bronte Talbott, suffers from an American weakness: She's obsessed with the British royal family (she would have been thrilled by the royal sprout in the news these days). You can see where this is going: Wounded by a love affair with a caddish Texan, she meets a British student just finishing his doctorate in economics. He's a perfect antidote to a two-timing American in a cowboy hat. Then Max Heyworth turns out to be the 19th Duke of Northrop. And it turns out that paparazzi aren't fun up close, and Max's idea of a "low profile" can't hide the fact that being a nobleman is a full-time job. What's more, as he tells her, it's "one we can never quit." There's quite a bit of flying back and forth across the Atlantic in A Royal Pain (thankfully, all of it in first class) as Megan tries to figure out whether the agony of being photographed for the same tabloids she used to read is worth the pleasure of marrying Max. You can guess the outcome yourself.
Meljean Brook's Riveted takes place in a steampunk world as complicated as that of The Edge Chronicles. Annika Fridasdotter, the heroine, works as an engineer on the steam-powered airships that serve as the world's main transport, since the oceans are plagued by gigantic sharks and octopuses capable of swallowing ships. Like Charlotte and Kee, Annika is on a mission, seeking her sister Kalla, who ran away from their village, Hannasvik, years ago. The hero, David Kentewess, joins her airship as a member of a scientific crew studying volcanoes, but he's also searching for his mother's home village so that he can scatter her ashes — and that village turns out to be Annika's home. The book is filled with fascinating steampunk details. David is fitted out with metal prosthetics and an artificial eye, and the two of them encounter everything from rusting, mechanical trolls to a metal whale capable of swallowing an entire airship. At the same time, David's feeling of alienation and inadequacy due to his metal parts gives the thrilling adventure in Riveted a thoughtful and sweet core, wrapped around Annika's celebration of his difference.
Juliana Gray's A Lady Never Lies is the first in a loosely connected series based on Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost. I'll give a brief recap of that plot, since it's a rare college student who struggled through what is arguably Shakespeare's worst play (though Henry VIII begs for the title as well). Basically, a king and three of his friends swear off women and retreat to the country, followed by a princess and all her friends (plus a clown or two), and love ensues. It all ends rather badly when the princess leaves and the women make the men swear to wait a year before marriage. The good news is that there's no waiting period in Gray's novel. These English gentlemen and ladies — transposed to the Victorian age — have embarked on similar gender-bashing retreats, but end up living together in a country house in Tuscany. Lady Alexandra Morley is a widow desperately in need of funds, who thinks that Phineas Burke, an inventor of the new horseless carriage, could improve her fortunes. Finn is something of a Berowne, for those of you who know Love's Labor's Lost, and their romance is witty, sharp and steamy.
Eloisa James is a New York Times best-selling author of historical romance novels and a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University in New York City. Most recently, she published a memoir of the year her family moved to France, called Paris in Love. She is online at www.eloisajames.com.