The fantasy of a romance novel isn’t always in the love story. Some of the most powerful escapism comes from setting real, flawed characters in fantastical worlds. Whether the departures from our grubby reality are minor or profound, these imaginary worlds offer hopeful possibilities — for love to flourish, for injustice to be righted, for beauty to persevere. Or sometimes they’re just a lovely place to spend a few hours while you read. Just as fantastical as a magical realm of otherworldly beasts and shadow-dwelling assassins is an alternate-timeline America where the president is a brilliant woman and the hottest tabloid fodder is a true and charming love. Whether you want modern-day royalty, supernatural powers or just supernaturally competent women running the show, here are four new romances that will sweep you away.
The White House is hardly the home of whimsical fantasy these days, so the Washington of Casey McQuiston’s exquisite debut, RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE (St. Martin’s Griffin, paper, $16.99), strikes a bittersweet chord. But even the most believable political machinations pale next to the captivating and endearing young man at this novel’s heart: Alex Claremont-Diaz, President Ellen Claremont’s son.
Alex is brash, neurotic and good-hearted, prone to putting his foot in his mouth — which he does, and then some, when an encounter with Prince Henry of England, whom he has always disliked, ends in a shove and a toppled wedding cake. For damage control, Alex is ordered to make nice with the prince, putting up the pretext of a long-running friendship. The begrudging P.R. performance slips quickly into friendship and then, well, Alex discovers that the force with which Henry has always agitated him didn’t stem from animosity at all.
McQuiston masterfully navigates two very different political realms, conjuring the quick-fire decision-making of a progressive White House and the iron-grip traditionalism of Buckingham Palace with equal skill. That would be impressive enough, but it’s nothing compared to the consuming vividness of Alex and Henry. They shine as individuals — it’s especially lovely to watch Henry emerge from behind his royal facade — and when they fall in love, the intensity of their infatuation, youthful but not immature, is intoxicating. They’re perfect for each other, but hardly perfect; McQuiston manages to make her characters believably, truly flawed while still utterly lovable. The stakes are high, too, personally and politically, for every misstep and mistake. And they make plenty, especially Alex. It’s hard to watch him fall in love with Henry without falling in love a bit yourself — with them, and with this brilliant, wonderful book.
In her Reluctant Royals series, Alyssa Cole has invented an immersive network of fictional kingdoms set within our own reality. In the third and final book of the series, A PRINCE ON PAPER (Avon, paper, $7.99), Cole brings us to the tiny European kingdom of Liechtienbourg, where we finally get to spend a full book with Johan Maximillian von Braustein, stepson of the king of Liechtienbourg and a notorious tabloid-ready playboy. Johan had intriguing cameos in the first two books of the series, first as a rake and then as a man suspiciously better than he seemed. Here the charming, funny and fallible Johan thoroughly steals the show as he falls in love with Nya, a woman trying to break free from her constricted upbringing.
The plot starts out looking like enemies-to-lovers, but quickly takes a turn into fake engagement territory, bringing Nya from her native Thesolo — another invented kingdom, this one in Africa, where Nya’s father sits in jail for various treasonous crimes — to Liechtienbourg with Johan. Nya, sheltered and sweet, is a clear foil to the rakish Johan. (The distinction between “nice” and “good” is a running theme.)
The flawed hero/redeeming heroine is a common dynamic in historical romance, which Cole’s contemporary series, with its focus on royalty, is obviously in conversation with. While Johan, though not a scoundrel, gets to make mistakes, stumble and almost fall, Nya is almost too good — and with so much of the real world infused into the setting, her near-perfection jangles. She grew up overly protected and friendless, yet she’s perceptive of the thoughts, feelings and motivations of everyone around her. In fact, aside from villains like Nya’s father, Cole’s characters all have high emotional intelligence. That’s part of the fantasy of this world, but it does something strange to conflict — there’s plenty of it, but also sort of none.
[Read about how the landscape of romance fiction is slowly starting to change, as more diverse writers break into the genre, and publishers take chances on love stories that reflect a broader range of experiences and don’t always fit the stereotypical girl-meets-boy mold.]
“A Prince on Paper” is fun, but it isn’t fluff, and Nya and Johan face weighty obstacles, including some on an international scale. Cole’s royal realm feels rich and realistic, and the romance develops with sincerity. I didn’t want to see Nya and Johan suffer, but perhaps to struggle just a bit more.
There is plenty of both suffering and struggle in Maxym M. Martineau’s KINGDOM OF EXILES (Sourcebooks Casablanca, paper, $7.99), and plenty of fantasy, too — not just in terms of escapism, but in the genre sense of magic and curses and a vaguely medieval aesthetic.
Our main characters are Leena and Noc. She’s a Charmer, capable of taming magical beasts, exiled from her brethren for crimes she didn’t commit. As if exile is not enough, someone from the Charmers Council has ordered a hit on her. The assassin comes from Cruor, a guild of undead killers who walk in shadows and must deliver on their contracts or forfeit their own lives. When Leena bests him by using one of her beasts, she ends up meeting Noc, leader of Cruor and an exile himself. She strikes a deal with him: her life for four magical beasts.
From there, she and Noc and three of his surprisingly winsome compatriots embark on a multipurpose quest — Leena needs to tame a mythical Myad to prove her worth to the Charmers Council; Noc bears a curse that he wants to remove. The journey is entrancing if episodic as Leena and her escorts travel through the realm, stopping periodically for a taming when she catches wind of a beast. (The book is marketed as “‘Assassin’s Creed’ meets ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,’” but it’s much more like dark Pokémon, and that isn’t a dig.)
Of course, at the same time, Noc and Leena are falling in love. The romance is decidedly the primary plot of the novel — it’s the only arc that gets fully resolved — though it feels a bit perfunctory next to Leena’s gleaming menagerie and the mysteries of Noc’s past and the Charmers’ future. But a bit of wonky balance can be forgiven in such a lush and sweeping swords-and-sorcery romance.
For a less fantastical setting for love, how about … the cutthroat back-room dealings of Silicon Valley? Or the joys of online dating? What if we add the neurological aftereffects of a career in the N.F.L. — are you swooning yet? Perhaps only in the masterful hands of Alisha Rai could this be a recipe for top-notch romance (not to mention the start of a new series).
In the forthcoming novel THE RIGHT SWIPE (Avon, paper, $14.99), Rhiannon Hunter is the C.E.O. of Crush, a dating app she founded after being forced out of Swype, a “dating app built around Hot-or-Not bro culture.” Since then, she’s been building her company (a tech firm with a staff that’s 80 percent women, btw) and protecting her heart, using her own app under a pseudonym for one-night stands.
For the last three months Rhiannon’s been haunted by one of those evenings. She thought she and her date had shared a real connection, but she never heard from him again. Then that date, a former N.F.L. linebacker named Samson Lima, appears at an industry conference. He turns out to be the new spokesman for Matchmaker, Crush’s old-school, compatibility questionnaire-based competition, which Rhiannon has her eye on to buy.
The plot from there would sound convoluted if summarized, but in practice it feels propulsive and complex, with Rhiannon and Samson navigating a web of personal, familial and professional challenges to figure out what they want from their own lives and from each other. Much rests on their memories of the strong chemistry they discovered in their first night together. At first this feels like a bit of an emotional shortcut, but the real depth — and much of the book’s joy — comes from the natural growth of their mutual trust and connection.
It’s especially intriguing to watch Rhiannon open up. She’s prickly and often emotionally closed-off, but vulnerable, too. She slips between stereotypes, always more complicated than she seems. Samson isn’t simple, but he’s steady, just what Rhiannon needs.
Jaime Green is the Book Review’s romance columnist. Her first book, about the science and science fiction of life beyond Earth, is forthcoming.
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