Some Thoughts on Romance

I have now finished reading my very first romance novel, The Duchess War by Courtney Milan. For those unfamiliar with the controversy currently tearing the Romance Writers of America apart, and Milan’s role in bringing the RWA to task for institutional racism, here’s a primer. There have been many expressions of solidarity and support from the SFF community, which has been contending with its own history (and present) of racism for some time now, and after a tweet from author Casey Blair seemed to call me out personally, I felt it was time to start reading some romance.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from a genre that my own mother describes as trashy and formulaic, but I’ve had to tell enough people that fantasy is more than an endless parade of Conan the Barbarian ripoffs. It was well past time to look beyond the genre’s surface reputation. I’m glad I did.

The Duchess War was the first of Milan’s books to come in at the library, and it’s on the historical fiction rather than SFF side of things; I still thought it was great. The novel was sweet, with many compelling characters, a well-crafted plot, and a lot more to say than I’d ever been led to expect from romance (except on Twitter, which does have a few redemptive qualities). There was a bit more sex than I’m used to, but really only a bit more. I’ve read SFF that was far more obsessed with sex than this romance novel, but without the high character stakes or even character relevance that made this book’s sex scenes worthwhile. Besides which, I’m old enough to recognize the power of fiction to reflect and model social/sexual dynamics, and this book took a LOT more care with its depictions of both good and bad sex than most of the SFF I’ve read.

I’ve written my share of sex scenes (you don’t need to tell me what you think of them), less graphic, for sure, than the ones in The Duchess War, but not otherwise so different in content. I agonized over them. It’s not easier or more frivolous than designing a magic system, and it can have a greater effect on the quality of your book. Rarely has a book or series been panned for the vagaries of its magic system, but a poorly written – or, worse, poorly conceived – sex scene can do readers actual harm. Plenty of well-regarded books have done so.

The attention Milan puts into her characters’ sex lives – not just into the physical acts, but into the relationship dynamics those acts stem from, and the way the sex and the relationship affect each other in a self-reinforcing cycle – yields a product that is far more impressive, far more important, far more interesting than I was ever led to believe.

Which inevitably brings me to the question: why was I led to believe that a huge, billion-dollar industry, encompassing nearly a third of all fiction sales and dominated almost entirely by women writing about sex and relationships in all manner of settings, would be boring? Why did I expect it to be, to quote a character from Fire and Hemlock, sentimental drivel? The more I think about it, the more remarkable it seems that our culture manages to convince young men that romance is simultaneously:

  • All about sex
  • With a female gaze
  • Not worth reading

Point A isn’t entirely true, but let’s set that aside for now and just stare at this list. Young men like sex! Most of us* also care A LOT about being able to give our partners what they want, whether we have a current partner or not, and would be far better served in that regard by reading romance than by reading the works of some Golden Age sexual predator. So while it’s not shocking or surprising that our messed-up culture discourages young men from picking up any genre that is female-coded and dominated, both by telling us that it’s worthless and that we’ll be mocked if we give it a try, it’s still…remarkable. It should be remarked upon.

Mind you, I’m not saying that romance as a genre does a great job of modeling healthy relationships. Again, I’ve read just the one book so far, and I started with this badass author precisely because she has called out racism in her field. I had reason to believe her books wouldn’t horrify me. But whether Milan’s novels are reflective of her field or are in fact its gold standard, it doesn’t do us any favors to teach our young men that the genre’s overwhelmingly female gaze makes it frivolous and trashy, unlike, uh, Hemingway? Fitzgerald? Asimov? I mean, wtf.

Because it’s time to get back to point A: romance is not “all about sex.” The plot of the Duchess War involves a woman with good reason to believe that public attention will cause her permanent harm and likely endanger her life. She’s a master tactician, but caught between the sleuthing of a public official and the courtship of an attractive but clueless duke, her ability to keep out of the spotlight seems doomed, as does her ability to keep her best friend and keep her guardians out of poverty. The duke, in the meantime, is a man with a traumatic upbringing, trying to overcome a poor grasp of tactics to undo his father’s legacy and upend the social order. To call their tension formulaic or their eventual coupling predictable is to miss the masterful use of dramatic irony. The fact that romance readers know these two will end up together, and that they will make excellent partners and allies when they do, is a good part of what makes the reading pleasurable. What’s more, the story does not end with their wedding or the sex that follows, nor does the tension between their needs end there.

I’m not actually going to give spoilers here: it’s a good book, and you should read it. The point is that there is a plot to enjoy and care about, outside of the sexual tension and the descriptions of its release. To say that The Duchess War was “all about sex” would be like saying Game of Thrones was all about dragons. It’s true that there are dragons! A bunch of characters spend a bunch of time thinking and talking about dragons! But that doesn’t really do much to explain the plot of George R.R. Martin’s series or its adaptation to the screen, let alone their cultural power. I learned more from reading Courtney Milan this month than I did from reading Steinbeck or Salinger in high school. We should take romance seriously.


*A centenarian once called me a “nice young man,” and when I asked her at what age I would stop being a nice young man and become simply a nice man, she said 35. By that measure, I still have two and a half years before I have to stop considering myself a young man.

My Readercon Schedule

My Readercon schedule is now official! Here’s what we’ve got:

Reading: N.S. Dolkart
Fri 8:30 PM, Sylvanus Thayer

Kaffeeklatsches: N.S. Dolkart, Gemma Files
Sat 12:00 PM, Concierge Lounge

Hospitable Worlds
Erik Amundsen (mod), N.S. Dolkart, Max Gladstone, Elaine Isaak, Tracy Townsend
Sat 7:00 PM, Salon A
There’s been much analysis of both the technique and the moral legitimacy of making readers feel alienated, disturbed, or unsafe. But in a 2017 keynote speech at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, Amal El-Mohtar said, “We don’t talk a great deal about being hospitable; about being welcoming in our writing, about creating worlds… that—even if they contain fierce creatures or vicious climates—receive the reader as a guest.” Panelists will discuss how, when, and why to make readers feel welcome in the text.

Food at the Corner of Fiction and Community
N.S. Dolkart, Andrea Martinez Corbin (mod), Greer Gilman, Michael Swanwick, Sabrina Vourvoulias
Sat 9:00 PM, Salon A
Food plays a central role in many cultures and accordingly takes center stage in the work of many speculative fiction writers. How does cuisine help define, or build, a community? How can food be used to communicate important information about a people to the reader? What are some particularly noteworthy examples of the way food can be used to set, or subvert, expectations?

Writing Update

What has the great NS Dolkart been up to for the last five-plus months? Well, writing, of course! I’m working on a new, standalone novel, and it’s fantastic. I’m branching out a bit by setting this story in a magical version of our real world at a particular moment in history, so as a consequence I’ve had to spend more time and energy on research than I did with the Godserfs. I’ve been drafting even slower than usual, and even now am only about a third of the way through a first draft.

But it’s good! People who liked the Godserfs for the trilogy’s focus on character relationships will love this one too. Not as much theology this time, but I’m making up for it with historical and culinary detail.

“Wait, did he just say culinary detail?”

Why, yes, gentle reader, I did. This historical fantasy is chock full of cooking! There’s even a heart-pounding dramatic cooking scene with high stakes and sabotage! I can’t wait for you to read it!

Radio show TONIGHT!

In just ONE HOUR, I will be joining my college friend Katharine Duckett and charming host Jim Freund on WBAI New York’s “Hour of the Wolf” radio show! Tune in at 99.5FM if you’re in the NYC area, or at if you’re not, and hear us live! There will be film reviews, story readings, and, around 1am EST (more or less), an interactive reading of The Maltese Pelican.

Interactive how, you say? Well, you can call in and read with us! The number is (347) 335-0818.

For those unfamiliar with the rules of a bad prose reading, they are as follows:

1) When it’s your turn, read the story aloud from wherever your predecessor left off. It’s okay to go back to the beginning of the sentence if you need to.

2) If you laugh, your turn is over.

3) Your turn is also over if you misread the text: for example if it says “terfific” and you read “terrific.” Try to adhere to the punctuation too, when possible, though you are not required to say “quote…end quote” or anything like that.

4) Feel free to interrupt another reader if they have erred in steps 2 or 3.

5) Be a good sport about it. There is no prize for “winning,” and no penalty for “losing.” Your turn is only over temporarily! Stick around…the other readers are bound to mess up sooner or later.


Want to try your luck? Give the studio a call! The story is here. The number is (347) 335-0818. Give it a shot!

Book day!

Today’s the day! A BREACH IN THE HEAVENS, the final book of the Godserfs Trilogy, is out today! You can buy it at your local bookstore or at any of these fine retailers (my favorite is IndieBound, at the bottom, which supports independent bookstores).

In celebration of the end of the trilogy, DJ at MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape has posted an interview I did with him a couple weeks ago. Check it out!

Reviews are good. Even “bad” ones.

I have been completely blown away by the response to a recent $1.99 Bookbub promo for Silent Hall. If you are one of the many people who picked up my first book for just a couple of bucks, thank you! If I may request just one more favor, would you please consider leaving me a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads? Reviews really matter.

They matter because they make authors’ work more visible, and they help readers tell which books are worth the time and which might not be their bag. For every reader who leaves a review, there are dozens who have similar tastes and are looking to find their next great read. So please, do them a favor. Tell them what you loved about the books you read, what squicked you out, what disturbed you. It’s all appreciated. Whether you think my books are excellent, lousy, or just okay, voicing that opinion in the form of a review helps everybody in the system.

I want to be clear here: I love sales. I want sales. I love great reviews that help drive more sales. But I appreciate the negative ones too, and the mixed bags, because I want my books to reach the right audience. A well elucidated criticism isn’t a bad review, it’s a great way to make sure a book will reach only people who will appreciate it despite (or because of) its flaws.

When you say “hey this book was mostly enjoyable, but CW: there is the threat of harm to children, and also icky sex stuff,” that doesn’t cause me harm, and you know, it may save some readers from trauma. I’d rather miss those readers and the $0.47 in royalties than hurt them. My books do not have content warnings. I didn’t even think to suggest it before publication, and in any case it would be up to the publisher and not me to weigh whether CWs would be good for business and decide whether or not to include them. But you know what can help fill the gaps? Reviews!

I’ve had reviews that complained about the way my first book included menstruation. You know what, that’s not for everyone! If you’re a person who can’t handle reading an awkward scene where an awkward and isolated teenage boy learns about menstruation for the first time, that’s totally okay! I’d rather not put you through that scene if it’ll just bother you. That’s the kind of stuff we rely on our reviewers to bring to light.

So please, all it takes is a minute or two. If you love a book, write a review. If you hate a book, write a review. If your feelings about a book are mixed, write a review.