When I was a teen, I read romance novels with much the same voracity as sf or fantasy. Almost all the romances I read were imprints: Harlequin and Silhouette were the biggest, but there were a number of other imprints that I'd read now and again. These were very dependable books, following a simple formula: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They do Stupid Things which create obstacles to their love. Eventually, they stop doing the Stupid Things, get married, and live happily ever after. The End.
Imprint books are churned out at a tremendous speed. In a given line, say "Silhouette Desire", Silhouette would publish four books per week. The bookstore would stock copies of those four books for seven days, then at the end of the week they'd rip the covers off of whatever was left, send those back, and throw out the books to make room for the new ones. Some imprints get a later overseas run, but effectively any given book is available for one week and then gone forever. The houses don't do reprints and they don't make best sellers. They put out a product, not literature, aimed at delivering to a particular taste, over and over and over again with slight variations.
I hadn't read a romance novel of this sort for fifteen+ years. But I had a certain curiosity about the "fantasy romance" novel, a subgenre that didn't really exist when I was reading them. Yes, there are plenty of fantasy novels with a romantic subplot, but romance novels with a fantasy subplot were quite rare. The thing that distinguishes a romance from other genres is that everything revolves around the protagonists' feelings for each other. It's All About how she feels about him, and he feels about her, and what they do for/to each other, and how that makes them feel, etc., ad nauseum.
So I was talking to my co-worker about the genre, and she offered to lend me a couple of books in the "Dark Hunter" series. (I just found the website. It's awful. ZOMG. If that doesn't warn you to stay away from these books nothing could). They're by Sherrilyn Kenyon (I don't know if she's one person or a pseudonym used by multiple authors) and apparently sell quite well. There are dozens of them, in the same modern-fantasy setting. The "Dark Hunter" series has a vampire-esque theme; the others appear to exploit different themes.
The next day, my co-worker left the first two "Dark Hunter" novels on my desk, helpfully labelled "1" and "2" in black marker on the top. In the best romance novel tradition, there's no indication of series order from the books themselves.
I read the first one.
Yesterday, I spent most of a walking through the mall with Lut going on, and on, about the book. Both good and bad. The truth is, I found reading it enormously entertaining; sometimes in the way the author meant to entertain, and as often not. I've been wanting to organize my thoughts on the subject for a few days, so I'm going to set them down here.
One thing that I unequivocally liked about the first book (and the hundred pages or so I've read of the second) is the characters and the dialogue. The author has the knack for making likeable, entertaining characters. They're fun to listen to and sufficiently varied in mannerisms and personality traits that they feel distinct. The main characters aren't the only interesting people; the background is populated by a charming supporting cast. Largely, one senses, because the supporting cast is going to be mined for future novels -- or in the case of sequels, protagonists from former books will be used as supporting cast later. But, okay, characters are well-done. This is important in a romance; if I don't like the characters, I don't care if they fall in love and live happily ever after, either.
I have a weakness for romance and happy endings, and there is something terribly amusing to me about reading a book where I know the characters will resolve all their issues and be happily in love at the end. Romances are the most predictable of all genres in this respect. They always work out. Love conquers all. I also find it hysterical to envision the most antagonistic and annoying jerks in the supporting cast receiving their comeupance in some future novel where they, too, fall helpless victims to Love. There's a new book every couple of months in this series; everyone's going to get his or her turn eventually, I'm pretty sure. From the perspective of good literature, being this predictable isn't a good thing. But I take a guilty pleasure in it anyway.
Point of View
The books are told from 'omniscient third person', alternating freely between the perspective of the male and female leads. This is my prefered method for stories in general and romances especially. I never liked romances where I only heard what the female protagonist was thinking; takes most of the fun out of it if you don't get the angst and doubt-ridden male perspective, too. (Much the same would apply if the only perspective given were the man's, but romances exclusively from the male POV are vanishingly rare).
That more or less covers the Good -- what I liked about the book. Then there's the Bad.
As noted above, the usual plot motivator of a romance is "people do Stupid Things". I'm fine with that, because people are stupid, especially in love. Nothing makes a human being stupid the way falling in love does. Kenyon replaces a good deal of the "people are stupid" plot with Supernatural Angst instead. And oh, the angst! "Woe, for I am a Dark Hunter and I have no soul, and am forbidden from having a relationship with a woman". In case that's not enough angst for you, the characters all have incredibly tortured pasts. In the case of the first book, this includes liberal amounts of literal torture. The male protagonist is described as being tortured with brands, boiling oil, whips, etc., for a month in ancient Rome before being killed by crucifixtion. And of course, he never breaks. This is the most eye-rolling sequence in the book for me. I do not feel the character's pain during it; I am completely thrown out of the book because the worst tortures the Romans used were not things that one survived a month of. (And you certainly didn't look pretty after them!)
Anyway, there are heaping helpings of angst, all of which are designed on the theme of "what's the most horrible thing that could happen?" and "how can I have my character look most noble through it?" Their tortured pasts leave them scarred and wounded, but only in the most cool ways. None of it is convincing. It's the antithesis of The Curse of Chalion, where Bujold masterfully depicts her character undergoing truly egregious experiences (and horribly plausible ones) and responds to them in a convincingly human way. Now there was a hero for you. The angst of Kenyon's characters just detracts from their believability, without evoking my sympathy or making me think of them as stronger or more courageous.
I'd forgotten about this aspect of romance novels. Or maybe it wasn't as bad in the ones I'd read as a kid. It may've helped that I'd never had sex when I was last reading romance novels. In any case, it seems like Kenyon can't go five pages without dwelling on how much in lust her characters are. From first meeting to the close of the book is a near-constant barrage of "Oh, how I want him/her". It varies between funny, eye-rolling, and tedious. In a three hundred page book, I'd estimate a hundred pages of it is descriptions of either sexual activity or the characters thinking about sex. The book made for a very quick read -- four hours, maybe five at most -- possibly because I could do a lot of skimming over the sex/lust stuff.
The sex is, of course, wildly improbable. It's filled with "I've never wanted anyone this much/felt anything like this/ been so satisfied/ etc. in my two-thousand-year lifespan". Every female character has to have multiple orgasms. The men are let off the hook from that (I'm not sure why) but they are required to have the stamina of a stallion on Viagra with a herd in heat. It's very silly. It is surprisingly unerotic, too. I'm not sure why; I often find reading sex scenes erotic but Kenyon's don't do much for me. The repetitive nature of them gets to me, too. Yes, I know about his luscious hard abs, you've described them four times in the last two pages. Can we move on, please? It reminds me of why I was grateful for Sinai's no-sex policy. It's not that I object specifically to reading about sex, it's that there's only so much variation most people are interested in when it comes to sex, and as a result it makes for dull reading after a short while.
If you clicked on the link above, you already have an inkling of how cliche-ridden these books are. They are both better and worse than that. If the general story was that bad, I wouldn't've gotten ten pages into it. On the other hand, the books (again, this is based on the first book and a hundred pages of the second) are rife with silly and improbable situations designed to push the characters into each other's arms. In the first book, the protagonists meet when they awaken after having been captured, knocked out, and handcuffed to each other by the book's main villain. Oy. These characters are hundreds or thousands of years old, and yet they do mindnumbingly stupid egotistical things that one would reasonably expect should have gotten them killed centuries ago. If I'd been that villain, I'd've killed both of them while they were unconscious. It's never adequately explained why he didn't, and "Because he's nuts" doesn't work so well when your antagonist is supposed to be this incredibly skilled and an ancient member of his usually short-lived race.
And then there's the Funny:
Every male character is tall, built, and gorgeous. All of them. The only ordinary-looking man in the first book is the ex-boyfriend. It doesn't matter if the character is a good guy, or a bad guy, or a villain who's been dead two thousand years: he is still described in loving detail as tall muscular perfection. (Lut: "That being, of course, the 'fantasy' part of it?") I used to make fun of Laurell Hamilton for making all of the male characters in the Anita Blake novels gorgeous, but she's got nothing on Kenyon. Hamilton's characters at least came in a variety of shapes, from lean to body builder, and sizes. Kenyon's are uniformly towering. I think the short ones come in at 6'2". This is even funnier when you consider that these are books about humans who were given a kind of immortality, and most of them are several hundred if not thousands of years old. (And no, being made immortal didn't make them beautiful or giant-sized. They started that way.) This aspect amuses me more than anything else. It's a romance! Of course the characters have to be beautiful! The women are good-looking too, but Kenyon doesn't dwell on them with the same devotion that she gives the appearance of her men, thus proving that she knows her audience.
Hmm, I seemed to have covered most of the rest of the Funny in the section on the Bad.
There's one other thing about the books that I've found interesting, although I'm not sure quite where to put it between "Good" and "Bad". There's a surprising amount of non-romance-related plot (this had been particularly evident in the second book and I'm guessing becomes increasingly prominent in later books.) Some aspects of the non-romance plot are stupid and some are neat. An example: the author wants her Dark Hunters to work alone (because that's much Cooler than working in groups). She handles this by saying that the Dark Hunters sap each other's powers whenever they're in close proximity. Why? Because when Artemis created them, she wanted to make sure that they never combined to rebel against her the way her brother's creations ultimately did against him. (The books use Greek gods but invents numerous new myths about them for the author's own purposes).
And I thought "You know, that actually makes sense. I may use something similar to that in a book or campaign setting of my own, one of these days."
I'm not sure how many of these books I'll actually read. On the one hand, they're fun in some ways and they're certainly quick. On the other ... oooog, the angst, the eye-rolling. I can go on a binge with Pratchett, or Bujold, or Diana Wynne Jones, and not feel like I need more variety in my reading. But this stuff is like eating cotton candy. After one book I find myself desperately in need of real sustenance.