Today at Kirkus: Dark Romance

Book Cover About three-plus years ago, author Colleen Gleason emailed me to ask what folks meant by “dark romance.” I came across her question a few days ago while digging through my files (a text document called ‘Write about this stuff’ dated 2007 is hard to pass up, yo) and found that a combination of pondering, Twitter, wikipedia, and everyone else’s wisdom makes for a good exploration of what it means to write “dark romance.”

So today’s column at Kirkus, The Dish Behind Dark Romance, explores the topic, because interestingly enough, it’s often easier to give examples of what constitutes ‘dark’ in our genre than a succinct definition of what it means:

The term is often used exclusively with paranormal, apocalyptic and urban fantasy romances, and that is not always the genre in which you find dark content. Anna Campbell, for example, writes dark emotionally gripping romances that are set in Regency England. Inez Kelly’s new contemporary romance release, Sweet as Sin, (Carina Press, 2011) which has received some amazingly positive reviews, features a hero with a terribly haunting emotional past (which is, alas, the reason I have some trepidation about reading it. I want to, but am honestly scared of my own emotional reaction). Author Jaci Burton recommends Larissa Ione and Lara Adrian as two authors who write “twisty, angst, heavy, deeply emotional” dark romance as well.

But I think author Jessa Slade said it best, that dark romance is “when love doesn’t ‘save the day.’ Just saves their souls. Day is still f’d.” Yup. That could sum it up well, regardless of genre.

So, as I asked over at Kirkus, what dark romances do you adore, and, more importantly, how would you define the term? Do you like dark romance? Or are you like me, craving it when in the mood for it, but feeling a bit of trepidation otherwise when confronting a book that might hurt a bit?

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  1. 1
    lavinient says:

    I really like Charlotte Featherstone’s dark historical romances. My favorite so far is Sinful. I do have to be in the mood for dark romances, and usually I have to read something light and fun afterward. The darker they are the more relief I feel at the end when they finally get their happily ever after.

  2. 2
    LG says:

    If I’ve ever read something that could be categorized as a dark romance, I don’t remember it or blanked it out. Or it was just so different from what I usually read when I read romance that I never considered it to be in the same genre as all the other stuff. I don’t know if I’ve ever even heard anything specifically called a “dark romance.”

    Would Dreamspinner Press’s Bittersweet Dreams stuff count as dark romance? There’s one particular work I’ve been interested in but have so far avoided just because it’s in that category on the site.

  3. 3
    JenTurner says:

    Personally, I absolutely love dark romance…but it’s also what I write. So I suppose in some cases I might be a little biased because I’ve always loved the genre and tend to read it more than others.  As for what constitutes a dark romance – I think anytime you have a character or a situation that strains or makes the reader question their own moral compass, you’re going end up with a story that most would consider dark. I also think anytime horror elements come into play, be they mild or strong, you’re definitely going to push the boundaries of dark.

    I guess I look at it like this: If you have a 5,000 year old vampire hero who looks at humans the way we (humans) look at ants, meaning they’re everywhere and you don’t think twice about the hundreds you squish to death while walking down the sidewalk because there will always be more, the book is most likely going to fall into the dark romance category. But I think one of the most satisfying parts of being a reader of dark romance is when said hero finds that one “ant” he just can’t bring himself to squish. :)

    To me, a great example of dark romance/urban fantasy is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. There are a lot of mild horror elements like violence, gore, depravity, the degradation of human society as a whole, mixed into the set-up of the world and the history. And then you have the conflicted way Kate does her job, sometimes she can kill without remorse, other times you’re definitely left with a sense that she doesn’t know if she made the right choice.

    Like I said, I think anytime moral issues come into play, the book will always go to the dark side. ;)

  4. 4
    joanne says:

    Jen Turner! I was so glad to see you’re going to be back in print soon. Much good luck!

    Re: dark romances:
    It is about the trust I have in some author to bring the reader through the darkness of a story without leaving me wishing I had never opened the book—HELLO, Oprah!

    Some of Jo Goodman’s books have a darkness to them but with a balance of hope and wit that I need as a reader to make a HEA believable. She can and has written about incest, child abuse, rape, assault, betrayal and a host of other awful circumstances but always making me believe that the heroine can not only survive but thrive. I trust her when the cover blurb says I should probably run. There are other authors that can do that too, but Goodman seems to do it consistently.

    WOOT: Almost April 1st! Sarah?!

  5. 5
    helen says:

    I enjoy dark romances. I thought Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series was amazing, dark, deep and real in a way you don’t often see with romance book.

  6. 6
    vp says:

    I love dark romances and I don’t think that they are limited to the paranormal genre at all. I think writers like Patricia Gaffney, Anne Stuart and Jo Goodman produce truly excellent romance novels, many with a very dark tone. I like the complexity involved in these romances. I think they tend to be less simplistic than the typical lighter fare most often offered up.

  7. 7
    Tee says:

    Some really dark romances from Edith Layton and from Laura Kinsale.  Heroines starving and downtrodden.  Main characters in terrible poverty who take advantage of each other and cause bad things or abandon people…

    Deana James also had one book so dark – the heroine kept putting the hero in danger until he was blinded with a head injury, then he later helped her again and was permanently blinded.

  8. 8
    Lil' Deviant says:

    The first thing that popped in my mind was Nora Roberts Honest Illusions.  I read that years ago.  LOVED IT.  But have never been able to reread.  It hurt to read it.

  9. 9
    River says:

    Speaking of Colleen Gleason, as Joss Ware, she has written the best there is IMO.  The “Envy” apocalyptic series.  (Beyond the Night, Embrace the Night Eternal, Abandon the Night and Night Betrayed)

    Their world is not a very happy place, but the lovers seem to find love and happiness while fighting zombie/like creatures and survival. 

    I highly recommend this series.  And these books define “dark romance” to me.

  10. 10
    Katie L says:

    Meljean Brook’s Guardian series sums it up for me. I glommed the whole lot, while quietly leaking tears. Loved them, but need to build up my tissue supply before reading them again – especially Demon Angel. They’re the kind of books you think about for a long time after reading. Just fab really.

  11. 11
    StarOpal says:

    I have to be in a very specific mood for dark romance. I’ve been known to put them down (to pick up later when I am in the right mood) if I’m just not feeling it.

    I think joanne brought up something very important, the elements of trust in the author and balance. In all fiction there is an understood agreement between the creator and audience, ‘give me a good story, and I’ll give you my time and suspend my disbelief.’ The author has to fulfill their half of the bargain in dark romance by making the HEA still work with the dark in there.

    Plus there is a point where it can just feel like torturing a character just for the sake of torturing a character, and not really building up the story. Balance. You know what I mean?

    Dark romance can be a tricky thing.

  12. 12
    Maddie Grove says:

    I’m never really sure if something’s dark or not—I am as suspectible to the implications of cover art as anyone else, probably more so—but there are romances where I think, “Wow, the two unluckiest people in the world are hooking up,” and really feel their anguish.

    Kinsale can be intense. The Shadow and the Star is one of the saddest romances I’ve read, and not just because of the child sex slavery thing. The heroine’s loneliness, her poverty, the humiliations she faces at work, her emotional repression, and her attempts to maintain her pride are just as affecting.

  13. 13
    Tamara Hogan says:

    To me, an essential component of “dark romance” is EMOTIONAL darkness, emotional pain. I think Anna Cambell’s emotionally saturated Regencies are great examples, as is almost any book by Anne Stuart. In dark romance, the relationship between the lovers is part of what transitions the damaged one(s) from the dark into the light.

  14. 14
    Emily Ryan-Davis says:

    No comment re: dark romance but I wanted to pop by and say I LOVED loved THE VAMPIRE VOSS. Read it in a day and it refreshed my interest in blood-sucky paranormals.

  15. 15
    Tina C. says:

    I think Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels trilogy was very dark (probably the darkest I’ve read in a long time) and very good.  Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm was very dark in a completely different way, but also very dark.  The first are set in a fantasy universe with supernatural creatures and some really awful things happen to everyone (Slade’s definition of dark romance could have been written specifically for this series.)  The second is, well—probably everyone here knows exactly what the second one is.  Sublime.

  16. 16
    orangehands says:

    I think Jessica Slade (last paragraph) and Renee Wong (first comment) sum it up well: the world is dark, and the darkness can hit those characters just as easily as anyone else. They also don’t get the sex that heals all wounds and suddenly makes all the bad things okay again. (I loathe that trope.)

    LG: Which one? I’ve been curious too but I wasn’t sure if “bittersweet dreams” meant dark romance or romance without the HEA/HFN. I’m fine with the former (I like dark romance), but I don’t want to buy a romance without at least a chance of HFN when I have a very tiny e-book buying budget.

  17. 17
    orangehands says:

    Tina C: I love the Dark Jewels trilogy. Anne Bishop wasn’t the first fantasy writer I read (I think Tolkien was the first), but she started me on my love of the genre.

    I do enjoy dark romance, for sure.

  18. 18
    Lauren says:

    Laura Kinsale’s “Shadowheart” to me was quite dark- Allegretto alone is enough to make it qualify. The sexual relationship between him and Elena as well. It’s not fluffy or lighthearted to read. (That being said I love this book).

    When the hero veers towards being almost a villian, where no one is truly good, situations are bleak, its not all smiles or warmth..
    To me that is a small part of what is “dark” but your mileage may vary.

  19. 19
    Ashley says:

    I second (third?) Kinsale as an author who writes dark outside the paranormal/horror/urban subgenre.  Flowers From the Storm was just grim in places, though I loved it.  Shadowheart wasn’t so grim, but dark and not apologetic about it (also loved).  I think “Just saves their souls.  Day still f’d.” is the perfect description of some of her stuff—and of dark romance in general.  It also makes me think of CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine cycle.

  20. 20
    bounababe says:

    I love Larissa Ione’s Demonica series. I trust her not to kill off the H or h during the course of the book, not permanently dead at least, but everyone and everything else is fair game and can be picked off or tortured in some way at any time. The apocalypse can break out on a moment’s notice, the Hero may intend to kill the heroine during most of the book, and baby-eating demons pop in for a band-aid at Underworld General. Her world is dark but alot of fun to read. So it fits perfectly with the definition: souls saved, but day remains totally f’ed up. 
    Vampires, demons, shifters, fallen angels, and angst ahoy!
    but no ahngst.

  21. 21
    AmberG says:

    Actually, there is a book that is part of an extremely dark series that I have waited, quite literally, a decade for, sitting on my shelf that I can’t bring myself to pick up even though I wanted it so much, because I know it’s going to be painful. Which isn’t to say I won’t ever read it. And when I read it, i’ll sigh a happy sigh. But still.

    I think maybe it gets easier if I know there’s a semi-happy ending. Bittersweet or basically miserable endings just leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Even if everything is completely wrecked, i’m still wanting that HEA for the main couple, or it’s too much to take in. For that reason, no matter how highly recommended, I will never read a book in which one half of a couple dies midway through, or at the end. I recall one set of books involving a woman who becomes involved with a vampire, but stuff happens and while neither really dies, they become completely incapable of even being in the same city together, let alone same room or in a relationship, and I felt cheated and angry.

  22. 22
    Susan/DC says:

    In a way I don’t find paranormals “dark” precisely because they are paranormals, and werewolves, vampires, and other such creatures exist at a remove from me because they are imaginary.  What I find dark are books such as Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart” when we learn what happened to Ruck’s wife or why Melanthe acts as she does.  Dark is Gaffney’s “To Have and To Hold”, where Sebastian and Rachel play twisted games with their souls at stake.  Dark is Elizabeth George’s “With No One As Witness” (not a romance, but still a great example) where Thomas Lynley must make a wrenching decision after a horrific tragedy.  These are dark because they are stories of fragile human beings trying to connect, to make their way in a world indifferent to their existence.

  23. 23
    Tonya says:

    Well, definition… Merriam-Webster has one of its definitions of “dark” as “arising from, exhibiting, or motivated by evil traits or desires : WICKED, INIQUITOUS

    “.  Put with romance, and yup, I’ll buy that for my definition of dark romance.  As for what I like or don’t like…  I admit I’m just as susceptible as the next person to imagine a hunky guy whom you save from his darker tendencies, reserves his smiles for you, and is faithful beyond anything; Lara Adrian comes to mind for these.  However, there are some books that pass for dark romance, and while they have the dark part just right, they are sorely lacking in the romance part.  Several of Emma Holly’s or Lora Leigh’s books come to mind. Both of these authors for me are hit or miss.  I’ve read some from both that make me want to cry from the sweetness and some that made me throw up in my mouth a little from the brutality of the so-called hero—often towards the heroine.

  24. 24

    There’s nothing I love more than a great dark historical. Paranormals are a hard sell for me, but give me a dark, angsty historical romance and I am one happy camper. Untouched by Anna Campbell and Addicted by Charlotte Featherstone stand out as excellent examples – h/h go through some hellish circumstances before they can get their HEA, which makes that HEA all the more appreciated.

    My very favorite writing teacher often said “if the stars are real, the mud had better be real as well” and that applies to why I like dark romance; it encompasses the full range of emotions. Bad stuff still happens, but h/h will get through it.

  25. 25
    Jan says:

    I’d recommend Susan Squire’s Danegeld. Very realistic historical romance, where both heroine and hero are seriously damaged. Love heals them a bit, they heal themselves a bit, but I wouldn’t say they heal completely by the end – just enough to be able to be happy. And the world still is as hard as when the story started.

    While it was definitely hard to get through at times, I also found it strangely refreshing, because it didn’t romanticize the past.

  26. 26
    hsue says:

    Lil’ Deviant:  Honest Illusions is my absolute favorite Nora. Love it.

    When I think dark romance, I think of something like Caitlin Kittredge’s Street Magic – a heroin-addict hero? I had to read the book just to see how she pulled it off (Jack Winter is a fascinating character).

    I think it’s interesting that Colleen Gleason asked the question that started this discussion because she’s created some dark characters that are fascinating – in her Gardella books and, as Joss Ware, in her Envy world. I agree with Emily that Vampire Voss is excellent!

  27. 27
    Tammy K says:

    I’ve read the newest Colleen Gleason, The Vampire Voss…most definitely dark and delicious. I’ve also had sneak peeks at the coming books in the trilogy…darker and delicious-er!

  28. 28
    Margaret G says:

    For me, a dark romance is something a little edgier – a couple of Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory’s early books come to mind – Starlit Surrender (republished as Angel in a Red Dress) and Black Silk (which was edgier before it was republished).

  29. 29
    SCD Goff says:

    I blame Wuthering Heights. Sexy, broody, arsehole Heathcliff, lovely, catty Cathy and some seriously weird attraction going on – social -boundary-shaking, earnest, passionate (uhm slightly incestuous) Dark Romance. Their souls were saved. The day was FUBAR, as they used to say.
    Those Brontes have a lot to answer for.

  30. 30
    Elizabeth says:

    I really love dark romance.  There are some moods in which I can only read something lighter, but lighter romances rarely feel as emotionally rewarding to finish as dark ones do.  One of the nice things about romance is that I know there will be an HEA; I’ve yet to find a book so dark that I couldn’t finish it, knowing there would be a happy ending to come.

    I definitely agree that Laura Kinsale writes mostly dark romance.  She also writes some of the best romance being published today.  I read Flowers from the Storm for the first time, last summer.  I was on the edge of my seat, desperate for the characters to resolve their woes and live HEA, but there were moments when I had no idea how Kinsale could pull things off.  She did, of course, beautifully.

    That is another thing I love about romance: no one is ever too damaged to find love and happiness.  In any other genre, I wonder if Flowers from the Storm would have ended as it does.

    What I find dark are books such as Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart” when we learn what happened to Ruck’s wife or why Melanthe acts as she does.

    I must admit, I hated Ruck’s wife and wasn’t at all surprised by her fate, but it was very indicative of the world in which the story existed.  Gritty, historically realistic, and very dark.

    Another brilliant author whose books are dark (though not as dark as Kinsale) is Courtney Milan, IMHO.

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