The Rec League: “Normal” Heroines in Fantasy Romance

The Rec League - heart shaped chocolate resting on the edge of a very old bookThis Rec League was sent into us by Deborah!

Is there a good fantasy romance novel or series in which the heroine is normal and STAYS normal? I’m getting a bit tired of the Chosen One cliche and would like to read about a character who doesn’t have a billion hidden/latent talents and solves her problems like all us average plebs.

Sarah: I think some of the Laurenston Pride books ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Au | Scribd ) have heroines who are not shifters and stay not shifters.

Amanda: Maybe the Kowal Glamourist Histories. ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Au | Scribd )

Radiance
A | BN | K | AB
Also Radiance by Grace Draven

EllenM: I second radiance. Pretty sure Master of Crows by Grace Draven ( A | BN | K | AB ) also avoids the “chosen one” fantasy heroine trope, I don’t recall her having any hidden talents other than just being more competent than anticipated. Actually I think I have a few for this; let me think about it.

Catherine: I realise that Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher is my answer to every question this week, but it’s definitely fantasy and while the heroine is a very good perfumer, she has no super powers. T. Kingfisher is a pretty good bet for down to earth, ordinary heroines in well-realised fantasy worlds, though she doesn’t write much romance. I think Swordheart ( A | BN | K | AB )  is also a romance, and the Raven and the Reindeer ( A | BN | K | AB ) at the very least implies a relationship between Gerda and the Robber Girl.

Sorcery & Cecelia
A | BN | K | AB
Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer – Cecelia May have magic, but her friend Kate doesn’t, and their stories are equally important.

AJ: Seconded on T. Kingfisher’s works, and can confirm that Gerda/Robber Girl is explicitly canon, so +1 for gayness there!

Catherine: Glad I remembered that right!

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement
A | BN | K | AB
I think there is a reasonable amount of fantasy with a strong romance subplot (as opposed to fantasy romance) which may fit the bill. Will try to think of more.

Sneezy: It sounds like Deborah is looking for heroines who win against magic shit even though they have no magic themselves and no prophesy ordaining their victory?

Assuming that’s the case, another vote for Radiance. Master of Crows may not be what Deborah is looking for since the heroine technically has magic.

Catherine: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series started its life as an attempt at a romance novel, and romance is still central . Biiiiig age difference, though, which may squick some people.

Thorn
A | BN | K | AB
Sneezy: Thorn by Intisar Khanani is a similar deal. The heroine has to deal with magic and their wielders, but has none herself. It’s not a romance, though.

Hunted by Meagan Spooner could be another one. Heroine has to navigate magic and its rules without any of her own.

Aarya: Cat’s Tale by Bettie Sharpe. ( A | BN | K | AB ) Puss in Boots novella retelling. Reactions are very polarizing, but I loved it. The heroine is a scheming, wicked, and immoral character (there is an HEA). But she has no magic and she’s a cat for most of it (she’s cursed by a sorcerer). She’s clever and manipulates circumstances to go her way. No Chosen One guaranteed.

Stephanie Burgis’s Harwood Spellbook novella series may qualify. The heroine lost her magical powers in an accident before Snowspelled, ( A | BN | K | AB )  but she learns to navigate her life without it. There’s no easy plot device to regain her magic.

Salt Magic Skin Magic
A | BN | K
And if you’re interested in a Victorian-set romance, I can’t praise Lee Welch’s Salt Magic Skin Magic enough. Both heroes have magic but there’s no chosen one or grand quest to fulfill.

EllenM: Ok got a bunch.

First, Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn ( A | BN | K | AB ) — heroine is an apothecary/hedgewitch type figure in a royal court just trying to navigate the fraught politics and do what’s right.

Ghost Bride by Yangze Choo also fits this I think. The heroine is ordinary and has to succeed by her own wits and the help of others.

I also think a LOT of the Juliet Marillier Sevenwaters ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) books qualify. most of the heroines have no particular powers although in the later books in the series i think there is a seer heroine and another magical heroine but mostly the heroines have no particular powers.

The Ghost Bride
A | BN | K | AB
Finally I would recommend The Golden City novels by J. Kathleen Cheney ( A | BN | K | AB ) . These are more fantasy with a strong romance subplot. The heroine is sort of a quasi-mermaid, but she doesn’t have special powers or a secret destiny or anything.

Maya: Ghost Bride is also on Netflix!!

Amanda: I’ve been meaning to watch it. I’ve heard good things about the adaptation.

Maya: It’s pretty good, although for at least a quarter of it, my review was “need more ghosts”, but it eventually got sufficiently weird.

Amanda: Sufficiently weird is my kind of jam.

Which books would you recommend?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Jill Q. says:

    I don’t have any perfect recommendations off the top of my head, but put me down as another person who is sick of the “chosen one” trope. It’s such a fantasy staple that it is made it a bit leery of the whole genre. I’m very excited to see what people recommend.
    My imperfect recommendations are –

    They’re for kids, but A Wrinkle in Time/Wind Through the Door by Madeline L’Engle are told from the perspective of Meg Murry, who is very bright, but doesn’t really have any special abilities and usually ends up rescuing her super genius brother with “ordinary human” skills like love. The rest of the series (which I haven’t read in a long time) goes in a slightly more “blood destiny” route and are not my fave, truthfully.
    Another one that I liked was “Six of Crows”/”Crooked Kingdom” by Leigh Bardugo. These are YA. There is one heroine who has magical powers (and she gets more powerful as the book gets on) but the book is not about one person. It’s really about a team of people that all have to work together. And everyone has skills and deficits. Another thing my cynical little heart loved is that it was a heist story and it ends with a glow of optimism *not* “we saved the world and everything is perfect now.”

  2. 2
    Pre-Successful Indie says:

    Eeeeee catnip! Anything *but* a Chosen One for me, thanks!

    Here’s another vote for Radiance – it was not at all what I was expecting (big orcish nonhuman vs frail little human woman, yeah, yeah, whatever…) – but I tried it anyway and was very pleasantly surprised.

    Partway through the Sharing Knife series despite age gaps being Not For Me (she’s like, 20 and he’s like, 60 iirc). I am kind of a LMB stan, and she does age gaps *a lot.*

    I’m not sure where the series is going, but it is interesting to have a fantasy in a North American setting.

    Thanks for this, I’ll try more of these out.

  3. 3
    Algae429 says:

    Maybe The Invisible Library? The heroine does have the awesome Library powers, but amonng librarians, she’s a middle of the road power and doesn’t form the bonds to get the power she would need to actually bring changes to the Library?

  4. 4
    The Other Kate says:

    A couple of Bec McMaster’s steampunky Blueblood Conspiracy novels have human heroines who stay human–the first three, if I recall correctly. The first one I liked because the hero is basically Spike from Buffy, but in Victorian London. Second one didn’t do it for me (hero is a werewolf, heroine is human), but I LOVE LOVE LOVE the third one for eternity. It’s called My Lady Quicksilver and features a badass, aescetic vampire detective/cop hero teaming up with a human who is secretly an equally badass outlaw leader fighting for the oppressed, all in order to stop a sinister coup attempt. Highly recommend!

  5. 5
    Bea says:

    The Interior Life by Katherine Blake
    The main character is Sue, a housewife, who dreams of a fantasy world.

  6. 6
    Batman says:

    I think A Curse So Dark and Lonely would work? Regular old human heroine/cursed beast prince Beauty and the Beast retelling.

  7. 7
    HeatherS says:

    “The Queen of Blood” by Sarah Beth Durst. The heroine, Daleina, does have some wee bit of ability to call/control the elemental spirits of her land, which is why she’s able to go and train to become an Heir to the Queen, but she’s the weakest in the school. She has to rely more on her intelligence, athleticism, and strategy, rather than power. She struggles with – or can’t do at all – the things her fellow students do easily (or relatively so), and that really doesn’t change, iirc.

  8. 8
    Lisa says:

    Polaris Rising. The next two in the series give the heroines super powerrs and I wish they hadn’t. I liked how she was ordinary.

  9. 9
    MirandaB says:

    Other than her telepathy, Sookie Stackhouse qualifies.

    Lydia in Barbara Hambly’s Those who Hunt the Night series.

  10. 10
    OK says:

    Love this topic! I have a few that I think would qualify:

    Ilona Andrews INNKEEPER series (first book is CLEAN SWEEP) – Dina is exceptionally well-trained, and she has exceptional powers inside her inn, but she’s still human and outside her inn her powers are limited, and she is well aware of that.

    Michelle Diener’s CLASS 5 series (first book is DARK HORSE) – regular humans thrust into alien worlds, don’t develop any super powers, just use their smarts and will to live to succeed.

    Grace Draven’s ENTREAT ME, is a Beauty and the Beast retelling (so a different type of fantasy from the two series above) and I don’t see mentioned very often, but I loved it. The heroine is older, cranky, jaded, the very definition of a “managing female,” but her strength and practicality and ability to love a person, not their looks, saves the day in the end.

  11. 11
    Zoe says:

    Another YA that kind of fits the bill might be Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series, which has a mortal heroine fighting to succeed in a dangerous Faerie.

  12. 12
    cleo says:

    Charles de Lint! He’s a pioneer – he started writing UF before it was recognized as a genre and even now his books avoid a lot of cliches of the genre. He does not write genre romance but many of his books have low key romances with HFNs. The Jack of Kinrown books are good early examples – Jack the Giant Killer (female Jackie, definitely ordinary) and Drink Down the Moon.

    Also War for the Roses by Emma Bull, another early UF.

    Riveted by Meljean Brook in her Iron Seas steampunk romance series. It’s stand-alone and has an ordinary heroine who rises to the occasion but isn’t chosen and doesn’t develop special powers.

  13. 13
    emmiD says:

    For non-magic fantasy, look at C J Cherryh’s *The Paladin*.

    For fantasy romance, with a protagonist becoming more competent with her powers and having no latent talents, try *More than a Wizard* by little known indie writer M Lee Madder.

  14. 14
    TinaNoir says:

    MEMORY OF MORNING – By Susan Sizemore – It is a fantasy/alternate universe version of Regency England. The main character is a doctor (women can be doctors in this universe).

  15. 15
    EC Spurlock says:

    @Cleo it’s War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. (Great book!)

    Seconding Marillier’s Sevenwaters series; even though one or two of the heroines have magic, they are not “chosen” and have to choose to fight for their HEA.

    Also Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones. The heroine has no magic herself and just gets randomly caught up in magical shenanigans.

  16. 16
    Penny says:

    No books to add but – LOVE Sorcery & Cecilia. My sister and I have read this aloud to each other a few times (I read Kate, she reads Cecy), most recently through voice memo, since we live several states apart. Such a comfort read for me.

    Are cozy fantasy romances a thing? Can they be a thing? Someone make them A Thing plz, thx.

  17. 17
    ELIZABETH says:

    Chalice by Robin McKinley. I love the bee magic; the heroine is thrown into a situation where her powers suddenly appear, and she has no one to help her use them.

  18. 18
    Muse of Ire says:

    Gil in Barbara Hambly’s first Darwath series is a grad student who actually applies her research skills to the central problem (i.e., what are these scary apparitions and why are they killing us?). She also trains as a warrior, but is not, like, the bestest evar.

  19. 19
    JenM says:

    This is a UF series, not fantasy and romance is only a minor part of the plot, but I’d recommend the Guild Codex series by Annette Marie, starting with THREE MAGES AND A MARGARITA. The heroine is fully human. While looking for a new job as a bartender, she stumbles into the pub of a magical guild. As a full human, she’s not supposed to be allowed to work there but she stays anyway. She then gets drawn into various magical attacks, and she never gives up and is determined to help and protect her new friends even though she has no inherent power.

  20. 20
    Amy E. says:

    Aaaaahhhhhh!!! I LOVE Annette Marie’s books!!! <3

  21. 21
    Rachy says:

    YA fantasy with tinges of romance, but Tamora Pierce’s Protectors of the Small quartet fits? There is a bit of a chosen one thing towards the end, but Kel stays awesome and ordinary.

  22. 22
    Kate K.F. says:

    Not completely romance though its a part of the books but Lady Sybil in the Discworld Watch books. She loves dragons but has no magic other than being stubborn and Vimes isn’t magical either. I love the Discworld books and while there’s magic in the world, the majority of main characters don’t have it.

    Seconding Charles de Lint, I love his books so much. Oh and the Incryptid books by Seanan Mcguire, family of cryptid protectors and most of them are human, very well trained but if there are powers, its due to someone’s species. I love her fantasy.

    Old favorites, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean where the heroine is very human and wonderful. War of the Oaks, another classic of urban fantasy. This post has me wanting to do some rereading.

  23. 23
    Michael I says:

    @EC Spurlock

    I’m pretty sure that Sophie does have magical powers (and fairly powerful ones) in “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

  24. 24
    Sarah says:

    Lake Silence by Anne Bishop is a spin-off of The Others series. It’s sort of a cozy mystery/fantasy thriller hybrid set in a lakeside inn. Vickie is the new normal human innkeeper who learns the inn she’s received in a divorce settlement is actually meant to be an experiment in Human/Others cooperation.
    Not really a romance, but Vicki’s sense of humor and her growth. This is a comfort read for me, but there are some mentions of verbal abuse and gaslighting that occurred during her marriage So you mileage may vary.

  25. 25
    TamB. says:

    Shelley Laurenston – The Mane Event. The heroine Des’ is a cop and a total badass but she is human in a shifter world and stays that way.

    How to Flirt With a Naked Wearwolf (Molly Harper). Mo’s biggest want is to be boringly normal. (Not because of powers but because of her parents)

    What a Dragon Should Know – GA Aiken. The heroine Dagmar is plain, wears glasses and has no powers. But she is known as The Beast due to her intellect.

    Not Romances:
    Sci-Fi – The Terran Privateer. Our heroine is simply a starship captain. No powers.

    Sci-Fi – The Last Hour of Gann. The heroine is absolutely normal and stays that way. She only differs from others in that she realises she needs to learn to be able to take care of herself. (I think there is a review on this site.)

  26. 26
    Katie F says:

    K.M. Shea’s Timeless Fairy Tales series have a number of books that fit this rec league (and they are some of my favorites (book 3 and 10)). All in KU.

    Book 1 – Beauty & the Beast – Heroine’s special skill is being stealthy (no magic, just skill)
    Book 2 – Wild Swans – Heroine’s superpower is being good at math and economics. A magic lady does save part of the day. Not my fav
    Book 3 – Cinderella & the Colonel – Highly recommend this one, can read as a stand alone I think. Cinderella’s special skill is being a cash poor landowner.
    Book 4 – Rumpelstiltskin – Magic man falls in love with a girl who is good at sewing.
    Book 5 – The little Selkie, not my favorite heroine.
    Book 6 – Puss in Boots – Magic cat and normal girl defeat bad guys with guts and luck.
    Book 7 – Swan Lake – Normal girl turned into a swan and perseveres to overturn the curse.
    Book 8 – Sleeping Beauty
    Book 9 – The Frog Prince – normal girl defeats evil with cleaning supplies
    Book 10 – The 12 dancing princesses –
    My favorite of the series. A forest ranger heroine is steadfast enough to break a curse on the elf prince. Magic lady saves the day at the end.
    Book 11- Snow White – Normal girl and 7 nobles defeat evil (and shyness).

  27. 27
    EC Spurlock says:

    @Michael I, she may by the end; but she does not know that (I think they only work in the castle?) and in any event she is not a “chosen one” by any means.

  28. 28
    Zyva says:

    I think the ‘Rowan of Rin’ novels were like this, magical problems that had to be solved using nothing but logic. That’s male protagonist, though.
    Emily Rodda may have some others for all I know which better fit the remit.

    I would give a caveat on Laurenston, in that every non-fantastical major character I’ve ever read in her books comes across to me as gifted/asynchronous, usually profoundly. Maybe that’s not ordinary enough? This comes out very clearly in “Go Fetch”, where the human in question, with a highly weaponisable mind, opines that fellow kids with IQ over 140 need a like mind adults ‘on deck’ from age five, normies not until 16/the SATs.
    (Which btw, is a complete conflation of gifted education with holistic gifted development/child raising, very reductive, and also ignores the next-door-to-gifted ‘advanced’ group; both common but jarring errors. Still, she’s speaking the lingo.)

    Also, I think I usually find the neurodiversity/supernatural parallel underlying some/most fantasy messaging fruitful, (what bothers me with ‘chosen one’ status is it downgrades threats to the hero/ine’s life, but not limb, mind or loved ones) but I often find Laurenston grating. Clever, as far as plot structure, often also re comic timing and other authorial assets; but still *dismaying*, like, ‘oh gods, I completely disagree with what she’s saying in this bit, and she’s entertaining enough to get listened to, when scientifically it’s guff.’

    Like, as above, ‘gifted kids only need intellectual stimulation, not emotional support, no comorbidities can arise nor be situationally created or aggravated, and there are no between groups before the bulge of the normal curve.’
    Or, ‘it’s *not* emotional and physical abuse to raise kids in massive brawling broods, it’s some sort of (inconsistently clan-specific) shifter cultural difference you have to be tolerant of… but I’ll only reveal that late in the piece as a plot twist, and too bad if you hate the parents already, along with all (family-)cultural excuses for abuse, I’m redeeming them.’

  29. 29
    Vasha77 says:

    Ghost Bride (a thoroughly non-Eurocentric fantasy) is quite a good book but not particularly a romance. The heroine does end up with a husband who suits her, though.

    I can’t believe nobody has mentioned Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia series. The first two books have a strong romance element. Some of the women in it are magic users, most are not, and none of them are exceptional, just smart, tough, and determined to find a place in society for independence.

  30. 30
    cleo says:

    For a slightly different take on an ordinary heroine, I’d add another Barbara Hambly – Dragon’s Bane. An ordinary witch tangles with a dragon. It’s not a romance but she and her long time partner do end with an hea. The rest of the series was written later and gets much, much darker so I generally recommend people just read Dragon’s Bane – it’s stand-alone.

  31. 31
    Maeve says:

    Greta van Helsing in Vivian Shaw’s trilogy is a normal human woman and a doctor for all sorts of “monsters.” And she stays that way. All 3 books are delightful.

  32. 32
    lainey says:

    Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
    None of the three heroines start out with any magic and they’re all pretty ordinary (although one is a minor duke’s daughter). They just got stuff done through their wits, hard work, some luck and a bit of ruthlessness with killing husbands (in fairness, they kinda deserved it).

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