Romance novels are, by definition, about relationships. After all, without two people finding love and happiness, where is the romance? But in the best of the genre, those love stories are set against a bright, bold world filled with character and conflict. These three romance novelists build complex worlds that ensure love is hard won — and incredibly gratifying.
It’s possible that no one sets the scene for romance better than Beverly Jenkins, in part because her love stories evolve in a time and place that often feels bleak and without hope: She writes African American romance stories of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Her latest, Forbidden (Avon; paperback, $7.99), begins with Union soldier Rhine Fontaine standing in the ashes of the Georgia plantation house where he was born a slave, son to a brutal master. Light-skinned, Rhine is able to pass as white, and he does so, building an empire in the Nevada desert and working to help the African American community from his position of power. However, when he meets Eddy Carmichael, a black woman who was born free, everything he believes is thrown into chaos. There is much to love about this book. The history is rich and thorough, and the cast of secondary characters are wonderfully — sometimes brutally — honest. Jenkins does not shy away from the challenges that Eddy and Rhine and all black Americans face in the 1870s, and the truth of their journey makes this romance even more powerful when Rhine must reveal the truth to be worthy of Eddy’s love. This is historical romance at its very best.
In her steampunk romance, Clockwork Heart (Samhain; paperback, $15.99), Heidi Cullinan deftly builds an alternate history, where Napoleon did not lose his wars to Britain and Russia. The French and Austrian empires are locked in battle, sending a stream of soldiers to war. Cornelius Stevens is the bastard son of the leader of the French military, and a pacifist, as well as a “tinker-surgeon,” specializing in mechanical body parts that give wounded soldiers a second chance at life. When Cornelius discovers Austrian soldier Johann at near death, he decides to work his magic on the other man by installing a clockwork heart. That heart is believed to be the greatest weapon of the time — the secret to a constantly replenishing army. Cornelius and Johann are soon on the run, chased through this fascinating steel-and-chrome Europe-at-war, hiding with pirates and aristocratic spies with electric parasols and “airships.” The world-building here is remarkable, somehow fantastic and logical all at once — a testament to Cullinan’s skill — and the secondary cast is wildly entertaining, too. Cornelius and Johann’s story is not for the timid romance reader; it edges into graphic erotica at times with scenes involving exhibitionism and multiple partners. But this is a beautiful romance, from the moment Cornelius pulls Johann’s mangled, barely breathing body from a pile of corpses and thinks, “Life. I have found you.” This is another romance that will prove to readers that love will conquer, no matter the circumstance.
In her latest, Duke of My Heart (Forever; paperback, $5.99), Kelly Bowen offers up a vibrant, clever heroine in Ivory Moore, proprietor of Chegarre & Associates. She’s a Regency-era fixer — think Olivia Pope in a corset. Ivory is brought into one of London’s most glamorous homes to hide the body of a popular (and married) earl, only to discover that the woman who had been in flagrante with the deceased was not his countess. She was the younger sister of Captain Maximus Harcourt, and she is now missing, either run in terror or kidnapped. Max is a man with deep regrets and firm convictions that men do dangerous work and women, well, don’t. When Ivory takes control of the search for his sister, heading into peril without hesitation, Max is knocked for a well-deserved loop. While the romance here is deeply satisfying (it’s particularly fun to find Max regularly gobsmacked), Bowen excels in writing secondary characters and scenes; Ivory employs a team of misfits, each talented and fascinating. What’s more, the nooks and crannies of this book are delightful, much like those in our real world, perfect to be discovered alongside true love.
Sarah MacLean reviews romance monthly for The Washington Post and is the author, most recently, of “The Rogue Not Taken.”