It surprises some of my readers that I don’t place my historical novels in the category of historical romance. I list them as “historical fiction,” qualified as 16th century and Russia for the sake of the computers. Depending on the novel, I also specify “coming of age” or “family life,” even “Ivan the Terrible” or “Tatars.” But generally I don’t specify “romance.” This post explores why.
For starters, let me say that I sympathize with the readers who wonder. After all, I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t include a romance, and the Legends novels are almost universally based around that hoariest of romance plots: the marriage of convenience. If they’re to include male-female relationships of any sort, they could hardly do otherwise, given the time and place and social class of my characters. As I’ve explained elsewhere, in elite sixteenth-century Russian society, every marriage was arranged for the political convenience of the great clans, and women of marriageable age generally lived in seclusion—meaning that they seldom encountered men outside their own families. That was a deliberate choice by those in power, designed to prevent unscripted attachments. And although my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, does explore the edges of that system and will include three books that don’t revolve around arranged marriages and a fourth with a bride who escapes her father’s plans for her, they too include the possibility of romance.
Moreover, my books generally have happy, often romantically happy endings. I believe that love is a reward for having done the hard work of growing up in some way, so I allow heroes and heroines who put in the time and effort to find each other. In general, as a reader I can tolerate unhappy endings as long as they’re uplifting, but I much prefer the other kind, so that’s what I write. Not every couple ends one of my novels in love: Nasan and Daniil have spent about 48 hours in the same house at the end of The Golden Lynx, for example, so if they’re to remain realistic, they can only agree to stop hating each other. But I’m sure it’s no surprise that their relationship grows over the course of the series into something a good deal stronger than guarded neutrality.
So in what sense are my books not historical romances? Well, in truth they are: the old-fashioned historical romances that I grew up with, exemplified by the novels of Georgette Heyer and Anya Seton, ably carried forward by Philippa Gregory, to whose bestselling stories one reviewer compared my Vermilion Bird—thank you!—and many others. Which means that the real question becomes, “So why don’t I list them that way?” And although I would note that my books are not only romances, the true answer to that question is simple. It has to do with readers’ expectations.
In short, as a genre historical romance has changed since I discovered Heyer’s These Old Shades as a teenager and tumbled into life-long fandom. It still plays host to Philippa Gregory and others like her, but it also includes a large number of authors and titles that put a lot of emphasis on the romance in preference to the history, resulting in female characters who behave in ways that no young woman who wanted to be considered proper would have done before the introduction of reliable birth control in the 1960s and male characters blessedly but anachronistically free of that psychological condition known as “mother/whore syndrome.”
I have nothing against such novels, although they make me laugh and roll my eyes, but I don’t write them. As a historian, I can’t write them and still hold my head up in public. I kind of wish I could, as I would probably sell many more books, but I can’t. I am, after all, the person who obsessed over having misidentified one historical figure’s place of incarceration, an error that only I and a dozen other people on the planet would even recognize, until I produced a second edition that resolved the discrepancy. Crafting a heroine who defies the rules of her time and place is one thing; the idea of creating someone oblivious to those rules would curdle my blood—my problem, I know, but so it is.
All of which makes me suspect that the large reading public devoted to that newer type of historical romance would be disappointed to discover my buttoned-down approach to the same subject. If I ever land a major publishing-house contract and become a household name, I’ll assume that readers who enjoy my traditional take on the past will not only find me but appreciate learning about the romantic elements in advance. As a relative unknown, though, I have hesitated to take that path. The last thing I want is to disappoint prospective readers. And that’s why I list my novels as “historical fiction” but not as “historical romance.”
Image: Konstantin Makovsky, A Boyar Wedding (1883), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.