The QTL Best And Worst Romances Of Fantasy

We are not a site that is well versed in the subgenre of romantic fantasy. I am absolutely positive that there are hundreds of fantastic fantasy romance stories that we have never heard of. And yet, in our time reviewing the larger fantasy landscape, we have come across a number of beautifully heartful, and catastrophically awful, romances. So, if you are looking for a list of the definitive best paranormal romance stories to check off your list, I would recommend you look elsewhere. But, if you like our content and are looking for a wonderful romance story, or a hilariously bad take on relationships for Valentine’s Day – we have you covered.

Quill To Live’s Top Five Fantasy Romances

5) The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay Lions is one of the top Quill to Live books as a whole, but it has a unique and wonderful take on romance. While there is no singular romance plot to elevate and speak about, the entire story and characters are all motivated by their love of their partners and family. It’s a story about the multifaceted power of love for both good and bad. The characters in Lions are frankly phenomenal. I deeply love every single one and Kay shattered my heart at least five times over the course of the book. The story is just heart-achingly beautiful and feels like it speaks to good people trying to be good in situations where there are no good options. I found Lions asking me to think about smart questions I had never considered before, such as “what are the many forms love can take?” and found it to be a very thought-provoking and contemplative book. It helped me grow a little as a person, which is, in my opinion, the single greatest trait a book can have. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in are often hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read. Just… don’t grab it first if you are only looking for positive vibes this Valentine’s Day.

4) The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune – Here comes The House In The Cerulean Sea again, making its way onto yet another Quill To Live list. It’s well-deserved, though, thanks to T.J. Klune’s positively charming romance between two of the book’s main characters. Cerulean follows Linus Baker, a corporate drone/caseworker at the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. When he’s sent on an oddball assignment, Linus arrives at the eponymous house and meets a ragtag bunch of misunderstood magical youth and their quirky caretaker, Arthur Parnassus. The romance and love that radiates throughout Cerulean isn’t found just in the central romance. It’s also found in the love that Linus develops for the children he’s sent to (presumably) care for. If you want a believable and heartwarming romance, Cerulean has you covered. If you want to explore love in many different ways beyond the cookie-cutter romance, Cerulean delivers that, too. 

3) The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster BujoldChalion is a slow burn that you won’t be able to finish in a day, but is very much worth your time and worthy of a top pick in the romance category. The book tells of an estranged nobleman returning home to the place of his youth and becoming a tutor for a cursed household. Fortunately, the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasant to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. Much of this revolves around a growing romance between two of the leads. I enjoy how there is no love at first sight and you get to see the characters slowly build the relationship brick by brick. The prose in this novel is also gorgeous, which always gets me in the romance mood. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound, wonderful, or sometimes hilarious like this one:

“Men write poems to the objects of our desire in order to lure them closer.” 
“How practical. In that case, you’d think men would write more poems to ladies’ private parts.” 
“The ladies would hit us. Lips are a safe compromise, being as it were a stand-in or stepping-stone to the greater mysteries.” 

2) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – To me, The Night Circus is what I always wanted Romeo and Juliet to be. Romeo and Juliet is purported to be one of the best love stories of all time, but when you think about it, it’s actually about two horny teenagers who knew each other for three days and then killed themselves because of their horrific communication skills. The Night Circus, on the other hand, tells a good version of this epic romance. Two rival magicians from different schools battle it out over years in a traveling circus of wonders through an arcane contest and slowly fall in love. On top of the epic premise, the prose is downright gorgeous and the plot has enough twists and turns to tip the book towards a thriller without ever becoming a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s one of the most popular fantasies of the modern era for a very good reason, and if you haven’t read it you should.

1) Swordheart by T Kingfisher I only actually read Swordheart last year, but as you can see it made a very powerful impact on me. This book simply makes me happy. It’s a low key realistic relationship, in the form of a magical sword dating a housemaid. These characters are just so warm and nice and relatable that it is so easy to insert yourself into one of their shoes. Plus, as an added bonus the book is laugh-out-loud funny from the first line. While some of the romances on this list are aspirational ballads of the greatest love stories of all time, this is the one that felt spiritually closest to the story of how my wife and I fell in love, and I could read it a hundred times and never get bored.

Quill To Live’s Worst Five Fantasy Romances

5) Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – I greatly enjoy Senlin Ascends, but the set up for a portion of the story is “Senlin, a teacher who married his student, loses his wife in a crowd and spends multiple books looking and pining for her.” I always dislike the teacher and student couple trope; it always feels a bit predatory. Benching the wife, Marya, for a large portion of the story offscreen does not do a lot to make her a compelling motivation for Senlin’s journey. However, I will say that when we eventually do get to spend some time with Marya in the later books I dislike her, and the relationship, a lot less. But let’s be honest, we are all hoping Senlin ends up with Edith, the first mate of his skyship, at the end of the series.

4) Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff – Kristoff has always had some trouble with romance subplots, but his treatment of his protagonist, Mia, in book two of the Nevernight trilogy was a straight-up plot hole. I will avoid naming the other half of this relationship to keep you pure of spoilers, but essentially Mia falls in love with an antagonist of book one for no real perceivable reason other than plot convenience. The massive pile of bodies standing between these two people coming together only comes up a few times and then is swept under the rug. It feels like a badly done rewrite where Kristoff decided at the last minute to shake up the romantic landscape and just threw a freaking dart at a board when choosing the new pairing.

3) Night Angel by Brent Weeks – I feel like this one is pretty self-explanatory if you have read it. If you haven’t, don’t. We have now moved into the territory of romance crimes so grievous that they actually somewhat ruin the books. In this case, we have Gary Stu boy loves Mary Sue girl who is too pure for this cruel, cruel world. The story is about a boy who becomes the world’s greatest assassin to protect a childhood crush, and wants to murder half of the population of a continent because someone was once mean to her. There is also a much greater romance crime at the end of the series involving a metaphorical cursed BDSM sex collar, but I won’t go into much more detail in case you want to read this bad life choice. Week’s Lightbringer has slightly better romance subplots, in that they aren’t agonizing to read, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. 

2) Battle Ground by Jim ButcherBattle Ground was easily the worst book we read of 2020, and we will be coming out with a more in-depth review of its sins in the future. For now, let it be known that one of the reasons this book is so offensive is the treatment of a main female character/romance for plot convenience that has been built up over 15 books. She just yeets out a window in the most contrived possible way to the point where it absolutely murdered any forward momentum I had in the story. This is on top of the fact that Butcher’s treatment of women, both in romances and in general, has been highly questionable in multiple instances over the series’ many installments. The entire thing is starting to read like an incel’s badly directed erotic fantasy, and Battle Ground was miserable enough that I finally stepped off the Dresden train of misery. 

1) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – I don’t need to contextualize this one, I know you all have read this book, Denna and Kvothe absolutely suck. 99% of the problems in this story can be traced back to the fact that these two characters never have one functional conversation. It is a comedy of errors that isn’t even slightly funny. Neither of them are likable characters in the slightest when it comes to their treatment of the other. The Felurian scene in book two was like being violently punched in the face with poor writing choices while out for an otherwise enjoyable literary stroll. Neither Denna nor Kvothe has any qualities the other admires yet somehow they claim each is the ultimate catch. I enjoy the Kingkiller series, mostly for its undeniably beautiful prose, but each time I return to it, I need to shut off the parts of my mind that respond to romance and love so that it doesn’t murder the rest of my brain in an attempt to stop me from reading further.

Senlin Ascends – Climbing To The Top Of The Favorite List

17554595Ever since Mark Lawrence gave a vote of confidence for Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, you can’t swing a dead cat (which is a weird saying might I add) without hitting a positive review of it. As such I figured I ought to check it out, because while you probably don’t need yet another review about this increasingly popular book, I was curious to see if Senlin could live up to all the hype. The short answer is yes, this is a great book. For the long answer you will just have to read yet another review of this great book.

Senlin Ascends is a new take on the Tower of Babel, an endlessly tall tower from the Bible filled with incomprehensible wonders and mystery. There have been a number of Babel stories I have read over the years, from Stephen King’s iconic Dark Tower to the manga Get Backers, and it is a subject matter I never get tired of. The running thread through all the stories is that the Tower of Babel is an infinitely tall structure, with something of incalculable worth (usually the means to ascend to godhood or ultimate power) at the top. To get to the top one must navigate through the endless labyrinthian floors of the tower, each with their own unique identity and themes – each floor getting harder to pass through as you ascend. The great thing about The Tower of Babel is that while the stories share this same skeleton, there is an unlimited amount of white space that authors can work with when they design the floors of the tower, and the people who climb them. It means that while there are a lot of tower stories, almost none of them reuse the same tower and the stories always feel fresh and fun. In this particular story, we follow Thomas Senlin, a dour school teacher who has recently married. Senlin and his new wife Marya have wanted to see the wonders of the tower their entire life, and saved up enough money to travel to it and explore the first few floors. Upon arriving at the tower, the two are immediately separated and Senlin soon realizes he must climb the tower to save Marya who has disappeared into the tower’s depths.

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Senlin Ascends hits everything I want in a good Tower of Babel story. First off, Josiah’s tower is impressive. He has managed to intertwine the feeling that the tower is a selfish machine that crushes the lives of those who enter with the wonder and mystery that pervade the entire structure. Each floor has its own unique feel and theme, exhibiting crazy ideas and concepts that run from awe inducing to horrifying, and each present unique obstacles for our protagonist to overcome. Senlin is a different and enjoyable lead from most fantasy. He is a quiet, dour, and naive school teacher who stands out in the tower like a signal flare. His personality means that his trip up is not easy, as he is constantly betrayed, swindled, and stabbed in the back as he moves from floor to floor. He has a pervasive feeling of helplessness that makes him seem a lot weaker and unimpressive that most protagonists of a story like this, but it resulted in me adoring him as I got to watch him grow and evolve through his trial in the tower. One of the central themes to the book is the battle of Senlin’s faith in humanity and the tower’s power to turn every person who enters into a selfish bastard. It means that most of the conflict in the book becomes emotional, and large parts of the story revolve around Senlin figuring out whom he can trust, and whom he can make a better person. It adds a lot of tension to conversations and relationships and keeps you on the edge of your seat as you wonder if Senlin has made a mistake trusting someone, or if he has finally found a friend amidst the bandits that fill the tower to overflowing.

Senlin is a great character, and I would read about him in almost any context. However, while I certainly don’t dislike Marya, I found her a noticeably weaker character than Senlin. I found myself willing her passages to end faster so I could get back to Senlin, which is not a fun feeling. Josiah did a good job putting life into his damsel in distress, but I am not enamored by the idea of Senlin being so driven by his wife of all of a few days. The story quickly grows bigger than simply Senlin trying to find his wife (which is awesome and I can’t wait to find out what is happening in the tower), but I would occasionally find Senlin’s motivations uncompelling.

Senlin Ascends is a fresh new take on The Tower of Babel, and is just as mesmerizing, exciting, and fun as all the reviewers say it is. Based on the quality of this first installment, I’m excited to see where Bancroft can take this concept. What starts as a simple rescue, quickly becomes one of the most captivating mysteries I have ever read and a beautiful journey of self discovery. I highly recommend you check out this new entrant into the fantasy scene, and I don’t see the buzz surrounding it dying down anytime soon.

Rating: Senlin Ascends – 9.0/10