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.

The Lions Of Al-Rassan – The Meaning Of Loyalty

51LJr0L05CL._SX330_BO1204203200_It will come as no surprise that I loved today’s book, The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. We at Quill consider Kay to be one of the best authors currently in the fantasy and science-fiction scene, and when we read one of his books it is less a question of “is it good”, and more a question of “how good is it?” To immediately answer that question, the answer is: really, really, good. The Lions of Al-Rassan is a masterpiece that everyone should read and just barely loses out to Sailing to Sarantium as my favorite Kay book of all time.

Lions is ostensibly a historical fiction based on the civil wars, and eventual unification, of Spain. I think. I am not a historian, so my knowledge of this time period and the metaphors that Kay uses are not the best. Regardless, the book tells the story of a country divided by kings (lions). Kings are everywhere, popping up one after another, and each claims to be the true heir and inheritor to the land around them. On top of this, there is a panoply of warring religions in the region that are all vying for dominance in the form of religious genocide. As you might guess, these conditions make for extremely turbulent, dangerous, and fluid times where power structures and the hierarchies of nations are changing constantly. In the midst of all of this, our story follows four “advisors” to various kings and gives a poetic dissertation on loyalty and the difficulties of being a good person, and doing the right thing, in nebulous times.

Our leads are Jehane, Ammar, Rodrigo, and Alivar – four brilliant and talented individuals that shine brighter than stars on a moonless night. If I were to pick a true “protagonist” it would have to be Jehane. She is a doctor, and one of the best in all the land. Through her work as a neutral healer, she finds herself welcome in almost every court and land and is constantly in demand from the multitude of kings in contention. Next, we have Ammar – warrior, poet, and tactician. Ammar is possibly the greatest mind of an age and second to the most powerful king (currently) in Al-Rassan. However, he has had to do many terrible things for his lieges and is finding it harder to be true to himself. Then we have Rodrigo, Ammar’s counterpart in a rival faction. Rodrigo is a charismatic leader, beloved by his men, and possibly the single best fighter in the entire country. He and his band of 150 horsemen of Jad struggle with being true to their kingdom, and its zealous religious faith, while internally struggling with some of the doctrines and beliefs of their land. Finally, we have Alivar – one of Rodrigo’s aforementioned 150 horsemen – who is young, naive, and trying to make his way in the world. Through Alivar’s eyes we witness a young man who has a talent for war, but a mind that desires peace.

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 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 do we owe our children?”, 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. It also did this while showing me a positively fabulous time. On top of the characters being genuine joys to be around, the book is funny and fun when it is not being sad. The dialogue is witty, and the situations characters find themselves in can be hilarious and heartwarming. To top it all off, the book is a standalone and ends with an incredible climax that feels both thematically satisfying and gripping to read.

There is absolutely nothing imperfect about The Lions of Al-Rassan. The pages of this thoughtful story are poetry for the heart and this book would easily place in my top 100 of all time. The characters are eternally memorable, the prose is top-in-class, and the story is engrossing from beginning to end. The Lions of Al-Rassan is a masterpiece of fiction and a book that should be on every person’s must-read list.

Rating: The Lions of Al-Rassan – 10/10
-Andrew