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.

Best Books For Fantasy Newcomers

So you are sitting at home, reading a great fantasy book, and you think to yourself, “man, I wish I could pull every friend, family member, and random child on the street into this amazing hobby… but what are the best books to get someone into the genre?” Look no further random person I am asking extremely specific rhetorical questions to. Below is a list – well, actually three lists – that provide perfect material for converting almost any kind of person (or at least three kinds) into a fantasy reader. This method has a 100% success rate with the three people I tried it on, so have absolutely no doubt it will always work for you. No need to thank me, your enormous donations to the site via using our Bookshop page to purchase books is thanks enough – and it helps support authors and bookstores!

But actually, the following lists are all great examples of extremely accessible books for different ages, life stages, and mentalities. Hopefully, someone will find these helpful in bringing people they care about into the loving and wonderful fantasy family. Books with hyperlinks in their titles lead to their reviews!

Books to Get Teens and Young Adults Into Fantasy at an Early Age (Or BtGTaYAIFaaEA for short): If you want to give someone the lifelong gift of fantasy books, the best way to do that is get to them at a young age when their mind is malleable. Below are a number of books that are good for all ages, but are particularly good at capturing a spark of passion in younger readers. These books are easy to read and digest, showcase some of the best classic ideas in the fantasy genre, and are just fun and imaginative – perfect to show new readers some of the best of what the genre has to offer.

Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn has an easy-to-grasp but incredibly layered story, a defined roster of magic and monsters, and fantastic character development. The Mistborn trilogy serves as an excellent fantasy starting point because it’s a taste of what top-notch storytelling and a melting pot of captivating ideas can do. New fantasy readers will likely find Mistborn a great gateway to the genre because it mixes all of these elements with relatable themes and simple, elegant prose. If you’re looking for your first fantasy book, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Brandon Sanderson.  

Added bonus–here’s our chat about Mistborn, in which a first-time Sanderson reader takes the plunge.

Spellslinger – Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger has a relatable protagonist, a fun companion animal, witty dialogue, ambiance and style based on card sharks, and a wild west setting. The main character is a perfect self-insert for newer readers and the supporting cast is filled with teachers and mentors that teen (and older) readers tend to love. It’s got a plot with tons of twists that are hard to see coming, but the themes are very accessible and easy to digest without being hamfisted. This six-book series by Sebastian de Castell is an amazing entry point for anyone.

The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, is one of the cornerstones of classic fantasy and practically defined the chosen one trope in modern fantasy. Reading it gives you an enormous appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the story is beloved by thousands of fantasy fans for good reason. But, what makes it great for newer readers is its huge page count and epic storyline. Many newer readers prefer to stick to a single series or story as they get their baring in a genre and The Wheel of Time with its fourteen books has content to spare. In addition, its genuinely epic scope and story will be mindblowing to readers who want their books to be bigger and grander.

Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands is a solid entry point for fantasy initiates thanks to its incredible world and relatable characters. It has a sweeping narrative that highlights how fun (and dangerous) a journey into the unknown can be. Plus, protagonist Amani’s self-discovery arc carries with it a lot of power, the type literary fiction readers might be used to. But the primary reason I recommend this to fantasy newcomers is the exquisite melding of different genre elements. There’s sharpshooting, djinni, and a desert world all packaged in a story of self-realization and immense growth. 

Every Heart A Doorway – Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway opens the Wayward Children series. The saga tells stories of children who have returned from magical, fantastical, and brutal worlds and must cope with coming back to our reality. New fantasy initiates will enjoy McGuires deft handling of heavy themes mixed with the whimsical worlds the titular children visit. Wayward Children  as a whole skews toward an older demographic (swearing, thematic elements), resting on the thin line between teen and adult fantasy. Every Heart A Doorway fuses our world with infinite fantasy locales, giving you a deep-dive into the possibilities of the genre. It’s an excellent starting point for newcomers with its short page-length and hard-hitting explorations of the real-world impact of portals to strange lands.

Books to Help Readers Transition From YA Fantasy to Adult Fantasy: One of the most powerful moments of my reading experience was when I picked up my first true adult fantasy book. It was The Black Company, which I have spoken a ton about already, and it showed me that fantasy could be so much more than mindless escapism. This book opened the door to heavier concepts, tons of new ideas, and a whole ocean of content that helped me grow and evolve as a person in my early 20s. If you, or someone you know, are looking to move from Harry Potter to something with a little more depth – these are the books for you.

The Black Company – Glen Cook

Hey look, it’s the series I just mentioned in the introduction. I have a lot of things to say about The Black Company, by Glen Cook, much of which you can find here in one of our most popular posts. But, if I had to boil it all down to a single line it’s this: while much of fantasy helps you flee the troubles of reality via escapism – The Black Company instead uses escapism to force you to look closely at the horrors of reality, namely war. This series is a window into what it was like to be a part of a war and it is haunting. It is a powerful piece that will place you in the shoes of a number of people very different to yourself and help you understand what they went through. For me, reading TBC was an inspirational moment that taught me the power of empathy and stories and how fantasy can help us better understand our fellow man and the real world.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

According to posters in my elementary school library, reading is FUNdamental. And no book is as fun or fundamentally funny as The Lies Of Locke Lamora. First, just say that title out loud. Fun, right? You’re gonna feel that way on every single page of Scott Lynch’s humorous fantastical heist. The prose is poetic and breezy. The jokes are constant. The plot resembles an M.C. Escher painting in the best possible way. The setting (essentially fantasy Venice) is breathtaking. And the characters are the chef’s kiss of it all. I’ve never had more fun reading a book than I did with The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a daring novel that showcases just how entertaining fantasy can be, but its large size and layered plot do a lot to ease new readers into bigger novels.

The Waking Fire – Anthony Ryan

Have your cake and eat it too. The Waking Fire is one third kick ass protagonists from different walks of life, one third giant dangerous dragons, and one third about how capitalism is a nightmare. This book is the shore between a sea of fun and a hard rocky beach of poignant criticisms of how our world works. One of the best parts about The Waking Fire is that you get out what you put in. If you just want a fun adventure story about people finding lost treasure – it can do that. If you want to explore heavy themes about how our reliance on substances that are destroying the Earth will eventually kill us all – it can do that as well. It’s the pitch hitter of transition adult fantasy.

The Deep – Rivers Solomon

The Deep, by its nature as a novella, is short, sweet and packed to brim with personality and world. Rivers Solomon does a lot of work in this book, introducing you to a world so vastly different than our own, but born of our crimes. Solomon fully immerses the reader in something special, positing a world built by the descendants of women thrown overboard in the slave trade. There is pain, and empathy abound in the story, but glimmers of hope sparkle like impossible rays of light on the dark ocean floor. 

Books to Convince Serious Readers of Other Genres to Give Fantasy a Chance: The fantasy genre is the king of escapism, but it has so much more to offer. Unfortunately, in my years on this planet, I have run into any number of people who dismiss fantasy as elves, magic, and fluffy light adventures. Often the best way to convince people to give fantasy a chance is to ease them in with books that are closer to fiction with fantasy undertones. The following is a list of great bridge books to get people to slide into the fantasy genre sideways.

Tigana – Guy Gavriel Kay

“There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an absolute powerhouse of a book. With absolutely outstanding prose, it sits somewhere between fantasy, historical fiction, and traditional fiction. It’s the story of small people in a big world trying to accomplish great things and find meaning in their lives. It is a hauntingly beautiful story about the human condition, and if you hand it to someone and they come back and say “sorry, I am just not into fantasy” I refuse to believe they even tried to read it. This book can make even the most stonehearted unbeliever cry.

Three Parts Dead – Max Gladstone

If there is one thing that serious adults understand it is the soulless crushing weight of a job sucking the joy out of life – so why not explore a slightly more fun fantasy version with corporate necromancy! Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, is a book that serves up adult workplace escapism. It is a part of a series of stories about a modern world much like our own where magic and gods run rampant. It combines the troubles of your current life with an undercurrent of magic and provides a welcome relief in the form of incredible stories of triumph in a world much like our own. It’s also one of the weirder and more unique fantasy reads I regularly recommend and it does a great job showcasing how authors are constantly stretching the boundaries of what the fantasy genre is. I originally came across Three Parts Dead in a book club and every single person loved it – and I am sure you and the readers you give it to will as well.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

I almost feel like I shouldn’t have to qualify this one due to its popularity, but here I go. It’s a love story between two dueling stage magicians who are using actual magic to one up each other as they try to win a competition for their lives. You have to have a cold, dead, unfeeling heart to not like this one. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a monument to the aesthetic power of incredible prose, fulfilling and relatable characters, and wonderful stories. The magic is quiet, subtle, and easy to ignore if the person reading isn’t into spells and magic system. But, the book also is a love letter to the mystery and beauty that magic can birth, making it a great salesman for the genre as a whole.

The House In The Cerulean Sea – T.J. Klune

T.J. Klune’s The House In The Cerulean Sea is one of the best books of 2020. Klune’s charming story features Linus Baker, a by-the-books case worker for the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth. He gets sent on a unique assignment to a house where some extraordinary children are under the care of a mysterious man named Arthur Parnassus. Linus’ learns a lot about himself even as he investigates the conditions at Parnassus’ unconventional homestead. Cerulean Sea is heartwarming, charming, and a fantastic fit for readers who haven’t taken the fantasy plunge. There’s a reason we gave it a perfect 10. Cerulean Sea has a bevy of literary fiction elements blended nicely with a healthy dose of the whimsical. I’ve shared this book even with vehement lit-fic purists, and each one loved it. 

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best known novel The Shadow of the Wind is, in a word, magical. It follows Daniel, a young man who discovers a book by an elusive author named Julian Carax, and makes it his goal to find his other works, and if he’s lucky, Carax himself. It’s honestly hard to describe what makes this book great without sitting you down in a big mansion library with the fire as the only light and reading it to you. Though it’s translated from Spanish, it reads like a painting. There are so many moments that still run chills up my spine. If you’re worried about it being about a kid on the verge of adulthood, don’t. Zafón perfectly bridges the gap between the world weary reality of being an adult with the magical discovery of being a child, igniting a joy I rarely feel when reading such stories. It’s not all lighthearted as the story takes place in post Civil War Spain, and as more of Carax’s life is revealed, the relationship between sadness, trauma and art is explored and Zafon has no easy answers. Ultimately, Shadow of the Wind is about rediscovering the magic of childhood and the ways in which growing up can hamper the creative soul within everyone. 

The Night Circus – Precision And Beauty Like A Well Made Clock

518f-dysfql-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a popular book that has sat on my to-do shelf for some time. I have a number of friends who have read it, and I found myself discouraged by their seemingly polarized reactions. Many thought it was one of the best books they have ever read, while a different number thought it was a pile of garbage that was insanely overrated. I decided to take the plunge this week and found that I can see where both opinions come from. However, I definitely fall into the first category of reactions.

The Night Circus has a slightly deceptive back cover. The blurb on the back claims that the book is about two dueling magicians using a wonderful circus as a venue. This is true in broad terms, but I feel that some who read this short description will come in with expectations that might not be met. The book tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians who are bound to fight to the death in a magical showdown within the walls of the night circus. But, the competition is less of a wild west standoff and more of a rap battle/baking competition. Each of the two magicians alternates adding wonders to the circus that are judged by their various patrons. This continues until one of the two magicians fails to produce something wonderful or breaks. So, if you were interested in this book because you were looking for a fast-paced magical duel, you are going to be sorely disappointed (which is how many of the people who didn’t like this book seem to feel).

On the other hand, if you are looking for your imagination to explode with wonder and delight and to experience the world in a new way that leaves you reeling, well then you might be in the right place. The goal of this competition between Marco and Celia is for them to blend showmanship and actual magic into a mix that both blows the mind of the circus patrons and doesn’t feel so completely impossible that the patrons suspect there is something else in play other than sleight of hand. Morgenstern walks this line fabulously, crafting tent after tent that feel like something you might experience at an actual circus – but that fill you with awe every time you enter them. Morgenstern’s ability to walk this line, and the superb writing quality, makes The Night Circus feel like a deeply immersive book that pulls you in and never lets go from start to finish. The circus is just so damn cool. I found myself rereading descriptions to take in every single detail as fully as I could. For example, the massive clock at the front of the circus (and visible on the cover) was a thing of profound beauty, and I read the description of it at least five times. The plot also has a number of tricks up its sleeves that surprise and delight – never remaining predictable – while also telling a wonderful love story.

Spoilers (unless you read the back cover), Celia and Marco slowly fall in love. I am not a huge romantic, but I couldn’t help but enjoy watching these two slowly (and unsurprisingly) fall for each other over the course of the competition – further complicating the game. All the characters in the story are wonderful, but Celia and Marco are particularly hard to dislike. Their warm personalities, difficult lives, and perseverance in the face of adversity had me both identifying with them and looking up to them as role models at the same time. The progression of their romance felt both real and adorable – but my one complaint for the book as a whole was how Morgenstern handled the dialogue between Marco and Celia towards the end of the book. There are just some recurring lines that felt a little cringy near the end (as their love suddenly felt weirdly intense). This feeling on my end definitely came from the fact that the passage of time in the book is a bit abrupt. The book skips around in its time line, and will often jump multiple years forward at any moment. Most of the time this didn’t cause any issues for me, but it does make the development of the protagonists’ feelings feel a little abrupt. While only a few pages pass for you, several years pass for the characters. This leads to a little bit of a mismatch in perceived timing, but it was only a small thing in an otherwise perfect book.

The Night Circus captured my imagination and made me feel like I was inside the book. The book has left a deep and lasting impression with me, and I keep finding myself drawn back to the circus like many of its patrons in the story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and go through the gates of The Night Circus.

Rating: The Night Circus – 9.5/10
-Andrew