Smart, Sexy, and Queer: A Beginner’s Guide to 4 Awesome LGBTQ+ Romance Novels
I'll be in my bunk.
Modern romance novels can be such a delight: feminist and subversive, self-aware enough to revel in over-the-top tropes while gleefully dismantling them. Though your average supermarket spinner of paperbacks may remain heteronormative, there’s plenty of queer romance being written and published, often by digital-only presses—in fact, the selection can be overwhelming to a newbie like me, used to getting her queer smoochin’ from AO3. So I asked better-read romance fans and writers for recommendations; here are four titles I tried and liked, and four publishers to browse for more.
The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin, Colette Moody (Bold Strokes Books, 2009)
Three words: lesbian pirate romance. I know, who could resist? Gayle Malvern took to sea as a girl and never looked back; as the daughter of notorious pirate captain “Madman” Malvern, she’s grown up fierce and free, stealing and wenching her way through the Caribbean with gusto. Seamstress Celia Pierce knows she wants to see more of the world than East Florida, knows her fiancé is boring and humorless, but isn’t sure how to change her life. Abduction by pirates is not what she would have chosen, but when Gayle’s father is gravely injured, she sends crew members to snatch a surgeon from the mainland, and they find Celia instead. Whisked away to sea, Celia’s fear is soon quashed by her sense of adventure–and her burgeoning curiosity about the redheaded acting captain.
“Kidnapped by pirates” is a hoary romance trope, and it can certainly be a problematic one. But while Gayle has power over Celia, their common status as women on a ship full of men is a greater source of tension, one Moody acknowledges without indulging. Perhaps it’s historically inaccurate that the crew of the Original Sin never rapes anyone—but so what? Historical accuracy can be such a downer when there’s buried treasure to be sought.
Fever Pitch, Heidi Cullinan (Samhain Publishing, 2014)
Nominated for a RITA Award for best contemporary novel (the first time a gay romance made the shortlist), Fever Pitch blends coming of age with falling in love, as two college freshmen navigate the terrifying new territory of adult decisions. On his eighteenth birthday, a month after high school graduation, Aaron Seavers still hasn’t picked a college or a major; dragged to a party, he’s getting smashed alone in a laundry room when Giles Mulder shows up. Giles is hiding from the latest “straight” boy who blew him and now wants to beat him up, the depressing pattern of his high school sex life. After a mind-blowing, strangely intimate hookup, Giles hopes briefly that Aaron will be different; but Aaron’s drunk and overwhelmed, sure of his sexuality for the first time but frightened by the intensity of it, and Giles takes his dazed departure as rejection. Desperate to reconnect, Aaron enrolls at Saint Timothy, the liberal arts school Giles is headed for.
Cullinan’s writing is gorgeous, and both Aaron and Giles are achingly real in their confusion and
vulnerability—although I spent as much time wanting to shake them as to hug them, because OMG just talk to each other, dudes. It’s a novel about love, yes, but it’s also about identity, about learning who you want to be, and how a relationship fits into that. How another person can help you discover yourself. (Whoa, it got really dusty in here all of a sudden.)
Rulebreaker, Cathy Pegau (Carina Press, 2013)
One of my favorite things about the romance genre is its range. Love stories happen everywhere, to all kinds of people, so romance authors aren’t tied to any particular place or time, and genre mashups abound—Rulebreaker, for instance, is as much a sci-fi thriller as a romance. Narrator Olivia Braxton’s grifter mother, Sabine, taught her by example that Felon Rule Number 1 is “don’t get emotionally involved.” Liv took the warning to heart and grew up prickly and tough, supplementing her income as a corporate drone with the occasional bank robbery. When her ex-husband offers her a role in an extortion scheme with a spectacular payoff, Liv takes the gig. All she has to do is get close to lesbian executive Zia Talbot, steal some files from her computer, and retire rich.
Of course it doesn’t turn out that way. Zia is smart and gorgeous and commanding, and Liv finds herself madly in love with her mark, ready to violate the rules that have kept her alive. While Pegau’s futuristic setting never quite coalesced for me, I liked both of her heroines, and the mother/daughter relationship between Liv and Sabine is nice too, playing up the central question of whether emotional entanglement is a weakness or a strength.
(Worth noting: Carina Press is a digital-first imprint of romance titan Harlequin; LGBTQ romance may still be a small slice of the market, but even the giants are willing to pay attention.)
Bad Idea, Damon Suede (Dreamspinner Press, 2013)
As much as I liked Fever Pitch, I also wanted to read a gay romance written by an actual gay man (and one where the protagonists aren’t half my age). Bad Idea’s Trip and Silas, a comic book penciller and an F/X makeup artist, meet at a zombie apocalypse run in Central Park and are instantly attracted. Poor Trip is in a creative and romantic rut, stuck drawing a comic he hates because of his humiliating crush on his boss, a master of being just flirtatious enough to keep hope alive; in his off hours, he works on an erotic graphic novel about an incubus named Scratch (whose character design owes much to Silas’s beefy blondness). Silas, meanwhile, has a legion of casual exes but a yearning for a different kind of relationship; he jumps at the chance to serve as Trip’s muse for Scratch, urging him to strike out on his own and publish.
I loved this book, and I loved Trip and Silas (I’m a writer married to an artist, so two nerdy creatives in love really speaks to me). Suede has an ear for dialogue, whether it’s banter or dirty talk—and speaking of which, the sex scenes in this book pull from an earthier, more flesh-and-
fluid-laden lexicon than most of the woman-penned m/m I’ve read. I learned a lot of new synonyms for “boner”! I’ll admit to giggling at ejaculation sound effects, but hey, sex is an undignified and messy process, and I appreciate when fiction preserves that.
Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface: these four titles are meant as an overview of the good stuff happening in queer romance. I had trouble finding examples of transgender/non-binary or asexual romance, though, so it’s an incomplete list; if you’ve got suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Anna Andersen is a lapsed bookseller and freelance writer whose work has appeared on The Toast and The Archipelago (and AO3). She lives in Kansas with her husband in an apartment full of cats and books, and her summer haircut was inspired by Imperator Furiosa.
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