I started as a fantasy/SF reader, although fantasy was always closer to my heart. And I think that’s because fantasy often had more romance in it than typical SF. Once I started reading romance as a genre, I realized that I had for years gravitated towards those fantasy/SF books with a strong feeling of romance.
Romantic fantasy—books marketed or billed as fantasy with a strong romantic element, often with an HEA or HFN ending—is an interesting subgenre. In many cases the romance is subtle or takes up a proportionally small part of the book. But when you find great romantic fantasies, they’re absolute joys for the romance reader. Here are some I’ve liked over the years.
Sharon Shinn is probably the most romantic of the romantic fantasy authors. In almost all of her books, there’s an HEA, though sometimes it’s bittersweet. But if you love romance, you really need to give her a chance.
Twelve Houses series
Elemental Blessings series
If Robin McKinley had written nothing other than Beauty, her definitive interpretation of the Beauty and the Beast tale (and one I firmly believe the Disney writers read before they created their adaptation), she’d still belong on this list. But add to it her other fantastic books and short stories, and you have a seminal romance fantasy author.
The Door in the Hedge
The Blue Sword
Anne Bishop is one of the most popular SF and fantasy authors out there. While she came to fame with her Daughter of the Blood series, that’s harder for me to recommend to the romance reader. But her Ephemera series, about a world where locations literally shift and collide with one another, is fascinating. And her crowning achievement to date is her Others books. They take a simple premise—that humans, in all their kindness, venality, cruelty, and thoughtfulness, aren’t the top of the food chain—and run with it.
The Others series
Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer wrote a fantasy romance story way back in 1988 around a theme now common in romance: a magical Regency era. What makes Sorcery and Cecilia stand out is that it’s epistolary. The whole series is wonderful.
Cecilia and Kate series
A more recently published author, Mary Robinette Kowal, wrote equally wonderful books in a magical Regency England. Shades of Milk and Honey is just a treat.
Glamourist Histories series
Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books are problematic for many today for dubcon elements. But I think they’re foundational romantic fantasy and have to be viewed through the prism of their time. The agency and leadership roles that women play in this saga were inspirational to many young women of a generation ago.
Pern series (particularly the earlier trilogies)
Patricia A. McKillip is elliptical, elegiac, mystical—and every book of hers is different. Really. You need to give yourself over to her worlds. She always has a romance in her works, sometimes quite overt, sometimes quite subtle. My recommendations here are just a sampling of a great writer.
Harrowing the Dragon
Naomi Novik is a recent shining star of fantasy. She made her name with the Temeraire books set in the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons. Lately, she’s been writing her takes on fairy stories, and they’re fantastic. Spinning Silver is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Freda Warrington is best known for her vampire fantasies, but I loved Elfland, a lovely fantasy of a parallel dimension of elves and the risks they bring to people.
Everyone adores Ilona Andrews for their Kate Daniels series, but true admission—I haven’t been able to complete the first book. But I devoured their Edge series—and mourned when they announced there wouldn’t be more.
Innkeeper Chronicles series
Mercedes Lackey is another author whose every book carries some romantic element. And like Shinn, those are at times bittersweet. But when she goes full out for romance, it’s wonderful to read.
Five Hundred Kingdoms series
Patricia Briggs is loved for her Mercy Thompson series, which I have to admit I haven’t read. But I loved Alpha and Omega, so I’m happy to name that series!
Alpha and Omega series
Louise Cooper is a mixed bag of an author for me. She’s not a traditional HEA writer, and at time flouts all the conventions of the quest trope (avoid her Indigo series at all costs if you’re a romance fan). But her elegant, tragic, and yet redemptive love story between Tarod and Cyllan in her brilliant Time Master books lingers in my mind.
Time Master trilogy
Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series brings a smile to my face. Alexia, the soulless heroine of the first book, was so refreshingly different from almost any other fantasy or romance heroine. That she continued this series generationally was also striking.
Parasol Protectorate series
Emma Bull wrote a seminal urban fantasy that also has a true cross-class romance, War for the Oaks. But several of her books have strong romantic elements.
War for the Oaks
Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her Vorkosigan Saga, which is great SF and has truly romantic fantasies in Shards of Honor and A Civil Campaign. But I think her Sharing Knife series is closest to classic romance.
Sharing Knife series
Shards of Honor
A Civil Campaign
Judith Tarr writes historical fantasy, and much of her work is romantic. I adore her Hound and Falcon trilogy, with a medieval monk who discovers he’s an elf (!), wrestling with concepts of love and faith.
Hound and Falcon trilogy (especially The Golden Horn)
William the Conqueror series
Brandon Sanderson is not who first comes to mind when you think of fantasy romance. But Warbreaker has a fantastic arranged marriage plot, along with a more subtle potential love story. Sanderson keeps saying he’s going to write more in this particular time in his Cosmere world. I hope he does.
Sara Douglass would in many ways qualify as a dark fantasy writer. Her book Threshold has all the elements that make up dark romance and dubcon. It’s a book I couldn’t stop reading.
Sherwood Smith has written several great fantasy series, both adult and YA. So depending on your preference, you’re sure to find something you’ll like.
A Posse of Princesses
C. J. Cherryh is best known, and deservedly so, for her SF books. But she ventured into fantasy and sword and sorcery as well. She has magnificently retold Russian fairy tales, and her saga of Vanye and Morgaine is classic S&S, with a nice twist in that Morgaine is undeniably the more powerful protagonist.
The Dreaming Tree
Claudia J. Edwards is probably the most obscure author I’ll cite in this list of recommendations. But she wrote some wonderful fantasy years ago that takes place in a world akin to our Asian countries, and I still enjoy rereading them occasionally.
A Horsewoman in Godsland
Bright and Shining Tiger
Tanith Lee is another untraditional romantic fantasy writer. Much of her writing is dark, and looks a fractured world and the people in it. But then there’s The Silver Metal Lover, one of the great love stories I’ve ever read, even though the ending is bittersweet. She revisited the book years later in Metallic Love.
The Silver Metal Lover
Donna Jo Napoli has written some wonderful, thought-provoking YA takes on fairy tales. Not all have happy endings. But they are definitely worth exploring if you’re a fairy-tale aficionado like me.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a titan in SF/fantasy, and most of us grew up reading her Earthsea trilogy at some point. But she makes my romantic fantasy list for her return to the Earthsea world some 40 years after she initially wrote about it, with Tehanu and The Other Wind. The first, in particular, took a subtle love story from The Tombs of Atuan and played out a romance many years later, with seasoned protagonists.
The Other Wind
Michelle Sagara is well known for her Cast In series, but I adored her early work (originally written as Michelle West) in The Sundered series. This is unquestioningly parallel to dark romance and won’t be to everyone’s taste. But if you like an occasional dark read with elements of dubcon, you might want to seek this out.
The Sundered series
Elizabeth Marie Pope is a writer of my youth who was one of my gateway authors to fantasy. You can still find two of her books today pretty easily, and I love them both.
The Perilous Gard
The Sherwood Ring
Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni saga is just that, a generational tale of a land where magic is feared by a powerful church. And it’s chock-full of love stories. Some have an HEA; some don’t. But it’s a really interesting series to explore.
Chronicles of the Deryni