People say romance is escapist—and I say, embrace that! Once of the great glories of romance is gaining awareness of places and cultures that aren’t your own. You can find out about countries that you may never get to in real life. You can gain a sense of an area’s cuisine, customs, or values by what romances share with you in their focus on characters and their reactions to what’s around them. So why not spend one day of the 2019 #RomBkLove month exploring those unusual locales? Join me as we wander…off the beaten path!
First off, what do I consider to be the “beaten path”? For the purposes of this post, I’m excluding romances set in the US, Canada, and the UK. So, so many romances take place in these locations that I can’t fairly consider them to be off the beaten path. I’m also not including shipboard romances, as those are their own category of unusual (and changing!) locales. And I’m also keeping it real, which means stories set in places other than our Earth aren’t part of this post—I want to whet your appetite for places you might see on your next vacation!
You’ll often find that, while these unusual-locale romances are set in actual regions of the world, the countries depicted are fictional. That’s especially the case when one or more of the protagonists are royalty, for example. There are risks in depicting real royals, so imaginary kingdoms flourish in real regions in our off-the-beaten-path locales.
Where to start? I think, historically, I have to give a shout-out to the romances of Betty Neels, whose first book was published in 1969. Many of her stories are set in the Netherlands, where she lived for many years. In this case, art reflected life, as Neels herself married a Dutchman! And some of the classic 1980s romances featured unusual locales, like Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Shanna taking place in the Caribbean or reading about locations like Mexico and Paris in Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers (as an aside, how many of us knew Rogers was born and raised in Sri Lanka?).
But the true expansion in romances set off the beaten path started with the creation of Harlequin Presents in 1973, a series romance line focused on unusual locales. Greece, Italy, France—a multitude of locations have been featured in this line. Part of the glory of series romance is that their publishers will throw in a more experimental plot simply because new books appear every month, and they’re willing to take a risk because of that. So you can find combinations like a Greek tycoon traveling to Brazil in What the Greek Wants Most by Maya Blake. Presents are full of every stereotypical trope in the romance handbook (I personally look to see how many tropes can be highlighted in one Presents book title—my record is 5). And for some readers, those tropes are somewhat backwards looking—but you can’t deny the lasting significance and influence of the Presents line in romance. Other series lines have come and gone, but Presents—consistently featuring exotic locales—is still going strong more than 45 years after its debut.
While much of historical romance focuses on Georgian, Regency, and Victorian England and Scotland, you can find other locales to give you a different perspective of our past. Defunct series lines like Harlequin Masquerade were willing to publish romances set in places like France or Spain. One of my all-time fave romances is from that line: Dinah Dean’s The Ice King, one of a group of romances set in Russia during the same years of the English Regency. Dean’s Russian romances also show you this “other side” of the Napoleonic wars, as when Flight From the Eagle highlights the Russian front and just how tough this war was. More recently, Carla Kelly routinely highlighted the challenges of being in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular Wars in books like The Wedding Journey.
But it’s been fantastic to see historicals that show us other parts of the world. I love Lydia San Andres’ Arroyo Blanco series, focusing on the Caribbean in the 1800s. Megan Chance wrote A Candle in the Dark, set in Panama, back in 1993 (note that this does deal with alcoholism and addiction). Jeannie Lin has written several rich, wonderful romances centered in the ancient Chinese Tang Dynasty, like The Lotus Palace. You can experience Istanbul in the 1800s in Anna Randol’s A Secret in Her Kiss or go across Central Asia to places like Bukhara in Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Secrets. And you can even explore ancient Greece and Rome in single-title romances such as Alike as Two Bees by Elin Gregory and Siren’s Call by Merline Lovelace, or in book series like Sandra Schwab’s Eagle’s Honor (which covers quite the time frame!) or Mia West’s Into the Fire.
Certain countries have had an increasing presence in romance in recent years. Australia and New Zealand are highlighted in books like Sarah Mayberry’s Suddenly You, Katherine Sutcliffe’s Dream Fever, Lisa Henry’s One Perfect Night, Candace Proctor’s Whispers of Heaven, or Jackie Ashenden’s Living in Sin. There are a growing number of romances set in the Philippines, such as No Two Ways by Chi Yu Rodriguez, Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock or the Chic Manila series by Mina V. Esguerra. And we’re seeing more romances set in India, like the Bollywood Confidential series by Suleikha Snyder or by A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev.
You can journey to Shanghai in the 1800s with Jade Lee’s Desperate Temptress, or head to Tokyo in Naomi Aoki’s Sagaki. You can discover Sweden in Roe Horvat’s Vanilla Clouds (which had me with a chocolatier protagonist!). You can experience South Africa in Second Chance with Her Billionaire by Therese Beharrie. And if you really want to go off the beaten path, there are romances set in Uzbekistan (Tournament of Shadows by S. A. Meade) or Bosnia (The Pillar by Kim Fielding)!
Finally, how about an unusual locale that truly reflects what world voyagers face: Horvat’s The Layover, in which our heroes miss their flight connections and are forced to stay overnight by the airport? Every global traveler deals with this problem at some point!
Romances are voyages of discovery— romance protagonists discover love, discover better (or worse) parts of themselves, and are willing to explore and change. And as all romances are journeys, going off the beaten path to unusual locations gives readers ways to enjoy those journeys both metaphorically and literally. It adds richness to the romance reading experience.
But what are your favorite unusual locations? Where do you wish more romances were set? Share your thoughts using the #RomBkLove hashtag and join the conversation!
Many thanks to Ellie Reads, Mina V. Esguerra, K. E. Hamilton, Amy Jo Cousins, Naomi Aoki, and Rachel Garcia for their helpful suggestions! And thanks especially to our fearless leader, Ana Coqui, for championing the month of #RomBkLove activity and for allowing me to play a small part in it!