The genre of fantasy has often been relegated to young readers, people who are currently studying in school. It is not popularly considered to be a genre often read by adults, and adults who do consume fantasy books are termed as “nerds”, thanks to the famous works in the genre such as A Song of Ice and Fire, – familiar to millions as part of Game of Thrones – or The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, the genre of romance is relegated in the publishing imagination to women in their 40s or to teenage girls – essentially imposing a uniquely sexist reputation on romance books and romance authors.
But what can happen when a writer fuses both of these genres together? Here are three bestselling books – by Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffenegger, and Erin Morgenstern, respectively – that reveal the possibilities.
Stardust, Neil Gaiman
Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a fantasy novel, some editions of which are accompanied by Charles Vess’s illustrations of the world created in the book. Best-known for the immensely popular Sandman series, Gaiman strays out of his usual territory for Stardust.
It concerns itself with Tristran Thorne, a half-faerie boy conceived during the small period that comes every nine years – when regular folk in Wall, England, are allowed to interact with fey beings. He falls in love with a human girl named Victoria and promises to get her a star they see falling, in exchange for her love.
Of course, since this is a fantasy novel, this shooting star is not just a star. It is actually Yvaine – a living creature – whose own story involves getting protection from the Lilim, who are three old women trying to regain their youth by consuming Yvaine’s heart. In the process of retrieving the star, Yvaine realises she has fallen in love with Tristran.
Many adventures later, when Tristran returns to Victoria to tell her that he has brought her the star, she tell his him she is engaged to someone else. The novel ends predictably – with Tristran and Yvaine being brought together, Tristran turns out to be the heir to the throne of the Faerie kingdom, and they get married despite Yvaine being immortal while he is not.
Stardust sounds like a story of cosmic proportions, and it definitely reads that way: Gaiman’s writing is heavenly, bringing about the tone of the story so wonderfully that one may suspect the involvement of fairy dust. And yet, the magical writing is not the most bewitching thing about the book.
Actually, this novel is a classic English period story come to life with fantastical elements. It appeals to the same sensibilities that are attracted to period dramas and stories about fairies and knights – a sensuous blend of a faux Arthurian legend and a passionate love story. One of the points of criticism of love and fantasy fiction is that they can only appeal to a younger demographic because of the suspension of disbelief they demand. What this fails to acknowledge is the rush of creativity and hope they can generate.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
Hope is a running theme in fantasy and romance novels. There’s always hope invested in the hero or heroine of the story who succeeds in the fantasy world against supernatural odds, and there’s always hope that love conquers all. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, is the embodiment of hope within the fantasy-and-romance genre. Skipping the book in favour of the film – a medium more easily consumed – would not only be a mistake but also unjust to the story.
At its core, the novel follows Clare and Henry and their whirlwind romance. The plot, however, complicates this simple premise to test the boundaries of love thoroughly. Henry has a rare genetic disorder which arbitrarily transports him to different points in time. The first time Henry meets Clare – from his point of view – is not the first time Clare meets Henry.
As far as Henry is concerned, his first meeting with her is in a library – but she has already known him for most of the 20 years of her life. In fact, she met him for the first time when she was six. Henry gives Clare a list of dates on which he will appear, and never misses any of them because these meetings have already taken place for him. Their relationship is tumultuous – his ties to her morph from a parental figure to a brother to a friend to a lover. But he already knows this.
Naturally, this relationship is marked by confusing timelines and unexpected surprises. The final scene of the novel is the very definition of finding comfort in heartbreak, as an 82-year-old Clare meets a 43-year-old Henry. He has been dead to her for nearly 40 years, and she has waited for him every single day since then. It embodies everything that the romance genre is – faith in destiny.
Clare and Henry’s relationship is written in stone – they will fall in love and get married and have a child. We know this because it has these things have already taken place in one of their lives. Their romance is fixed in time, and it is the only thing static about their relationship. The fantastical element of time travel is simply an obstacle, not a permanent obstruction. It fulfils a creation fantasy – the idea that everything is destined, especially love, and whatever comes in the way does so because it is meant to. It gives readers a place to be comfortable, and the hope that hurdles in romance are placed by the universe to test you, not to hurt you.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgernstern
Perhaps a novel that genuinely puts its romance through the most challenging hurdles is The Night Circus, by Erin Morgernstern. Magic is inherently romantic – referring back to the creation of the genre, magic is at the core of the myths surrounding the Arthurian courts. Stories of Merlin and Nimue run across Arthurian legend. While The Night Circus may not be set in Arthurian courts, its setting is a definite parallel.
Two rival magicians, Prospero the Enchanter and Mr A H, create Le Cirque de Rêves as their own battleground. The Night Circus is a magical circus that disappears and reappears in different locations to entertain the masses with magic and illusionary tricks that may or may not be real. In the late 1800s, Prospero pits his daughter, Celia, against Mr. A H’s student Marco in a battle to decide whether magic is an inherent talent or something that can be taught to a person of high intelligence.
Of course, the rivalry doesn’t work out – Celia and Marco fall in love despite the grand scheme they have been launched into. Celia finds out from her father that the game ends only when one of them will die at the hands of the other. So the story ends in happy tragedy – they are ripped from reality as Celia tries to save Marco, and become spirits bound to the circus. The competition is declared a stalemate, and the circus continues to exist.
The narrative of two rivals falling in love is far from new. Nor is the tale of a competition that ends in death. But a combination of the two, seasoned and spiced with magic, is both unique and refreshing. This novel is not written to be a quaint story for teenage girls – it is a complex record of human nature towards love. Marco and Celia are not merely two lovers, they are two people who fall in love with each other. Morgernstern makes sure you understand them individually before you fathom them together, before she nearly shatters their relationship.
All three of these books present a new face to the intersection of fantasy and romance, and show why this intersectional genre must be taken seriously. Romance and the quest for love is an integral part of the human experience – reading about it is not restricted by gender or age. These books are for anyone who does not want to separate emotions from experience.
Similarly, the fantasy genre is not just for nerdy, anti-social young adults. It is meant for the grand purpose of escaping the dullness of everyday, routine life. A combination of the two leads to stories about love that transcends time itself, whether it be between an immortal and mortal, or a time-traveller and a regular person, or between two rivals who end up dead but eternally together.