Eww. Gross. Yucky.
I hate romance in YA and have since I was old enough to recognise that cliches were the buns around every YA burger. I was probably 14.
Now, I’m not talking about pure romance YAs where the entire focus of the book is all the relationship between two people. If I read them at all, then at least I knew what I was signing up for. But those romance novels that masqueraded as a fantasy/adventure novel, those were the devil with two horns.
I would pick up one and the back copy would say: heroine is x and x. A devastating problem has come up in her life and also she has to deal with Male Love Interest, who is mysterious and dangerous, but she can’t seem to stay away from him. I had to roll my eyes, put the book down.
I was forced to assume that the romance between Male Love Interest and Heroine would overshadow the thin excuse for a plot with a ton of will-they/won’t-they moments (spoiler: it was always ‘they will’), forced drama and terrible chemistry all leading up to their first chaste kiss in the last third of the novel. I wasn’t always right about those books, but I had been burned enough times that I knew to put those books down and back away slowly.
All the things those books hammered home:
- Love conquers all (it doesn’t and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you a Hallmark card)
- Life isn’t worth living if you’re not in a relationship
- The first guy you see is your true love and your only love for the rest of your life
- The important things you have to do in life are not as important as your relationship status
Granted, not a single one of those books set out to actually teach those life lessons, but when you start to see those same morals over and over again you read between the lines.
But I am also a liar.
It turns out, after years of protesting that I disliked them entirely, that I actually love well-written romances. In fact, I get excited I stumble across them. Ones where the characters actually have chemistry. Ones where romance between two characters isn’t inevitable. Ones where characters don’t fall for the first person they see and realise that they have options. Where they fight over actual problems and have to overcome realistic difference. Where the romance doesn’t get more focus that the fate of the world.
I didn’t find those stories often and I can only think of two off the top of my head (Lyra and Will in the Amber Spyglass, Daine and Numair in the Immortals trilogy). I remember being thrilled when I finally discovered an adventure/fantasy story that didn’t have a romance subplot at all: Poison by Chris Wooding. I didn’t catch on that it was missing initially, but when I started to examine why I loved the main character so much, but it was because Poison didn’t need a love interest to give her character growth. In fact, a romance would have gotten in her way. She had one goal – rescue her sister – and she was going to complete it – to hell with any distractions.
The Liars List of Best YA Romances
Of course this is not all there is or ever was, but it’s the 5 that come to mind first.
- Shatter Me trilogy: All those problems I had with romance in YA I think Taheri Mafi shared. The Shatter Me trilogy reads like a reaction to all the cliches. Juliette falls in love, and its good for for a time, but she begins to evaluate whether being in a relationship is something that she needs and whether her current relationship is working for her. She makes conscious decisions and the relationship she finds herself in by the end of the book is solid. Even if you don’t feel the sparks and the chemistry between her and her main love interest you can at least appreciate that she didn’t blindly stay with the first guy she sees.
- Song of the Lioness Quartet: Alanna grows up to be a BAMF. If you want a role model growing up, she should be it. She didn’t take no for an answer and carved her own path in life. She had goals and ambitions and not once did she ever compromise them for love. When she realises her relationship with Jonathan is going to take her to places she doesn’t want to go, Alanna says good-bye. By the end of the 3 different romantic relationships she has over the series she ends up with someone who has loved her and supported her from the very beginning, whether she returned his feelings or not. If Alanna and George don’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will.
- The Diviners quartet: Evie and her love triangle with Jericho and Sam with have you twisted in knots. Usually it’s clear from the beginning who the heroine will chose when looking at Love Option 1 & Love Option 2 but Libba Bray writes such well rounded and compelling characters that you end up as indecisive as Evie is. That coupled with Bray’s dreamy and poetic writing and you have yourself an epic and heartfelt romance plot.
- Carry On: This one of those stories where you get second-hand butterflies. Simon and Baz. I just want to clutch them to my cheek and nuzzle them. The two characters had to grow and learn to empathise with each other before they ever had a chance. Simon and Baz were so obsessed with each other they thought it was hatred. It’s none too often that falling in love with your worst enemy gets written so well and Rainbow Rowell had the sexual tension between the two of them just roiling off the page like steam.
- A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy: Omg, Sarah J. Mass, let my heart go. Feyre is another character who won’t settle for the first guy she sees. Feyre has spent her life taking care of her family so when the she gets kidnapped by faeries she decides its time for her to start looking out for her own needs, especially when it comes to her romantic relationships. All the main and secondary characters are well developed and Maas knows how to rachette the sexual tension up to 11. Hoooweee. And extra kudos for the fact that there is actually sex in the book, along with words like nipples, thrusting, and climax, and phrases like ‘withdrew from inside’ and ‘mighty strokes’. I nearly had a mighty stroke when I was reading those words; I can’t think of a single YA novel that even got close to using such direct language. Praise be. Someone is has actually deigned to do more than merely acknowledge that sex exists.