February’s the time of year where people get even more obsessed about romantic love than usual. But even in the rest of the year, there’s often a sense that romance is mandatory. The vast majority of books I read contain a romantic subplot for their lead, particularly if the protagonist happens to be female. With this post, I want to take a step back and look at some of the few science fiction and fantasy books I’ve found where romance isn’t on the heroine’s mind. Note, I am not up to date with all of these series, and some of them may add on romance later in.
10. Clariel by Garth Nix
Clariel is my problematic fav. One on hand, I related strongly to Clariel. She was written as canonically aromantic and asexual, I think I connected so much with her because of it. On the other hand, I really want to take her away from Garth Nix and give her to an author who knows how to write aro ace characters without being offensive. This book is basically a villain’s origin story, when “villain” is a gross stereotype aro and ace people often find themselves represented as. Plus, this novel seems completely unaware that ace people can have friends, and there was this totally random line near the end that suggested she was choosing to be ace or something. But while it has all these problems, I still love Clariel’s character. I just want her transported to an alternative universe where she can have friends and doesn’t have to deal with her problematic narrative.
9. Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter
Mistress Gideon is the local witch of Edda’s Meadow, but she has to live very carefully to avoid the authorities’ witch hunts. While she had some romantic entanglements in her past, she’s now focused on her current life and the platonic relationships with those closest to her, such as her adopted daughter. Then trouble begins to brew in Edda’s Meadow when some foolish young shapeshifters get caught by the authorities. Mistress Gideon soon finds herself unwittingly involved, and the life she has built for herself and those around her is suddenly threatened.
8. Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
Full Fathom Five is a brilliantly original fantasy novel alternating between two female protagonists. Kai’s a priestess in her firm, which creates idols to store clients belief. When Kai takes a dangerous risk to save a dying idol, she’s removed from her position and sent to work in sales. But something doesn’t add up – when she was rescuing the idol, she could swear she heard it speak, which is impossible. Izza is a refugee living as a street child, but she’s getting older. Soon, she’ll be old enough that if she’s caught stealing, she’ll be forced into a Penitent – a stone body that acts as an enforcer for the police. Izza is desperate to leave before this happens, but she’s reluctant to leave behind the younger children, whom view her as a high priestess of sorts to their Blue Lady. While Kai does have a one night stand during the novel, I wouldn’t say that either of the two has romance subplots.
7. Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers
Shortly before the beginning of Behind the Throne, Hailimi Bristol’s boyfriend dies in a firefight. But she’s not even given time to process her grief and turmoil before she’s propelled back into the world of her birth: the royal court of the Indranan Empire. Hail is a galactic princess, and with her sisters dead, the new heir to the throne. While Hail’s past as a gunrunner dogs her every move, she is determined to do what’s best for the empire and to discover who’s behind the deaths of her sisters. I haven’t read the sequel, so I can’t comment on whether or not it contains romance. Surprisingly, Behind the Throne did not immediately have Hail hook up with a new guy right after the death of her boyfriend. Instead she’s focused on things like, you know, the political assassination of her family and the fate of the empire.
6. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Myfanwy Thomas wakes with no memory of who she is, surrounded by bodies wearing latex gloves, and with a letter in her pocket. The letter is left to her by her former self, and it gives her a choice: leave to start a completely new life, or stay and impersonate her old one, potentially discovering who erased her memory. Myfanwy chooses to stay, and she soon finds that she is a high ranking official in the secret British organization for people with supernatural abilities. The Rook is one of the most imaginative urban fantasy novels I’ve ever read, and I adore its focus on female friendship. Myfanwy’s most important relationships are platonic connections with other women. While the ending hints that she may start to look for a boyfriend, the narrative of The Rook itself does not contain romance. Unfortunately, I still have not reread it for review. I have reviewed the sequel Stiletto, which focuses on two new female characters. It could be considered to contain romance, but it’s extremely minimal.
5. Updraft by Fran Wilde
Kirit is the daughter of a trader, and she wants nothing more than to become her mother’s apprentice and learn how to negotiate trades between the bone towers that make up her city. When Kirit’s attacked by one of the monsters that roams the sky between the towers, she survives and comes to the attention of the Singers, mysterious figures from the central tower. Kirit begins to realize that some of the Singers are keeping a dangerous secret. While Updraft is a fantasy novel that’s not marketed as YA, the structure is wholly YA dystopian. As soon as I saw that Kirit’s best friend was a boy, I figured I knew what would happen. Yet, Updraft surprised me by containing not a hint of romance. Kirit’s best friend is clearly important to her, but it’s because he’s her friend, not because she harbors romantic feelings towards him. However, Updraft is another book where I’m not caught up with the series, so I can’t vouch for there being no romance in the sequels.
4. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Kel Cheris is a captain of the military division of the hexarchate, a totalitarian government of six divisions that is constantly putting down “heresies,” rebellions. When Cheris herself uses heretical methods in battle, she is given a last chance to possibly redeem herself by devising a plan on how to recapture an important fortress overtaken by heresy. She proposes bringing the Hexarchate’s greatest general out of storage. Shuos Jedao is a brilliant tactician who’s never lost a battle, but before being turned immortal by the Hexarchate, he went mad and killed his own army as well as the enemy’s. Yet, Shuos Jedao is entirely unpredictable, and Cheris and the troops she commands may be the next victims. Ninefox Gambit is mostly focused on military maneuvering and the characterization of Cheris and Jedao. And there isn’t even a suggestion of romantic tension between Cheris and Jedao (thank God). While this list has so far included queer characters (Clariel is aro ace and Kai is trans), Ninefox Gambit is the only book on this list with a female protagonist who experiences same-sex attraction. While she doesn’t have a romantic interest within the course of the book, Cheris offhandedly mentions her attraction to women and an ex-girlfriend. Ninefox Gambit has a sequel due out this summer, and I can’t guarantee that it won’t add some form of romance.
3. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
In her youth, Vellitt Boe traveled the Six Kingdoms of the dream world before deciding to settle down as the mathematics professor of Ulthar Women’s College, a sanctuary of sorts for women who may not fit anywhere else. Now, she’s taking up her walking stick and pack to travel again, because one of her students has run away with a man from the waking world, and it could mean the end of the college. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a stand alone novella. While Vellitt Boe has had romantic relationships in the past, she does not have a romantic interest within the span of the novella. Perhaps this is fitting for a story where one of the prominent themes is that women have lives and desires outside of men.
2. Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Polly Perks’s brother has disappeared into Borogravia’s endless war, and she’s determined to find him and bring him home. To do so, she masquerades as Oliver “Ozzer” and joins a squad of the last few recruits Borogravia could scrape up, led by the legendary Sergeant Jackrum. This unusual band soon finds out Borogravia is on the edge of collapse and the war is not even close to being won. Moving, hilarious, and thematically rich, Monstrous Regiment is one of my all time favorite Discworld books and just one of my all time favorite books period. While there could be considered subtle romance between a few supporting characters, Polly herself never exhibits any romantic interest. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a canon aromantic character, but she would be an easy headcanon. Monstrous Regiment is also a stand alone novel, so you don’t have to worry about that changing in sequels.
1. Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace
In a post apocalyptic world, Wasp is the Archivist, hunter of ghosts. She has to kill to keep her position or be killed herself. When she meets a ghost stronger than the rest, that of a dead solider, she sees a way out. The ghost is looking for the ghost of another solider, a woman named Foster. In returning for going down into the underworld, she may receive the key to her freedom. That is, if she’s able to come back out. I don’t think there’s even a hint of romance in the entirety of Archvist Wasp. Not just when it comes to Wasp herself – there’s not even mention of side characters being in romantic relationships or having romantic interests. Archivist Wasp is wholly focused on the strength of platonic relationships, which is unusual in and of itself but particularly for a book with a sixteen year old protagonist marketed as YA. In general, Archivist Wasp is just a really good story and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
Over a year ago I tried to write this post but had difficulty thinking of ten titles. While that has thankfully improved, I still think there’s a greater need for books without romance, especially when it comes to canonical aromantic representation. While I didn’t include it due to romances with other POV characters, I would like to give a shout out to An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows, the only fantasy novel besides Clariel I’ve read with an explicitly aromantic protagonist. I have heard that both Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith and The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Moon contain aromantic protagonists, but I haven’t read them to confirm. I unfortunately don’t know of any novel length #ownvoices works, so if you are aware of any please comment!
Some books that came close to making this list include Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Borderline by Mishell Baker, Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, Radient by Karina Sumner-Smith, and The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson. Note, both Zero Sum Game and God’s War contain romances in the sequels, part of why I didn’t chose them for this list.
Ever since middle school, I’ve been wishing for more books to read with girls who aren’t thinking of romance or boys. While I’ve found a few that qualify, I really wish that after all these years of reading this list could be longer.