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.
Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter. ★★★★
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up this novella by a new to me author, Angela Slatter. What I got was a beautiful if dark tale with a feminist heart. I most certainly need to read more by Angela Slatter.
Mistress Gideon is a witch, and her life in Edda’s Meadow is tenuous at best in a world where witches are regularly killed. When a local and foolish shapeshifter gets herself caught, Gideon finds herself unwittingly involved. And as the authorities are roused to the existence of the supernatural in Edda’s Meadow, Gideon’s life gets more and more dangerous.
Plain Kate by Erin Bow. ★★★★
I started Plain Kate thinking I’d be getting a fairly simplistic YA fantasy story. Instead this book ended up ripping my heart out and stomping on it!
Kate is the orphaned daughter of a woodcarver who exists on the scraps of money she makes from her carving and the town residents’s good graces. But whenever Kate’s homeland hits hard times, murmurings about witches begin. And eventually someone is burned. As the crops fail, Kate begins to be blamed. In an effort to escape she makes a deal with a shadowy man known as Linay. She sells her shadow in exchange for the goods she needs to escape, but as her shadow fades away, she’ll look more and more like a witch.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. ★★★★
Trigger warning: rape
While it wasn’t until the last fifth or so that I felt definitely that I’d want to read the next book, there was always something about Ninefox Gambit that I found compelling. I’d be thinking about how military science fiction must not be my thing and at the same time planning designs for fan art. I think the explanation lies in the imaginative world Lee’s created and the nature of his principal characters.
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.
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace. ★★★★
In a way, Archivist Wasp reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road. 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.
Archivist Wasp is a short but striking novel. It’s classified as YA and has a sixteen year old protagonist, but it feels nothing like most YA books. It avoids the normal tropes and is entirely without romance. Seriously, no romance at all. Not even between secondary characters. The most important relationships in the book are Wasp’s tenuous friendship with the ghost, and the ghost’s relationship with Foster, which is highly important but never depicted as romantic.
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang. ★★★1/2
Zero Sum Game is an action packed, speculative fiction thriller. Cas Russell knows there’s something different about her abilities – she’s very good at math, to the point where she sees the mathematics that underlie the everyday world. Thanks to this sixth sense, Cas can pull off amazing physical feats by almost instantaneously calculating the trajectory of bullets or the necessary angles and forces to win in a fight.
Cas Russell might have powers, but she’s more a super-powered anti-heroine than a straight out superhero. People hire her to retrieve items for them, often illegally, and she has no compunctions about killing people she sees as a threat. In Zero Sum Game, Cas is hired to retrieve a woman from a drug gang and soon finds herself in the middle of something bigger.
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett. ★★★★★
Monstrous Regiment was the first book in the Discworld series I ever read. This stand alone Discworld novel got me hooked on the series and has been a beloved favorite of mine for many years.
Monstrous Regiment takes the classic trope of a girl disguising herself as a man to join the army and runs wild with it. The nation of Borogravia has been at war for as long as anyone can remember. The country is falling to pieces, but the army is still soldering on. Polly Perks’ brother has disappeared into the war, and she’s determined to find him and bring him home. To do so, she’ll need to masquerade as Oliver “Ozzer,” a disguise completed by a well placed pair of socks.