The first step is admission

So here I am, deep in the throes of editing –

So here I am, deep in the throes of eating graham crackers for breakfast and waiting for Blur to get out of the shower, and it’s occurred to me that I haven’t blogged about The Most Important Question Of Our Time.

Israel? No.
The economy? Of course not.
Obama’s birth certificate? Please. Seriously. That’s a ridiculous question.

Where is the line between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance? How has it gotten so blurred? Why is Laurell K. Hamilton in SciFi/Fantasy in some stores, in Romance in others, and yet in others in Fiction (look, I get why Anita Blake isn’t in Romance; but why isn’t Merry Gentry? Jesus.). Is J.R. Ward really more paranormally romantic than Charlaine Harris? Is Jacqueline Carey’s BDSMy Naamah series less sexy than Sherrilyn Kenyon?

The problem is that, for me, I prefer Urban Fantasy. In fact, I prefer what I call Fantasy Noir, a genre that includes any book/series whose protagonist is in the lurch all the time, and the lurch has nothing to do with sex or love or babies or whatever.

Let me clarify before I continue, then: I get it. Love happens. If you’re going to make a realistic world, character, storyline, someone is going to get all tingly in their britches, and hijinks may or may not ensue. But the difference? Harry Dresden tells us he’s in love with Susan. We don’t get treated to every date, or even every other one, every kiss and lingering caress on the small of the back… those things aren’t important. Later, however, we get treated to a sex scene, which [spoiler] is pretty much just a plot device. So: justified.

We hear about James Stark’s (Sandman Slim) dead girlfriend, and we get to see some delightful sexual tension between him and some new chick. Matthew Swift hints at a history with another sorcerer, and when she [spoiler] dies, he’s obviously very upset; and again with the sexual tension. Cal Leandros whines about not getting any, and then does, but we aren’t beaten about the head and shoulders with it; his brother, Niko, is in love with Promise (again, something we’re told happens, and we see the evidence of, not the progression towards); I could go on and on about the LeandrosVerse and how well its interpersonal relationships are executed.

But with the later Anita Blake books and Merry Gentry and [gulp, sorry] Alex Craft, you see what’s coming. You see that there’s an infuriating, good-looking man, and you know exactly where it’s going. There isn’t a question – well, maybe you don’t know which two at a time you’ll get with Anita or Merry, but you know that’s going to happen –

So where’s the line? Is it avoiding the lead-up to the Falling In Love? Or Falling Into Bed? In Grave Witch, which was a pretty good little mystery until, out of left field, there’s this graphic – possibly unnecessarily so – sex scene. (Also, as an erotica snob, I take issue with the phrase and/or sentiment “greatest orgasm of my life.” Stop it. You’re being melodramatic, or your orgasms are so lackadaisical and/or few and far between that I don’t believe your sexual wantonness. /rant) And what did that scene do for me? Well, besides confusing me, and generally impressing me with Ms. Price’s erotica-writing skills (see parenthetical), it pushed this book heavily towards the Paranormal Romance category in my mind. Because you can have boy trouble and the book not be a romance. But you can’t have all this boy trouble, all this focus on chests and how people look in jeans and then – KRAKOW! – sex, and have your readers go, “Well, I would recommend this to someone not looking for romance.”

I retreat back to Harry & Susan in Blood Rites. Do they do it? Yes. Are they in love when they do it? Yes. Does it turn the book into a romance? No. Because while it may be erotic – and it is – it isn’t the focus of the plot. It’s something that happens; in fact, it’s something that had to happen, given the sequence of events. And it’s something that affects Harry’s life, a lot, in later books. Blood Rites is, in fact, a ridiculously good example of Walking the Fine Line. It’s the first book of the series heavily focused on the White Court Vampires – emotional vampires – the majority of which are incubi and succubi. The majority of the ones the reader encounters, that is. And it’s told from the POV of Harry, who has established himself as a lover of women (see: Susan), and an appreciator of womanly assets (see: even Molly), and I remember thinking, gosh, he’s going into a lot of detail over Lara… ohhhh. I see.

But a paranormal romance it does not make. Perhaps because it’s the sixth book in the series and already so well-established as Fantasy Noir that it isn’t even something that crosses our minds. Maybe it’s because it’s written by a man. Maybe it’s because it’s told from a man’s perspective, that it’s okay for him to fall in love and make with the sex and it’s fine; it’s okay.

Because what’s the pattern here? It isn’t the gender of the author – Rob[yn] Thurman (LeandrosVerse) and Kate Griffin (SwiftVerse) are both ladies. But Cal Leandros and Matthew Swift and James Stark and Harry Dresden and John Taylor are men.

So is that the problem? Is the issue that we can’t conceivably write a romance from the point of view of a man? That we can’t conceivably write a non-romance from the point of view of a woman?

I don’t think so. Rob Thurman’s written her Trickster books with a first person female protagonist, and “it” is handled with as much aplomb as Cal and Niko. And Nancy A. Collins’ Sonja Blue (late 80s) is one of the most fucked-up, amazing, her-crazy-puts-Batman’s-to-shame female (or anything) protagonists that the Urban Fantasy/Fantasy Noir world has ever seen. But then she published Right Hand Magic in 2010, with a female protagonist, and it was the liquidiest liquid shit I’d read in a long time. Because that was romance – at the end, [spoiler] she finally kisses this six-fingered boy and uses something like the phrase “it felt so right, like coming home.”

[Hello? Nancy A. Collins, with your descriptions of twisting arms out of sockets with the grizzled pop of a chicken wing, where are you? Did you write this rainforest-killer because it followed the currently popular formula and you had to pay your electric bill? I believe in you, girl. Come back to us.]

Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series is another I take serious issue with. A male friend of mine recommended these to me, and I got excited. Because I’m all feminist or whatever, and I feel like crap preferring male protagonists across the board – at the time, male authors across the board – so I read them. I read them before River Marked (#6) came out, and I liked them. I liked her quirkiness, her history degree, her brazen disregard for Adam’s give-a-damn, and then suddenly… suddenly romantic tension gets resolved and the whole thing goes the way of the dodo. The first 70 pages of River Marked – I don’t know if you read that right, so I’ll repeat it – THE FIRST 70 PAGES are about her wedding. SEVENTY. PAGES. The story was fine, if a little lazier than previous ones, because, frankly, it took up a lot less space. BECAUSE THE FIRST 70 PAGES WERE ABOUT A WEDDING.

::headdesk::

Lady authors: You don’t need to write romance to write a good, popular Urban Fantasy. And you don’t even need to trend toward the gray area. If you want to, that’s fine, but don’t feel like you have to.

Let me be honest: I worry about this. I have a protagonist who is half a succubus, and I do not want this series degenerating into porn. I’m frequently concerned that it has, or it will – and it isn’t what I want. I want an interesting character, one who says “knives are so much more personal than sex,” one who treats it like it’s a disorder, like insulin to a diabetic, something that needs to be taken care of but doesn’t define the story/plot/character/world. And I think I’ve done okay so far.

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