My first thought when I heard about this was “Eek! Only ten?” These picks are in no particular order, and some make no sense when I look at them. But these were the books I often think of when I try to pick favorites — often because they influenced me so much. Sadly, some of the romances I loved the most have titles like “That old Silhouette where the hero helped the heroine recover from an abusive childhood. Or something. I think it was blue.”
If I left your book off the list, don’t feel bad. It might be one of dozens of runner-ups. Or maybe it was one of those books I’ve been trying to remember for years. Was your book blue?
1) Defy Not the Heart by Johanna Lindsey
This book broke rules and yet still managed to be classic Lindsey, without being classic Lindsey that involved Viking slave collars and the like. Even the sex was mediocre at first, until the hero found out how to make it better for the heroine. That was a great touch. But I’ll always remember this book for the gay lady’s maid Theo. An unexpected find in a Medieval. Sure, the hero and heroine fought a lot. This is a Lindsey, right? Was it PC? Come on! This is a Lindsey!
2) The Maiden by Jude Deveraux
At the time I read this, most of the heroines I came across were little things that tended to get raped by the hero. Jura of The Maiden was a sword-swinging heroine! So I fell in love with this book. Would I love it as much if I read it today? Probably not, but it will always have a special place in my heart because it first proved to me that romance heroines could kick ass, too.
3) Sacred Sins by Nora Roberts
This book was a godsend to me at the time. On the heels of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, a lot of suspense writers were putting out serial killer novels. Many of them sucked. Nora Roberts came along and proved to me that a romance writer could write a serial killer books that knocked the socks out of the Thomas Harris knock-offs. And she did all that while still including a romance, and while raising tough questions.
4) Lady of Fire by Valerie Vayle
This came into my life at a time when I had read a bodice ripper that really annoyed me. In some ways, Lady of Fire should have been the same sort of book. Instead, it didn’t take itself as seriously, and it was a lot more fun. How can a book with a hero and heroine named Roque and Garlanda be anything but a romp? I wanted to be there with the characters, buying shellfish from vendors on island marketplaces.Even the supporting characters were people I wished I could meet. One of the collaborators who wrote this book is better known as mystery author Jill Churchill, author of cozies with names such as Silence of the Hams and Fear of Frying.
5) Cool Shade by Theresa Weir
OK, I still can’t forget this one! Weir wound music and quirky characters and a tortured hero into a nifty story. It’s one of those “I can’t believe the heroine just did that…” stories. It’s also romantic suspense without mobsters and serial killers. It’s what romantic suspense would be if it lived in a funky neighborhood with boutiques and antique stores.
6) The Rake and the Reformer by Mary Jo Putney
Yes, I was reading MJP when she was writing Regencies, and I have a signed copy of this one. Somewhere. Reggie Davenport is a great character. Sure, he’s a dissolute rake, but he no longer wants to be. Add to that Alys Weston, a heroine who is, of all things, managing an estate. We get to watch Reggie try to recover from his alcoholism, and it isn’t always a pretty sight. I also enjoyed the expanded version that came out as The Rake. I’m one of the few that liked MJP’s Dearly Beloved, but I’m afraid to reread that one.
7) Gentle Warrior by Julie Garwood
Or really, any of the historical Garwoods from that period. I read Gentle Warrior (and her next couple of books) right when they came out. I liked these books so much that I turned them in at the used bookstore because I wanted other people to read them. I later regretted that and bought new copies. Why did I like them so much? Because after a diet of bodice rippers, it was great to read about heroes who were nice instead of nasty, and yet could still be powerful leaders.
8) Night Fire by Catherine Coulter
If I had read the notorious Devil’s Embrace before this, I might never have considered approaching Night Fire. To me, Night Fire is almost like the anti-Devil’s Embrace. Where Devil’s Embrace had an arrogant, abusive, rapist hero (and I use the term loosely), Night Fire had a gentle, patient hero. But not too patient, and that’s why some readers no longer care for it. Someday I will try to read it again to find out if it has now become a wallbanger. For now, I’m scared to do so!
9) Lover Awakened by J. R. Ward
As you can tell, I love tortured heroes, so how can I not include Zsadist? He makes most of the so-called tortured heroes come across like whiners. When I first joined Audible, one of the first things I did was pounce upon the audiobook version of Lover Mine. Now if only I could find time to listen to it…
10) Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
Yes, I’m cheating by including an omnibus, but the two stories are connected. The first tells how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met, and the second tells the story of how they weathered some extremely tumultuous political turmoil shortly after they married. I love futuristic romance, but the ones I read when this came out simply couldn’t measure up to LMB’s writing and worldbuilding. Not to mention a strong heroine, real political intrigue, and stuff you wouldn’t have found in a romance back then. Also, nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever measure up to the scene where Cordelia comes back from her “shopping trip” in the second book. (“But of course. Every Vor lady goes to the capital to shop.” ) LMB brings wit and humor into dark scenes, but isn’t afraid of the darkness, either.
Runner-ups include everything from Julia Quinn (couldn’t decide on one), Jayne Ann Krentz’s early futuristics (ditto), to trad Regencies by Mary Balogh (ditto) and Carla Kelly (ditto). And Enchantress Mine by Betrice Small because it had so much in it, including a Viking warrior who lost… well, never mind. Anyway, I had to end this list before I started overthinking it and adding stuff like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (and I think Isabella and the Duke make a dreadful couple!) and The Phantom of the Opera.
– Anne Marble