AAR reviewers Caroline and Em have long used romance novels as an escape. They were interested to find that in the age of COVID-19, they are both seeking out books set a bit further back in time than usual – Caroline is drawn to Viking settings, and Em to the world of Medievals. Join them as they discuss possible reasons why settings like the Dark Ages and Middle Ages might appeal more these days, and as they share some of their most successful reads.
Caroline: My COVID reading has skewed further and further from contemporary romance, and even the familiar and most widely published nineteenth century settings. Even Georgian and Renaissance stories aren’t doing it for me – I want swords and castles and lieges and all that good stuff. I noticed you’ve been having the same experience. Any thoughts on why?
Em: Look, I read romance to escape. The historical/medieval-era novels I’m reading have almost nothing in common with my own life! Lately, I don’t feel like contemporary romances do enough to lift me from all the bad news in the world right now. The problems feel too real, too immediate to my own life, or they just feel too silly. It is difficult for me to pinpoint exactly what isn’t working, and there have been a few wonderful exceptions! But I digress.
In my review of the Robin Hood trilogy by Marsha Canham, I mentioned that each book featured romance, adventure, villainy, skullduggery and feats of derring-do – and you just can’t find that in a contemporary romance or even in nineteenth century novels. No knights, no squires, no ladies in waiting, no women archers disguised as men, no castles, no moats…you see where I’m going with this. I’m addicted to all of it – and that it’s at such a far remove from my life is simply icing on the cake. I’ve read a few duds in the last month or so, but even those offer a respite from my regular reading and I’ve been more forgiving grade-wise.
Caroline: One thing that seems to unite these settings is that they’re times and places where science is limited, if existent at all. The characters have to do the best they can without the answers and cures we’ve grown used to having for illnesses and natural phenomena. Now, I am ABSOLUTELY in favor of listening to scientists, and everything I do in my daily life is in accordance with the latest guidance. (I wear a mask! I get takeout instead of eating in the restaurant! I avoid crowds!). But it’s fair to say that science hasn’t “solved” COVID yet. And there’s something therapeutic for me in reading these settings and feeling connected to the vast majority of human experience in which, in the face of a world of unknowns, we simply have to do our best.
Em: Yes! Frankly, I love how black and white these stories are. There are obvious villains – and friends, these villains are awful human beings. They deserve everything they get, and they always get exactly what they deserve! But the heroes and heroines aren’t so virtuous, as much as they are ‘good’. They do their best for the people around them – even when it isn’t convenient or easy. They’re talented with a weapon, they’re wise, and even though their purpose is sometimes opaque, they almost always have a heart of gold and a weakness for their partners happiness.
In our world, everything is up for debate. I can name the villain of my 2016 – 2020 story, but others might not agree! In fact, while I agree with everything you are doing to combat COVID (masks – all the time; takeout instead of visiting a restaurant; social distancing), even those things are debated! These stories showcase good vs. bad, and who’s good and who’s bad is VERY clear.
Caroline: I do think there’s an appeal to a world where, if the heroes are leaders and lords, they are led by honor, and they derive their right to rule from their willingness and ability to take the best care they can of their people. I’m not naive enough to think this is what feudalism looked like, and I also enjoy the ‘sandwich’ stories where the main characters are struggling under a corrupt or inept lord. Still, it’s a nice fantasy interpretation of history that I just now realize is common to the settings I’ve been glomming.
Em: Alright, so we agree that these books help us escape from our ordinary lives and our ordinary reading. What time period appeals to you most right now and what would you recommend to our readers?
Caroline: I’ve been drawn to Vikings. First, I tore through Megan Crane’s Edge series, which is a dystopian post-climate-change apocalypse Viking setting – but still largely absent technology.
Em: I also loved the Edge series! I mean those books are crazy! And wonderful.
Caroline: I tried a lot of disappointing other Viking romances until I found our old review for Beautiful Wreck, by Larissa Brown. Finally, the actual historical-set Viking romance I’ve been dreaming of! The setting is incredibly well developed, and it’s satisfying to watch it revealed through the eyes of Ginn, the time-traveling heroine. The hero Heirik, marked as cursed by his port-wine stain birthmark, is sympathetic but also realistically of his time.
Em: I didn’t love Beautiful Wreck as much as you, but I loved the historical detail. My problems were wholly with the romantic relationship. This would have been a high A for me if the romance had delivered on all the promise of the story.
Caroline: I don’t think you’ve gotten to the sequel, So Wild A Dream, yet. I agreed with our DIK of Beautiful Wreck, and I thought So Wild a Dream deserved one too. I may have liked it even more, since the heroine of that book, Eðna (pronounced Ayth-na) is the first time travel heroine I’ve seen to really engage with the costs of remaining in the past. And the hero is a depressed cinnamon roll. I think AAR’s reviews were only B-range because the book was originally released in two halves, so each review reflects only half of the book. I can see how having an incomplete reading experience of it might affect its enjoyability.
What have your best finds been?
Em: Over the last couple of months I loved reading the Canham Robin Hood trilogy, and I would also highly recommend the Medieval series by Madeline Hunter. I loved the first (By Possession) and the fourth book (By Arrangement) best, but the entire series is strong. Her newest, Never if Not Now (part of the Midsummer Knights series) is also good. I worried whether I would like it (I didn’t like the Kris Kennedy contribution); I recommend it, too.
Caroline: Madeline Hunter’s medievals are among my favorites of the entire subgenre. I enjoy the way they showcase the non-knight, non-nobles of the 1300s. If you’re looking for something more traditional ‘knight in shining armor’ though, the series also has the excellent The Protector, about a crusader trying to return home to England via Brittany. The plague is a central plot element.
Em: I think most of our readers are familiar with Elizabeth Kingston and her Welsh Blades, and I would highly recommend those books – although tonally they are much darker than the other books we’ve mentioned, and there’s a heavier emphasis on historical detail. (They’re also great in audio!) I’d also recommend Kris Kennedy’s older medievals, and The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss (it’s not great, but it is entertaining!). I have books from Mary Jo Putney and Jo Beverley on my TBR based on other recommendations here at AAR, and I’m looking forward to both.
Caroline: The other medieval I’d recommend is The Dark Knight by Elizabeth Elliott.
Em: We both raved about the first two books in Milla Vane’s new A Gathering of Dragons barbarian fantasy series, and although I’m vague about the time period – I’d include these books in our “escapist reading” category. Would you? Can you think of similar books that our fantasy readers might enjoy if they liked Vane?
Caroline: That’s a good question! I think a good, gritty ‘sword and sorcerer’ fantasy could fit the bill for some people, but it really hasn’t been what I’m looking for. If it’s working for you, though, the most obvious choice is probably Warprize by Elizabeth Vaughn, or Jeffe Kennedy’s Forgotten Empires series.
And now over to you, readers. Are you finding yourself drawn to particular settings these days, and if so, which ones? Are they different from the settings you were reading in the pre-pandemic days? What feels like an “escape” to you right now?
~ Caroline Russomanno & Em Wittmann