The most intriguing romance sub-plots in fantasy
When it comes to romantic pairings, I am not fond of stereotypes.
Especially in fantasy fiction, I don’t appreciate it when a man who is destined to do great things (the knight in shining armour) sweeps in and makes the lady (the damsel in distress) fall in love with him.
But some pairings in fantasy fiction are so close to real life; they took my breath away. In this post, I compiled four of my favourites for you.
Read on for a spoiler-free introduction to my favourite couples in fantasy and what makes me love them so fiercely.
Ali and Nahri from ‘The City of Brass’ by S. A. Chakraborty
Nahri is a hustler and con woman eking out a living in the streets of Cairo in the late 1700s. She is plucked out of her life by a djinn and dropped into the city of Daevabad, where she finds she is the last of an ancient lineage of healers with the power to change the world.
Prince Alizayd is the youngest son of King Ghassan of Daevabad. An idealist at heart, he is against several tenets of his father’s rule and dreams of making changes in the way the city is run. His only problem? He is quick to risk his life to uphold his principles. Because his privilege protects him, innocent djinn end up paying for his misplaced enthusiasm.
Nahri and Ali form an unwilling alliance in the Devabadi palace, each with their own agendas in the beginning. Their curiosity and their desire to be the change in the world helps them bond. Ali teaches Nahri to read, and she, in turn, teaches him language (Arabic and Djinistani).
It is lovely to see their relationship blossom with time, first forming a strong friendship, slowly maturing into love. As a book lover, it is weirdly comforting to see two people bonding over their shared passion for reading.
I loved the Nahri-Ali ship because theirs is a partnership based on mutual trust and respect. Ali treats Nahri as his equal. They respect each other’s dreams and help each other grow through the story.
In most fictional romantic pairings in a fantastic setting, the lady usually plays the damsel in distress. In S. A. Chakraborty’s world, there is no gender stereotyping, no romantic cliches. The Nahi-Ali relationship is as real as it gets, and that’s what makes it one of the biggest reasons why this book should be read.
Robbie and Kelly from ‘Heartsong’ by TJ Klune
Robbie Fontaine never belonged anywhere. He had a fractured childhood, and, after his mother died, little Robbie ran away. He spent his life flitting from one family to the next. They fed him, gave him a place to say, but it was never home. All he wanted was to belong.
Kelly Bennett is the middle child. Between an elder brother determined to shoulder the family’s responsibility and a younger one destined for far greater things than anyone can imagine, Kelly has always been the soft one. He is strong; there’s no doubt about that. But, he is also quiet. And when he gives his heart to someone, he loves them like the world depends on it. And Kelly chose Robbie to give that fierce love to.
It was the kind of love Robbie always wanted. It was the kind of love Robbie forged for himself, then lost.
Heartsong is the story of how Robbie loses his memory of everything he knew — of his home, of the Bennetts, of Kelly — in a disastrous accident. He finds his way back home, and slowly, back to Kelly.
The romance between the two men is so delicate and precious; it makes you want to reach out and hug them for being so strong. A defining factor of their relationship is how Kelly is asexual, and how Robbie makes him feel comfortable and loves him despite it all.
Here is an excerpt from when Robbie has to strip before getting into the shower, and Kelly is standing right next to him.
“No ideas, okay?”
He laughed. I didn’t think it was at me. “I don’t think you have to worry about that. Not really.”
I was almost insulted. I was proud of my body. I was strong. I was young. I was capable of providing for my…Fuck.
He wiped his eyes. “No. Oh God, get that wounded look off your face. Christ.” He took a deep breath. “I’m Ace.”
I frowned. “What’s that?”
I scrunched up my face. “Like, really?”
Now he was laughing at me. “Like, really.”
“How did that work?” I blanched. “Holy shit. Ignore me. Seriously, don’t think you need to explain.”
“If that’s what you want,” he said, and that was it.
I scowled at him. He smiled at me. I lasted a few more seconds. “Are you sure?”
“I am,” he said simply.
“But, and, like, you know-”
He laughed again. “We made it work. It’s not that I am repulsed by sex or anything. It’s just not everything to me. There is more to us than physical intimacy.”
Oh, and because this is fantasy, both Robbie and Kelly are werewolves.
Locke and Sabetha from ‘Republic of Thieves’ by Scott Lynch
Since the times he first laid eyes on her, Locke Lamora has always loved Sabetha Belacoros. Circumstances haven’t gone his way, though, with misunderstandings and age-old battles keeping the two apart.
After Sabetha left his gang of thieves (who call themselves ‘Gentleman Bastards’), Locke never really moved on, even though he didn’t dare to believe he would ever see her again. He met other women, but no one intrigued him emotionally, physically and intellectually as Sabetha did. She was brilliant, independent, entertaining, compelling — a perfect match for Locke.
Except, she didn’t seem to think so.
Sabetha, cursed by her red hair, is never really sure if Locke loves her for who she is, or what the colour of her hair portends. When the two finally meet after several years, one can fee sparks flying off the pages. From a third person’s point of view, these two are perfect for each other. But, from their perspective, neither can really be sure.
“Sloppy idiot,” Sabetha muttered at last. “You’re trying to be charming. Well, I do not choose to be charmed by you, Locke Lamora.”
Locke is a grown man now, no longer the lovestruck teenager who would have gladly lain his life just to see her smile. He would still do the same — oh, there is no doubt about that. But now, the stakes are higher, and a single mistake can cost the lives of thousands of people.
I loved how Locke and Sabetha’s relationship evolved as they grew into adults, and now, despite their obvious yearning to be together, both of them are thorough professionals. They choose logic over love, and that’s what makes it so painful to read about their struggles.
When men write women, especially women in fantasy, the characters turn out to be rather two-dimensional, existing only to carry the male lead’s story arc forward. But Sabetha is more than that.
Oh, she is fire and passion and unmatched guile. Sabetha Belacoros is so much more than just the love interest.
Mia and Tric from ‘Nevernight’ by Jay Kristoff
Mia Corvere is a fiercely independent woman who’s driven by vengeance. Struggling with PTSD, Mis tries her best to suppress a dark past she doesn’t want to face. She shields her feelings behind a wall of casual sarcasm and is incredibly competitive. She is a master at swordsmanship and controlling shadows, and soon emerges as one of the finest students competing in the school of assassins.
Dark, muscular and tattooed, the forsaken son of a family that never really wanted him, Tric is instantly drawn to Mia. Their chemistry is spellbinding and how they always look out for each other in a fiercely competitive world is endearing. Tric isn’t as competitive as the other classmates, but he is a natural at poison craft manages to impress Mia. His sense of humour and unabashed affection for her keeps her grounded.
“You know, I’ve never understood that. How being named for a woman’s nethers is somehow more grievous than any other insult. Seems to me calling someone after a man’s privates is worse.”
Tric shrugged, befuddled at the strange turn in the conversation.
Mia sniffed, staring at the wastes laid out below them. “Truth is, there’s no difference between your nethers and mine. Aside from the obvious, of course. But one doesn’t carry any more weight than the other. Why should what’s between my legs be considered any smarter or stupider, any worse or better? It’s all just meat, Don Tric. In the end, it’s all just food for worms.”
One last drag, long and deep, as if drawing the very life from her smoke. “But I’d still rather be called a cunt than a cock any turn.”
The girl sighed grey, crushed her cigarillo out with her boot heel. Spat into the wind.
And just like that, young Tric was in love.”
Tric never kept his feelings for Mia a secret, but her independent nature didn’t let her acknowledge them. Their story is slow-burn and full of moments that will make you go “Oh” and then “Oh!”.
All artworks published with consent from the incredibly talented artists.
(Note: The links mentioned in this article are affiliate links. If you choose to purchase these books through these links, it will help me earn a small amount of money — at no extra cost to you. Thanks!)
For book reviews, follow me on Goodreads.