The Cultural Gutter

taking the dumb out of fandom

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

By Any Other Name

Chris Szego
Posted September 2, 2010

heart of gold 80.jpegDespite being the largest piece of the trade publishing pie,
there’s a lot of good stuff to read out there that isn’t Romance.  And I try to get through as much of it
as possible*.  Funnily enough,
though, much of the other fiction I read tends to have some sort of romance in
it somewhere.  Sometimes it might
be between secondary characters. 
Sometimes it’s in the background. 
Occasionally the relationship doesn’t work out.

But it’s there.
It makes sense, when you think about it.  Relationships make the world go around.  Whether personal or business, whether intimate or casual, making and refining connections to other people is one of the prime human activities.  And in the hierarchy of those relationships, finding a romantic partner is pretty high. Naturally, that preoccupation sinks into our fiction, regardless of genre.
Take Fantasy, for instance.  In my daily life, as managed of an SFF bookstore, I’m surrounded by it.  And a great many Fantasy novels contain romantic relationships.  I’m not talking about the rise of the new subcategory of Paranormal Romance (which Stephanie Meyer did not invent, though she did make it more financially viable):  I’m talking about novels shelved in the Fantasy section that are more than a little concerned with romantic relationships.  There are a lot of them.  And many of the best were written by Sharon Shinn.
sharon shinn big.jpgShinn is an amazingly hard-working woman.  A full-time journalist, she spends her days  writing and editing for professional and trade magazines.  Work on her fiction is relegated to the evenings and weekends.  Since her debut in 1995, that intense schedule has produced twenty novels, a novella collection, and a number of short stories (George R.R. Martin, are you paying attention?)  That debut novel was The Shape Changer’s Wife, a slim and gorgeous fable that was nominated for the Campbell Award, won the Crawford Award, and heralded the arrival of a major talent in the Fantasy field.
What’s the difference between a fantastic Romance and a romantic Fantasy?  Possibly how deeply embedded the fantastic element is in the narrative.  If you could remove the magic and essentially tell the same story, it’s a Romance.  Twilight, for instance, would be arguably the same story if Edward was simply a rich townie, and Jacob the local hot boy from the rez.  Sure, there might be less fur and blood, but the particulars of the relationships between the  characters would be unchanged.  But Shinn’s novels don’t operate like that.  The magical constraints of her worlds are absolutely essential, both to the story and to the relationships between her characters.  
And such wonderful worlds they are.  Some novels are set in a series – though ‘linked set’ is a better term, because each book tells a separate story – but many have been single story creations.  Most are Fantasy novels, though at least three are Science Fiction.  One of those, Heart of Gold, is an excellent place to start (though difficult to find these days).  It’s a story of culturally inculcated racism and sexism, bioengineering, terrorism, and attempted genocide.  Sounds like fun, huh?  When I first started the book, I was a little skeptical:  such big problems can’t be easily solved.  But I needed have worried;  only her prose was easy, and that because it was so beautiful, I gulped it down whole.  But despite the complex nature of the conflict, Heart is also the story of the triumph of thought over fear, and the human desire to be more, to be better than one is or thought it possible to be.  And at the same time, it’s a remarkable love story because of, rather than despite, the differences between the characters.
In a semi-recent guest post on the Odd Shots blog, Sharon talked about Fantasy and Romance.  She gave what I thought was an excellent description of the difference between the two genres:  “I’ve heard it said of fantasy-romance books that if the last paragraph is about the magic, the book is predominantly a fantasy;  if the last paragraph is about the lovers, it’s a romance.”  Here, then, is the start of the last paragraph of Heart of Gold:
“Tonight,” she said, and not another word.  But even as she left the room, he was with her; walking the silent streets, she felt him beside her.  She saw the city, heard her own footfalls, with his senses; and she knew that would be the way of it from this day forward, no way to disentangle, not need to, no desire.

*Except for Horror.  Too scary.  Horror’s on it’s own.


~~~
Chris Szego also recommends the novella ‘Blood’ in Shinn’s Quatrain collection, which is set in the same world.

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