There’s Kissing In My Fantasy: Sam Sykes On Where Romance Fits In

As baffling as it is, some readers — especially some fans of fantasy — don’t like romance to play a part in the books they read. Dragons, epic battles and the like are fine, but romance? Nope. Fantasy author Sam Sykes, who’s celebrating the print release of The City Stained Red, has a lot to say about this, and what better time to wax philosophic than now, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner? Here’s what he has to say:

I must confess I’m a little disappointed.

The print version of my fantasy book The City Stained Red has just dropped into bookstores. The ebook has been out for some time now. There have been a lot of reviews for it, most of them positive, and the criticisms against it have been pretty thoughtful.

And through it all, not one person has complained about the romance or sex.

This almost feels like a slight! Amongst the many rites of passage a fantasy author must take — competitive beard-growing, bouts of social awkwardness, at least one instance of getting drunk and screaming obscenities about elves at a convention being amongst them — being chastised for “unnecessary” or “sloppy” or, hopefully, “weird” romance or sex is at the very top. 

One cannot be considered a true fantasy author until one is the subject of a long, moaning post about how creepy or fetishistic they’re being by including two people kissing or holding hands or having sex.

“It just feels like we should have outgrown this,” I heard one critic say about a book I will not name. “Fantasy has made such stride toward realism, sappy romances just feel like wish fulfillment.”

And that gave me pause.

Other authors have touched on this before, but the fact that people will nod their heads at dragons and roll their eyes at kissing has always struck me as odd. The fact that we in one hand laud fantasy for its realism and then decry the most common human condition as wish-fulfillment has always puzzled me.

Particularly when it’s everywhere in fantasy already.

I feel there are a number of readers who operate off a particularly narrow definition of “romance.” Even though RT readers know better, the mere mention of the word immediately brings to some people’s minds an image of a shirtless man with a buxom, swooning maiden in arms, pouting gently with eyes half-lidded. They think of two clean people walking, hand-in-hand, through the dirt roads of Vermont (does Vermont have dirt roads? What am I thinking of? Ohio? You know, that general area of perpetual autumn where all romance movies seem to happen and where Keanu Reeves did time travel with Sandra Bullock or some shit) and exchanging coy glances and weird anecdotes.

They think of the “sand” monologue from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Which is why a lot of people say “I don’t mind romance, if done well,” which is a pretty silly criticism. Of course one doesn’t mind romance done well. One doesn’t mind anything done well, because it’s done well. But the truth of the matter is that romance has been done well for an awful long time in a lot of forms of genre and we simply haven’t noticed because we’ve been missing an awful lot of romantic elements.

“Relationship” is as loaded a term as “romance,” yet it is just as pervasive and forms the core of any story. Between characters, between times, between the self and the self, every story is defined by its relationships. And every relationship is defined by its romance.

Seems simple enough, but the romance is where things get complex.

Two people screaming at each other is romantic. A man writing a very bitter, angry letter is romantic. A woman pointedly ignoring a person waving to her is romantic. The moment when Lurtz grabs Aragorn’s sword and pulls it deeper into his stomach while snarling at him is romantic.

That last one is a little out there, I admit, but it also proves my point. These actions are ways in which relationships are built, strengthened, weakened, torn apart. And I view romance as the inherent building block in those relationships.

And the truth is, it’s been there forever. Our subconscious minds, as readers, have been picking up on them forever. In seeing those moments that we construed as anger, as bitterness, as sorrow, we have, in fact, been subconsciously associating them with how they are affecting the relationships in our stories and growing our investment in those relationships.

The City Stained Red features a love story between the main characters, Lenk and Kataria. From different races, different cultures, they are drawn to each other inexorably due to their own feelings of not fitting into their own culture. And while unable to resist that draw, they are likewise unable to shake off those cultural influences.

As a result, that prominent love story features a lot of fighting. A lot of screaming and punching, and probably a stabbing or two.

And I did get one critic who complained, long and loud, about the impracticality of this allure. They went on, at length, over how foolish the relationship was because wasn’t it obvious that they could just talk to each other and solve everything?

And I considered that immense praise. Because they were angry because they had invested in the relationship because they took that anger between the characters and subconsciously realized the meaning behind it because they shared the frustration of the characters and …

You see my point.

So, while I’m a little disappointed I’ve not gotten anyone calling me creepy for writing an angry sex scene yet, I’m not disappointed in my genre as a whole. We have been gobbling up increasingly vast and grander stories. And while we may not recognize how much we love romance for a while yet, that’s fine.

It’ll be there, as it always has been.

Sam Sykes

What say you, Fantasy readers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to pick up a copy of The City Stained Red today! For more Fantasy books, authors and buzz, visit our Everything Fantasy page.

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