Yet another book recommendation
April 13, 2015 7:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm desperately searching for a new series. I'm in the mood for an academic leaning fantasy romance, which is almost too specific. Help me not go crazy in my search?

- Science fiction or fantasy. I'm leaning slightly toward fantasy, but science fiction will do.
- A good romance.
- Characters that aren't helpless or annoying. Extra points if the author doesn't keep telling you how smart/capable/awesome the characters are without showing you what makes them so smart/capable/awesome.
- The plot should be more academic-leaning. I have trouble following action, and instead prefer the plot to focus on puzzles or investigations.
- A trilogy or otherwise manageable series.
- I'm not above YA fiction, but the series should have some actual depth to it.

Books that I like that fit some of the criteria:
- Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (pretty much the best romance ever)
- Neal Stephenson's Anathem
- Danielle Trussoni's Angelology (the characters are pretty bad, but the pseudo-academic story is engaging and makes up for it mostly)
- Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian
- Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

A few previous questions have turned me on to Robin McKinley's Sunshine, which sounds like a good match other than it not being a series. It also seems like the romance isn't really a large part of the story, but I can't tell from the few Amazon reviews I've read.

Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches is 95% what I'm looking for. Unfortunately the main character is (IMO) an insufferable stockholm syndrome sufferer in love with a vampire that makes Edward Cullen seem non-abusive, which is a pretty big violation of the "characters aren't annoying" requirement. I'd really like to find a suitable replacement.
posted by Krop Tor to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I forgot to mention - I'd really prefer this were available on the Kindle. At the very least I should be able to pick it up at a major bookstore.
posted by Krop Tor at 7:16 PM on April 13, 2015

Best answer: You might like the Paper Magician. There is another one beyond that, which I haven't gotten to yet. But it was okay, if a bit bogged down in the middle.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:23 PM on April 13, 2015

Best answer: I really enjoyed Gail Carriger's Soulless. It's funny, romantic, clever, and well written. There are 4 more in the series (The Parasol Protectorate) but I haven't read the others. The protagonist and the love interest are strong, intelligent characters, and they have good chemistry together. The author actually started out in academia--she was an archaeologist.

FWIW, I could not get through A Discovery of Witches for the same reasons you cite. Any character who seems Edward Cullen-esque is enough to send me screaming, so rest assured Soulless is not like that at all.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:31 PM on April 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Courtney Milan's Brothers Sinister series. Start with The Duchess War. Not explicitly SFF, they're historical romance, but the plots have an academic flavor to them (and in more than one of the books, the plot's mostly about doing science.) Also, no abusive romance tropes, or at least none that I noticed.
posted by asperity at 7:33 PM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You might like The Golem and the Jinni. Romance, intelligent, not action. Very interesting characters, and you can try a sample on the Kindle.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 7:34 PM on April 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy perhaps? (I say only partway through Oryx and Crake...)
posted by phunniemee at 7:46 PM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's YA (though YA that spends a nontrivial amount of time on Anglo-Saxon poetry), but Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Boys series is everything. Second one's better than the first. There will be four; three are out so far.

Finnikin of the Rock is another YA fantasy series (trilogy) with great characters, great romance, and a plot that (IMO) has action but is not action-y, if that makes sense.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:48 PM on April 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I really enjoyed The Night Circus.

Also highly recommend the Kingkiller Chronicles books, but not if you don't like waiting to find out how a series ends (arghhhh)

Also this is an old one and may be well in your past already, but based on your description of what you want, The Time Traveler's Wife.
posted by Mchelly at 8:06 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:10 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I recommend Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, since you are willing to dip into YA. I liked reading them in that order. The protagonist of The Hero and the Crown is a legendary figure talked about a bit in the Blue Sword and it was cool to first hear the legend and then go back to the unpromising beginning.

I personally like The Curse of Chalion as a romantic fantasy. The romance is kind of in the background. The main plot is about war with neighboring countries and court machinations a bit in the style of Game of Thrones, but less cynical, with more hope for good to triumph. The setting is inspired by medieval Spain.
posted by puddledork at 8:12 PM on April 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely the Curse of Chalion series-strong female characters that are central or lead, smart, focused more on problem solving than violence. Love them all.
posted by purenitrous at 8:19 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sequel: A Scholar of Magics. (Prequel that is only semi-related and should be read last: When the King Comes Home.)

You might also like the "Sorcery & Cecelia" series that Stevermer wrote with Patricia Wrede.

Patricia Wrede on her own wrote "Mairelon the Magician" and "Magician's Ward" which probably fit your criteria. They're kinda Jane Austen-y comedies of manners, with some adventuring but more drawing rooms. Wrede's "Thirteenth Child" trilogy might also suit, although I'm less sure about that one (magic on the American frontier; the protagonist's father is a professor at a frontier college and there's lots of studying and puzzle-solving).

You might also like Sherwood Smith -- start with Crown Duel (first half is more actiony, second more drawing-room-battles) -- she's mostly published on indie imprints where she tends to bog down in excessively long and unedited worldbuilding and the plot drags, but it focuses a lot on puzzles rather than action, so if you're in the mood for something kinda slow and effulgent, it'll hit the spot. Crown Duel (which is a duology) is the most tightly-edited of the lot; she has lots of duologies and quadrologies and whatnot if you turn out to like the world.

Curse of Chalion is my everything, you should definitely read it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:25 PM on April 13, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories might be worth a look.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 8:28 PM on April 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, one more: Daniel Hood's Fanuilh series is out of print and not yet available as ebooks AFAIK, but they are straight-up fantasy-world mysteries, in a semi-quasi-Roman-empire-ish setting, with far more puzzle-solving than fighting, and they're really good (my bar for mystery is high). There are five of them, although amazon only appears to list three. They're more dude-centric than my usual favorites, but not in an annoying way. A bit off the beaten path but worth seeking out.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:33 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might like The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 8:44 PM on April 13, 2015

Best answer: Both Elantris and Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson would fit your description except that they're not series.

The Kushiel Series is the favourite series of several of my more romantic-leaning nerdy fantasy reading girlfriends. The books are like.. chock full of sex though, you've been warned.

The Lightbringer series is good, though maybe a little too action based, and Kip is a little annoying in the first book, though at least no one is trying to tell you he's capable.
posted by euphoria066 at 9:07 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding The Parasol Protectorate series - very fun and clever!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:07 PM on April 13, 2015

Best answer: Try Heather Rose Jones, Daughter of Mystery and the new sequel? Fantasy where the magic depends on a deep understanding of linguistics and alchemy. The romances involve women falling in love with each other, and the obstacles are mostly societal rather than misunderstanding-based.
posted by yarntheory at 9:08 PM on April 13, 2015

Best answer: You should definitely read Sunshine. Yes, it's not part of a series (wish it were!), but it's lovely, and the romance is definitely a prominent part. McKinley's Chalice might also be a good fit (also standalone, though).
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:19 PM on April 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Bujold's Curse of Chalion is excellent; one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read. All three books in that universe have romantic subplots; it's a more important part of the plot in The Paladin of Souls (standalone follow up to Curse of Chalion). I also really like the third book in the universe - The Hallowed Hunt - and it has a good romance running through it. Again, it's a stand alone (several hundred years earlier, in another country).

Bujold also has a fantasy-romance series which, while not as academic as the Chalion books, are still very interesting and have good world creation and mythology, as well as romance. She's known mainly as an SF&F writer, but she's also a fan of the romance genre, and the first two volumes of The Sharing Knife are structured just like a classic romance novel (but with much better world creation than the average fantasy-romance).

I also get confused during action scenes. I realised that I loved Bujold when the first big space battle in her Vorkosigan SF series took place entirely off-page.
posted by jb at 9:40 PM on April 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is the first in a series of four books that pretty much hit all your criteria. They are so so good.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:27 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think Tam Lin is pretty much exactly what you are looking for. No Kindle version though. And you may have already read it, because it is a classic.

Fire and Hemlock. Although YMMV about annoyingness of characters.

You might also like Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. I've only read the first so far, but it was promising. (Incidentally, the first one was Rivers of London but the US edition seems to be called Midnight Riot, but it's still the Rivers of London series. I do not understand.) They do have some action, but the investigation is more important and it's not, you know, action movie kind of action.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:36 PM on April 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Tam Lin, which meets all of your requirements except that it's a standalone. It's a long and dense standalone, though.

If you like literally academic settings, M.C.A. Hogarth's Mindtouch and Mindline meet all of your requirements except that the romance, while intense and central to the story, is platonic. Aliens from different species meet in graduate school, struggle with their majors, and become partners for life.
posted by timeo danaos at 1:40 AM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: Thirding Pamela Dean's Tam Lin.
posted by Coaticass at 1:45 AM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: I love, love, love Connie Willis' time travel books (Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog are particular favourites). It's set in a world where time travel exists and is used as a tool for academic research. 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' has a big ole romance in it, also.

Edited to add: ooh, seconding Mary Robinette Kowal! The Glamourist series is WONDERFUL.
posted by nerdfish at 1:47 AM on April 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. A cerebral court musician gets drawn into political intrigue in the wake of a royal murder which threatens to destabilize the peace between humans and dragons, who in this world are essentially two-story tall, emotionally constipated Vulcans ("But aren't Vulcans already...?" Yes, exactly!) who breathe fire. If characters whose reaction to getting drunk is to try and explain quadratic equations, this one is for you.There's a second book I'm about to start, and apparently more books in the same world are planned.

I was planning on mentioning Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen's Thief and Connie Willis' Oxford Time Travel series, but I see I've been beaten to the punch on both counts! Highly recommended, both series among my all-time favorites. I will note that The Thief is a light YA romp that you can breeze through in a couple of hours -- the end of that book and The Queen of Attolia are when your criteria really start kicking into gear.

I also second the Brothers Sinister books, especially The Duchess War.

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is far-future sci-fi with no romance, but a very intricate brainy main character and plot/timeline which is fun to try and piece together. A handful of action scenes which you also have to try and piece together (it's hard to explain without spoilers), but don't let that put you off -- this book swept all the major sci-fi awards for a reason.

It's been a while since I read any of his work Guy Gavriel Kay writes a lot of historical fantasy, some of which are set in the same world, though in different regions and eras. Many of his characters are artists, academics, doctors, etc. I'm not up to date on his more recent stuff but The Sarantine Mosaic, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Tigana are all fantastic. Avoid the yawn-inducing Fionavar Tapestry, his very Tolkien-derivative first work. Okay, he has a better excuse than most in that he helped Christopher Tolkien edit The Silmarillion, but even so.

Lastly, I haven't read this one yet but I keep hearing great things about A Natural History of Dragons.
posted by bettafish at 2:44 AM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was about to suggest Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, but it doesn't really have much romance.

Tamora Pierce's Tortall universe series (Song of the Lioness and Daughter of the Lioness specifically, not so much the two series in between for lack of romance) are more action-based, although the latter one is also about spying, so has a lot of strategy. Pierce also has a second universe, something about Circle Magic, which I haven't read yet, but it may be worth checking out.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:49 AM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: How could I have forgotten Connie Willis? Yes, yes, definitely. Also Lincoln's Dreams, which is much less funny than To Say Nothing of the Dog, but is academic and historical and the romance is just achingly bittersweet. I have picked up a nail. Sob!

And I had to come in to heap some enthusiasm on Guy Gavriel Kay, although I differ from bettafish in that I like his earlier works better than his later ones. Tigana is awesome though.

And finally, I forgot to mention Gillian Bradshaw, who writes historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it ticks all your other boxes. Unfortunately, some of my favourites of hers are out of print (The Beacon at Alexandria is one of my all-time favourite comfort reads) but looks like The Sand-Reckoner, The Wolf Hunt, and Island of Ghosts are all Kindle-ised.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:19 AM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: You might like Phillipa Gregory's Wideacre trilogy, but the characters are deeply, deeply flawed and sometimes I just wanted them all to stop making bad decisions and die. It's also not as historical as Outlander, but it gives an amazing panorama of manorial life in Britain, pulling from themes that have been vital and recurring throughout the history of that area.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:29 AM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: A.S. Byatt's "Possession" (NYT review) is not, strictly speaking, fantasy -- but manages to conjure up entire worlds, flipping between romances and centuries. It is beautifully written as well, and features smart, capable academics in pursuit of answers to the mysteries of passion and possession.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:07 AM on April 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of the titles that spring to mind have already been mentioned, but you may want to give Poison Study by Maria Snyder a look. It's the first of the Study Series, a trilogy.

I hear you about A Discovery Witches! I finished it, but all I could think of when I was reading it was "where was this author's editor?"
posted by chaoticgood at 5:27 AM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: Oh wow please read A Stranger in Olondria. I love this book so much. It's so beautifully written and joyful and heartbreaking. There's a plot about political intrigue, but it's sort of just a backdrop for detailed historical and cultural world-building. The only problem is that it isn't part of a series, sadly. :(
posted by aparrish at 6:24 AM on April 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Byatt's Possession was the first thing I thought of when I read the question too, but, like MonkeyToes says, it's not fantasy by most measures.

As for Sunshine, I just finished it over the weekend, and while I think it leans less on action and features not-annoying characters, I disagree with snorkmaiden about the romance angle: I felt there was romantic tension more so than outright romance (and I thought this was a great choice on McKinley's part). YMMV.
posted by xenization at 6:27 AM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really enjoyed The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Very imaginative worldbuilding, with adventure and gods and politics and romance and clever women protagonists.
posted by puddleglum at 11:45 AM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: Judith Tarr's The Hound and the Falcon trilogy? I haven't read these for years, but I woke up this morning remembering one of my favourite scenes from the third book. Alfred the elf monk might be annoying because he tries to be so damned pious, but his love interest Thea is the perfect counterbalance.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:44 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to second euphoria066's suggestion of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series. It's just what you're looking for!
posted by dchrssyr at 1:40 PM on April 14, 2015

Best answer: Thirding Gail Carriager; all of her books are good and the Parasol Protectorate circles around a romance and marriage. I picked up the first of her young adult series and quite liked it as well, though the romance in it is very muted. Has the bonus of having homosexual as well as heterosexual canon characters; some people object to the prominent gay man.

The 500 Kingdoms and Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey are all quite good and the books contain at least one romance, sometimes more. The former is High Fantasy and the latter is 1800s Urban Fantasy. Most of them contain mysteries or problems of some sort, and in the former case there is a larger puzzle implied by the world building that I quite enjoy. If you blow through all of those books, look in her back catalogue; my biggest complaint about some of her older stories is the ethical systems of the good guys tended to align a little too neatly, so I got bored. Her Urban Fantasy might be too actiony for you, though (Serrated Edge Series). She is prolific, however, which is a bonus.

Robin McKinley has a number of other fairy tale based books before Sunshine, most of which have a stronger romance element than Sunshine (it is in Sunshine, but ...complicated). She's once written two books in the same universe. I adore her Beauty book, The Door in the Hedge (which is four short stories), and the aforementioned Blue Sword & Hero and the Crown (the former was her answer to Arabian-styled romance novels).

Patricia McKillip does wonderful, women-centered books. My favorites of hers are Fool's Run and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Both have romance, but the romance isn't central. Fool's Run in particular is very philosophical.

I'm a huge fan of Seanan McGuire. Her Urban Fantasy October Daye series has romance on the side, lots of mysteries, fairly dark. It might be too heavy on the action for you, but each book centers around mysteries to be solved and Daye is a detective of some skill and a lot of persistence. Her InCryptid series is lighter Urban Fantasy, more romance; both are contemporary. She has a bunch of other books (horror, Super Heros) and is constitutionally incapable of not writing long series; October Daye is coming up on 8 books, I think, with no sign of stopping, and InCryptid is four or five.

The Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop is dark High Fantasy. The initial trilogy has a lot of rape in it - in addition to actual consensual sex, always condemned by the text, but still present - but the later books have pretty much none and a lot more hot scenes. She's on my re-re-re-reading list. She has several other series as well. I wasn't as fond of Tir Alainn, though it was still good, but Ephemeria is growing to be one of my favorites. I particularly liked the most recent installment. The romance comes and goes, the action is fairly low.

The Hollows Series by Kim Harrison is a romp of revealed Urban Fantasy / Modern High Fantasy (depends on your definitions, really). Higher on the action, and the hero does have an IC reason for some of the stupid stuff she does, but she is a detective so there are always puzzles and things to learn.

Breaking the Walls series by Jane Liskold is an awesome multicultural Urban Fantasy. Not as much romance, but excellently written and plotted with lots of strong women in it. Fascinating world and world building.

Re: Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series - it is one of my favorites, but the first four have no romance (the protagonists are 10-11). The later books start to get into it; the second four are set when they are teenagers, and in the later books they're adults and the romance comes in. It has the distinction of having homosexual and bisexual as well as heterosexual canon characters, and is up there with Breaking the Wall in terms of ethnic and racial diversity. They are my favorite of her books.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:58 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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