The newest generation of romance writers is shaking things up. Restless, adventurous, determined heroines are perfectly suited to 21st-century readers, and even those constrained by the rules of Regency society or werewolf packs are finding ways to stand on their own two feet, their romances complementing but never overwhelming the lives they've built for themselves.
Romance authors are having a few adventures of their own. Tessa Dare moves from Ballantine to Avon with A Night to Surrender, the start of her Spindle Cove trilogy, in which we meet some spinsters whose pleasant lives by the seaside are all the more peaceful for the lack of men. Julie Garwood, who jumped ship from Pocket to Ballantine a few years back, makes another move to Dutton with The Ideal Man, a romantic thriller featuring a trauma surgeon who has family drama to contend with on top of serial killers and a sexy FBI agent.
A number of romance heroines are also ending old relationships, and with good reason. In Sylvia Day's Regency-era Seven Years to Sin, a young widow hopes that her new lover will be a better man than her vicious father or her sister's intermittently violent and repentant husband. Amanda Forester's The Highlander's Heart also considers the troubles that battered women face in historical settings as an English countess fleeing an abusive marriage winds up the prisoner of a seductive Scot. But some troubled partnerships can be repaired, as the Smythes find out in Shana Galen's Lord and Lady Spy: once they realize that both of them have been hiding careers in espionage, their freedom to live honestly (and cheerfully swap war stories) turns their sham marriage into a real one.
Lady Smythe is just one of many heroines who know how to handle a blade. Like her, the protagonist in Isabel Cooper's No Proper Lady, a contract killer from our future who heads back to 1888 England in search of an evil magician must curb her homicidal tendencies to move in the circles of polite society. Chalice, the heroine of Karen Duvall's urban fantasy Knight's Curse, is trained as a knife fighter from a young age and forced to hone her skills in the service of an evil sorcerer. The title character of Janet Woods's Lady Lightfingers is a formerly well-off young woman reduced to living in the slums of Victorian London and picking pockets to support her family. Another, much less reluctant female pickpocket joins a spy mission in Elizabeth Essex's The Danger of Desire. And Heather Graham's Bride of the Night features a female vampire determined to guard Abraham Lincoln from an assassination plot.
If these deadly women seem to have little in common with the modern romance reader, think again. Today's women—of all ages—are in search of new role models, fictional women who will help them figure out whether and how to balance romance with a career, leave a harmful relationship, or seize the opportunity for adventure. If that means literally taking up arms in the service of one's country or in self-defense... well, why not? Romance has always led us to imagine our best possible selves. All that's changed is our ever-expanding notion of what is possible.
PW's Top 10 Romance
A Night to Surrender
Tessa Dare. Avon, Aug.
The Ideal Man
Julie Garwood. Dutton, Aug.
Seven Years to Sin
Sylvia Day. Brava, Sept.
The Highlander's Heart
Amanda Forester. Sourcebooks, Aug.
Lord and Lady Spy
Shana Galen. Sourcebooks, Sept.
No Proper Lady
Isabel Cooper. Sourcebooks, Sept.
Karen Duvall. Luna, Aug.
Janet Woods. Severn House, Oct.
The Danger of Desire
Elizabeth Essex. Brava, Dec.
Bride of the Night
Heather Graham. HQN, Nov.