Crime novelist Rachel Howzell Hall pivots to new adult romantasy with The Last One (Red Tower, Feb. 2024). “It’s still a ‘Rachel Howzell Hall story’ that wrangles with why we do the things that we do,” she says. “I’m just coming at it in a different way.” The author spoke with PW about riding the romantasy wave.
How did you go about world building?
I’m a gamer. I play The Witcher, Starfield, Skyrim, Dragon Age, Dragon Quest—all of them. The best video games are the best stories. These games shape how we think about the world, and how we think about the genre. When I created my world, I knew it would have both order and wrongdoing. You can’t have light without dark. I created gods and a world that’s grounded in our belief systems but also questions how we believe and who gets to decide what we believe.
Coming from a crime fiction background, how was it to embrace the conventions of the romance genre?
I’m a pragmatic romantic in real life: it’d be nice, but if it doesn’t happen, that’s fine. Even though I’m hard like that, there are things I treasure and value, like my daughter. Unconditional love, how we hurt the ones we love, how we’re scared to love—that’s what my editors are helping bring out. Kai, the main character, is cynical and snarky, not for the sake of being snarky, but because she’s been hurt and disappointed. She doesn’t know who she is. How can she properly love when she doesn’t know what it is to be loved or what she needs to be loved?
How do you see this series in conversation with your crime novels?
I’m interested in transgression. Who gets to decide what transgression is and what its punishment is? Why do powerful people sometimes forget the rest of their town or realm when making decisions that affect other lives? I explored that in my crime and mystery stuff, and I’m doing that now. My books also question what you’ve been taught to believe. If Kai is all-powerful, why does she need guards? If god is all-powerful, why does he need angels? I grew up Seventh Day Adventist, and was steeped in dos and don’ts. I’m asking things that I was always told not to ask. It’s fun and scary. In some ways, I’m transgressing.
What’s it like to debut in this very popular genre?
I’m agog. How are all these people reading all these books? In crime, we have our fans, but it’s nothing like this. People are preordering my book, and it only has a two-sentence description. I’m saving all kinds of things in my brain so I can reach back to them; somehow this experience is going to find its way into the things I write. I’m also scared. There could be more readers for this one book than probably all the readers I’ve had in crime and mystery. I’ve done well, but this is a different sort of “doing well.”