Nearly 30 million people in the U.S., according to Nielsen’s count, watched Meghan Markle and Prince Harry exchange vows last May, and a year later, it seemed that at least that number were eagerly awaiting the birth of the royal baby. To many, the romance between the American actor/entrepreneur and the man sixth in line to the British throne resembled a fairy tale—one that’s in part responsible for a new wave of contemporary royal romances.
“The rom-com is taking off, and people have this ever-present fascination with royals,” says Vicki Lame, editor at St. Martin’s Press and Wednesday Books. “Especially now that Meghan Markle is a royal, we’re very hungry for it.”
Leah Koch, co-owner of the Ripped Bodice romance bookstore in Los Angeles, says contemporary royals have a draw that’s distinct from that of another glamorous character type: the billionaire. “In royal romance you have the fantasy, you have the opulence, but it’s often presented as a burden,” she says. “I think that’s what makes it appealing—it doesn’t have the same greed issue that billionaire romances have.”
PW spoke with authors and editors of recent and forthcoming contemporary romances about how these stories are evolving and why they are resonating with readers.
Subverting the Monarchy
Koch is among those who are eager to see contemporary royal romances that better reflect the modern world. “I’m much more interested in people who are envisioning a more inclusive monarchy,” she says. One author she mentions is Alyssa Cole, who recently completed her Reluctant Royals series with A Prince on Paper (Avon), which PW’s starred review called “deeply satisfying.” A Reluctant Royals spin-off series, Runaway Royals, launches in 2020.
Each book in the Reluctant Royals series (three novels, two novellas) stars a black woman as a main character. Cole says that when she began writing the series in 2014, she drew on a variety of ideas and influences: “The scam emails that seemed to be everywhere a few years back, lack of media showing black women in STEM, lack of media showing black princesses, and a long-standing love for Coming to America, among other things.” In book one, 2018’s A Princess in Theory, Naledi, an epidemiology grad student, learns via email that she’s the long-lost betrothed of an African prince.
A Prince on Paper, the series finale, is a romance between Johan, a white European prince, and Nya, first cousin to her African nation’s royal family. Cole started planning the book before Markle met Prince Harry, although, she says, “there are definitely some Harry-esque aspects to Johan” (he’s a bad boy whose mother died when he was young). As the couple begin to open up to each other, they have to navigate popular opinion in addition to their own feelings.
“In royalty romance,” Cole says, “one or both of the protagonists are constantly in the public eye and have public expectations to live up to that require them to hide aspects of who they are.”
That tension between the public and the private recurs in Casey McQuiston’s recently released debut, Red, White & Royal Blue (Griffin), which PW’s starred review called “outstanding.” “I’ve always loved stories about royal romances,” McQuiston says, offering as examples the 2004 Julia Stiles movie The Prince & Me and 2015’s The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Her sister, she says, had a collage on her bedroom door that included a photo of Prince William.
In Red, White & Royal Blue, Alex Claremont-Diaz, the biracial, bisexual son of the U.S. president, falls for Prince Henry, the not-quite-out heir to the British throne. “There are five million versions of the Prince Charming trope,” McQuiston says. When romance sticks with what she calls “that straight, going-to-produce-a-million-heirs type of prince, I really feel like there’s an obvious subversion you’re not doing.”
Alex and Henry’s relationship morphs from orchestrated bromance to international romance complete with email love letters, Snapchat sessions, paparazzi, and a reelection on the line for the first female president of the United States. “I’m fascinated by worlds that are incredibly high-profile and incredibly private at the same time,” McQuiston says. In April, Amazon Studios won rights at auction to adapt the book for film.
Readers can look forward to more variations on the theme: Berkley v-p and editorial director Cindy Hwang recently acquired another contemporary royal M/M romance: Paul Rudnick’s Playing the Palace, slated to publish in 2021. “Contemporary royal romance sets a basis in reality for the romance,” Hwang says. “So even if it’s a situation that most people aren’t going to find themselves in, the [contemporary] setup makes it much more real-world.”
Ashlyn Kane updates the typical Cinderella narrative in Fake Dating the Prince (Dreamspinner, June), a “sparkling” contemporary royal romance, PW’s starred review said, between Crown Prince Antoine-Philippe of fictional Lyngria—the only European royal of Indian decent and the only one who’s openly gay—and flight attendant Brayden Wood. The prince, known as Flip, asks Brayden to be his escort to one of the biggest holiday parties in his region. What begins as a fake relationship develops into a real one, albeit one with some hiccups along the way.
Dreamspinner Press acquiring editor Sue Brown-Moore says the Duke and Duchess of Sussex sparked her interest in contemporary royal romance; specifically, their wedding prompted her to think, “We need more prince romances.” She reached out to Kane, already a Dreamspinner author, about the premise that developed into Fake Dating the Prince.
“Royals give people hope,” Brown-Moore says. “You can relate to the people in the story once you get to know them, but also it’s a fantasy escape. It’s not your normal life. So when Ashlyn and I started talking about doing a prince romance and she came up with these characters, I was like, ‘Yes—a thousand percent yes.’ Because I want more stories like that.”
The escapist appeal of a fictional royal family can extend to those who work alongside them, as in Jasmine Guillory’s Royal Holiday (Berkley, Oct.). Vivian, a middle-aged American woman, meets Malcolm, the private secretary to the Queen of England, while on holiday with her daughter in Britain. (Maddie, the daughter, is mentioned in Guillory’s Reese Witherspoon book club pick The Proposal and is the heroine of July’s The Wedding Party.)
After writing a few books with millennial leads, Guillory found Vivian and Malcolm’s romance refreshing. “I know so many people who are that age who have dated, who have found love,” she says. “It was really fun to write people who have been through the nonsense before and realize that it doesn’t help in any way. Neither of them has time for dealing with any of that.” (For more from Guillory, see “Fantasy and Reality.”)
Contemporary romance novels often shuffle the traditional “love, marriage, baby carriage” sequence, and royal contemporaries are no exception, with several forthcoming titles offering twists on the pregnancy trope.
In Angelina M. Lopez’s debut, Lush Money (Carina, Oct.), Mateo, a Spanish prince and viticulturist, and Roxanne Medina, a self-made billionaire, enter into a contractual marriage agreement: they’ll meet for regularly scheduled sex, he’ll provide her with the royal baby she very much wants, and she’ll pay him enough money to take his country out of debt. Meeting Mateo is just another business deal for Roxanne—until, inevitably, the arrangement turns personal.
“Roxanne has faced discrimination, not only for being a woman but for being a woman of Latinx descent,” says Kerri Buckley, senior editor at Carina Press, of the lead character, an orphan raised in poverty who grew up to become a highly educated, successful woman. Roxanne’s struggles caused her to steel herself while she focused on her own desires, including having a child. Lush Money is the first book in the Filthy Rich series, which will follow Mateo’s noble family.
Lucinda Riley’s recently published romantic thriller, The Royal Secret (Atria), was originally released in the U.K. in 2000 as Seeing Double. As Riley writes in her author’s note introducing the rerelease, “An early trade review suggested that St. James’s Palace wouldn’t like the subject matter”—journalist Joanna Haslam looks into a scandal involving an earlier generation of the British royal family and an illegitimate child—and the book was left to quietly fade away. Riley, who has gone on to write several works of romantic historical fiction, emphasizes in her note that “The Royal Secret is a work of fiction, bearing no similarity to our beloved queen and her family’s life.” PW’s review called the book “gripping.”
Haley Weaver, assistant editor at Atria, says the book will resonate with contemporary U.S. readers even though it was written a couple of decades ago. “Americans are always fascinated by the British royal family—in some ways, we’re more fascinated with them than the British are,” she says. “Meghan Markle having just married into the royal family has brought that interest to a high that we haven’t seen in some years.” There’s also the idea that rather than being put on a pedestal, the royals have come to be seen as fallible and more human. “There’s a tinge of dark excitement that The Royal Secret taps into,” she notes. “It brings them down a level.”
Contemporary royal romance has a natural home with the Harlequin Presents category line, pitched as “alpha males, decadent glamour, and jet-set lifestyles.” New titles that also center on babies include His Two Royal Secrets by Caitlin Crews (June), in which an heiress and a prince spend a passionate night together that leaves her pregnant with twins, and Clare Connelly’s recently released Shock Heir for the King. In Shock Heir, an artist named Frankie has a brief affair with a man named Matt—who in reality is Matthias, a prince who is about to ascend to the throne as king. He disappears, and Frankie only learns his identity three years later, when Matthias visits her shortly before choosing a woman of nobility to marry. During their reunion, Matthias finds not only an irate Frankie but his toddler son.
If the Crown Fits
In the forthcoming Harlequin category romance Surgeon Prince, Cinderella Bride by Ann McIntosh (Harlequin Medical Romance, July), a physician learns that she’s a princess when she’s asked to consider a marriage proposal from a fellow doctor who also turns out to be royalty, and who is looking to preserve his title by wedding another noble. Writing a commoner who not only marries royalty but is herself a secret royal offers another way for authors to make the monarchy relatable.
“Starting with an American woman, and having her find her way, is a great way to pull readers into the royal family,” says Christi Barth, author of The Princess Problem (Entangled, Nov.). In the novel, which launches the Unexpectedly Royal series, Kelsey Wishner starts a new chapter of her life in Manhattan only to learn two days later that she’s a long-lost princess from the fictional European country of Moncriano. Two sequels are planned, one following Kelsey’s princess sister and one centered on a potential royal romance for Kelsey’s American sister.
Barth, a contemporary romance author delving into royalty for the first time, sums up the appeal of contemporary royal romance for her, and perhaps for readers, too: “It’s so much fun to put strong 21st-century women in the position of wrestling with centuries of tradition.”
Jennifer Baker is a writer, podcaster, and the editor of the 2018 short story anthology Everyday People (Atria).
Below, more on the subject of romance novels.
In ‘Royal Holiday,’ the author of ‘The Proposal’ imagines a courtship between a middle-aged American woman and the private secretary to the Queen of England.
Call them Princess Diaries 2.0: New books spin the royal romance trope in different ways.
Rigaud’s rom-com ‘Truly Madly Royally’ pairs a black American teen with a white European prince when they meet at a summer college prep program.