The 2010s have been an important decade for romance. Specifically, the last ten years have seen major strides in representation and inclusion when it comes to who we see reflected in the happy ever afters or HEAs that define the romance genre. Authors like Beverly Jenkins, Radclyffe, and many, many others have been telling stories about underrepresented people and communities for decades, and although there’s still a long way to go, in recent years, conversations about diversity and inclusion in romance have become impossible to ignore.
Just ten years ago it would have been difficult to imagine that a book with two women in a passionate embrace would be carried and heavily marketed by a major publisher, much less that it would need to go back for multiple reprintings. Last year, the first ever genre romance was named was named to the New York Times list of 100 notable books of the year: the story of a young African-American scientist and an African prince.
Many of the books on this list are from the last few years, and although there may be some recency bias in that, it’s also a sign of progress. As more different kinds of stories make their way from authors and publishers into the hands of readers, our expectations shift and change as well. The bar gets raised. Here are ten romances that have helped to raise the bar over the last decade.
The Duchess War by Courtney Milan (2012)
Anyone who thinks a duke in an historical romance has to be a brooding asshole should pick up The Duchess War and meet Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont. He’s warm and kind and falling in love with Minerva Lane, a quiet, unassuming woman with a secret. Robert has secrets of his own, but their rivalry is good-natured, making the affection that builds between the two feel all the more genuine. Milan’s style of writing includes authentic characters, themes of social justice and feminism, and – in this case – one of the most impressive sex scenes I’ve ever read – but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking.
Glitterland by Alexis Hall (2013)
Alexis Hall writes across genres so sci-fi/fantasy fans may know him, but Glitterland is decidedly a romance. Ash is a writer, struggling after early success and also trying to manage his clinical depression. When he meets Darian, an aspiring model, it’s clear that the two come from two different worlds, but they have an instant chemistry. Their path to “more than chemistry” is complicated; Hall treats Ash’s depression with compassion, but also doesn’t shy away from the frustrations and challenges of it, or from the ways it impedes his relationship with Darian. That fight for that HEA is part of what makes the story so satisfying, and the way Ash and Darian complement each other so well makes them an unforgettable romance pair.
Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews (2014)
To those who would say, “Romance can’t be full of magic and mayhem and violent murder,” Ilona Andrews says, “Not so!” Burn For Me, the first book in the Hidden Legacy trilogy, is set in a world that’s basically the same as our current world, except a significant portion of the population has magic powers. The story of Nevada Baylor, a private investigator who has to team up with a dangerous and powerful billionaire to track down a target who can set anyone and anything on fire is the perfect entry point for romance lovers interested in checking out urban fantasy or urban fantasy lovers looking to dip a toe into romance. Because in addition to magic and mayhem, there’s also a lot of feelings.
When A Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare (2015)
One of my favorite romantic comedy writers of all time, Tessa Dare’s books are laugh out loud funny while also carrying a very real emotional weight. When A Scot Ties the Knot may be the best example of that: this historical romance begins with a young woman named Maddie inventing a suitor so that she doesn’t have to go out on the town to try to attract a real one. Her pretend beloved is a soldier, and she writes letters to him for years before ending the ruse by killing him off. It works out great – until he shows up at her door, not at all as fake as she’d thought. The comedy is delightful, but Dare doesn’t shy away from also exploring Maddie’s social anxiety disorder or why jaded Captain Logan, her now very real suitor, feels entitled to Maddie’s land. It’s a story that reminds us the best rom-coms are more than just funny.
The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev (2015)
Sonali Dev is the kind of author who will rip your heart out and make you grateful for it. Reading her books is as emotionally exhausting as it is rewarding. In The Bollywood Bride, a famous actress returning to Chicago for her cousin’s wedding has to confront her long lost love and decide whether to finally tell him the heartbreaking truth about why she left. Deep history and close familial relationships give the story an epic feel that is gut-wrenching and deeply satisfying.
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (2018)
The premise of A Princess in Theory is so smart that it’s amazing it hadn’t been done before: what if one of those emails you get claiming you’re connected to an African Prince turned out to be real? So begins the story of a scientist named Naledi and Thabiso, the prince she had no idea was her betrothed. Cole may well be the most influential romance writer of the last decade, publishing contemporary, historical, and even science fiction romance that’s clever, heartfelt, and offers people from all different backgrounds and with all sorts of flaws their own happy endings. A Princess in Theory kicks off a series that includes characters of color, characters who are queer, characters who are disabled, and there’s even a hot guy who makes swords. But it all starts with Naledi and Thabiso.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018)
In that it’s funny and charming, The Kiss Quotient is a traditional romantic comedy. In that it features an econometrician heroine on the autism spectrum and the male escort she hires to help her get over her discomfort with physical intimacy, it’s decidedly not traditional – but it’s the better for it. Stella and Michael might be characters that are unique in the romance world in some ways, but the challenges they’re dealing with – communication, family pressures, truth and transparency – are entirely relatable. In her widely acclaimed debut novel, Hoang drew on her own experience with Asperger’s to tell a unique story that connected with readers on all different spectrums.
Rafe by Rebekah Weatherspoon (2018)
Rebekah Weatherspoon has made something of an art out of writing romance that contains conflict, but often very little angst. She intentionally writes her books in such a way that her readers – and particularly her readers of color – won’t find the kind of stress they often have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. She may have mastered the technique in Rafe, a book about “a buff male nanny” who starts providing child care for a highly accomplished doctor. The couple has great chemistry and they behave like adults, showing that regular communication, mutual respect, and continuous support are actually pretty sexy. And for the record, the actual sex is also super sexy.
Syncopation by Anna Zabo (2018)
Syncopation will never be confused for an old fashioned, conventional romance. The story of a band’s lead singer and the aromantic drummer he had a crush on in high school is much more rock and roll steamy than small town swoony. Plus, there’s kinky sex on a tour bus. But Syncopation is also intensely emotional, and the entire Twisted Wishes series has a really moving “found family” theme to it. The band members are all misfits, but they love each other in a way that’s just as compelling as the love stories in the series.
The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (2019)
Alisha Rai has spent much of the decade writing really smart, talented, unapologetically successful business ladies – and boy is it great to read about a female character who doesn’t apologize for being great at and dedicated to her job. The characters in Rai’s books also feel real, though, because they struggle and have imperfections. This is undoubtedly the case in The Right Swipe. Rhiannon, one of the main characters, is the inventor of one of the most widely used dating apps in the United States, and as she considers her next move, she has to navigate the emotional and career aftermath of a toxic relationship she once had with someone else in the field. She and Samson, the other main character, also have family and friends they love and struggle with, making the story feel like it’s set in a world and community you know and understand.