I don’t know about you, but when the entire world as I know it is crumbling around me, all I want to do is stick my head in the sand and ignore it.
At one point during lockdown, I was so plugged in that my husband turned off our wifi and hid my phone from me so he could get some uninterrupted work done. Because otherwise I did this to him 10 times an hour:
Husband: Is it the latest update on the plague?
Husband: Because I asked you to stop doing this.
Me: *nonchalantly hides phone behind back* No. It’s not about the plague. I just wanted to know if you would have a cup of coffee if I made another pot.
After being cut off from all outside communication for the course of an afternoon that felt like it lasted an eternity, I decided that he might have had a point. The sheer amount of negative news I’d been consuming wasn’t good for my mental health. And since we’re already shut up in this house together 24/7, the last thing our relationship needs is more strain in the form of him having to act as a babysitter to my anxiety. I’ve taken it upon myself to set some ground rules.
- Only check the news 2x a day: two hours after I get up and two hours before bed.
- Delete my news and Twitter apps.
- Turn off all other social media notifications.
- Attempt some form of exercise every day.
- Employ distraction techniques.
Lately those distractions have been a mix of reading and watching TV. And by watching TV, I mean watching Schitt’s Creek.
For some strange reason, I haven’t been able to read anything new. My anxiety manifests in odd ways at times like this, and the chance that I might pick up a highly anticipated book only to end up hating it has become this weirdly insurmountable obstacle.
So while the newest releases languish on my shelves, I’ve been returning to old favorites. For me, the purest form of escapist literature can be found in romantic fantasies. There’s something about a love affair set in a distant world that is just so transportive.
Today I’m bringing you my top ten. I’ve read each of these books numerous times, and they are solid five-star reads for me.
1. Radiance (Wraith Kings Book 1) by Grace Draven
What it’s about: A human woman and a humanoid male (think gray skin, nacreous eyes, and razor teeth) find themselves tied together in an arranged marriage meant to bring their peoples closer together. At the beginning of the story, they find each other physically repulsive, and hilariously admit it during their first meeting.
“You find me ugly, don’t you?” she asked.
“Hideous. A hag of a woman.” he said. “And you? You don’t think me a handsome man?”
“Had you crawled out from under my bed when I was a child, I would have bludgeoned you to death with my father’s mace.”
I adored their banter, and their honesty with each other from the beginning, but the best part of this book for me was the fact that because they don’t find each other physically attractive (at first, I mean, this is a romance) they get to know each other slowly, over the course of their marriage, before deciding to become physically involved.
Yes to that. Give me ALL the slow burns.
2. A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane
What it’s about: Oh, boy, how to sum up this book? I read this in January and I’m confident that it will be my favorite book of 2020, because I have been waiting for a book like this for years.
YEARS, I TELL YOU.
This story has a sort of dark age setting, complete with towering castles, barbarian hordes, vengeful gods, and evil sorcerers. Also, dinosaurs are a thing. Just an FYI for those of you with shorter attention spans, this is definitely on the high fantasy side of the genre, with extensive world-building and the highest page count of any book on this list.
At the beginning of the story, the male lead loathes the female lead because of something one of her family members did, and he kidnaps her in hopes of getting his vengeance through her. Moral? Hell no, but then Maddek is a man driven to the brink when we meet him. Bless the female lead, Yvenne. When faced with this towering, enraged barbarian, she does whatever it takes to survive, and I loved the fact that because she had physical differences Vane made such a wonderful statement about what strength really is.
I can’t recommend this one enough for fans of darker romances or enemies-to-lovers addicts.
3. The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon
What it’s about: A girl without a voice. A king in chains. A land on the brink of war.
YOU SHOULD BE.
While this is listed as a romantic fantasy, it should be noted that it has all the trappings of a classic fairy tale, and I mean that in the BEST possible way.
There are curses, prophecies, evil sorcerers, gallant princes, reluctant princesses, and creatures of all shapes and sizes.
I absolutely devoured it, reading it in a single sitting. What can I say? Magic infuses these pages, and I found it damn near impossible to resist Harmon’s spellbinding prose. The world she weaves with her words is as enthralling as it was enchanting, and I’m sorry to leave it behind. Thank the literary gods there’s a sequel.
4. Ember by Bettie Sharpe
What it’s about: Okay, so technically this is listed as a fairy tale retelling, but to me, it’s so different from the original that it reads much more like romantic fantasy. In Ember, Bettie Sharpe takes everything you ever thought you knew about Cinderella and flips it on its head.
In this rendition, our young heroine isn’t some helpless damsel in distress trapped in an abusive home until her “true love” rescues her. She’s not some flaxen-haired beauty with doe eyes and a tendency to spontaneously break into song. She’s a redheaded witch named Ember, with a twisted right foot and a temper to match her fiery mane.
What results is a beautifully written, feminist tale even better than the original. It’s filled with thought-provoking narrative, hilarious dialogue, unapologetic badassery on the part of the female lead, wonderful female relationships, and women rescuing themselves.
5. Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis
What it’s about: Stephanie Burgis somehow managed to pack more world-building and character development and feminism and diversity into this novella than some of the full-length romances I’ve read recently did.
In her version of Angland, women rule the nation, and men are relegated to being spellcasters. Oh, and she flips the scripts even further, because men are the ones who have to watch out for their delicate reputations or else risk being ruined by a woman – YES QUEEN, OH, GOD, RUIN ALL OF THE STUFFY ENGLISHMEN.
As for the lore, there are wicked elves, slumbering trolls the size of houses, the risk of a treaty between realms collapsing, and, oh, is that a rakish ex-fiance come to help our heroine?
6. Bound to the Battle God by Ruby Dixon
What it’s about: Just ignore that cover. Pretend it doesn’t exist. I swear this book is much better than it might lead you to believe.
Imagine being sucked into a magical portal and thrown into a fantasy world in which every millennia or so, the All Father of the gods punishes his offspring by exiling them to the realm of the humans. Once there, in order to survive the gauntlet of people and other gods trying to kill them, these gods must bind themselves to a human.
In this book, that woman is from our world and all she wants is to get the eff home because this place is batshit. Too bad, she finds herself bound to the god of war. Both of them are grumpy about it.
This is a hysterical slow burn that I ugly laughed the entire way through. I’ve read too many of Dixon’s books to count, and this is by far the longest and most extensive world-building I’ve seen from her.
And because of that, it’s my favorite.
7. Pestilence by Laura Thalassa
What it’s about: Picture the apocalypse. LOL, okay, no, not this one, but one in which the four horsemen descend unto the planet and not even quarantining will save you.
This is the first book in a series all about those horsemen, and just a head’s up, it has a borderline Stockholm syndrome situation going on. The male lead is the titular Pestilence, and since his job is to eradicate mankind, he’s not especially nice to the heroine in the beginning.
Oddly, I had no problem with him actively annihilating human kind, because when I read this almost a year ago, I thought humanity sort of deserved an apocalypse. Reading my original review for it is actually a bit creepy now.
This is a romance though, and the more time Pestilence spends with the heroine, the more he begins to think that some humans can be saved. Enter some seriously well-written existential angst on his part, because God has directed him to smite.
But…what if God is wrong?
8. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
What it’s about: This book is one part ingenious re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin and one part high fantasy. Add a simmering, slow-burn romance, and you got one hell of a book.
In typical Novik fashion, once you pick this up, you won’t be able to put it down. I said in my review for Uprooted that it was like she sprinkled real magic onto the pages, that’s how captivated I was reading it. Spinning Silver is no different, which is why this author is one of the few on my auto-buy list.
Pro tip: save this one for the depth of winter, when the wind is howling and snow blankets the ground outside. It makes it that much easier to imagine yourself in the arms of the Ice King.
9. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
What it’s about: A beauty and the beast inspired fantasy romance. With fae!
This is one of those books that, while I loved it, I recommend it tentatively. It’s well-known that Maas has a certain pattern to her books, and that the hero in one might be inexplicably (and rather unbelievably) transformed into the villain in the next.
Aside from the author’s characterization quirks, this is a solid book. The retelling aspect of it is unique, the fantasy style world-building is good, and the characters make you feel all the feelings.
Even though I quit this series after finishing the second book, I’ve come back to this one more than once (and just imagined an H.E.A. – don’t judge me).
10. The Bridge Kingdom by Danielle L. Jensen
What it’s about: A young woman is trained all her life to murder the man she will one day marry.
I totally hooked you with that, didn’t I? Good, because this book is seriously compelling.
Imagine an island kingdom that controls a massive, ancient series of unbreakable bridges that span the ocean from one neighboring country to the next, providing the only safe year-round passage for trade between the realms.
That kind of power would inspire jealousy, lead to invasions, and ultimately, the placement of a spy that no one would suspect, right into the heart of the royal household.
I can’t really say any more without leading into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that if you like your romances packed with intrigue and angst, this little gem is for you.