How Much Is Enough

With THE TALON OF THE HAWK releasing, I’m beginning to see *those* reviews again. You know the ones – the kind that complain that there are romance cooties in my fantasy novel. Or that the romance suffers for all that space spent on world-building.

One major review publication said that it “is a competent romance set in a fantasy world, but there’s very little to satisfy fantasy fans.” The same review is careful to specify the “explicit lovemaking.” A reader who hastens to add that she enjoys my contemporary romances said of the first book in this series that she felt like there wasn’t enough fantasy to satisfy her as a fantasy reader and not enough romance to satisfy her as a romance reader.

So... how much is enough? And does it have to be one or the other?

Before we go much further, let me add in this from RT Book Reviews who gave it one of their highest accolades, a Top Pick. Among other lovely things, the reviewer says: “This is a complex world full of danger, subterfuge and secrets with empowering female characters who are not afraid to fight for their future.”

Which is exactly what I’m trying to do.

It’s good to get that feedback – actually all of this feedback, whether it makes me feel warm and fuzzy or not – because it makes me re-evaluate where I’m going with my stories. When I read the critical stuff, I inevitably start thinking things like, “oh, I should make the fantasy more dense, have less romance, less ‘explicit lovemaking.’” Rarely do I think that I should make these books more romance, because the pressure is all in the other direction – that somehow “very little to satisfy fantasy fans” feels like “simply not good enough.” The presence of sex and romance in too great a dose, or perhaps treated in a warmly emotional and detailed way, detracts from the books for some.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating there. There are plenty of reviews out there that say things like “read for the fantasy and skip the sex scenes.”

And don’t get me wrong – I am NOT reading all my reviews. Not by any stretch. I read the ones above because my publicist sent them to me. I scan others here and there, largely because an enthusiastic fan tags me with a rave review on Goodreads and I’ll see another right next to it with a dissenting opinion usually unhappy that the world-building made the story slow or that the sex *ruined* it.

Seriously, more than one person has said they loved THE MARK OF THE TALA, until they got to page 191 (I know the page, because this has been repeated so often) and the story WENT TO HELL. That’s a direct quote, by the way.

I know many people have an uneasy relationship with sexuality. And romance is often looked down upon as ridiculous, feminine and unrealistic. (The last, in a fantasy novel, never fails to amuse me.) For me, sex and romance are vital parts of the human experience. I want my heroines to be empowered and fight for their future! I also want them to discover that another person can be part of that, can love them and value them for exactly who they are. Sexual intimacy is a powerful experience also, that can be key to self-actualization.

This where I always circle back. I don’t want to decrease my romance percentage to make the fantasy more acceptable. Nor do I want to back off on the world and fantasy elements. I like both.

What percentage of each do I like to have? I have NO idea! I don’t plan this stuff. Really I don’t. For all that I am the Spreadsheet Queen and can tell you the percentages where each plot point occurs, I don’t graph out the fantasy vs. romance. It varies from book to book. Within one book, sometimes the turning points and act climaxes (heh) are action-based and sometimes they’re emotion-based. Sometimes somebody dies. Sometimes somebody gets to have mind-blowing sex – and an actual climax. Sometimes it’s a profound emotional betrayal.

Finally, that major review publication’s take might have bothered me more if I hadn’t just Skyped over the weekend with a book group who’d read THE MARK OF THE TALA. We spent 1.5 hours talking about the book. They had so many questions – all of them gushing. They were literally starry-eyed over it. I mean their eyes glistened as they talked, full of excited emotion over the world, the heroine, the magic, the hero.

It was amazing.

Because that is *exactly* what I want – the adventure, the magic and the romance.

In the end, that rather scathing review finished with the concession that “series fans will find this installment satisfactory.”

If those fans are any indication, then yes. Yes, they will.

I’m good with that.


*previously published on the blog of Suzanne Johnson in 2015*