In Defense of Darkness

darklandscape Earlier this year, Leigh blogged about liking lighter romance. I enjoyed her piece and it got me thinking about my own views on tone in the books I prefer to read. I certainly don’t mind humorous romance or laugh out loud slapstick in the least. The book within a book from What Happens in London is one of my romance reading highlights! However, I have a soft spot for the dark and angsty, or at least the dramatic and serious, and many books on my keeper shelf feature heroes and heroines who really had to work for that happy ending.

Judging by the appeal of authors such as Anne Stuart or Laura Kinsale, I’m not the only one who reads this way. One would never mistake Stuart’s dark, dangerous men for the overgrown frat boy rakes of lighter tales. Stuart’s men aren’t just cuddly “bad boys”; the aura of danger they carry is real. If I had any sense, I’d run the other way, but something about seeing those angsty characters protect and love someone really gets me. Something about the amount of control it takes to maintain that balance of danger and safety, good and evil just seems terribly sexy, and she writes that dynamic so well.

In addition, darker romances really bring home that point about the redemptive power of love. Think about Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale. Christian, felled by a stroke, clings desperately to Maddy but they also fall in love and it’s a devastating and beautiful journey. A Scotsman in Love by Karen Ranney also comes to mind. Ranney’s tale of love between a wounded, betrayed artist and her grieving widower neighbor wrings one out, but the healing power of love shines through more brightly in the darkness of Margaret and Robert’s lives than it could in a frothy comedic romp of a story.

While some of the light and fluffy books definitely have their poignant side, I find that darker romances – at least the good ones -tend to go a little deeper inside people’s hearts. Authors tease out those warm, fuzzy feelings but they also come up with some parts of characters that aren’t all sweetness and light with bluebirds twittering around rainbows. Perhaps Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerly trilogy rings a bell with some readers. In To Have and to Hold, the heroine is a convicted murderer and the jaded magistrate hero Sebastian builds a relationship with her that comes off both creepy and yet deeply emotional – and without spoiling the plot, let’s just say it manages to save them both.

And that’s just one book in the trilogy. All three are excellent, and all explore darker territory than your average “love and laughter” romance. One could say the same about Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Miller’s Kill books. While technically mystery rather than romance, the relationship that runs through the series truly holds it all together. Watching Russell Van Alstyne and Claire Fergusson learn to deal with a relationship fraught with moral dilemmas, age differences, past baggage, and so many more issues takes readers through all kinds of emotional terrain. Some parts of this journey may warm the heart or even make one chuckle, but at other points, such as when the two realize they are attracted but can do nothing about it without violating codes of ethics, readers see real anguish as well. I value this series not just for the mysteries, but also for these lead characters to whom I’ve grown very attached as I have followed them through both good and bad places on their journey together. If I read only the lighter side of romance, I’d miss these transformational journeys and without seeing the dark, I’m not sure I’d fully appreciate the light. While I enjoy the occasional breezy escape, I sometimes need that introspection or that powerful emotional punch to the gut that one gets from visiting the darker side of the romance aisle.

– Lynn Spencer

17 thoughts on “In Defense of Darkness

  1. Nice to hear that someone else really likes Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Miller’s Kill series. I totally agree with your comments about the books. I don’t think of myself as a mystery reader, but when the relationship is such a strong thread I can read any kind of book! I actually listened to all of these, and the audi versions are good.

    Thanks for reminding me of old favorites like Flowers From the Storm – it will always be one of my favorites. I don’t keep many books, but I do have that one on my shelf. And Patricia Gaffney’ Wyckerly series was excellent.

    When I look at my small keeper shelf I don’t find any light titles even though I read a wide range of romance. It’s the dark, intense ones that ultimately grab me and don’t let go.

  2. Great topic! I get a craving for a good angsty hero once in awhile. My fav had to be Gabriel of Broken Wing by Judith James. It was my best book of ’09.

    I must get my hands on Flowers from the Storm since there seems to be so much buzz about it & I have never read it.

  3. I love this topic!

    Although I do like light and humorous romance now and then (e.g. To Die For by Linda Howard, some Heyer’s and Eloisa James), I loop love dark romance so much more. Among my top 20 are Cry No More by Linda Howard, Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn, Passion by Lisa Valdez, The Emerald Necklace by Diana Brown, A Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh, Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas. The last one I read that falls into this category was Dirty by Megan Hart and it was great.

    I haven’t read To Have and To Hold but I have it and am very much looking forward to reading it.

    Thanks so much to everybody for great recommendations, I’ll have to add a lot to my TBR list.

  4. Some of my favorite angst books from my personal DIK list:
    ** Sweet as Sin by Inez Kelley: The newest of the list about aYA author and his neighbor next door (AAR review in the works right now)
    ** The Temporary Wife by Mary Balogh: A peer marries a stranger to shock his family
    ** A Reason to Live by Maureen McKade: A Civil War nurse encounters a man whose son died in her arms
    ** She’s Got It Bad by Sarah Mayberry: A woman who threw away her chances for childbirth reunites with the man who walked away from her
    ** Silver Lining by Maggie Osborne: In order to have a child, a rough female gold miner marries a man who loses a bet
    ** The Night Remembers by Kathleen Eagle: A teacher, Native American man, and a boy explore heroes and love

  5. I’m on the lighter side of romance, apparently, because I’ve never read any of the previously mentioned books or authors listed! It’s safe to say I like a limited amount of angst.

    Charlotte Lamb remains one of my favorite Harlequin Presents authors for some of the best angsty books published in the early to mid 80s. 188 pages? Sign me up!

    300 or 400 pages? That’s more challenging. Can anyone give me one title that might be worth the risk? I don’t think I’d like “Flowers from the Storm”, but I’m open to other suggestions.

  6. I love dark romances. I find that the intensity level is much higher when things aren’t all sweetness and light. My faves are Jo Goodman and Patricia Gaffney, and I am always on the lookout for new writers. I also love the Miller’s Kill books. I am always struggling to describe them when I recommend them, because they are such an odd mix of cozy elements (small town setting, funny and sort of stereotypical supporting characters) and very dark and angsty stuff (true love, forbidden relationships, gruesome crime), hard to describe, but easy to enjoy for an angst lover.

  7. ooh, I love some dark angst!

    I find, though, that every time I read really enjoyable dark stuff, I find it harder to come back to lighter stuff. I really loved Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark, for example, until I read JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, and then I found Cole too on-the-surface. (I know Ward divides readers, but I love the extremity!)

    One series has almost ruined me for romance for life – The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. It’s historical before it’s romance (although the last book gives any romance a run for its money). But her hero, as anyone who’s read it will tell you, is so unique – so razor-sharp, spiteful, charming, enigmatic, inexplicable.

    It’s hard to read other romantic heroes after him and not feel like they’re insubstantial.

  8. I love dark and angsty in my books much more than light and/or funny. Don’t know what that says about me…LOL.

  9. I tend to “cleanse my palate” with non romance books. I am having great fun reading books written by Spencer Quinn & David Rosenfelt.

    I do read women’s fiction. I have a much easier time with the angsty moments, because the woman is saving herself and getting over some jerk, instead of forgiving one (grin). I think that is one reason I tend not to like the darker romances, because for the most part the hero tends to treat the heroine horribly because of some incident in his past, and she forgives him. I like women who draw the line in the sand, and say you can’t treat me like that. Not that I can say comedy romances are especially strong in that aspect, but with humor, it doesn’t seem like they are treated as badly even though it might be the same scenario.

    For some reason, out of all the psychology theories that I was introduced to, the one think that sticks in my mind is that if you are broken and don’t think highly of yourself, then you are not a good candidate for a healthy relationship. I am sure that there are many exceptions to that. But it difficult for me not to think it, when reading some of the darker romances. Although, I can’t really say that I read them. I get to certain point, and never finish the book.

  10. I can read angsty books, but I generally “cleanse my palate” with lighter books in between. I also like for the angsty books to have light moments in them to break the tension at times. I don’t care for books where the stress and tension go on and on, and the characters never seem to get a break.

    I recently read and loved The Outsider by Penelope Williamson. It wasn’t my typical romance pick, but I thought it was not only beautifully written, but complex. It was at times violent and brutal, but the heroine, Rachel, somehow keeps the book on a positive course overall. Williamson doesn’t sugar-coat her characters, and she didn’t try to neatly tie-up all the sub-plots or answer some of the larger questions. A book like this every so often keeps my brain young because I tend to think about the bigger issues for a long time afterward.

    I love romantic suspense, so I like some tension in my novels, but I guess overall I read for stress-relief. I do want depth to my stories, and some emotional angst is great as long as it doesn’t go on too long.

  11. I just found myself moved to tears and laughter by Rachel Gibson’s latest. It’s such a joy when books are both moving and funny. I also loved Julia Anne Long’s latest for that reason.

  12. I find that in reading, as in food, a balanced diet is healthier and more fulfilling. Gaffney’s “To Have and To Hold” is on my keeper shelf, but so is Crusie’s “Welcome to Temptation”. And I agree with JaneAAR in that lighter books should have some depth while darker ones need a bit of humor or sweetness for balance — not to mention that a bit of contrast can serve as highlight to the overall tone of the book.

  13. I enjoy reading both light and angsty romances, but if I look at my keeper shelf, it’s the dark ones I tend to hold onto. Flowers from the Storm and To Have and To Hold are certainly there. One author who can write hilarious scenes in serious tales is Julie Anne Long, especially in Like No Other Lover.

  14. Jo Goodman writes very dark books. Some of her earlier ones, like “The Price of Desire” and “A Season to be Sinful,” deal with child abuse and rape. Her latest book was almost too dark for me–incest and murder shape the heroine. I loved the earlier ones, but have found the subject matter too grim in her latest books.

    I do like some darkness and heft in my romances though. I think it’s one reason I like Anne Mallory so much.

  15. I, too, like some darkness sometimes. Some of my favorite authors tend to have dark plots and tortured characters (Elizabeth Hoyt comes to mind) and right now I’m reading a book that is much darker than I had anticipated; a skim of the back cover copy and a colorful cover led me to think it was more of a road romp, but in truth it’s an adventure through India during the rioting. I’m not disappointed, though.

    Maggie B is right, though, that surprise angst can be off-putting, as is pure angst. generally I think of the yin-yang symbol when I think of the perfect balance of books: light, fluffy books should have some depth and seriousness to them, while dark ones need a bit of fluff to balance it out.

  16. Flowers from the Storm is an all time favorite for for me. Rainwater, a recent DIK for me, is also an extremely dark book (in the sense that much nastiness happens and the HEA is non traditional) but to me it was one of those journeys that put me through the ringer but left me richer at the end.

    My one quirk with these is that I need to know the darkness is coming. Don’t give me a cutsey cartoon cover and fun filled blurb and slam me with pages and pages of angst. Let me know from the cover that this might be a more serious tale.

    The author also needs to have talent. She has to balance her serious and light, which not everyone can do.

    But these books are indeed a welcome addition to the romance aisle.

    maggie b.

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