In Search of the Big Romantic Saga

horseireland I missed a lot of the old school historical romances the first time around, but starting in college, I began to discover them in used bookstores. There are definitely some aspects of Ye Olde Romance that are best forgotten (such as A Pirate’s Love and similar rapefests), but the older books had their good points, too. Roberta Gellis has long been a favorite of mine, and I remember how her stories could span years of a couple’s story, taking them through all manner of places and conflicts.

And does anyone else remember Valerie Sherwood? My memories of her books include some things that don’t entirely pass the giggle test and she had some tales that went into rapetastic territory as well, but I also recall big, sweeping historical events and again – stories that spanned years and often travel over great distances. In the Song series, beginning with Lovesong, she actually started with the heroine’s Colonial childhood and gave readers a story that went through her being sent away to school in England, and then into the Caribbean and all manner of romantic adventures. It’s been years since I read these books and as I recall, they definitely have some creepy and cringeworthy scenes, but there’s also a huge canvas and lots of action drawing one in nevertheless.

When I think of older romances, I could go on and on with names of authors who wrote big, sweeping sagas. Most romances I read now stick to much smaller worldbuilding. I like a good “love at first sight” story or even the “Let’s fall in love and head for HEA inside of a week” tale – after all, there are authors who do it well – but I miss the larger than life stories. While they don’t always have that sweeping feel to them, Kaki Warner’s westerns do tend to cover longer time periods than many historicals I encounter. For instance, Pieces of Sky discusses the changing months and seasons at least in passing, so readers cannot help noticing that time passes while Jessica and Brady fall in love. While it had its flaws, Laura Navarre’s By Royal Command also lingered in my memory because it covered a longer span of time and it did have that old-style saga feel to it, complete with several hero choices for the heroine and a story that covered multiple locations.

However, aside from rare books like this, I encounter relatively few sagas in historical romance. I know Bertrice Small wrote big sagas such as Skye O’Malley back in the 80s and even though she’s not an author I normally read(one of her books actually put me off romance briefly in law school), I know she’s still writing. However, I can’t think of many other big saga writers off the top of my head. I can think of plenty of forced/contrived marriage or “Let’s come up with a reason for the heroine to live in hero’s house for a week and watch them fall in love,” stories, but not much that’s big and sweeping.

They do still exist in historical fiction, though. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Morland Dynasty series is a favorite of mine. The books definitely have that sweeping feel to them and Harrod-Eagles’ female character tend to be strong. These are historical fiction rather than romance, so be warned: While the books are filled with love stories, some end happy and others do not. If I could find a good romance equivalent to the Morlands, I would be a happy reader indeed. There’s just something about seeing the sweep of years listed on a cover, or the promise of mind travel to exotic times and places that captures the imagination in a different way than the narrower focused books can. I love both, and with great big stories being harder to find, I miss them. If I could find big, sweeping tales without the rape-to-romance storylines that used to be popular, I’d be a happy reader indeed.

What about you? Would you like to sink your teeth into a great big story that spans over years and/or locations? Better yet, have you read a good one lately?

– Lynn Spencer

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36 Responses to “In Search of the Big Romantic Saga”

  1. Leigh says:

    I don’t know that I miss them. Oh, I love many of them back in the day. I remember Celeste De Blasis’ Swan Trilogy with nostalgia. I enjoyed Diana Gabaldon’s and Sara Donati’s books later.

    But now I am off angst or at least bucket loads of it, and I remember the long sagas being full of it with long separations, thinking their love one is dead, and finding someone new, only to have their true love appear again or the death of a child, and then separation.

  2. Judy says:

    Maybe this book would not qualify in the BRS category, but it is a book that stands head and shoulders above the rest of my library and that is Judith McNaught “Whitney My Love”. I consider this historical classic novel a magical journey from start to finish.

  3. maggie b. says:

    I rarely run across a good one these days, so can’t say I am reading them much at all. Phillipa Gregory certainly seems to be making a living at them but while I find her books good I am not at all inclined to pick them up on a regular basis. Jennifer Doneely wrote a fantastic sweeping sage in The Tea Rose but the followup Winter Rose was so awful that I haven’t even read my copy of book three, The Wild Rose. The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simmons is one that many adore.

  4. Caro says:

    The Morland Dynasty! I adore those books, after finding books 1, 3-5 in a used book store. Couldn’t find the second anywhere (this was back int he 80′s, before we had easy order) and it was only went I visited England about a year after finding them that I was able to by the second one — and discovered there were six more, to my delight. Yes, my big souvenir from Stratford-Upon-Avon was found at a W.H. Smith’s.

    Lost track of the series later, and was absolutely amazed recently to find out they’re up to the Twenties now. I really should pick those up again. It’s been ages since I read a good saga.

  5. Danie says:

    I’ve really enjoyed Ellen O’Connell’s books which tend to cover longer periods of time. Dancing on Coals is particularly awesome. That said, I find many sweeping sagas just have horrible things happening to the characters and I’m not a big fan of that. These days, I tend to avoid something that sounds like it’s going to draw out the HEA with long periods of separation. I find those a trial.

  6. SandyH says:

    I recommend the Roselynde Chronicles by Roberta Gellis. Still one of my favorite reads. It encompasses about 7 books.

  7. Caz says:

    I’m a relative latecomer to reading romances. Sad, I know, but I spent most of my 20s and early 30s reading classics – I love Anthony Trollope, Dickens etc. I read Georgette Heyer – but I have to admit, I was put off reading many romances in the 80s by the goddawful covers! I used to commute to work by bus and tube, and would have had to cover my books up in a brown paper bag!!

    I have to say that although I no longer commute, the covers haven’t – in general – improved much, but thankfully, a Kindle can cover a multitude of sins :)

    All this is a long-winded way of saying that I haven’t really come across any of those sweeping sagas outside of Historical Fiction either. I loved Annette Motley’s “The Quickenberry Tree” (now OOP, but second hand copies are fairly easy to find over here); there’s Pamela Belle’s English Civil War-set series too (the name temporarily escapes me) and what I regard as the granddady of them all, the “Poldark” books.

    Most recently, I read and loved Stella Riley’s “The Black Madonna” -sadly OOP for some time, and expensive second hand; but fortunately, it’ll be out in ebook form sometime in the next few months. Again, HF, but with a strong romantic element.

    Phillipa Carr’s (aka Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt) “Daughters of England” series is being reissued (I think there are 20 books altogether); I read some back in my 20s, but can’t remember much, but I’m going to be checking them out again.

    I admit to preferring the one-off when it comes to romance reading. I don’t mind a bit of separation and a dollop of angst, but I prefer it all to be tied up neatly by the end of the book.

  8. Mary Beth says:

    I would like to highly recommend the Williamsburg books by Elswyth Thane. The first book in this series is called Dawn’s Early Light. The books I guess would be considered historical fiction, however they each have very strong romances in them. The series follows three families from the time period before the American Revolution up through World War II. I absolutely loved them!

    • AAR Lynn says:

      Oh yes – those were good books! My high school library had the whole series and I read them all. Would love to see them reissued!

      • Carol Lowe says:

        They have been reissued. I bought mine on Amazon. I reread “Ever After” every year or two. Elswyth Thane is the queen of historical fiction to me.

  9. mari says:

    Have to admit I don’t miss ‘em for all the reasons previously stated. Endless, endless conflict, and the whole multiple heroes thingy wouldn’t work for me. However, some reviewers have commented on the rushed feeling of most romances these days. One week to a HEA is fine if done well, but I wouldn’t mind longer story, minus all rapey, jerky multiple heroes! ;) It would be great to read a romance, involving family, community, and good people, built up over some time.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      I don’t miss the jerk “heroes”, but I definitely miss the bigger stories. I don’t even mind seeing characters separated because good reunion scenes can be wonderful and it also gives the author a chance to show what kind of people her characters are because she has to develop their individual stories as well as their coupledom.

  10. Tee says:

    Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children Series” was one I really enjoyed, with the exception of the final book which was unreadable IMO. She wrote the books over a long period of time. In answer to the question you asked, “Would you like to sink your teeth into a great big story that spans over years and/or locations?”, I don’t know. I guess it would depend on how well it was written and I wouldn’t know that until I would begin reading.

  11. Diana L says:

    Margaret Mallory has 2 series that I loved. Her description of Scotland inspired me and we are traveling there next year!

  12. mb says:

    These are hard to get (OOP), but I recommend these if you can find them:

    Frances Murray: especially Brave Kingdom which is definitely a BRS

    Any of the series by Patricia Finney. She also writes as P.F. Chisholm

    Arianna Franklin also wrote under the name Diana Norman. Her books are amazing! The DN books are more historical sagas.

    How about Ruth Downie’s Medicus series?

    Although not so romantic, I think readers who enjoy this type of book should try C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.

    • Caz says:

      Actually, I think Diana Norman was her “real” name – IIRC she’s married to Barry Norman, a well-known British film pundit.

      I looked for some of her books – someone rec’d The Vizard Mask to me – on Amazon a while back, only to find they’re OOP :( But I just had another look and there are a bunch available as ebooks – yay!

      • Mrs. Fairfax says:

        She was definitely married to Barry Norman; in fact, when she passed the Telegraph headlined, “Barry Norman’s Novelist Wife Dies.” Annoyed me greatly at the time and I don’t even like her books.

        • mb says:

          Yes, that is her real name. She died recently, which is very sad for us readers hoping for more. (And for her family and friends of course).

  13. PatW says:

    I never particularly liked sweeping sagas when they involved the same generation although a multigenerational approach (second Elswyth Thane here) works for me. My personal preference is for what I will call a “realistic” period of time. Sometimes that can be a week, but often it should be months: initial meeting, ordinary reason for separation, re-meeting in different setting, etc. What I remember disliking about the “sweeping saga” approach is that the reasons for splitting up the heroing/hero seemed merely to provide for adventures and not for character development. What I dislike about too short time periods is this niggling feeling that the HEA is problematical because the setting for the romance is not “typical” – running from the bad guys and solving mysteries are not your day to day life!

  14. Lynnd says:

    If you can find it, I highly recommend Mary Brown’s “Playing the jack”. It was published in the 80s. This one still ranks as one of my favourite books. I’m hoping that someone will reissue it because my copy is getting very fragile. She wrote a number of fantasy (with romantic elements – they would probably be considered YA in today’s categories) which have been re-released by Baen – they are also quite good.

    Elizabeth Chadwick writes wonderful romantic historicals (medieval). I think that many of these “sagas” are now being cateogrized in the “historical fiction” category rather than romance.

    • bookfan says:

      I am so excited to find someone else who read Playing the Jack. Its one of my favorites but I have never seen it come up in any of the blogs I read! I re-read it every few years.

      • Lynnd says:

        Somehow we need to start a campaign to get it republished! I re-read it regularly too, but my copy is getting so fragile, that I’m afraid the next time I pick it up, it will all fall apart.

        • BamaRose says:

          Or have it on Kindle. It’s getting to where I almost hate to buy a hard copy of a book.

      • SusanHH says:

        Also excited to find someone else who has read “Playing the Jack” by Mary Brown. If you can find them, books by Madeleine Brent are quite similar.

  15. Gabi Stevens says:

    Many of the big saga stories are now found in Fantasy or Science Fiction. Think Game of Thrones, but definitely no HEA guaranteed.

  16. RobinB says:

    For the “big saga” historical story, no one did it better than Dorothy Dunnett in the Lymond Chronicles. In six novels, she told a great story with fascinating characters and settings from Scotland to Russia.

    In retrospect, I admire her more, because unlike some authors who don’t seem to know when to wrap things up, Dunnett ended the saga after “Checkmate”. I never read her other series, which is set in Italy at about the same time as the Lymond series, so I can’t comment on that. All I know is that I wish that authors who can’t seem to end a series would remember that old show business axiom about always leaving the audience wanting more!

    • AAR Lynn says:

      Oh my goodness, yes! Lymond is one of my very favorite characters ever. I haven’t read the Italian series either, but I adore the Lymond Chronicles.

  17. Kathy B says:

    What about God is an Englishman series? I heard these were good, is that true?

  18. sula says:

    Maybe I missed it, but has no one mentioned the Outlander series? Talk about saga! It’s what hooked me on romance at age 16. And I still read them and the spin-off Lord John books as they come out. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Jamie. sigh.

  19. Holly says:

    Personally, the problem with the long romantic sagas for me is that it kind of depresses me when the hero and the heroine fall in love and then are separated for a long time, usually because of something silly or unreasonable. This depresses me and I read romance to cheer myself up. I will admit though,I have seen it done well, a good story is a good story.

  20. Jane A says:

    I miss what I call “meaty” historicals, more than the sweeping sagas. Perhaps that’s my own distinction, but I put such authors as Laurie McBain, Marsha Canham, Roberta Gellis and early Mary Jo Putney (remember the Silk trilogy?) in that category. There are others, but those come immediately to mind. Many of these are being released as ebooks and though I suppose some won’t stand the test of time, I’ve found re-reading many of them quite satisfying.

  21. Christina C. says:

    One of my favorites is Judith McNaught’s Paradise. It spans several years beginning when the main character, Meredith, is just a young girl of 8 I believe, then covers her preteen and teen years till when she meets the main her love interest, Matt, at 17. It then spans their separation, her college years, her rise through the ranks at her family owned corporation, and then finally her running into Matt again as a successful woman. The book is long and well written. Also, Montana Sky by Nora Roberts is probably my absolute favorite and it spans an entire year in the four main characters lives covering all four seasons. These are two books that I continually reread.

  22. Eggletina says:

    I like it when you really feel the journey, the character growth, and the changes experienced over time. By the end of the novel (or series), the characters feel very different from where they started. That is the appeal of some of the old sagas. There’s a difference between being a bystander to history and actively participating in historical events. I used to really like many of the old epics because of that very active participation by the lead characters and how immersive they were in the period being depicted. When done right, you feel like you’ve been there and you’ve learned more about that period than a book much smaller in scope could ever give you.

    I remember reading Sherwood (though I doubt her books would hold up for me now) and Celeste DeBlasis (I hope hers will be digitized some day, as I suspect they’d still hold up and I’d like to re-read them). Another I recall being very good is Charles McCarry’s “Bride of the Wilderness.” It’s historical with a strong romantic element. I guess a lot of my favorites would have been historicals like that.

  23. Ducky says:

    As a teen I really enjoyed the Flambards books by Peyton.

    As an adult I found the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett to be a great romantic saga – there are passages in those books that haunt me to this day.

  24. BamaRose says:

    Most of the time I prefer a single book instead of a series but if I am really enjoying the book and the ending is written well with the proper cliffhangers I’m overjoyed that it isn’t over.

    I enjoyed Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (what is it…7 books now?). The last one had such an unsettling ending that I (almost) don’t want to wait as long as it takes for her to write it. Her books are so long and by the time you read one you are so invested in the story and the characters that you feel like family.

    I also loved Paulina Simon’s The Bronze Horseman and the other 2 books in that series. It was the first time that I read a story set in Russia. It goes through the German invasion of Russia in WWII through the Viet Nam war.

    Both of these series are so memorable that I have re-read them numerous times.

  25. BevQB says:

    When I think of romantic sagas, The PROUD BREED by Celeste DeBlasis immediately comes to mind. My mother passed the hard cover to me and I passed it to my oldest niece (who somehow lost track of it). I don’t remember how many times I re-read that one.

    Next one to pop in mind is Betrice Small’s SKYE O’MALLEY and all it’s sequels and related books. I still read all of Ms. Small’s books as they are released even though I really don’t follow any other old school authors.

    Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series is certainly a saga and certainly contains a romance but I don’t really think of it as a romantic saga since the romance is really just a part of the larger story rather than the central focus. Still enjoyable though!

    Hmmm… maybe today’s Romance market emphasizes sequels over sagas; selling multiple shorter books instead of a single long book, and that’s why we don’t see really see them anymore.