If you’re like me, and frequently visit Waterstones (often unnecessarily), you may have, when it sprung up in the teenage section, despaired at the new addition of a “Dark Romance” genre shelf. But my weeping at the sight of it is not a mournful nostalgia for the time when that genre didn’t even exist – to some signifying the death of decent literature – but rather for the fact that the only reason for its existence is Stephenie Meyer – who is the death of decent literature. It seems a shame to me that this trend for supernatural stories, which made urban fantasy far more acceptable and accessible, only came to the fore to feed the dribbling hordes of Twilight fans desperate for a replacement for Edward Cullen once he and Bella had gone off to have vampire babies.
The fact is that, while perhaps not ever Booker Prize-worthy or able to reach the dizzying heights of canonical literature, there are many good teen fantasy fiction authors whose works deserve recognition and do not deserve to be seen as a stopper for the gap left by the end (the terrible, terrible end) of the Twilight series. Many are good standalone novels, and it saddens me that they became bestsellers not off their own back but from that awful frenzied hype in which any book with a dark broody vampire was cool. Many of those books are cool regardless of whether they have a vampire or not, and certainly don’t need a quote from Meyer on the front as a seal of approval (though sadly this does seem to boost sales). While I will admit they are probably largely aimed at a female market, there are a number of books on that stupid shelf that are actually really good. So good that it makes me sad that they’re classed as “dark romance,” because such a label tends to earn the scorn of anyone outside of puberty and often means they’re overlooked.
My personal view on dark romance is that you should read it. Or at least give it a chance. But, as you can tell from my quite overt anti-Stephenie stance, I am aware this genre is one that should be approached with caution. There are many pitfalls that can easily result in you reading a horribly formulaic rip-off that merely swaps a vampire for a fairy or werewolf and is basically just an outlet for teenage fantasy and angst. But if you’re patient you can find a couple of real gems and, as I sadly did go through an awfully humiliating period of the Twilight disease, I know of quite a few. If you have a secret guilty pleasure for this sort of thing, or just want a book with a good plot, here are a few that I would recommend.
First, The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare, who is by far my favourite author of all time and whom I aspire to be like when I’m older. Now, I have put these to the test and they have met with both male and female approval – in fact, no one who has read them has disliked them, and many have gone on to recommend them. Both series are set in the world of the Shadowhunters, a race of humans with angel blood (known as the Nephilim, a real biblical concept) who fight to keep the world safe from demons. I always feel quite embarrassed when I talk about books like this, as even I am aware that the plots sound stupid, but honestly they’re really good. While the books are partly to do with romance, which heavily features in both plotlines, the love stories run alongside two very important quests: The Mortal Instruments to destroy an evil man Valentine, who plans to eradicate all Downworlders (that the vampires and shiz), and The Infernal Devices to prevent the creation of a race of clockwork humans, of neither heaven nor hell. What’s more, the romance isn’t all teenage angst; there’s a lot of sticky, painful drama there, balanced with witty, incredibly quotable dialogue. And they’re written really well. Seriously, they’re books I would shamelessly promote to anyone… which I think is what I just did.
Next, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees-Brennan. This isn’t really a “dark romance” per se, but the cover has that sort of feel, which means it usually gets looked over despite being perhaps the best book I have ever read. Brothers Nick and Alan are on the run with their mother, who was once the lover of a powerful wizard and has been driven insane by it. On the run from the magicians – who are not nice people – Alan becomes marked by a demon, and only Nick can save him. While romance comes in with the introduction of Mae, a human with pink hair and a big attitude, it’s definitely sidelined in this story, which you watch unravel with a sense of dread and impending doom. The ending is exactly what you don’t want to happen. And the reason it is the best book I’ve ever read (but not my favourite) is because it’s so good you forgive it.
Vampire Academy by Richelle Meade. I will admit this one is probably more for girls, and is not as well-written as the other two. It also does that slightly dangerous thing of going on for a long time (6 books). But I’d still recommend it. The story follows half-human half-vampire Rose and her vampire friend Vasilisa, who are joined by a bond that allows Rose to hear Lissa’s thoughts – not good, as she suffers severe, suicidal depression, though the source is unknown. As they try to unravel the weird powers at work in their friendship while Rose battles with an impossible infatuation for her trainer, they uncover many conspiracies in the intricacies of the vampire court. What I liked in this book was that the protagonists are flawed – Rose is a hot head, who makes stupid decisions – and a little badass, with lots of fight scenes and witty comebacks, and that the romance is the sort that makes girls swoon. A dose of that is healthy, in my opinion.
Tithe by Holly Black. This is a fairy story, but not in the traditional sense. Outcast Kaye turns out to be a changeling, a fairy who’s replaced a child at birth. Her friends ask her to pose as a human sacrifice for the Unseelie Court, in the hope of inciting rebellion, and Kaye finds herself in way too deep, caught between two rather pissy fairy queens. The subtleties in this story, which is economical in places and implies a lot of things without stating them, is refreshing in this genre – do you know when authors are so bad they just have to spell out the plot twists? This story is also actually pretty dark (something which other “dark” romances tend to miss), with lots of blood, cruelty and a tortured male protagonist who is actually tortured, rather than just egotistical and self-absorbed. The plot twists are unexpected and interesting, and its sequel even more so. The fairy element also allows it to be, for want of another word, a bit classier than your average dark romance, with a world of sophisticated cold gentry rather than the overuse of vampires and werewolves, who tear each other apart with words rather than teeth.
There is much more that this genre has to recommend itself, but these are probably my favourites. My advice is not to be too judgemental. “Dark Romances” annoy everybody, but they’re also a good thing: you have to admit that Meyer found a gap in the market and seemingly wrenched it open with a crow bar. Girls like me at 14 when I wanted to be an author, convinced I was going to make it before 18, had a new genre to which they could both relate and aspire – strong female heroines (with a few exceptions that I’ve probably talked too much about here already) and worlds filled with suspense and intrigue, coupled with the normal teenage formula of girls attaining unattainable boys. So, don’t give “Dark Romance” too much stick. It has some serious lows, but also some pretty good highs, and a little bit of trashy literature is actually great fun (if something you’ll have to keep secret when you try to sound knowledgeable in English literature seminars and tutorials, as I will have to next year).