The Romantasy Explosion

The wizard of love

Since we’re nearing Valentine’s Day, let’s talk about… Romantasy.

As implied by the name it’s a mashup of Romance + Fantasy, a subgenre exemplified, perhaps platonically, by Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series, whose eponymously named first book came out in 2015. Marketed as YA, the fantasy novel was about a human girl’s entrapment in the land of the Fae where she grows to love the High Fae Lord who had kidnapped her. This wasn’t all that happened in the plot. There were adventures, a touch of horror, and family drama as well. But over the years it and its sequels began to be known more for its sensationalized romance and “spice” —  niche parlance for sexual heat and explicitness — than its fantasy aspects.

Combining YA, fantasy, and romance isn’t new, of course. Most YA readers are female and have been female for almost two decades now. Romance and its accompanying swoonery has long been a feature of the genre, as in the comparatively chaste Twilight series, for example, and the mild love triangles in otherwise bleak dystopias like The Hunger Games.  But ACOTAR brought a gothic melodrama to the table, with plenty of sexual yearning, physical and emotional pain, and bad-boy, at times brutal, love interests who were as much a threat to the main characters as objects of lust. And abs. Let’s not forget plenty of mentions of abs, as well as broad shoulders. These weren’t boys; they were hunky men, and showed they were men by their dominating attitudes, smirking banter, and often considerable age differences from the female protagonist, courtesy of them being some sort of supernatural being.

There were hints of the Romantasy revolution back in the late teens. New authors took a nod, perhaps, from the incredibly popular Beautiful Disaster (2011), a New Adult romance about the dark and obsessive love between a college girl and an amateur cage fighter, not to mention the After series which was self-published by author Anna Todd, chapter ever chapter, on the writing site Wattpad. Both demonstrated the viability of publishing success by bypassing traditional publishing with its phalanx of gatekeepers. After even demonstrated a story need not be original. It grew out of One Direction fanfic in which the bad boy character was based on British singer Harry Styles, taking a nod from another fanfic with the serial numbers filed off, the Fifty Shades of Grey series which, again, came out in 2011. (It was published on in serial fashion before then.)

But it took the COVID epidemic in 2020  and the advent of TikTok and BookTok, TikTok’s subforum for book fans, for Romantasy to really spread its wings. YA and romance fans had more time to read and were ordering books online and talking about them online, and writers who may have had other jobs found themselves in a situation where they could write full time, and market the hell out of their books on BookTok as well as Goodreads and Kindle. Writers and readers were brought closer than ever before, the former taking cues from the latter as to what they wanted to read.

Not only were readers buying books in their slack time, they were also consuming fanfic. Fanfic writers amped up production as well, not a few made the jump from fanfic to publishing. The recent Crown of Starlight debacle took its inspiration from Reylo fanfic, in which the Rey character (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) characters from Star Wars VII, VIII and IX, are shipped* together, something that didn’t happen in the movies themselves. Obviously, a lot of fans wanted to see it. There’s a list of such books here, and undoubtedly more books are coming down the line from that particular pair. I think it’s fair to say the community had a big hand in Romantasy’s current popularity.

(There’ve been fanfic writers who’ve adapted their works before, of course. Even back in the 1970s and 80s Star Trek fanfic writers were being professionally published, nipping and tucking their work to make it less explicit, such as Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Dwellers in the Crucible. But unless one was involved in the fandom or SF publishing back then, you weren’t likely to hear about it, unlike 2023 where it’s become respectable.)

In April 2023 romance writer Rebecca Yarros released her first foray into the field, Fourth Wing, which exploded on the scene like a supernova; it was then that Romantasy vaulted into the greater public eye. In spite of being panned by more sophisticated fantasy reviewers, the book sold like hotcakes and was spun out into a series, the second volume of which, Iron Flame, was released in November of 2023 to perhaps worse reviews, some of which came from disappointed readers of the first book. The consensus was it was churned out too fast, too unedited, and too repetitive. After a mere eight months on top Romantasy began to show its first cracks. Fans on Reddit, YouTube, and Goodreads began to complain of cookie-cutter plots, poor writing, blatant theft of story elements from other writers, and fantasy worldbuilding which was hardly there or didn’t make sense.

Does Romantasy deserve this drubbing? It’s not a thing I was ever interested in reading, in part because of my poor experience reading Twilight and an attempt at reading Sarah J. Maas that lasted all of ten pages before I gave up in frustration. Reading Jenny Trout’s ACOTAR recaps further cemented my poor opinion of the author’s writing skills. But I also know I’m not being completely fair, because I like erotica in my fantasy reading just fine. Except when I don’t; I thought Fifty Shades of Grey was a horrible snoozefest, and didn’t care for what I read of Beautiful Disaster either, which was just as dull.

Therefore, I shall call this February Romantasy month and I’ll attempt to see what all the fuss is about.


* fanfic slang which means being in a romantic relationship.

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