It’s that time again! The Broke and the Bookish have thrown down the Valentine’s gauntlet with the top ten books that make you swoon. Well, I’m not really a hearts and roses kind of reader – I’ll cry at the drop of a hat, for sentiment or generosity or loss, but books don’t generally make me flutter. I am, however, a sucker for a well-written romantic subplot. So, with no further ado, I’m probably more pleased than I should be to present my ten favourite romances.


1. Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache {The Three Pines Mysteries – Louise Penny}

It seems sort of fitting that the first item on the list for me isn’t some big, showy, good-looking duo who swoon and strip sensually for the camera – as it were. What makes a good romance for me has always had very little to do with how shiny the people’s hair is, or how toned their abs are (not that I’ll complain about a nice body); the important part is how the partners connect, and how well that connection is passed on from the writer’s mind to the reader’s heart. Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are a middle-aged couple that give me hope for the possible future of all couples everywhere. They’ve been together for decades, and they’ve had their trials, but there is no doubt for me that they love each other as much as it is possible for two people to love each other. They talk, and they tease, they support each other in hard times and they challenge each other, and they’re just really freaking cute, and I’ll be lucky if I have half of what they do when I’m fifty.


2. Rodrigo and Miranda Belmonte {The Lions of Al-RassanGuy Gavriel Kay}

This is another couple who laid their foundations long before the beginning of their book. Rodrigo is a warrior, modeled loosely after El Cid, and he spends most of this novel away from home on one adventure or another. Sure, he’s mostly surrounded by men, but that doesn’t stop him from entangling himself with a charming, vivacious woman who captures his heart – he acknowledges it openly later in the book. And yet, somehow, the relationship he has with his wife back home is one of the stronger threads winding through this story. Miranda is one hell of a woman, intelligent and brave and fierce, unafraid of fighting for her home and her family and her husband, and their marriage delights me because it’s one of love, and longing, and trust. Rodrigo makes it clear that though he may love two women (and yay, we need more books that show this as a possibility) he’s not willing to go against the promise he made. He doesn’t seem to view it as a burden, but a choice he happily made – and their reunion, when they do briefly intersect, was a delightful glimpse into a passionate love affair that two children and some grey hairs did nothing to dampen.


3. Jehane bet Ishak and Ammar ibn Khairan {The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay}

Okay, so I really just adore all of the romances in this book. If Rodrigo and Miranda were the fire in the hearth, Jehane and Ammar were the literary brushfire. Both are brilliant, both are independent and capable, and both were willing, if with some difficulty, to admit that there was something missing in their lives that so far only the other had been able to properly fill. I think what appealed to me most about this romance was that both Jehane and Ammar had had experiences with other partners before. In fact, each had relationships during the course of the book, and neither of them were the sort to be a fool for love. I suppose the blind leap into passion is nice, but I prefer watching the playful, intelligent build, the dance of wits that doesn’t have to burn hotter than reason because when the sun comes up, both parties know that they’ll still think the night was worthwhile. Also, Ammar is a poet, and one of those men you meet sometimes in fiction who has a knack for saying the right thing and not saying the right thing, and I think I might have fallen a little bit in love with him.

(An honourable mention at the end of this goes out to Jehane and Ammar and Rodrigo, and to Guy Gavriel Kay for being willing to explore the idea that people might love more than one person at the same time without it being the grounds for a hideous love triangle arc. Jehane loves both men, and Rodrigo loves Jehane and Miranda, and if other things hadn’t gotten in the way I think there might have been a place for all of them to figure something out between them. Part of the reason I cried at the end.)


4. Veralidaine Sarrasri and Numair Salmalin {The Immortals – Tamora Pierce}

This romance made me starry-eyed when I first read it – and it might or might not have summoned a couple of hearts and butterflies when I reread the Immortals series last summer. I fell in love with Numair basically instantly. He’s competent, and intelligent, and thoughtful, and kind, and dreamy, and that on its own might have been enough. When you add in the way he interacts with Daine, though … I normally don’t go for the student-teacher romance. I find the discrepancy of experience between the two almost always turns me off, but somehow Pierce managed to craft a romance narrative that flowed through from a professorial or fraternal affection into romance in such a way that I bought it. Numair cares deeply for Daine, and while her occasional bursts of juvenile reaction frustrated me, she’s willing to invest so much trust and hope in him it’s almost heartbreaking. While I stopped reading Pierce after the first Kel book, the glimpse we got of Daine and Numair being quietly, comfortably, adorably together in the background just confirmed for me how wonderful they are together.


5. Alanna and George Cooper {Tortall-verse – Tamora Pierce}

I think we were supposed to root for Jonathan in the beginning of the Lioness series, but George had my heart from the beginning. I’ve always been a fan of romance that comes out of friendship; every real relationship I’ve ever had as come out of at least a year of solid friendship, and the better ones have a foundation of two or three years on which the passion was built. Maybe I should credit my appreciation of that style to this couple, who stood by each other through thick and thin for years. Every time someone complains about how nice guys don’t get shown the appreciation they deserve (sex) I kind of want to drag them to George by their ears. Here is a man who learned he was in love with a woman, and saw that she wasn’t ready for him and accepted it, and her choices. He stood by her, was there for her when she needed a friend, and while he had no problem cuffing her on the back of the head and reminding her that he wanted her, he did it on her schedule. Alanna didn’t play the most conventional role in their courting – her lack of comfort with her femininity was a major plot point in the series – but I think that’s what made me so happy for them, in the end, and what made her and George work so well. She didn’t have to be a blushing, ballgowned beauty, and he didn’t have to be titled or respectable: when the time was right, they found each other, and were able to accept each other for exactly who and what they were.


6. Amelia Peabody Emerson and Radcliffe Emerson – {The Amelia Peabody series – Elizabeth Peters}

I adored these two when I was a teenager, and although I haven’t read the series in ages, they still hold a fond place in my heart. I think it has something to do with the way that these two fiercely stubborn people are able to wind themselves around each other while holding onto their essential, individual sparks; Peabody is blunt, opinionated, fearless, and not even remotely afraid of a challenge. Emerson is about as stubborn as she is, and they’re both a little bit silly about it, and it was absolutely delightful reading their sparring match cum marriage. This is one couple who managed to have children without turning into boring, doting parents, a couple that really made the marriage a partnership of mind and body rather than an institution. Love comes in many shapes and sizes, and these two prove that you don’t have to sand off all the rough edges in order to earn it.


7. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes {The Mary Russell series – Laurie R. King}

I’m noticing a recurring theme here: my favourite couples tend to be those who favour marriages of the minds, and Russell and Holmes are no exception. Again, the whole teacher-student dynamic tends to frustrate me, and I’m also not hugely keen on stories where an author takes someone they expect me to like and then throws them at their new character. It often comes across like they’re trying to force me to like their baby by making someone else like them, and I don’t like being played. Russell and Holmes, though, are an exception on just about every level. The bond formed between them is one that took many forms over the five years between meeting and marriage, and their relationship is founded in equal parts on shared experiences, and a shared brilliance. What really makes the pairing ring true for me, though, aren’t any of the exciting bursts of intellectual passion or even the incredibly rare moments of physicality between the two. It’s the little moments, two knocks on the door frame, a touch of a hand in a quiet moment, a word or a look or a breath that manages to speak volumes about the extent to which these two people care about each other. Russell and Holmes’ relationship is built in the spaces between moments, in quiet and calm and fear and hope, and it’s beautiful.


8. Vanion and Sephrenia {The Elenium and the Tamuli – David Eddings}

These two were not the main subject of the books in which they appeared, and I think that’s why I’m so fond of them. The quiet love between them is a major theme in the first three books, a secret that wasn’t a secret that grew and grew until at one point, the two of them were simply unwilling to not be together as a couple. A priest from an order of religious knights and the high priestess of a goddess from a rival religion, both of them were forbidden from entering into a relationship with the other … and it’s not that neither of them cared. It was just that neither of them could believe that their gods could possibly have a problem with them, because that’s how important their love was, and it turned out they were right. They were willing to quietly defy two major religions and offend dozens if not hundreds of powerful figures, and they did it without a second thought, while the main characters were off having their epic quest. I don’t often find myself truly admiring the courage of fictional characters, but I’ll take my hat off to these two.


9. Sabriel and Touchstone {The Abhorsen Series – Garth Nyx}

This relationship rivaled Numair and Daine for the Most Significant Fictional Pairing Of My Childhood, and I honestly can’t explain why. Touchstone was sort of weird, deeply influenced by trauma, and Sabriel was desperately trying to figure out how to save a world she didn’t really understand while coming to terms with her father’s sort-of-Death. Neither of them was exactly thinking straight, and they were both caught up in a lot of heavy emotion, so it’s sort of inevitable that they turned to each other when things got rough. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the simple, clean inevitability of it won me over? I don’t know, all I know is as soon as you mention the two of them I find myself smiling a strange little smile, and wanting to draw kisses.


10. Phèdre no Delaunay de Montrève and Joscelin Verreuil – {Kushiel’s Legacy – Jacqueline Carey}

I didn’t want to like these two. The book so desperately wanted me to, part of me was dead set on opposing it just out of sheer stubbornness. Joscelin is too beautiful and too tragic, and Phèdre is basically a walking drama magnet, and then you go and add a love-crossed curse from the gods and it should be horrible. I don’t blame anyone who finds them cloying, or overwrought, I really don’t.

But so help me, my heart goes out to these two each and every time. I think it has something to do with the lengths each of them was willing to go for the other, for good and for ill. They argue in the course of their series, they struggle. They put each other through hell, both accidentally and out of spitefulness, defensiveness, pride. On the other hand, they each prove willing to endure the unendurable for each other. They might be destined for the most epic romance of all time, but they didn’t just get it handed on a silver platter.  Their love might be as beautiful as they are, but they’ve had to work for it. Each was offered a dozen chances to turn away, give in, take an easy road. Each struggled with that choice, and each actually went as far as taking the first steps – not something romances often have the guts to show. In the end, they came back to each other, aware of the costs and willing to pay, and all of the toil and the sacrifices and the pure intentional effort they put in creates something incredibly valuable in the end. If love is what you make of it, these two’ve forged some kind of indomitable sky-castle, and I find myself crumbling before its might every time.

The Sisters of Saint Avice had never meant to forsake their lives of quiet prayer and contemplation in favor of violence and counterintelligence, but any real religious figure would say that only the angels can know in advance what god will ask of them. The legend went that the Sisters had been quartered in a little abbey out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere north in the Commonwealth, and they’d never quite been able to convince their chapter-house exactly how infested with bandits and brigands the region was. Given the choice between being pillaged and slaughtered on a semi-regular basis or learning how to defend themselves, the sisters decided to turn from God’s scroll to his sword.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, woman after woman was sent to the abbey of Saint Avice. Woman after woman learned how to use the weapons that god gave her, hand and elbow and foot and mind, to keep herself alive against the damned persistent masses of heathen barbarians who seemed incapable of just giving up and going home.

It didn’t take long for the locals in nearby villages to recognize the potential solution to their frequent bandit problems. Slowly at first, and then in greater numbers, young sons and even daughters of craftsmen and farmers started appearing at the doors of the abbey. They brought coin when they could, grain or blankets or in one memorable case a cow when they couldn’t. They came humbly, not quite sure what they were asking for, exactly, other than a means to protect their families.