Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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Sci-Fi/Paranormal/Fantasy Romance Hybrids: Inventive Fusions Or Multi-Genre Implosion?

SLAVE TO SENSATIONThese days, it seems as though an increasing number of romances are combining elements from various genres. Some books offer an inventive twist on old ideas. Others seem to be the result of someone pointing to popular characters like vampires and zombies and saying “In the next book, let’s include everything but the kitchen sink.”

Sometimes these hybrid genres cross over into science fiction romance territory. And when I find them, I occasionally feel stumped as to what to make of them.

I’m a lover of all kinds of SF/F/horror/mystery genres, both with romance and without. So while I embrace the idea of genre hybrids or mash-ups, my reading choices don’t always reflect that. I also tend to find some hybrids more appealing than others. For example, I’m always up for SF horror like ALIEN or THE THING.* But a non-scary, (or non-gory) sci-fi/paranormal hybrid? Not so much (usually because the supernatural/horror elements have been de-fanged. Of course, that is exactly the reason why they work for so many other readers, and power to them).

I’m fine with skiffy elements that are fantastical in nature and in fact enjoy them a lot despite high levels of implausibility. Overall, though, when it comes to science fiction romance, I gravitate toward stories that are technology-based as opposed to supernatural or fantasy based.

A significant reason for that is time. If I could read eight or more hours a day, I’d probably venture outside of sci-fi romance more often. But the other reason is that I sometimes have difficulty reconciling various genre elements. While I might enjoy a story about zombies invading a futuristic space station (extra points if it has a romance), part of me still ends up thinking that something isn’t quite meshing.

Using the above example, if the author never uses the word “zombies” and puts forth a technological/biological basis for the creature’s existence (e.g., plague, alien parasite) and if “zombie” is not used in the marketing materials (a tall order these days, I know), then my expectations will roll in an entirely different direction.

However, if the word “zombie” comes into play, then it’s nigh impossible for me to get the name “George A. Romero” out of my mind. I’m too steeped in the horror genre to easily forget the association of zombies with classic supernatural tales.

If I do read a story that ventures beyond “traditional” science fiction romance territory, it’s usually because I want to check out some specific aspect of the skiffy side of things. I find that sometimes hybrids work for me, and other times they don’t.

I’m going to come at this from another perspective. What about readers who are die-hard paranormal romance fans? Do they enjoy a little SFR in their paranormal romance? If so, are they intrigued enough to cross over into more traditional SFR stories? Or are the science fictional elements coming across as more of a backdrop, and so their efficacy is diminished?

No doubt about it, hybrids and mash-ups can be a lot of fun. But what if the hybrids involve as many as three or four different genres or genre characters? (Jane at Dear Author recently dubbed this the “No Paranormal Left Behind” phenomenon.) At what point do the various elements start canceling each other out?

Despite my personal preferences, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t compile a list of romances that feature various blends of SF/F/paranormal elements for your perusal. Here they are in no particular order, along with any notable details and/or commentary by moi:

SLAVE TO SENSATION (Psy-Changeling series) – Nalini Singh

In Nalini Singh Is Ours, Donna S. Frelick speculates about Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series and its place in the sci-fi romance universe:

So how come no one calls Nalini Singh a Skiffy Rommer? Why is her name not mentioned along with Linnea Sinclair and Susan Grant and Ann Aguirre and the others when we talk about great SFR writers?

…Primarily, though, I suspect Nalini is missing from the rolls of science fiction romance because she has been marketed as a PARANORMAL romance writer. That’s what the back of her books call her, after all. Her covers, particularly in the beginning, stressed the shapeshifter aspects of the Changlings (hey, I’ve got nothing against hot werewolves, either), and the titles could have referred to almost anything.

I agree that the “paranormal romance” label probably has a much to do with readers’ perception of the series, but on the other hand, it *is* full of shapeshifting characters. Perhaps Ms. Singh and other authors writing this kind of mix are getting a “pass” on the skiffy elements because of the paranormal romance boom? The interesting part is that the stories in the Psy-Changeling series are often political in nature, an aspect that tends to be a mark of SF rather than paranormal romance.

In an interview at io9, the author shared why she chose a futuristic setting for the series.

I’ve seen descriptions of quite a few books following hers that feature a triumvirate of races as part of the worldbuilding, which tells me that something about the formula works. However, I can’t help but wonder how “invisible” the skiffy elements become when blended with the likes of vampires, psychics, werewolves, and zombies.

ST. MARTIN’S MOON – Marc Vun Kannon
St Martins Moon
The author’s Web site has the “futuristic paranormal” label listed for this book, which involves a werewolf hunter investigating a werewolf attack on the—wait for it—moon. Wow, now we even have label mash-ups! But this one does seem to communicate clearly what a reader should expect.

I’ve not read this book (click here to read the blurb), but I learned first hand from the author that his story falls under the romantic SF umbrella. Mr. Vun Kannon set up the romance thusly:

Marquand lost his first love (nicknamed Bing-Bang) four years before the book starts, and she's still waiting for him as a ghost. In the course of the story he meets and falls in love with Candace, the alpha female of the lunar colony.

You can read an excerpt of ST. MARTIN’S MOON here.

Joss Ware’s post-apocalyptic series, The Envy Chronicles, is described thusly on the author’s Web site:

Now available: the first three books in the Envy Chronicles, about the five men known as the Awakening Heroes.

Thrust into a post-apocalyptic world, these remarkable men meet up, spar and partner with the just-as-remarkable women who will win their hearts as they fight an immortal enemy determined to crush all humanity.

The books are:

BEYOND THE NIGHT
EMBRACE THE NIGHT ETERNAL
ABANDON THE NIGHT
NIGHT BETRAYED

I read BEYOND THE NIGHT because I wanted to see what she did with her zombies. I was hoping for at least one strong science fictional element. Despite the near-future, post-apocalyptic setting, I definitely got more of a paranormal feel from the story overall.

Taylor Keating’s GAME OVER is an action-adventure romance, with a fairly even split between the sci-fi and paranormal elements. You can learn more about it in my previous post about the book. MIND GAMES is book two in the series.

Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series begins with SOULLESS. That book is, to me, a paranormal romance with steampunk elements. I felt that the steampunk elements, while interesting, served more as a complication in the plot than a foundation for it.

Cindy Spencer Pape’s Gaslight Chronicles include STEAM & SORCERY and PHOTOGRAPHS & PHANTOMS. The blurbs tell me these are supernatural tales with a steampunk setting. They are in my TBR pile, but techno-lover reader that I am, I’m holding off on them until I’ve gotten through the non-supernatural/magical steampunk romance titles in said TBR pile.

After finishing Gail Dayton’s NEW BLOOD, I concluded it’s an alternate historical fantasy with steampunk elements (of which there’s actually very little, intriguing though they are). The next book in the series is HEART’S BLOOD, but there’s nothing on the author’s site to indicate a continuation of the steampunk elements (seems this second book is more paranormal/urban fantasy).

ALEX WALES: PROMISE by Yolanda Sfetsos is definitely a hybrid, although while reading it I never felt it lost its “SFR” vibe. Perhaps the space opera setting was a strong factor. When I interviewed the author, she shared her penchant for mixing up genres in her work:

I think there are a few things that will always tie my science fiction romance stories together: the supernatural elements, and the complicated relationships. In both worlds I have magic, shifters, supernatural creatures, deadly secrets, and dark pasts. As well as heroes and heroines who are meant to be together, yet go through a lot of stuff before they get there.

Lindsay Buroker is the author of ENCRYPTED, an epic romantic fantasy action-adventure with sci-fi elements. Yes, that was a mouthful, wasn’t it?! I’m a little over halfway through this book and it has some pretty clever skiffy elements, but I’m not sure yet how to reconcile them with the story’s setting. I think my difficulty stems from that fact that I went in expecting the skiffy elements to be more prominent than they ended up being (at least so far). The heroine is one smart cookie, though, with a really unique occupation, so if you are in the mood for this type of hybrid then you may want to check it out. Okay, so the hero’s not too bad, either!

No Proper Lady Isabel CooperLastly, we have Isabel Cooper’s debut novel, NO PROPER LADY (September 1, 2011). A time travel historical romance with action-adventure elements, this book has been dubbed by publisher Sourcebooks as “Terminator meets My Fair Lady.”

Wow. I mean, TERMINATOR? Citing that James Cameron film is really setting the bar high as far as sci-fi elements. Given that label, how much skiffy should readers expect? Apparently, the story also has supernatural elements. I’m betting that a significant portion of the story is focused on the heroine’s transformation from kick-butt futuristic assassin to proper Victorian lady, and that’s fine, but the question running through my mind is this: Will the story effectively reconcile the futuristic and supernatural elements? Funny how it's not the time travel aspect that I'm questioning, but rather the hybrid elements!

RT Book Reviews awarded the book their September Seal of Excellence (see press release below).


Here’s the press release I received from RT Book Reviews:

RT BOOK REVIEWS ANNOUNCES ITS PICK FOR THE SEPTEMBER “SEAL OF EXCELLENCE”: ISABEL COOPER’S NO PROPER LADY.

Each month RT Book Reviews’ editors select one book that is not only compelling but pushes the boundaries of genre fiction and stands out from the more than 250 books reviewed in its latest issue and on our website, www.rtbookreviews.com.

This month RT chose Isabel Cooper’s NO PROPER LADY for its action-packed plot, witty dialogue, and sexy romance. One RT editor thought "NO PROPER LADY was captivating. I could see it all play out. I loved the heroine and the story had a lot of my favorite things: time travel, intrigue, a good scary villain and repressed lust!" RT editors were in agreement that NO PROPER LADY is an inventive, original genre-fusion that beautifully combines historical romance with gripping urban fantasy. NO PROPER LADY is ideal for romance fans looking for a story with edge.

“NO PROPER LADY will delight both historical and paranormal readers.” Says RT Website Content Coordinator and Web Editor Whitney Sullivan. “Cooper does a fantastic job of creating a fusion of the two genres. This debut author has created characters that positively jump off the pages, and two complete and vivid backdrops for them to carry out the action in — one of which is absolutely terrifying in its bleakness. Even readers who normally never venture out of their historical romance sub-genre will be swept up by the adventure of NO PROPER LADY!”

RT BOOK REVIEWS magazine has been a definitive and trusted guide to new releases for the past thirty years covering all genres of women’s and teen fiction. In addition to reviews of more than 250 new books, each monthly issue includes interviews with bestselling authors, industry-related features, previews of forthcoming titles and other reader-centric articles. Our website, www.rtbookreviews.com, extends the mission of RT BOOK REVIEWS by providing readers with web-exclusive content including reviews, video interviews, and weekly columns from our web editorial staff.

So that’s one selection of hybrids featuring SFR mixed with other genres. Have you read these or any others like them in the SFR universe? What do you think makes for a successful genre fusion?

Joyfully yours,

Heather

* I’m not feeling as much excitement for the forthcoming THE THING prequel as I expected. The female protagonist is a nice touch, but John Carpenter’s version is so good that I can only feel cautiously optimistic about "the prequel." From the trailer, it really just appears to be a straight remake; perhaps the studio heads thought positioning it as a prequel, a la PROMETHEUS, the coming Ridley Scott prequel to ALIEN, would better help infect fans of the Carpenter film. (Maybe they should have remade the 1951 original instead.)