In 1972, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss published The Flame and the Flower. With this novel, Woodiwiss transformed the romance genre by making explicit what had previously been implied—that is, sex—and created a formula for success that romance authors would follow for decades. The archetypal romance plot of the post-Woodiwiss era goes like this: An innocent young woman experiences sexual awakening when she succumbs to an older, very powerful man, who in turn is domesticated—but not in any way emasculated!—by the aforementioned innocent young woman.
This formula may have inspired the pejorative "bodice ripper" and earned the genre the enduring scorn of literary critics and feminists, but it's also helped romance novels dominate bookselling: Indeed, the genre consistently outsells every other category in mainstream publishing, and in recent years it's proven itself recession-proof, continuing to grow even in a shrinking economy.
If you're not a reader of romance novels, your perception of—and, perhaps, disdain for—the genre is probably based on the above-articulated formula's assumptions about women, sexuality, and what constitutes true love. To be sure, there's plenty to hate about the variety that The Flame and the Flower pioneered. The characters tend to be thin, insipid copies of prototypes by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. (I am not alone in recognizing this: Scholars of the genre have long identified these 19th-century authors as the progenitors of modern romance fiction.) The typical heroine's naiveté—crucial to maintaining a creaky, contrived plot—manifests too often as the most exasperating kind of stupidity. And, worst of all, female sexuality is regularly exposited through rape as a plot device. As Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan write in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, the rape scenes endemic to romance plots "gave the heroines permission to explore their sexuality without appearing to be sluts."
The tacit acceptance of rape in romance novels written in the '70s, '80s, and into the '90s—and the tendency of their heroines to fall madly in love with their rapists—curbed my own flirtation with the genre. Curbed it, that is, until I was introduced to Virginia Kantra's sophisticated, folklore-infused paranormal romances and discovered how much the genre has changed since I last browsed the romance section.
There's no passionate clinch between small woman and looming man on the cover of Kantra's Sea Witch. There are no heaving bosoms, or any other kind of bosoms. There's simply a lone woman, rising from the ocean beneath a full moon. The novel's opening line is even more arresting: "If she didn't have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin." Sea Witch's heroine, Margred, is a selkie—seal in the sea, exceptionally attractive human on land.
Folkloric kin to mermaids, selkies are found in storytelling traditions surrounding the North Atlantic Ocean and Norwegian Sea, in stories from Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. Scholars recording oral traditions in these coastal regions during the 18th and 19th centuries found human/seal shape-shifters to be a well-established feature of folklore, with stories composed and shared by people who had daily contact with wildlife in general and seals in particular. (Indeed, "selkie" is simply the Orkney word for "seal.") Even into the 20th century, fishermen in Scotland and Ireland expressed the belief that seals—with their almost-human voices and expressive brown eyes—were not quite like other animals. Stories about selkies created a space for exploring affinity and difference in small, isolated communities, and for negotiating social phenomena that fell outside cultural norms. Tales of women who took selkie lovers provided, among other things, a way to talk about children born outside of marriage. The oft-told story of a man who takes a selkie bride by hiding her sealskin, only to lose her to the sea again when she regains her pelt, may have offered insight into both the appeal of the outsider and the loneliness of women married off and taken far from their own homes.
More recently, selkies have begun populating the subgenre of paranormal romance, which borrows elements from science fiction, fantasy, and horror—Melanie Jackson's novel The Selkie came out in 2003, Dawn Thompson's Lord of the Deep is from 2007, and Anna Leonard's The Hunted was published in 2010. Kantra, however, is arguably the queen of selkie romance. Her Children of the Sea series (of which Sea Witch is the first installment) uses elements from two deeply formulaic and formally conservative narrative types—folklore and romance—to craft fiction that is smart, engaging, and original. Perhaps more important, she deploys these elements critically: Folklore not only gives her fiction depth and resonance, but it also provides her with a powerful tool for challenging many of romance's hoariest precepts.
Take Margred, who as Sea Witch opens is swimming toward the coast of Maine, yearning to "feel someone move inside her, deep inside her, hard and urgent inside her." Normally, romance is a vexing genre in that readers demand to read about their heroine having explicit, mutually orgasmic sex, but tend to bristle when that sex happens with anyone other than the novel's hero. Thus, the typical romance protagonist is inexperienced—or, at least, heretofore unsatisfied—when the story begins but capable of cosmic ecstasy upon her first coupling with her one true love. This aspect of the romance novel is changing, but romance fans seem reluctant to give up the relationship between a woman's sexual awakening and perfect, singular, monogamous, heterosexual love. Kantra elides this issue with her not-quite-human heroine—a seal can't be a slut, since we don't tend to judge the character of seals by their sexual histories.
Margred is both a gorgeous woman and an animal. She has, for example, no sense of humor, and she occasionally flashes her teeth in a way that is not at all friendly. More than anything, though, Kantra reminds us of her character's animal nature by making Margred a creature of almost feral sensuality. Beauty and the Beast become a single character, and this allows for some wonderful inversions of gender expectations. When Margred alights on that moonlit beach and meets Caleb Hunter, her hand is on his fly before they even exchange names. While it would be an overstatement to say that the duo present a perfect inversion of the typical dynamic between romance heroes and heroines, they come awfully close. In Margred, the animal has long been awakened, and Caleb doesn't offer her a sexual initiation; instead, he introduces her to such mundane phenomena as coffee, lobster rolls, and dishwashing.
Wendell, coauthor of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, suggests that the transformative aspect of the romance formula is usually some form of compromise: The heroine tames the hero or heals him; the hero elicits some reciprocal change in the heroine. And this is certainly true in Sea Witch: Caleb recovers from a disastrous marriage, while Margred discovers a type of union unknown to selkies. "But," Wendell writes, "while females as the sexual aggressors are becoming more common, they are not the norm, alas. Women are certainly found fully equipped with hornypants in romance novels, but to see them seek sexual congress indiscriminately such as in the beginning of [Sea Witch]…is somewhat more rare."
Paranormal romance abounds with otherworldly types, of course, with werewolves, were-jaguars, and—need I say it?—vampires. In an interview recounted in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, urban-fantasy author Lilith Saintcrow suggests that the threat of transformation that permeates so many paranormal novels could be a substitute for the loss-of-virginity trope in more traditional romances. When a male vampire or were-whatever turns the heroine into a creature like himself, he deflowers her. Even if she has previous sexual experience, even if she already knows how to wield a crossbow, she's still undergoing a potentially terrifying—and, in many cases, involuntary—initiation.
Already a supernatural creature, Margred isn't vulnerable to transformation in quite the same way a human heroine is. Nor does she pose a physical, existential threat to her human lovers; she cannot turn a man into a selkie. Still, the trauma of transformation is central to Sea Witch, as Margred's story is one of a supernatural being becoming human. Kantra channels the full resonance of her source material as she depicts Margred's efforts to adjust to life in a small, close-knit community, her attempt to reconcile her need for independence and her yearning for home with her growing love for a human man and her desire to be a part of his world. By novel's end, the reader is able to appreciate the complexity and gravity of Margred's ultimate choice. And, indeed, even the romance fan who knows that the ending is a foregone conclusion is likely to experience moments of real uncertainty.
In 2008's Sea Fever, the second book in the Children of the Sea series, and 2010's Immortal Sea, Kantra presents human heroines who are just as interesting as Margred. Sea Fever's Regina Barone is a chef and a single mom who is drawn into the realm of the erotic supernatural when she has what she thinks is just a one-night stand with a stranger. This stranger happens to be Caleb Hunter's long-lost brother, and it turns out that he's a selkie, one who will soon be embroiled in an elemental battle into which Regina will also be drawn. (Believe it or not, Kantra's plots are blessedly simple by the baroque standards of paranormal romance.) At the opening of Immortal Sea, Elizabeth Ramsey is 22 and looking for a little adventure before she starts medical school. She has an impulsive, explosive encounter with a magnetic man in black. Sixteen years later, she's a doctor, a widow, and a mother of two when that man enters her life again and reveals that he is one of the finfolk, another species of aquatic shape-shifter.
Both of these women are self-made professionals, devoted parents, and romantically experienced—they are, in short, honest-to-goodness adults. Regina and Elizabeth are aware of their own sexual and emotional needs, they have a sophisticated sense of the complex relationship between these two needs, and they are not shy about telling their lovers what they want. Elizabeth's ability to resist her attraction to a magical prince who has spent several centuries assured of his irresistibility adds a delicious—and affirming—tension to the plot. Safer sex is increasingly the norm in romance novels, but Kantra uses this commonplace both to underscore the power her human protagonist wields and to inject a little comedy into the narrative: The scene in which Elizabeth compels her immortal, godlike lover to wear a condom is kind of hilarious. Neither of Kantra's human heroines is as obviously transgressive as Margred, but the author is, once again, subtly expanding the romance genre by gently pushing against its conventions. The idea that women over the age of 30—women with some knowledge of the world and themselves—are suitable subjects for erotic escape is still a fairly new one in the realm of romance novels, and Kantra brings particular realism and subtlety to her lead characters.
Margred is a supernatural creature who finds her own humanity when she finds love. Regina and Elizabeth are women who rediscover passion with supernatural lovers. These scenarios are fantastic in their particulars, but the experiences these women have are versions of experiences that many readers will recognize: the contradictory desires for connection and independence; the emotionally fraught process of taking a lover without traumatizing the kids; the constant struggle to balance family, work, and romance. Sea Witch, Sea Fever, and Immortal Sea all provide readers with escape into a world where love conquers all, thus fulfilling the fundamental requirement of the romance novel. But, in her intelligent, nuanced use of traditional narratives, Kantra also creates mass-market fiction capable of performing some of the same cultural work as the folklore upon which she draws. That is, her novels generate an otherworldly place in which to explore real-world problems. All romance authors provide their readers with respite from their worries and dilemmas, but Kantra is exceptional in her willingness to fully engage with those worries and dilemmas. As she combines her considerable craft, a keen understanding of folklore, and an awareness of both the satisfactions and the possibilities of the romance formula, Kantra shows how far the genre has come since The Flame and the Flower, and offers hope for its ongoing evolution.
Jessica Jernigan is a frequent contributor to Bitch, a graduate student in English, and the world's leading expert on selkies in paranormal romance—at least until another scholar takes an interest in the field.