Like many patrons of this blog, I possess an unabashed gluttony for books. I’m a voracious reader, but a voracious reader that is keenly aware of her preferences. I would characterize myself primarily as a genre reader. Yes, I appreciate and regularly read the Classics. And yes, I read the occasional piece of literary fiction or non-fiction recommended by a friend or family member. But the vast majority of the content I read falls squarely into one of two genres: Fantasy or Romance.
And also, like many patrons of this blog, I am continually in pursuit of those perfect books, books that speak to my soul, books that seem to have been written just for me, because they deliver on all the elements of literature that matter to me specifically. These perfect books cater to my literary preferences, they resonate with my life experiences, and they scratch the itch of how I like to be entertained.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what the search for those perfect books looks like for me as a reader and why, especially with respect to an author that I have found consistently delivers content that is thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying for me personally: Grace Draven. This essay attempts to unpack my thoughts on Fantasy-Romance and explain my appreciation for Grace Draven’s works as first-class examples of both genres.
The title of this post makes a bold claim – “The Best Epic Fantasy Author You’re Not Reading” – and I admit to being provocative in the title. While Grace Draven is often included in Romance recommendation threads, you don’t often, if ever, see her name in recommendations outside of that context, or more specifically in requests for Epic Fantasy. My hope is that by reading this, Romance-wary, Epic Fantasy fans might decide to pick up one of her books and discover what an amazing fantasy author she is, and that her name will start to materialize in Epic Fantasy discussions and not “just” Romance. And for Romance readers out there that are unfamiliar with her work, here’s hoping you decide to dive in to one of her fantastical worlds.
My search for the next perfect book often begins perusing selections from the branch of speculative fiction that I prefer above all others – Epic, or Heroic, Fantasy. When I think about what appeals to me within the Epic Fantasy subgenre, the immediate answer, for me, is the scale of the world-building. I enjoy being completely immersed in another world, and I want to explore that world in detail with the characters through the plot. I want that world to contain lands, climates, races, and magic that is truly outside the realm in which I exist. I want to be transported to another time and place so different from my own, that when I enter that world through reading, my own ceases to exist.
Layered on top of this world is a plot that is equally epic in scale, where the actions of the protagonists and the battles they face have world-changing consequences. There is good and evil, and our heroes must overcome both external and internal conflicts to ultimately defeat that evil. My favorite fantasy authors are my favorite fantasy authors because they deliver on these two aspects of Epic Fantasy; Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, and J.R.R. Tolkien are writers whose world-building and plots are expansive yet detailed, imaginative yet grounded, and high-stakes yet personal.
My search for perfect books also seeks out the aspects of the Romance genre that I find especially enjoyable. While the primary relationship-building is essential, (and, personally, I like some steam), the biggest draw for me is the superb characterization delivered by the genre. I often see Fantasy readers requesting “character-driven” books or “strong character-building,” and honestly, when I read that, I immediately want to direct them to a Fantasy Romance. The depth of characterization in a Romance novel is often unparalleled. Because the Romance genre focuses on the relationship of the couple as the primary plot, Romance authors must necessarily delve deeply into the backstory, motivations, and struggles of the characters in order to establish the basis for and evolution of their relationship. The characters must change or evolve in some significant way as part of the romantic plot in order for the resolution of the relationship to occur. The depth of characterization required to do this well leads to three-dimensional, well-balanced characters, fleshed out to a degree that you may not otherwise experience, and an investment in their success as individuals and as a couple that results in a thoroughly satisfying ending. You won’t find much better characterization than in a good Romance book!
Understanding what appeals to me from each genre helps focus my search on the next perfect book. I want a book that checks all of these boxes, a book that delivers the best of what both Fantasy and Romance has to offer. I want a full, A-plot, adult Romance that is richly developed with nuanced characters right alongside the heroic quest set in a deeply imaginative world. Over the course of the past several years, I have found several of these diamonds-in-the-rough: Milla Vane’s A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles series, and C.L. Wilson’s The Winter King, to name a few. But I have also found an author who’s entire canon consistently and adeptly delivers on the promises and expectations of both the Epic Fantasy and Romance genres: Grace Draven.
I am convinced that fantasy fans that have not taken the plunge and read a Grace Draven book are missing out on one of the best, contemporary Epic Fantasy writers out there. My goal is that this explanation of how her work delivers on the genre expectations of both Fantasy and Romance entices you to take a chance on something you may not otherwise have picked up and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
So, how do Grace Draven’s books appeal to readers of Epic Fantasy? First and foremost, Draven’s world-building is both expansive and thorough including original magic systems, diverse races, languages, kingdoms, and cultures, and even the mundane minutiae of day-to-day life like food and attire, all of which coalesce to make for a truly immersive experience. Her attention to detail in establishing the form and function of her worlds is remarkable and serves to strengthen the authenticity of the plot and create a deeper basis and context for that plot and the characters.
Draven’s two ongoing series, The Wraith Kings and The Fallen Empire, are both set on an epic scale that is reflected in the world-building of these two worlds. Take The Wraith Kings, for example. There are multiple races, two of which are phsyically very different, and the romance plot actually brings these two races – the humans and the Kai – together. But even among the humans there are a number of courtly kingdoms politicking and vying for power as well as nomadic mountain clans that follow an entirely different social structure. Eventually, these disparate peoples must come together to fight a demon horde that threatens all of the peoples in their world regardless of race, kingdom, or alliances. There is magic in this world that is the purview of the Kai, but also a mysterious Elder race who existed long ago and holds keys to that magic. Magic, and in particular necromancy, must be used in order to summon enough power to defeat the evil and banish the horde to their alternate realm. Draven needed an expansive world to provide ample setting and context for a multi-book series based in the classic trope of good versus evil, and she delivers such a world in spades!
But the appeal doesn’t stop with world-building. Draven’s ability to weave intricate stories that consistently contain both an “A” Epic Fantasy plotline as well as an “A” Romance plotline cannot be overstated. Neither plotline feels like it is less important than the other; they stand on equal footing and are written in such a way as to contribute to and complement one another. In Master of Crows, Silhara is plagued by the demi-god Corruption and is the only sorcerer powerful enough to defeat this evil, but he knows that even his power may not be enough. Over the course of the book, the relationship between Silhara and Martise begins to develop, and we learn that Martise has latent magic that allows her to feed power to Silhara’s sorcery. Suddenly, the “A” Epic Fantasy plotline and “A” Romance plotline are thrust together in a most unexpected and yet meaningful way. Martise is completely devoted to Silhara and his quest to defeat Corruption, and Silhara knows he can use her power to feed the spells necessary for its ultimate demise. But he also knows that it will probably kill her, and using her as a vessel of power makes him no better than the slave-owners that have captured her soul and therefore her life. The Epic Fantasy and Romance plotlines present the reader with difficult moral questions and tension because of they way they are artfully woven together. Here, the sum of the parts has a far greater impact, and Draven expertly employs this structural device throughout her books.
Another aspect of her writing that will appeal to Epic Fantasy readers is that Draven does not limit explicitness to sex. Her writing is often raw and brutal, depicting violence, pain, and loss in the same detail as her sex scenes. Her books deal with dark themes like torture, slavery, inequality, and prejudice, and she doesn’t shy away from tackling these themes head on through explicit scenes. There’s a brutality in her brand of evil that is more often seen in Epic Fantasy than in Romance, but serves to enhance the authenticity of both aspects of her books; when every facet of life is depicted to the same level of detail, when it is not only sex or violence that is explicit, a balance is achieved, and the reader is left with an impression of a more realistic world in which both pleasure and pain exist on equal footing. In Phoenix Unbound, we are introduced to a throughly depraved villainess and exposed to explicit scenes of her atrocities including mass sacrifice by fire and the brutal torture of our MMC, Azarion. These scenes are more reminiscent of content you might read in grimdark, but they are not gratuitous; these scenes are purposeful in establishing the depths of the character’s evil and also as a device used to provide compelling contrast to the explicit tenderness depicted when Azarion and Gilene finally unite.
And speaking of romantic couples uniting, let’s not forget that Grace Draven also writes Romance! These relationships are adult; they are not YA, neither in age nor in content. These are adults embarking on adult relationships and is one of the things I appreciate most about her books. There is no “pining and whining.” The struggles and the concerns of the characters are not those of individuals embarking on their first relationships. These are adult men and women, experienced in life and relationships and wrestling with internal and external struggles commensurate with their age and maturity. And oh is it refreshing! Her romances are high-tension and the resulting pay-off is quite satisfying. When couples do come together in her books, the sex is steamy and explicit. It is well-written in that the scenes are never sappy or cringey, they are long enough to be engaging without becoming a focal point, and, most importantly, they contribute to the romantic plotline as opposed to being merely gratuitous.
Finally, and independent of the Fantasy and Romance genre expectations, I find Draven’s prose, for lack of a better word, delicious. It’s meaty. It has pulp. Something you can sink your teeth into. It is eloquent and elevated without being purple or dense; there are no extraneous words – every word is perfectly placed. I would go so far as to call her prose “literary.” Her word choice is often surprising, yet refreshing, pulling from vocabulary I’d like to see more of in writing today. Her phrasing and imagery compliment the tone of her books as well as her world-building and plotting in a way that amplifies setting and action; in other words, her writing serves to enhance the overall reader experience.
Some of you may be thinking, “Alright, Kat, I’m sold. Grace Draven sounds like an amazing Epic Fantasy author and I’d like to give her a shot, but where should I start?” Great question! To help guide new readers of Draven’s work pick something that might resonate with their particular tastes, here is a list of her seven full-length novels (in order of publication) that includes a break-down of both Fantasy and Romance tropes contained therein.
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher Summary: This is the question that sets bondwoman, Martise of Asher, on a dangerous path. In exchange for her freedom, she bargains with her masters, the mage-priests of Conclave, to spy on the renegade sorcerer, Silhara of Neith. The priests want Martise to expose the sorcerer’s treachery and turn him over to Conclave justice. A risky endeavor, but one she accepts without hesitation–until she falls in love with her intended target.
Silhara of Neith, Master of Crows, is a desperate man. The god called Corruption invades his mind, seducing him with promises of limitless power if he will help it gain dominion over the world. Silhara struggles against Corruption’s influence and searches for ways to destroy the god. When Conclave sends Martise as an apprentice to help him, he knows she’s a spy. Now he fights a war on two fronts -against the god who would possess him and the apprentice who would betray him.
Mage and spy search together for a ritual that will annihilate Corruption, but in doing so, they discover secrets about each other that may damn them both. Silhara must decide if his fate, and the fate of nations, is worth the soul of the woman he has come to love, and Martise must choose continued enslavement or freedom at the cost of a man’s life. And love.
Tropes: Good versus Evil; A Destroyer is Coming; Politicking of a Magical Conclave; Sorcery; Master-Slave Love Interest; Subservient FMC meets Reluctant MMC; Slow-Burn
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher Summary: Afflicted by a centuries-old curse, a warlord slowly surrenders his humanity and descends toward madness. Ballard of Ketach Tor holds no hope of escaping his fate until his son returns home one day, accompanied by awoman of incomparable beauty. His family believes her arrival may herald Ballard’s salvation.
…until they confront her elder sister.
Determined to rescue her sibling from ruin, Louvaen Duenda pursues her to a decrepit castle and discovers a household imprisoned in time. Dark magic, threatening sorcerers, and a malevolent climbing rose with a thirst for blood won’t deter her, but a proud man disfigured by an undying hatred might. Louvaen must decide if loving him will ultimately save him or destroy him.
Tropes: Beauty and the Beast Fairytale Retelling; Magical Curse; Strong, Assertive FMC; Tortured MMC
The Wraith Kings Series
Publication Date: 2014, 2016, 2020
Publisher Summary (Book One): Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.
Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.
Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.
Tropes: Power-Hungry Queen; Court Politics; Old Magic; Demons; Necromancy; Large-Scale Battles; Arranged Marriage (Radiance and Eidolon); Friends-to-Lovers (The Ippos King)
The Fallen Empire Series
Publication Date: 2018
Publisher Summary: Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital – her fate: to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion, and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.
Tropes: Roman-Empire-Inspired World; Gods and Goddesses; Elemental Magic; Evil Empire; Rebellion; Enemies-to-Lovers
The Fallen Empire Series
Publication Date: 2020
Publisher Summary: Magic is outlawed in the Krael Empire and punishable by death. Born with the gift of earth magic, the free trader Halani keeps her dangerous secret closely guarded. When her uncle buys a mysterious artifact, a piece of bone belonging to a long-dead draga, Halani knows it’s far more than what it seems.
Dragas haven’t been seen for more than a century, and most believe them extinct. They’re wrong. Dragas still walk among the denizens of the Empire, disguised as humans. Malachus is a draga living on borrowed time. The magic that has protected him will soon turn on him–unless he finds a key part of his heritage. He has tracked it to a group of free traders, among them a grave-robbing earth witch who fascinates him as much as she frustrates him with her many secrets.
Unbeknownst to both, the Empire’s twisted empress searches for a draga of her own, to capture and kill as a trophy. As Malachus the hunter becomes the hunted, Halani must risk herself and all she loves to save him from the Empire’s machinations and his own lethal birthright.
Tropes: Roman-Empire-Inspired World; Healer Magic; Dragon Lore; Dragon Shifter; Evil Empire; Rebellion; Slow-Burn
I hope this essay has piqued the curiosity of Epic Fantasy afficianados and will create an entirely new group of Grace Draven fans. I know that her books have hit a sweet spot for me, masterfully blending Epic Fantasy and Romance in a way that is both entertaining and utterly satisfying as a reader searching for those special books that deliver on the promises of both genres. Hopefully, we’ll all start seeing more Grace Draven recommendations for Epic Fantasy! Happy Reading!