I just finished Shannon K. Butcher‘s paranormal romance Burning Alive, the first book of her “Sentinel Wars” series. (Disclosure: Shannon and her husband Jim Butcher will be the guests of honor at TusCon, a science-fiction, fantasy, and horror convention this November, a convention for which I’m doing the programming.)
I enjoyed the book and went to Amazon right after finishing it to put another of the series in my shopping cart. But I must admit there were elements that bothered me and got me thinking about whether I should be including more of them in my own writing.
The basic premise of the series is this: In our contemporary world there are secret groups of powerful, long-lived beings (the Theronai and the Sanguinar) who are sworn to protect us humans from the monsters (the Synestryn). The male Theronai gather energy from the environment and if they don’t find a mate to bond with who can syphon off the energy and use it to power her magic, the men’s souls eventually die. The Sanguinar are healers, but because they power their magic by drinking the blood of others, they’re not well tolerated.
I like the complexity of the universe Shannon has created. It’s not all straight forward good guys vs. bad guys. But a central element of the romance gives me pause. The bond between the Theronai hero and the heroine is largely physical. An emotional bond does grow between them (over three days) but first and foremost is the physical need they have for each other. Helen’s touch relieves Drake of the pain of his overabundance of magical energy, and taking it into herself (even before she knows what’s happening to her) feels really good. They hunger for the other’s touch.
I could get all English Lit. major on this and talk about how this is symbolic of our primal need to connect with others, to belong in a greater social context. I could talk about how it’s representational of the biochemistry of falling in love. But let’s not.
This trope of being swept away against our will is a common one in the romance genre. The physical component isn’t unique either. C.L. Wilson also uses the concept of having the hero’s life depend on complete bonding with his one and only soul-mate in her Tairen Soul series.
Can’t you just hear an obsessed lover shouting, “I’ll die without you!” In real life, wouldn’t that give you the creeps?
But Romance isn’t real life, and it’s not meant to be. It’s fantasy. It’s wish fulfillment. And that’s probably the key. We like the idea of being important to someone. Of being needed and valued. This trope, of having the hero’s life depend on his mate’s love and commitment, is symbolic of that.
Shannon does give her heroine a choice — but what a choice! Fortunately, Helen both loves Drake, and loves making love with him. But she also knows that if she refuses him, he’ll die in agony. Is that really a choice?