Sebastian and Waite: Historical LGBTQ Romances

When we were teenagers, my sister and I loved reading Avon romances. Now that I’m older and want to read more diverse books, I’ve been delighted to find a few authors that provide steamy period pieces for an LGBTQ audience. Here are two entries published in 2021, both involving career criminals transformed by true love.

In The Queer Principles of Kit Webb, a nobleman needs a highwayman’s help retrieve something precious, but the thief is retired and will only help by teaching the man what he knows about stealing. As the lessons go on, though, they each want more than just a business arrangement… Cat Sebastian is a writer with a number of series under her belt, including Seducing the Sedgwicks (featuring Two Rogues Make a Right) and the Turner series (featuring The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Ruin of a Rake).

The Hellion’s Waltz focuses on a Robin-Hood-style swindler and the swindler-hating woman she must seduce to bring off her heist. But though funding a weaver’s union is a good cause, morality and unexpected love may lead them astray. Olivia Waite has also written The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and the Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows in this same universe of historical sapphic feminists.

Though perhaps not going to win any literary awards, everything I’ve read by these authors is funny, heartwarming, poignant, addictively readable, and just generally good romantic escapism. If Downton Abbey, Bridgerton, and other swooning period pieces have captured your heart, you may want to try the work of Cat Sebastian and Olivia Waite. (And if you’re just looking for unconventional bodice-rippers, I can also recommend the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, starting with Soulless).

Better Than People by Roan Parrish

I’ve reviewed one of Roan Parrish’s earlier works before and while I loved it, it had some issues. I’m happy to report that in her more recent Garnet Run series many of my complaints have been fixed! The first in a duology, Better Than People is a sweet romance for animal lovers and mental health advocates alike.

Jack is a prickly artist who has surrounded himself with a menagerie of animals, finding their company more enjoyable and trustworthy after a recent betrayal. Unfortunately, he can’t find his usual joy in taking care of them after breaking his leg in an accident. He’s going to need help – his least favorite situation to be in. Enter Simon, a man burdened with crippling shyness soothed only by the company of animals and his recently-widowed grandmother. But that’s his problem: his grandmother is terribly allergic to animals, keeping him from having a pet of his own. Having Simon walk Jack’s dogs (and cat) solves both their immediate problems AND their underlying loneliness, as a business arrangement blooms into love. But there’s a reason they both prefer animals to people; can their love triumph?

Being a shy animal lover myself, I really sympathized with the characters in this case, and I appreciated that Parrish’s take on anxiety and shyness is NOT “they need to get out more”, but rather a compassionate observation that some people are just built differently and have different social needs. To have Jack respond empathetically to Simon and listen to what he needs was exactly what I, as an anxious mess myself, needed to read.

If you take comfort and company from animal friends, if you find other people difficult to navigate sometimes, and if you like stories of supportive, affirming love (with spicy scenes mixed in), this may be the book for you.

The Hate Project by Kris Ripper

The master of unconventional happily-ever-afters has struck again! Kris Ripper’s The Hate Project, follow-up to The Love Study, is another compassionate and honest look at love in the midst of anxiety, focusing on being honest with yourself about what you really want.

Oscar struggles with just about everything, weighed down by his almost-manageable mental illness. One way he copes is by being a grouch, avoiding people where possible and sniping at them when he can’t. Since Jack joined their friend group, he’s taken on most of Oscar’s sniping, and giving back as much snark as he gets. But all that changes after Oscar is laid off – again. In desperate need of a purpose and structure, he agrees to help Jack clean out his grandmother’s house so it can be sold, in return for financial payment and a no-strings sexual arrangement. But soon he’s seeing a new side of Jack, and of himself as he starts to actually enjoy being in someone’s company. Even stranger, Jack seems to enjoy HIS company. Oscar tries to run away, as usual, but he just can’t forget how good it was being with Jack (both in and out of the bedroom). Could it be possible to face his fears and ask for a second chance?

I read this book in a day, I was so charmed by how relatable, funny, and frustrating Oscar is as a narrator. Ripper doesn’t gloss over any of the realities of living with anxiety and depression, but while it’s hard to read Oscar’s depressive sections, it just makes it more gratifying to watch him grow, admit the truth to himself, and try something different. Moreover, the depiction of an unconditionally loving and supportive chosen family is very heartwarming, a good example of how to support loved ones with mental illness. AND, as is the case in The Love Study, Ripper does an excellent job showing alternative ways for people to be intimate and make a relationship that works for them.

If you’re looking for a compassionate romance with plus-size representation, good depictions of mental illness, sharp banter, and a couple you’ll root for, you might like The Hate Project.

Burn Zone by Annabeth Albert

If you like steamy romances with an age gap, a hint of danger and lots of angst, I may have a book for you!

Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series features brooding smoke jumpers – firefighters who parachute into wildfires to keep them contained – falling reluctantly into love, and it starts with Burn Zone, starring Lincoln and Jacob, two smoke jumpers who have been fighting their attraction to each other for about as long as they’ve known each other. Lincoln is the older man, a veteran smoke jumper who was best friends with Jacob’s late brother. His difficult past has made him slow to trust and quick to leave, but Jacob makes him want to stay. Jacob is the new recruit, eager to get out of his brother’s shadow and prove himself, and just as eager to explore the heat between them. Lincoln wants to honor his friend’s memory, but can’t resist Jacob’s charms; neither man is prepared for the true and tender connection that blooms.

Now, for me, some of the writing and plot were a bit clunky, and I was less engaged by the steamy scenes than I might’ve expected. However, I was totally hooked by the emotional journey of the characters as they navigated the miscommunications and unspoken feelings threatening to separate them. The cultural immersion into the world of smoke jumping firefighters was interesting, and the threat of rejection from unsupportive family members and conservative communities was heartbreakingly real.

This might not be a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s a stirring and exciting story of love that just won’t quit. If you’re looking for an escapist read with heat both in and out of the bedroom, try Burn Zone by Annabeth Albert.

In the Middle of Somewhere by Roan Parrish

If you’re a big romance reader, you’re probably familiar with this storyline: two people meet and dislike each other on sight. They’re thrown together regularly over a period of time, and that dislike turns to mutual appreciation and attraction. Just as they think they’ve found love, life gets in the way and the two are parted. After a period of heartbreak and soul-searching, they’re reunited for their happily-ever-after (or at least happy-for-now) ending. You may love this storyline. I do not. The romance books I love are decidedly different from this pattern, and my latest discovery is no exception: In The Middle of Somewhere by Roan Parrish.

First, here’s the gist: Daniel is a lifelong city boy, native to Philadelphia where he grew up as a black sheep in his family of mechanics. Now, he’s finally getting his graduate degree and can look for a job as an English professor. But the only college that will interview him for a position is in a small town in Michigan where he feels like even MORE of a black sheep. He’s wondering if he’ll ever fit in anywhere, when a nighttime mishap lands him on the doorstep of Rex, a local furniture-builder made reclusive by his crippling shyness. Their physical and emotional attraction is immediate, but they’ve both been damaged by trauma and are reluctant to trust each other. Over time, following their instincts and talking honestly about their feelings leads them into a relationship that is healing to them both, though tested by unwelcome surprises on all sides.

Now, it’s not perfect. For one thing, it’s written entirely from Daniel’s perspective, which can leave Rex’s feelings and needs neglected (though you can see the author tries to make up for this). But despite its weaker places, this is a book which distances itself from all the tropes I dislike, in heartwarming and refreshing ways. The attraction that draws Rex and Daniel together is both physical and emotional; they make each other feel safe and valued, and there’s no friction of dislike to get past. The steamy scenes (and there are many) are full of healthy communication, safe practices, consent, tenderness and mutual care. There is also frank, honest discussion of past traumas and the baggage they each bring to the relationship, which means the narrative focuses on their emotional healing and making peace with their past – in communication and partnership with each other. They support and stand up for each other, and (spoilers) there’s no gratuitous separation or a breakup used as a plot device. The narrative climax that does happen ties into all the issues that were explored earlier in the story, bringing them to a head AND leaving room for sequels.

What’s also effective is the immersion into the various subcultures in the story: small town life, Michigan culture, the Philadelphia scene, and the world of higher education. Each feels authentic and researched, giving the novel a strong sense of place and being grounded in the world.

If you’re looking for a steamy, escapist read grounded on wholesome, caring principles, I recommend you find yourself In the Middle of Somewhere.

Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert

Spoiler alert: as far as romance novels go, I’m not a huge fan of what’s called the “enemies to lovers” storyline. To me, strong dislike is an odd and unlikely foundation for a relationship, so the story always feels implausible and vaguely annoying (yes, this includes Beauty and the Beast). That preference of mine still holds true in the case of Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert: the protagonists start off as enemies, and I don’t really care for it. However, the book has a lot of other things going for it which balance that part out.

Conventionally Yours is the story of Conrad and Alden, who have been playing the card game Odyssey in the same group for several years. They don’t get along: Conrad thinks Alden is arrogant and uptight, Alden thinks Conrad is a bit of a slob skating by on charisma. It doesn’t help that they’re the group’s two best players, constantly butting heads over the game. Unbeknownst to each other, they’re both going through a hard time when the book opens, each in great need of a miracle. The miracle comes when they’re given the chance to go to a big convention for Odyssey fans and play in a tournament which gives the winner a big boost of fame and a cash prize, not to mention the chance to become a professional player. The only catch: the convention is on the other side of the country, and to get there, they have to drive…together. As the miles roll on, they find themselves getting a better understanding of each other, and a genuine connection blooms. But the tournament can only have one winner, and the stakes are high for both of them – can their fragile new relationship survive?

Even though I don’t care for “enemies-to-lovers” romances, this book does include lots of other things I love: lots of diverse representation, realistic emotional stakes, cute illustrations, and homages to the world of fandom and fanfiction (where “there was only one bed” remains a beloved plot device). The characters are well-rounded and likeable, the romance is sweet, and the portrayal of gaming, fandom, and LGBTQ friendship is loving and on-point. If you’re looking for a feel-good read, and like some of these tropes more than I do, I definitely recommend trying Conventionally Yours.

Just Like That by Cole McCade

The weather won’t stop getting colder anytime soon, but a steamy book might warm you right up! My latest suggestion: Just Like That by Cole McCade. This sweet story about second chances at happily-ever-after centers on Summer Hemlock, who comes back to his hometown to work at his old school, and Fox Iseya, Summer’s former teacher and current crush, who’s been grieving his late wife for so long he can’t imagine himself otherwise. Summer, crippled by anxiety, quickly changes all that by proposing an unusual deal: every time he can do something brave, he earns a kiss from Fox. Fox finds himself unexpectedly flustered and intrigued by the offer, and the resulting relationship might just heal them both.

Despite the frankly unlikely character names, I found this book sweet, endearing, funny, and yes, steamy, with lots of points in its favor, including a strongly ethical portrayal of relationships, grief, and self-confidence. Both characters are fully-developed people with personalities, hobbies, and foibles. Both characters are students of psychology, and they don’t shy away from discussing the underlying issues each is grappling with. There’s also good solid representation of consent and negotiating intimacy to both partners’ comfort level.  Maybe most importantly, though Summer is Fox’s former student, the book is clear that nothing personal happens or could happen between them unless they’re both fully mature, consenting adults – a vital point for me to enjoy the story. All of these elements combined to create a novel that, though definitely erotica, has love, respect, and the characters’ wellbeing at its heart.

If you need to believe in second chances, if you want to feel hope and bravery, and if you’re looking for a healing, escapist read for your wintry days, I recommend giving this new book a try – Just Like That.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

What do you do when you fall in love with the last person you ever expect to? And they live thousands of miles (including an ocean) away in another country? How do you stay true to your homeland and your family and still create a life with someone that has become incredibly important to you? Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston attempts to answer these questions and lots more in this charming, funny, fast-paced romance.

Alex is the son of the first woman President of the United States. He is just finishing up his graduate degree and is eager to join his Mother’s re-election campaign. He has long mapped out a path of a political career for himself and is anxious to begin. Henry is a Prince, literally. He is the grandson of the Queen of England and fulfills many royal duties, part of the long tradition of his family.

There is animosity between Alex and Henry from the first time they meet, a feeling that is confirmed and intensified with each meeting until they come to blows at the wedding of Henry’s older brother which causes Alex to fall into (and ruin) the magnificent royal wedding cake. International diplomacy steps in, in the form of their respective families PR teams, and the two are forced to spend time together to assure the world that the sons of the two superpowers are actually ok with each other.

Of course, once they spend time together, they (reluctantly) begin to like each other, become friends and then confidants. They are both in unique positions, their roles in their families to be unfailingly supportive and are always under intense scrutiny. Their connection grows into attraction and love and now they have the added stress of keeping their romantic relationship a secret. Alex’s mother is facing a difficult re-election and Henry’s family will not approve of a gay son. Inevitably, the secret is leaked and all hell breaks loose. Through it all, Alex and Henry struggle to stay true to each other and their values and to find a way to be together.

I don’t typically read romance novels, but this one has been getting a lot of buzz and has great reviews and I can see why. It is snappy and fun and moves at a breakneck speed. The characters, both the main couple and the various supporting cast, are all appealing and relate-able (Well, mostly. One lives in the White House and the other lives at Kensington Palace!) In many ways this is a typical romance novel. A couple meet and hate each other; couple spends time together and start to like each other; couple falls in love; couple must overcome one or more obstacles to be together. The big difference of course, is that the couple in question are homosexual although this is treated as mostly incidental (but not completely without political consequences) There is a lot of politics in this book – all of the characters are fictional of course, but the issues they face are many that are prominent in today’s political arena – immigration (Alex and his sister are half-Mexican, their father being from Mexico), marital status (the US President is a divorced woman), gender equality, duty to country, conservative vs liberal (in both the US and England). If politics are not your cup of tea, you might want to skim over some parts. Otherwise don’t miss fun romance!