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Katharine Ashe has a new novella out today! How to Marry a Highlander, closely related to How a Lady Weds a Rogue, has just become available. Today also marks a year since I finished reading the last of Ashe’s six full-length novels for the first time. So it’s a good day to talk romance novels, once again.

Ashe’s books gave impetus to my writing about romance novels in the first place. In my previous post on the topic I suggested one good reason that Christians might read romance novels, namely, the good of talking more—comfortably and thoughtfully—about sex. A particular group of books have helped me to identify additional reasons having to do with (surprise, surprise!) the role of stories in moral formation.

As I described in my previous post, one essential feature of the romance novel is the “happy ending,” or as some readers put it, the Happily Ever After. The romance novel HEA involves the hero and heroine committing to be together in a way likely to last and to benefit them mutually. (It does not require them never to have a disagreement or interruptions to their marital bliss.) The happiness of the happy ending derives ultimately from the attractiveness of the hero and heroine—it’s happy because we get to see two lovable people rewarded. The characters’ attractiveness is usually revealed through the eyes of each as they meet, get to know one another, and overcome whatever obstacles stand in the the way of their relationship’s flourishing.

Of course attraction has many layers, the physical among them. The characters often start off finding one another physically attractive even if not otherwise. (These books include plentiful descriptions of physical beauty, but since readers get the story almost entirely from the perspective of the hero and heroine about each other, well, no wonder. People’s tastes vary, but everyone sounds gorgeous through the eyes of a lover. If they didn’t like each other’s looks it wouldn’t be much of a romance novel.) But no good romance novel leaves attraction at the level of the physical. Further layers of attraction develop as the two characters get to know one another. The best romances present characters whose attractiveness has its deepest roots in their active goodness. Attraction that will sustain a “happily ever after” credibly must see through deceptive charm and outlast fleeting good looks. Lasting attraction must be built upon the heart’s beauty.

The romance novel genre, then, excels in making goodness both interesting and appealing—no small feat, that. Very often the characters are interesting because they do good despite wrongs they’ve suffered, despite the temptation to choose an easier path. They struggle to do the good they know, engage conflicts fruitfully, and navigate well the rolling tide of unexpected emotions. The more interesting and true-to-life the struggles of the characters, the more satisfying the “happy ending.” Reconciliation and hope for a wholesome life often come after the characters’ redemption from past injustices, mistrust, or disordered habits. In the romance genre, goodness doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, but you don’t get happiness without goodness.

At their best, romance novels are a celebration of beauty and goodness. In the last year I’ve discovered fifteen books that exemplify how romance novels commend these qualities. In these books the heroes and heroines habitually place the good of others ahead of themselves. Some of them devote their lives to helping the downtrodden. Others practice kindness more subtly. But their stories all show the unity of goodness with lasting love and happiness. So here, by author’s last name and then chronologically (by setting; not publication date), follows the list of books along with some description to explain why they’re on the list. This’ll make for a much longer post than usual, but, well, describing fifteen books takes a bit of space.

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By Katharine Ashe

Swept Away by a Kiss – 1810. Slavery has been abolished in the British Empire, but some British citizens still trade slaves illegally for high profit. Viscount Steven Ashford, half-English half-Natchez, captains an anti-slaving ship. He uses whatever tactics and takes whatever disguise will help him accomplish his goals. It’s a bit inconvenient that when he meets Valerie Monroe, and is tremendously attracted to her, he’s also masquerading as a Jesuit priest. Love has never been so forbidden, or so dangerous. Steven’s work has made him a few enemies, and he has no desire to endanger Valerie by involving her in it. But she is strong, resourceful, and persistent—she won’t be stopped from helping him.

Captured by a Rogue Lord1816. Alex, the Earl of Savege, leads a secret double life as the pirate Redstone, captain of the Cavalier, who has gained a reputation plundering the ships of other aristocrats who gain their wealth by unjust means, donating the proceeds to charities that care for orphans and widows. But he’s getting tired of that life and wants to find some peace—settle in at home to look after the affairs of his estate. When they meet, he and Serena Carlyle, the daughter of his neighbor, experience an immediate attraction. It only grows as Alex learns how Serena acts as kind advocate for her step-siblings against their own evil mother, and that she has made it her mission to find a way to stop the smugglers from wreaking havoc on the coastline bordering the Carlyle and Savege properties. When Serena discovers Alex’s alter ego, he captures her heart completely—and she expects him to act the hero that deep down, he really is.

When a Scot Loves a Lady1817. Kitty Savege is deep into a long personal espionage against a corrupt lord when she locks eyes across a ballroom with Earl Leam Blackwood, in the guise of a barbaric Scot, and hears him say with one glance that such activities are unworthy of her. But Leam himself is involved in stealthy operations through the Falcon Club, an organization commissioned by the British government to retrieve certain citizens who have been lost and whose rescue must be achieved discreetly. But Leam wants to quit. He and fellow Falcon Club member Wyn Yale are on a last mission when they become stranded by a snowstorm at the same Shropshire inn as Kitty and her friend Emily Vale. In the midst of their attraction, Kitty and Leam discover that the trouble that initially led Leam to join the Falcon Club in the first place has followed him to Shropshire. But this time, they team up to get to the bottom of it and rescue each other in the process.

How to be a Proper Lady – 1818. Fifteen years ago, Viola Carlyle was kidnapped off the beach near her home in the presence of her sister Serena. When Alex Savege, now married to Serena, tells his former first-mate, Jinan Seton, about Viola’s disappearance, Jinan vows to himself to find her and return her home in payment of a life-debt he owes to Alex. Jinan has the best back story I’ve seen this side of Aragorn. He is half-Egyptian, half-English, and was enslaved for two years as a child. He spent much of his youth and young-adulthood violently repaying the world for the injustices done him as a child, but in recent years has joined the Falcon Club and pursued its errands around the world as the Cavalier‘s captain. As opportunity arises, he quietly purchases and frees slaves, placing them in positions of safety and employment. At twenty-nine, Jinan rarely encounters a situation he can’t navigate or master. And then he finds Viola. Well, she sinks his ship, which is a lovely metaphor for her effect on Jinan, who still hasn’t made peace with his past or found his place in the world. Having been absent from Society from the age of ten to twenty-five, Viola likewise feels displaced. The main adventure unfolds as these two people—at sea both literally and figuratively—manage to find safe harbor with one another.

How a Lady Weds a Rogue – 1820. Wyn Yale has one last errand for the Falcon Club before he plans to end his life. He can’t forgive himself for a careless mistake he made five years ago—he accidentally shot an innocent rather than rescuing her. Ever since, he has been drinking to excess and has become a high-functioning alcoholic. He has the skills of a spy: he reads people with incisive clarity and possesses formidable intelligence, but he is nearing the end of his body’s tolerance for the bottle. Sometimes he loses control, but nothing allows him to forget that horrible night. Despite the drinking, Wyn remembers everything. Only one avenue would allow him to forget permanently, and Wyn plans to take it after finishing this last mission. On the way, however, he encounters Diantha Lucas, Serena Savege’s younger step-sister, who has a mission of her own—to find her mother, who abandoned her five years ago without any explanations. Diantha is a young lady alone on a public mail coach, unchaperoned and a target for untoward advances. Wyn, being more deeply a gentleman than anything else, cannot continue with his own errand without first seeing to Diantha’s safe return to her family. Of course that’s easier planned than done, as Diantha matches Wyn for wit and will, and much prefers not to go home just yet. He soon discovers, too, that his gentlemanly impulse to help people has its own analogous counterpart in Diantha’s character. The rescuer also becomes the rescued.

In the Arms of a Marquess – 1821. The Marquess Benjirou Doreé was his father’s third son, and never expected to inherit the title, but war robbed Ben of one brother and the oldest died along with his father in a fire at the family’s hunting retreat. With his half-Indian heritage, Society views him warily despite his rank among the peerage. But he cares little for it, except as it allows him to orchestrate ongoing comprehensive operations dedicated to righting injustices and helping the oppressed wherever they’re found. Ben last saw Octavia Pierce, the young Englishwoman he first met as a girl in Madras when he rescued her from abduction, seven years ago. Their attraction was immediate and strong, but her family disapproved Ben’s mixed heritage. Ever since, Ben has mistakenly thought Octavia shared her family’s opinion, her interest in him only superficial. When they meet again in England, all the old feelings rekindle, but now Ben must take care who knows Octavia’s importance to him. Those who wish to thwart his operation threaten to harm her. But she won’t be cowed, and furthers Ben’s aims with her own clever boldness. And if he needs rescuing, she’ll see to that too.

Up next: Ashe’s next release is the first in her new Prince Catchers trilogy, I Married the Duke, due for release August 27th. The final two in the Falcon Club quintet will feature Lady Constance Read: Leam’s cousin, friend to Ben Doreé, and a clever Society beauty with a tragic past; and Viscount Colin Gray, the Falcon Club secretary who looks after the other members and communicates the director’s orders.

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By Elizabeth Hoyt

Thief of Shadows1738. Winter Makepeace presents an unassuming persona as the manager of a home for orphaned children in St. Giles, but Lady Isabel Beckinhall is about to discover his daring alter-ego: the Ghost of St. Giles, a harlequin who roams about in the night protecting and rescuing the innocent from those who would harm them. Lady Beckinhall is one of the Children’s Home’s patronesses. When some of the other ladies who support the Home decide that its principal representative to Society—Winter—ought to be more trained in genteel manners, they elect Lady Beckinhall to the task. And he must cooperate, or be removed as manager. In addition, Winter’s life as the Ghost has just become more dangerous—he’s wanted for rescuing a notorious pirate from the gallows, and shortly also for murder, and he’s trying to track down a ring of “lassie snatchers” who kidnap and exploit young girls. The lassie snatchers don’t exactly appreciate it. But Winter no longer has to face these dangers alone; now he has a lady on his side, and she won’t let him fail or come to harm.

Lord of Darkness – 1740. As it turns out, Winter Makepeace is not the only Ghost of St. Giles. Godric St. John, too, wears harlequin and marauds by night, safeguarding people from footpads and other villains. He takes the Ghost’s persona as a way of dealing with the pain of losing his beloved wife, Clara, to a long illness. But the Ghost’s activities become increasingly dangerous as people on both sides of the law believe him the murderer of Roger Fraser-Burnsby, a gentleman. Among these people, unfortunately, is Lady Margaret Reading, who was Roger’s lover, now Lady Margaret St. John. That’s right—Godric’s wife. They married two years ago, but Godric hasn’t seen her since, and she doesn’t know he’s the Ghost of St. Giles. But of course such a secret is not easily kept when Margaret comes back into Godric’s life to become his wife in truth, and begins seeking the truth about Roger’s death. When she does unmask Godric, she realizes he can’t have killed Roger, but then who did, and why? She and Godric then have a mystery to solve together, besides a marriage to build.

The Leopard Prince – 1760. At twenty-eight, Lady Georgina Maitland no longer expects to marry, and since she has come of age and inherited her own estate she need not. But an estate requires management, so she hires a land steward, Harry Pye. Harry has the benefit of having grown up in the region of Georgina’s estate, and so knows exactly how to manage its affairs. But he also has an unfortunate history with the neighbors: Lord Granville would much prefer Harry didn’t exist, and diligently blames Harry for various local crimes in the hope of getting rid of him. But Lady Georgina trusts Harry, and he vindicates her support repeatedly by seeing to his duties faithfully, prioritizing Georgina’s safety, and caring for the vulnerable among the villagers and country people close by. Of course they fall in love with one another, but their match seems impossible on many levels—the threats from Granville on one side and the vast difference in their social class on the other. Harry doesn’t play Robin Hood like some of the other heroes above, but he consistently prioritizes the good and care of others over his own, which matches him rather well with his lady.

Up next: Elizabeth Hoyt’s next book is the third and last of her books featuring a character who disguises himself as the Ghost of St. Giles: The Duke of Midnight, due out October 6th.

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By Laura Kinsale

The Prince of Midnight – 1772. S.T. Maitland is hiding in the foothills of the French alps since he’s a wanted man in England for playing a Robin Hood type character—a highwayman known as Le Seigneur du Minuit, the Prince of Midnight. His last conflict with the authorities left him broken and a near invalid; he is deaf in one ear and frequently loses his balance. So when Leigh Strachan finds him and begs for his help with avenging her murdered family, half of him wants to take the challenge and the other half knows it for a fool’s errand. How can he fight off her enemies if he can’t reliably walk without falling down? But his heart is in helping the vulnerable—whether four-legged like his pet wolf Nemo and his beloved horses, or Leigh. A more damaged and bedraggled rescue party has scarcely ever been assembled. Wit, wile, and courage, however, they do possess in spades. And they must use all these qualities judiciously if they intend to emerge from this adventure with their lives intact, and discover together just what wounds love will heal.

Up next: That’s a good question. While Kinsale has written other books, her latest doesn’t really fit on this list, and I’m not sure what her next project is. But if you want more Kinsale, you might try Seize the Fire or Flowers from the Storm, and watch her website for news of her next book.

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By Lisa Kleypas

Suddenly You – 1836. Successful authoress and almost-thirty spinster Amanda Briars meets her new publisher in unusual circumstances. No longer expecting to marry but still a virgin, she approaches a madam to send her a gentleman caller. Jack Devlin arrives on her doorstep instead, only she doesn’t know who he is until she meets him at a party a week later, much to her mortification, and learns his true identity. Jack has had his eye on Amanda’s work for quite awhile already, and is willing to compete with other publishers to get it. But now he’s also interested in Amanda for herself. Despite her reluctance to have anything to do with Jack, she can’t help but notice the unflinching loyalty of his staff. And Jack is very persuasive—he did not become so successful a publisher without first possessing a more than generous helping of determination. Before long Amanda discovers the depth of generosity that has motivated Jack’s hard work, but past betrayals also make him reluctant to trust others—Amanda included.

Worth Any Price – 1842. Nick Gentry has lived on the streets since he was a boy, surviving imprisonment, becoming a thief and then a thief-taker before moving to the right side of the law as a Bow Street Runner. His Bow Street work is a sort of therapy—he enjoys chasing and outsmarting the members of the underworld he once knew so well. He has been hired to track down a lady, Charlotte Howard, who has run away from her family in order to escape a lascivious, possessive, and controlling fiancé, Lord Radnor. In fact, Charlotte’s fiancé hired Nick. When Nick finds Charlotte, he realizes he cannot in good conscience return her to her fiancé, but the only way he sees to keep her safe is to marry her himself. Having few avenues open to her, she agrees. Nick soon discovers that the woman he has rescued is better therapy than his Bow Street work, and far from helpless. But they certainly confront their demons more effectively together than alone.

Up next: Lisa Kleypas is by far the most prolific and established author in this list, and she’s written many books that I’ve enjoyed, but none that really belong on this list. But there’s a long list that feature characters of substance. I could wish for more books like the Bow Street Runners series, but the idea might well have run its course. Ms. Kleypas’s latest books are contemporary romance, a genre in which I’ve yet to find a really satisfying read.

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By Julie Anne Long

These books are part of the Pennyroyal Green series, which are in chronological sequence but can be read independently of one another. The first book gives a helpful overview of the supporting cast and an important feature of the series: the animus between its two leading families—the Redmonds and Everseas—who have been feuding in one way or another since the 11th century.

The Perils of Pleasure (book 1)Regency, after 1815. Colin Eversea is about to hang for a murder he didn’t commit when Madeline Greenway, a mercenary, orchestrates his rescue. But before she can collect her fee someone tries to shoot her just as Colin pushes her out of harm’s way. Mystified by their situation and mindful of their peril, Colin and Madeline team up to find out who wants Madeline dead, who wants Colin alive, and to gather the evidence of Colin’s innocence. This story has all the plot twists of a mystery novel. The strongest characteristic of both Madeline and Colin is their ability to confront impossible circumstances gracefully, and with a shockingly well-developed and witty sense of humor.  And they learn from each other how to play better with the hand they’ve each been dealt before deciding that perhaps their teamwork should continue.

I Kissed an Earl (book 4) – Regency, after 1815. Violet Redmond is determined to find her oldest brother, Lyon, who disappeared a year ago after falling disastrously in love with the Everseas’ oldest daughter, Olivia. Violet suspects that her brother has taken to sea as the pirate Le Chat, who captains a ship called, of course, the Olivia. When Violet learns that Asher Flint, the newly styled but scarcely civilized Earl of Ardmay, has a mission to find Le Chat and bring him to justice, she finagles her way aboard Flint’s ship. She must find her brother and persuade him to return home, but doing so will require her to betray Flint, which, as she gets to know him, she is increasingly reluctant to do. It’s inconvenient to fall in love with the the man who wants to see your brother hang, and maddening to know both men as noble, determined, and both seeking justice in their own way.

It Happened One Midnight (book 8) – Regency, after 1815. Jonathan is the youngest Redmond son, and has garnered a reasonably deserved reputation as a rake and libertine. What’s less well-known—even to his own father, Isaiah—is Jonathan’s innate impulse to help those in need, and his talent for investing. In an effort to make Jonathan grow up, Isaiah cuts off Jonathan’s allowance and promises to withhold his inheritance unless Jonathan marries “appropriately” within the year. When Jonathan finds Thomasina (Tommy) de Ballesteros crouching under the window of the Duke of Greyfolk, he asks her why she has a knife. “I’m carrying a knife,” she said slowly, “because . .  . I don’t own a pistol.” He nodded at this inanity thoughtfully. “Oh, one should always carry a pistol. In fact, I’m carrying one now.” And there it is in his hand. When Tommy also learns that Jonathan lacks capital for his next investment, she decides to cut a deal with him. She provides the capital, he provides the pistol—and wields it, if necessary. But Tommy, far from being a shady character, is as cleverly disguised a philanthropist as Jonathan, and more daring to boot. She steals young servant children from abusive employers and places them in safely in schools, homes, or apprenticeships. When Jonathan accompanies Tommy to rescue the next child, they both begin to realize their kindred spirits—and attraction. Of course Tommy is far from “appropriate,” in the eyes of Isaiah Redmond, but he’s also about to discover a side of his son he never knew existed.

Up next: It Happened One Midnight was just released on July 2, but Long promises a ninth novel in the Pennyroyal Green series, Between the Devil and Ian Eversea. As part of the Eversea clan, Ian has featured prominently in several books in the series. If the last book forecasts the promise of the next, Ian’s story will be tremendously satisfying. It’s due for release in March 25, 2014. Ever since reading I Kissed an Earl, however, the story I most anticipate is Lyon Redmond’s. It will fit right into this list, but there’s not been a peep about it from Ms. Long just yet.

If you’re still reading, go find one of these books instead! When you do, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

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