Kingdoms may rise and fall, but good fantasy romance novels are forever. Brimming with continent-spanning adventures and Machiavellian political intrigues, the best of these larger-than-life stories draw you back again and again. As do the legendary ‘ships at their heart.
The three YA fantasy series below have much in common. They’re by turns grounded and whimsical, bleak and hopeful. They center on world-weary, awe-inspiring heroines born to lead their people and the scrappy, honorable heroes secure enough in their masculinity to ride shotgun as consorts. And they’re as much about duty and sacrifice as they are about love and destiny in worlds where magic is anything but a cure-all.
So when you’re in the mood for sometimes gut-wrenching, always epic tales of underdogs coming into their own and falling in love along the way, I have just the recommendation. Here are 3 YA fantasy power couples who’ll make you want to swear fealty:
Finnikin/Evanjalin from The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta
When he was 9 years old, Finnikin of the Rock survived a gruesome attack on his homeland of Lumatere by a neighboring kingdom. Before he could reunite with his family, a powerful spell cut off Lumatere from the rest of the world, leaving Finnikin and so many others homeless. So he has grown up focused solely on one mission: Find a new place for his fellow exiles to settle. It’s only when he meets the enigmatic Evanjalin that he begins to realize that destiny may have more in store for him…and for them. She’s determined to break the curse and bring their people home to Lumatere. He’s determined to figure out what’s driving her. Until it all clicks into place.
Finnikin and Evanjalin are that rare fated-to-be-mated couple who actually take the time and space to actively choose to be together, which is what takes their romance to next-level amazing. When they meet, their attraction is instant and undeniable, fueled by how much they have in common. Both orphaned (or close to it) from a young age, they’ve been through hell and back multiple times. They could be forgiven for seeing the world with cynical eyes. Instead, they share a deep, abiding commitment to their home, the Lumatere they knew and loved as children.
The two survivors are also born leaders who have trouble relinquishing control to anyone, even each other. Their constant jostling for dominance becomes a natural point of conflict they have to work through. It’s all worth it when they join forces to try to reunite their countrymen and save their kingdom.
Of course, with the world on their shoulders, nothing is that simple. Their biggest test–and what makes shipping them the most rewarding–actually comes when Evanjalin’s doozy of a secret comes to light. A stunned Finnikin must decide if love is enough to change the course of his whole life. You can probably guess the answer, but oh, the tears (happy and sad) you’ll shed along the way…
These two are an incredible pair, and nothing I can say will do them justice. Start with Finnikin on the Rock, then read Froi of the Exiles, and complete the unforgettable trilogy with Quintana of Charyn.
Eugenides/Attolia from The Queen’s Thief series by Meghan Whalen Turner
How’s this for a meet-cute? The cleverest thief in the land is sent on a mission to spy on the Queen of Attolia. Said queen discovers him, jails him, and relieves him of a hand as punishment. Quelle romantic, non?
And yet, despite this less-than-auspicious beginning, Eugenides (the aforementioned thief) and Attolia (the queen) are a pair for the ages. Pragmatists to the core, they decide not to let a little thing like a maiming get between them. In fact, they begin to form an unlikely bond after the queen orders his wounds tended and even sends him back to his kingdom of Eddis to recover from his resulting illness. What follows is what has to be the weirdest courtship of all time.
See, as it turns out, Gen has spied on the queen far more than she knew, and knows a thing or two about her. Whereas most of the world sees the Queen of Attolia, a cold monarch who rules with an iron fist, Gen sees Irene. He sees a young woman who came to power after her father was assassinated and who has tried to hold onto her kingdom and bring her people stability and prosperity ever since. So he understands, and always has, what a tough position Attolia was in when he was caught in her palace, and he gets why she had to make a statement and secure her throne by punishing him in such harsh fashion. He loves her anyway. And amazingly, she comes to feel the same.
The Queen’s Thief series may be categorized as young adult, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more mature love story than that of Gen and Irene’s, which takes off in Book 2, The Queen of Attolia. Full of twists and turns you have to read to believe, the epic tale of these two canny political operators, who love as fiercely as they scheme, will thrill you as often as it makes you sigh and swoon.
Katsa/Po from the Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
In a universe where a chosen few are “Graced” with psychic powers and mismatched eyes, Lady Katsa has found her Grace to be nothing but trouble. And who could blame her? She’s been used as a weapon since the age of 8, when she accidentally killed a tormenter and her uncle, the king, realized she had a gift for killing that he could exploit.
When you spend your whole adolescence treated like a monster, it’s hard not to believe it. Still, Katsa resists her so-called nature. She works to control her power and uses her free time to run a secret council dedicated to justice and working tirelessly to protect the innocent, especially young girls. Yet it’s only after meeting a Graced fighter from another land, Prince Po, that she really begins to wonder if everyone could have been wrong about her, including she herself.
Katsa and Po are one of my all-time favorite OTPs, not least because they remind me of Game of Thrones‘ Arya/Gendry. As strong, independent, and fearless as she is, Katsa harbors a lot of understandable issues. She has a hard time trusting her feelings or accepting love and desire. Po is not without baggage, either. As the youngest of seven sons and the only one Graced, he’s always felt different. It doesn’t help that he’s been sworn to secrecy about a major part of his identity for his own safety.
Even Katsa and Po’s differences are complementary, which becomes especially clear when they spar–he’s stronger, but she’s faster. For the first time in their lives, they can fight with no holds barred and no fear of hurting someone less skilled. Down come the emotional defenses as a result. They can also be gentle and vulnerable together in a way that only a trusted few will ever be privleged to witness.
The biggest reason these two set the gold standard in YA fantasy romance, though, is their cellular-level understanding of each other. Prince Po knows beyond a doubt that Lady Katsa doesn’t need him in her life; she has big goals that don’t always include him and will most certainly keep them apart for much of their relationship. She craves autonomy and knows that marriage in their patriarchal society would mean surrendering her rights. Rather than ask her to compromise any of her dreams, Po accepts her exactly as she is, and they make an extraordinary, unconventional agreement for their time. Best of all, when Katsa worries about how the world will react, Po tells her that it doesn’t matter a whit.
*Highlight the paragraph below for major spoilers for Finnikin of the Rock:
Evanjalin’s true identity is Isaboe, Princess of Lumatere and heir to the crown; she’s been in hiding since her family’s assassination.
P.S. If these books leave you desperate for more, FRET NOT. Remain calm and hie you to trusty Archive of Our Own. There you shall find fic devoted to the Lumatere Chronicles, Queen’s Thief series, and Graceling Realm/Seven Kingdoms trilogy.