Confession time: this pandemic fall and winter, I’ve read 24 Ilona Andrews books. I think it might be how I survived with my sanity intact. Why is this a confession? Well, some of these books were shelved as fantasy or science fiction and some as romance (often different libraries fulfilling my requests shelved books from the same series differently), and some people out there think romance books are somehow less, guilty pleasures rather than “real” books. Those people are missing out on some good spec fic.
Innkeepers and Aliens
I began with the science fantasy Innkeeper series, stumbling across it as one of the only things “in” on Libby when I ran out of books. These delightful stories involve magic innkeepers, telepathically bonded to their inns, who host aliens when they are visiting Earth, and keep the rest of the galaxy a secret from the rest of us. With grim news greeting me in the newspaper every day, I really needed an oversensitive, quill-covered chef who tries and tries to replicate a Big Mac but just can’t be bad enough, and some chicken-like creatures who live for debate but have to be protected from themselves when the debate becomes overheated. These stories made me laugh aloud, and wow, I needed that. Plus Dina absolutely kicks ass. Gotta love a woman who is the most powerful being around.
I’ll be honest, the romance in the first few Kate Daniels books made me a bit uncomfortable, even though I loved Kate, her world, and the urban fantasy/mystery plots from the beginning. If the Innkeeper books reminded me of Buffy at times, the Magic Bites series is like a female-led Dresden Files. My problem with the romance is that it uses the trope of the alphahole – in fact, if you look this trope up on the internet, you’ll probably find a quote from Ilona defining it. The idea is that an alpha male, used to being in charge because of his intelligence, competence, and talent for leadership and violence, is so intent on protecting the woman he likes he’s a complete asshole, until he learns not to be, of course. The idea that a capacity for violence is sexy is not new. Over a hundred years ago, L.M. Montgomery poked fun at a teenage Anne of Green Gables for wanting a man who could be wicked, but wouldn’t, for her sake. This quality held by pretty much all the Ilona Andrews romantic partners clearly does something for some people, though I suspect those people are not ones who’ve ever been subjected to actual violence. For me, it’s triggering, so I have to push past it for the payoff explained below.
The wonderful thing about the alphaholes in Ilona Andrews’ many series is that they actually do learn their lesson so thoroughly that the romances end up as feminist statements in the end – statements that resonate particularly with me. Late-series Curran not only learns to respect Kate’s right to make her own decisions, he accepts her decisions about what she must do to be true to herself even when they mean she will take risks and get hurt. And she does the same for him. They don’t have a perfect relationship (that would be boring), but the one they do have is kind of beyond imagining, for me. My humble opinion is that Ilona Andrews writes established relationships better than the boy-gets-girl phase overall (maybe because they are a husband and wife team!), but even if you don’t like the side of romance, their books are such imaginative, entertaining speculative fiction I recommend them anyway.
Ableism and the Protective Partner
So, now we get to me. I’m disabled with a chronic pain disorder, and so it hurts me to do everything. Add to that the key dimension of ableism where the abled person assumes they know what’s best for the disabled person, usually immediately, and despite the disabled person obviously being an expert on what they can or can’t do. Mix in dating, and here’s the result: on a third date, a man once insisted on picking up his car to drive me home after dinner because it would hurt me to walk, even though I told him multiple times that I wanted to walk. In fact, we had originally left the car behind because I particularly wanted to walk on a nice evening in early summer, despite the pain it would cause me. But no, that was not my decision to make. Needless to say that third date was his last. Now try mixing in a long-term relationship, the accumulated caregiver fatigue, etc., and you end up with statements like this: “If you get a job I’ll leave you, because you’ll be in more pain and I’ll have to deal with it.” Ug.
So when Curran lets Kate do things that physically hurt, it lets me picture a possible future where I both make decisions about which dreams I want to pursue and what I need to stay sane, and have a partner.
Mostly, though, I just read these books for the pure, unadulterated fun.