I’ve made no secret about my disdain for romantic subplots, especially on this column.
I’ve also recently come out as aroace (aromantic asexual) to the shock of absolutely nobody, and wanted to do a post commemorating that.
However, the amount of aroace characters in SFF is shockingly low. I know of only two. So I’m compromising with a list of sci-fi/fantasy books that have either no romantic subplot or is very, very light on it.
Links lead to more in-depth, spoiler-free reviews. As always, please list your own suggestions in the comments so I can check them out.
The Trials of Apollo by Rick Riordan
The Trials of Apollo is the story of the Greek god Apollo—alias Lester Papadopoulos—who has been stripped of his divine powers and flung to Earth as a sixteen-year-old boy. He has to go on a cross-country, extremely dangerous quest to save the world and also get his divinity back. It’s a five-book redemption arc.
He’s joined by Meg, the twelve-year-old daughter of Demeter. While the bond they share is strong and full of love, it’s purely platonic. Apollo is a big bisexual mess who has absolutely zero time for a romantic subplot. It’s beautiful.
This is the third series in the Percy Jackson universe. While you’ll miss a lot of callbacks, you can jump right into the first Trials of Apollo book without reading the others and still know what’s going on.
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
This post-apocalyptic novel is set in a brutal dystopia where the streets are ruled by girl gangs. Several tropes get turned on their head, and we get a good look at how beauty can be found in even the worst of circumstances.
Nalah—who usually goes by the name Chief Rocka—is born into the violent matriarchal Mega City, where seven-year-old girls are recruited into military camps and teenagers being beaten to death is the norm. It’s a TERF’s paradise, and Nalah has swallowed the lies fed to her hook, line, and sinker. That is, until she’s sent on a mission outside the city limits and has to choose between her own ambition and the safety of her gang.
Like The Trials of Apollo, there’s also a lot of LGBTQ+ representation in this book. Nalah herself is straight, and is in something of a relationship with another character. But that only takes a handful of pages in the entire book.
I will not stop recommending this series until everyone has read it. Especially anyone interested in historical fiction and/or zombies.
Zombies rose during the Battle of Gettysburg, completely derailing the Civil War and American history. At the start of the books—1880—the undead are mostly (not really) under control, and the States have something of a system: black girls are trained to be Attendants, personal bodyguards/zombie-killers, for their rich (white) employers.
The emotional core of the story is the friendship between Jane and Katherine, two Attendants-in-training who go from enemies to rivals to allies to friends. To top it off, Katherine is the only aroace character I’ve yet to see, and a true artist with a pair of short swords.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
Technically a manga, but who cares? I’m counting it as a book series.
Fullmetal Alchemist follows two brothers—Ed and Al Elric—as they search for the mystical Philosopher’s Stone. Their quest gets them embroiled in a nation-wide, centuries-old conspiracy theory that threatens everything and everyone they love.
Ed does eventually develop a reciprocated crush on the character Winry, who makes his mechanical prosthetics and is his best childhood friend. But I especially love the character Colonel Mustang, an arrogant, self-sacrificing bastard who can blow stuff up with a snap of his fingers. There’s a fan theory that he has a thing with his lieutenant, the no-nonsense sharpshooter Riza Hawkeye, but it’s not canon, and I prefer to see them as self-adopted siblings.
This steampunk novel about militarized airships is a feminist masterpiece. Lieutenant Josette Dupre is promoted as the first female captain in her nation’s military and given command of her own ship, but the entire world is stacked against her, waiting for her to fail as she tries to save her hometown and her country from an ambush.
I was worried there would be a romantic subplot between her and Bernat, who is sent aboard her ship to spy on her and eventually comes around to her side completely. But instead of “redemption through love,” it’s “redemption through friendship,” and I love it.
This does have a sequel, By Fire Above, where Josette does end up in a romantic relationship with Bernat’s older brother, which they both start purely to spite Bernat and end up in something real. As an older sister, I can confirm that I, too, would start a relationship with someone purely to annoy my brother.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
If you haven’t read The Book Thief, you’re missing out on a truly haunting, breathtaking read.
This is told from the point of view of Death during WWII. Hard to beat that for a narrator. He tells the story of a young girl who gets adopted by a German family and ends up hiding a Jew in their basement.
Since the main character is a little girl, no romantic subplot!
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Adult (rated R)
In a world heavily inspired by late Imperial China, Rin is from a small farm town that she will do anything to escape. She ends up winning a scholarship to the most prestigious military school in the Empire, meets a host of allies, rivals, and enemies, and then is thrown head-first into a war that her country cannot hope to win without serious divine help.
While the history and culture is cut straight from a Chinese history book, the gods are something else. There are a variety of nasty, powerful deities that people can call upon for terrifying power, and they have their own agendas that rarely benefit humanity.
This book has a sequel that I could never get into. But The Poppy War is an intense, gritty tragedy with one of the most hard-core anti-heroes I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
What are your favorite sci-fi/fantasy books with little to no romantic subplots? Comment them below!