My good friend is separating from her partner of fifteen years. In sharing the sad news with me, she also told me about a trip to the cinema made difficult because she had to choose between something that definitely had romance (cue unhappy thoughts) and a macho movie with lots of car chases, guns, and explosions. She chose the macho movie. (Thankfully, she ended up in the wrong theater for actually the right movie at that time for her: Dora.)
Some people, in the wake of a breakup, crave examples of what they’re going through to feel less freaked out and less isolated. Personally, I watched more Jane Austen adaptations after a bad breakup than I had during the whole of the relationship itself. Others, meanwhile, want to steer clear of the topic as a whole.
If, like my good friend, you’re going through a breakup and want to avoid mushy plots, I’ve got some speculative genre recommendations for you.
Pegasus by Robin McKinley
Yes, she’s my favorite author, but I kept this book on my shelf unread for years, strangely afraid I would be disappointed just because the cover features a very majestic pegasus. I always thought it would be a very fluffy, Lisa Frank, candy sweet story, but it isn’t. The story winds through the politics of a human nation and their allies, Pegasi, which are a culturally, linguistically, and of course biologically separate group. I loved the exploration of culture shock and friendship. When I feel like being distracted from my troubles, I pick up this book.
It’s the first in a series and has a pretty intense cliffhanger, though, if that helps you estimate its worth to you in this difficult time.
Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki
This book isn’t technically speculative–it’s YA. I include it anyway because it’s a fast read and very subtle, leaving a lot of interpretation up to the reader. The fantasy-adjacent storyline teeters on the main character, Montgomery (AKA Monty), buying a crystal amulet and finding (through confirmation bias) that the amulet gives her some mild wish-fulfillment powers. Throughout the book, she’s frustrated and sometimes angry, with good reason in a number of cases.
There’s no romance, unless you count Monty’s ridiculously adorable moms, whose presence in the town rarely escapes public notice. The fact that Monty has two moms (instead of something more heteronormative), becomes one of the central tension points for the story. Monty is frustrating sometimes, but in a relatable way to even an adult reader like myself.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
This book was originally published in 1995. I could just as easily put Tamora Pierce’s Alanna on this list, but I’m pretty sure you, dear reader, know that one already. Besides, Assassin’s Apprentice is one I myself read in the wake of a breakup, so I’m giving it priority here.
The pace of Assassin’s Apprentice is slow and winding. Sometimes we see each day pass for the character. Sometimes years pass and we revisit him when he’s older. Always, he’s growing and changing and while he does develop feelings for someone in his teen years, nothing culminates from his interest, and the bulk of the story is not devoted to this crush.
If you haven’t read this book yet, it’s about a boy, Fitz, who apprentices to the court’s assassin. The boy is the bastard son of a would-be king. The unique magic, botanical training, intrigue, and bullying Fitz experiences all seem small and inconsequential at first, but these notes later crescendo, taking the reader through to the climax of the story.
It’s surprisingly hard to find SFF that dodges romance, but I hope these three get you started with what you need on the difficult path of healing ahead.