The Best Romance Novels of 2022
The genre has had an exceptional year — one of its best of all time.
By Olivia Waite, Dec. 5, 2022
Welcome to the first New York Times list of the year’s best romance novels! My teenage self would not have believed this list possible, much less that I’d be writing it.
The genre has had an exceptional year. (Other top candidates for Best Romance Year are 1992, which brought us Julie Garwood’s “The Secret,” Laura Kinsale’s “Flowers From the Storm,” and Amanda Quick’s “Ravished” and “Reckless”; and 1995, which had Beverly Jenkins’s “Vivid,” J.D. Robb’s “Naked in Death” and Loretta Chase’s “Lord of Scoundrels.”)
Many of the books below have been featured in this column before; a few are new, discovered as I circled back to titles I’d missed.
For too long, I’d been craving a baseball romance book by an author who loves baseball and romance equally, and along came KD Casey’s FIRE SEASON (Carina Press, ebook, $4.99), the story of two major-league pitchers who become roommates and then considerably more. Casey’s work feels as supple and lived-in as a fielder’s favorite glove, resilient but never rough, and the difficulties of queer identity in an entrenchedly heterosexual industry are handled with care but never allowed to steal the limelight from her heroes.
I initially skipped Akwaeke Emezi’s YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH WITH YOUR BEAUTY (Atria, 278 pp., $27) because I thought it was more women’s fiction than romance — a mistake I regret, and which I’m thrilled to correct now. Widows are a stock character in romance, but rarely is the experience treated with such brutal depth as in this tale of Feyi, a young, haunted Black widow who falls for her new boyfriend’s famous father. The book is gloriously messy at the start, but like Feyi, it lights up when Alim enters: a queer and wildly charismatic Black chef who also knows about loss, and who is as foolishly, impossibly attracted to Feyi as she is to him. A modern masterpiece, and a perfect romance to start with if you come from the more literary side of the book world
Day 23: On Christmas Day, No Rest for the Weary. (Or the Guy Who Feeds the Penguins.)
Why Is There a Candle for Everything?
Chencia C. Higgins’s D’VAUGHN AND KRIS PLAN A WEDDING (Carina Adores, 336 pp., paperback, $14.99) is a warmly funny love letter to queer Black women and the queer Black women who love them, disguised as a high-concept rom-com about a reality wedding show. Romances that decenter both whiteness and the gender binary are still dismayingly rare in traditional publishing, so to see a Black lesbian stud as a central character is like water on a parched bit of ground.
Higgins has a knack for writing scenes that are hilarious and natural, as opposed to the capital-H high jinks that often pass for the com part of a rom-com and that tend to stress me out. It is impossible to feel stressed while reading this book, even as you hold your breath to see whether D’Vaughn and Kris will make it to their televised wedding day.
As I read Mia Hopkins’s TANKED (Little Stone, ebook, $4.99), I thought, Finally, an author brave enough to put the painful pandemic reality on the page of a romance — and then to insist a happy ending is possible in spite of all of that. Gorgeous and emotionally bruising, this story of a former underground fighter and a social worker out of work will wring you out in the best way, cementing this trilogy as one of my top contemporary series of all time.
A romance lover’s romance, Alexis Hall’s SOMETHING FABULOUS (Montlake, 363 pp., paperback, $9.99) riffs ruthlessly on Georgette Heyer and other classic historical romance archetypes in a way that verges on surreal and anarchic, even as the emotional through-line (a domineering duke unlearning power while relearning himself and his desires) stays engagingly tender and sincere. Part of that is because our domineering duke is paired with bubbly, beautiful Bonny, about whom I cannot say enough good things. It was hard to pick just one of the four books Hall published this year; please admire my restraint.
When I think of Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty-set RED BLOSSOM IN SNOW (Independently published, 300 pp., paperback, $14.99), I think of scenes with a boat gliding up a river through a dense fog, and characters wrapped in silk, and a pervasive sense of yearning. Sadness is a necessary balancing flavor in romance, and Lin makes it shine like the moon in this tale of cross-class lovers, family secrets and murder. One of those breathtaking romances where the obstacles to true love feel staggering and insurmountable, even for the reader who knows very well how it’s going to end.
It’s been a very good year for paranormal romance, and one reason is Sangu Mandanna’s THE VERY SECRET SOCIETY OF IRREGULAR WITCHES (Berkley, 336 pp., paperback, $17), an effervescent stunner about a lonely modern witch hired to teach three troublesome younger witches at an idyllic country house with gardens full of secrets. My favorite bits all come at the end, and I refuse to spoil them, but the joyous shock of this book’s finale has lingered since summer.
At the busiest time of the year, I found time to not only read Everina Maxwell’s queer sci-fi romance OCEAN’S ECHO (Tor, 460 pp., $27.99) but also reread it, and I found it even more delicious the second time around. Somehow, Maxwell has combined fake dating with a far-future military adventure, set it against a backdrop of vicious civil war and psychic powers, and made it lush and poetic. There are moments that gesture toward the crystalline beauty of “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, or the character-forward complexity of Lois McMaster Bujold’s beloved Vorkosigan series. One of the rare books that deliver at every level on every page.
Fantasy romances are on the upswing, with plenty of L.G.B.T.Q. love stories to boot. C.L. Polk’s second-world romance “Witchmark” brought home a World Fantasy Award in 2019, and this year they’ve graced us with EVEN THOUGH I KNEW THE END (Tordotcom, 144 pp. $19.99), a queer women’s magical noir where every femme’s fatale. Helen Brandt, a private detective with only days left to live, is on the trail of a supernatural killer, and desperate to protect her beloved Edith from both those facts. Eerie, sharp and fiercely bittersweet.
My unabashed most-loved book of 2022? That would be THE DEAD ROMANTICS (Berkley, 345 pp., paperback, $17), by Ashley Poston. The plot: A romance ghostwriter on deadline loses her father, and then encounters the ghost of her hot new editor, who cannot pass over until she finishes her latest manuscript. The feelings: swoony. The sentences: truly breathtaking.
This romance has haunted me since I finished it, and it has become the standard by which I’ve judged everything else from this year.