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broke the hea rule

Why Did They Do That? Romances That Broke The HEA Rule

broke the hea rule

Warning: Here Be Spoilers on HEA in Romance

The HEA in romance has always been a none of contention with detractors. But a book must have a happy ending to be considered a romance. Just as every detective novel must include a mystery to solve. That’s the only rule for the genre.

Some older romances played fast and loose with expectations, especially ones published during the bodice ripper heyday. In the past, some novels–and even many today–attempted to defy that inviolable law. Doing so inevitably angers readers because if there’s one thing writers are not supposed to mess with, it’s The Happy Ending.

Not all romances end with the couple–or whatever permutation–married with a dozen babies. Regardless, there’s an expectation of a committed relationship that will last the test of time.

But what about those romances that broke the HEA rule? What are those books, and what is their legacy? Let’s examine some pre-2000s novels that did the unthinkable.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix from “Gladiator,” 2000; Directed by Ridley Scott; Produced by DreamWorks & Universal Pictures

Jennifer Wilde’s Marietta Danvers Trilogy

Jennifer Wilde broke the romance rules all the time, never quite letting the reader know who the book’s hero was until almost the end. Her first book, Love’s Tender Fury, definitively had Marietta Danvers ending up with Derek.

But in the second book, Love Me, Marietta, she spends a lot of time with a new man, Jeremy Bond. By that book’s denouement, it’s revealed that Derek is a no-good-nick, already married to a pregnant wife! He still wants Marietta as his sidepiece, though. Love Me, Marietta has a cliffhanger ending as Marietta rides in a carriage, racing to reunite with Jeremy.

When Love Commands will have Marietta engage with other sexual partners. In the end, she does settle down with one man. There s a HEA in this romance series, just not with the man you expect.

Roberta Gellis: The Roselynde Chronicles

Roberta Gellis was a stickler for being historically accurate. The young heroine, Alinor, of her novel Roselynde is married to Ian, a man 30 years her senior, which isn’t unusual for a medieval setting. In romance novels, sometimes we overlook issues caused by age differences, like the much older partner leaving his partner widowed while she’s still young. That’s what happens in the second book of the series, Alinor.

Publishers Playboy Press had initially pitched the Roselynde series as an “Angelique” type series set in the middle ages. The heroine would find romance with a new man in each book. Fortunately, the publishers limited the idea to only two novels. The rest of the books in the series deal with Alinor’s many children finding love.

Elaine Barbieri’s Amber Series

In Elaine Barbieri’s Amber trilogy, the first book, Amber Fire, seems like a typical bodice ripper. Melanie has various men in her life as lovers and husbands. The first book culminates with Melanie finding happiness with Simon.

However, Simon passes away in book two, Amber Treasure. Amber finds consolation with his best friend, Worth, but another man still has her heart.

Their love story is told in the second half of Amber Treasure and concludes in the final installment, Amber Passion.

Aleen Malcolm’s Cameron Trilogy

Aleen’s Malcolm wrote a fierce yet tender bodice ripper romance with her first outing, The Taming. Free-spirited, 15-year-old Cameron became the handfasted bride of the older Alexander Sinclair. Ride Out the Storm, its follow-up needlessly separated the young heroine from her stubborn husband for years.

What occurred in the third book, Daughters of Cameron, floored me. Far from having had many years of happy marriage together, Alex and Cameron are separated by war as Alex fights in the American Revolution. When he returns home, he finds his wife is bone-thin and suffering from consumption. Cameron dies early on in the book, before the age of 40.

The rest of the novel is about her two daughters, Kestrel and Rue, finding love. Alex remains a widower, remembering his short time with Cameron fondly. THE HEA in this romance is for her children, not Cameron.

The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom

The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom is a romance I’ve been putting off reading for years. Why? Because I accidentally read its sequel, Alexandra’s Ecstasy, first. In Alexandra’s Ecstasy, I discovered that the main couple from The Pirate’s Captive only had a few happy years together before tragedy struck. That book’s heroine, Merry, died soon after giving birth to a son, who also passed away.

Nicolas, the hero of The Pirate’s Captive, spends Alexandra’s Ecstasy in perpetual mourning for his lost young bride and son. He’s also emotionally distant from his and Merry’s daughter, Alexandra. Nicolas finally reunites with Merry in the ever-after when enemy pirates murder him.

Ena Halliday’s Marielle, Lysette, and Delphine Series

Ena Halliday is a pseudonym for an author whose works I adore, Louisa Rawlings, aka Sylvia Baumgarten. I have loved almost all her books. Even the best writers can create stories that displease their fans, however.

Not only did she break romance’s hard-and-fast rule by denying her protagonists a happily-ever-after-ending. She also gave the hero another woman to love! In Marielle–which had the privilege of being Tapestry romance #1–the heroine of the same name is imprisoned during the reign of Louix XIII. Marielle is a gentlewoman who endures much hardship. To her delight, she is paired with her hero, Andre, supposedly for a long life of happiness.

Book two of the trilogy, Lysette, stars an anti-heroine who has eyes for Marielle’s husband. Before she falls in love with her man, Lysette does her best to destroy Marielle’s & Andre’s marriage.

Finally, poor Marielle passes away a year before the beginning of book 3, Delphine. Her husband Andre finds it hard to move on, but indeed he does, with Delphine. Delphine is 19 years old to Andre’s 43.

That’s not a happy conclusion to a trilogy. It’s a wonder why the author chose this route.

Mary Gillgannon’s Dragon Duo

Mary Gillgannon did something similar in her Dragon series. The first two books focused on a Gaelic King. In Dragon of the Island, the hero, Maelgwn the Great, is a feared warrior fighting against the Romans. The Welsh warlord enters into a marriage of convenience with Aurora.

The heroine is dead in the book’s sequel, Dragon’s Dream. Maelgwn has become a recluse in a monastery, mourning her loss. Then he finds love again with a new bride, Rhiannon, a Celtic princess.

Maelgwn’s love life is based on actual events. The author wanted to tell two tales of romance while being historically accurate. The books have received much praise, especially the second entry. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that the Pinnacle editors allowed Gillgannon to take such a risk with her series.

Sandra Brown’s Coleman Saga

Sandra Brown’s Coleman duo makes for rather gritty western romances. In Sunset Embrace, Lydia Bryant finds love with Ross Coleman on a wagon train ride out West. He has a motherless son who needs a wet nurse. Lydia is a childless mother who can help his son. Ross is a rough, cruel man, but Lydia wins him over with her grace and grit.


In its sequel, Another Dawn Banner Coleman, their daughter, engages in a love affair with Jake Langston, a longtime family friend. Jake has had a longing for Lydia for many years. Yup, he goes from wanting the mom to getting it on with the daughter. This book is particularly egregious because it ruins Sunset Embrace‘s happy ending by prematurely killing off that book’s hero, Ross.

Anne Stuart’s Maggie Bennett Series

Anne Stuart broke all sorts of romance rules with her Maggie Bennett series. Book one in the romantic suspense series is Escape Out of Darkness, with the eponymous heroine finding love with Mack. They get married.

Shockingly, Mack is murdered at the opening of book two, Darkness Before Dawn. In this new chapter, Maggie teams up with Randall to discover who’s sold out national security secrets.

Frustratingly enough, book #2 doesn’t end happily ever after, either. You must wait to read At The Edge of the Sun to find out if Maggie will finally ride off into the sunset with her forever man.

Your Opinion on HEA in Romance

There are a few other novels and series that play partner switcheroo or kill off the hero or heroine before they reach old age. This always causes controversy.

When the romance genre only has that sole requirement, it’s curious to discuss why a writer would break that rule. Why do you think the authors made that decision? Does it ruin your reading experience when you know the HEA is not guaranteed to last long? Do you demand a HEA in your romance?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.

crop person showing broken paper heart

Pet Peeves and Deal Breakers in Romance

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Each person has their own unique limit of what they can or cannot tolerate in fiction. Although it has an absolute requirement for a happy ending, the romance genre may contain deal-breakers for readers looking for a pleasurable experience that takes them away from reality for a few hours.

Our Pet Peeves

Some of our negative book reviews at Sweet Savage Flame have pointed ti personal pet peeves as reasons why we couldn’t enjoy our reading experiences.

In Nadine Crenshaw’s Captive Melody, there were two negative tropes that were deal breakers for Blue Falcon. First, a captive who experiences Stockholm Syndrome for her captor. Second, the hero seeking to inflict vengeance upon an innocent party. There are cruelties that characters experience that cannot be offset by skillful writing or a conveniently happy ending.

As I’ve stated before, as in Dana Ransom’s Love’s Glorious Gamble: I can’t enjoy a romance where the hero is mourning the death of a previous beloved. While I prefer a heroine to be the hero’s only love, I can accept a rival for his affections, so long as she is alive. A flesh and blood woman will always pale to the perfection of a saintly ghost.

We focus on vintage reads on this site, so there may be books we review that consist of “dated” tropes or “politically incorrect” behavior or beliefs that may appear strange, insensitive, or even offensive to modern mindsets. Reviewers provide their own opinions, and on occasion personal insights. Whether to accept these books as products of their age or dismiss them outright is solely up to the individual reader. Everyone has a right to their own personal opinions or idiosyncrasies.

Romance No-Nos

As I’ve scrolled through forums and sites, I’ve come upon various pet peeves in romance. They range from the most minute issues to the most indefensible.

Cheating seems to be the most common deal breaker. Soms older romances featured heroes who would be sexing it up with their mistresses on page one. He might even do so after he’s met or been intimate with the heroine. It takes an extremely talented writer to make their audience accept and move on from this point. If cheating is the main obstacle in a romance, such as in Laurey Bright’s A Perfect Marriage, some readers may not be as forgiving as the heroine.

In a similar vein, there are readers who don’t want to know about a main character’s past sexual experience. A fantasy that appeals to some Romance fans is for the hero to be the heroine’s one and only lover. This is a plot point that seems authentic in Historical and vintage Romances. For some readers it’s unconvincing in a modern contemporary novel unless the heroine is very young or was raised unconventionally.

The abuse or death of animals, the elderly, or children might not appear often in romances, and there’s a good reason why. Those are issues that can be quite upsetting emotionally to folks seeking escapist entertainment.

Sometimes a pet peeve may not be a plot point but a word used. So many times I’ve heard readers state they can’t stand the word “moist” to describe how. er, excited a heroine gets. No matter how erotic the scene, once that word rears its head, visions of Duncan Hines chocolate cake or alcohol-soaked sanitizing towelettes come to mind.

What are your pet peeves in romance? Is there anything that can make you overlook your pet peeves, such as literary skill, or are there some things you just won’t accept in a love story?

Please, drop a comment and let’s talk romance.