Tactical Romance

This is a subgenre I want to see exist, and be written more of. No, I’m not talking about how to romance a woman with tactical correctness (although there may be a hint of that) ala Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign. I’m talking about books that are about tactics first – action! Adventure! and proper trigger controls, ambush points, and E&E – and romance blooms into the story. There’s love between two practical, competent adults, with none of the lust-fueled idiocy you see so often in romance novels. Competence porn, but without the explicit sex (because frankly sex is sexier when you leave the mechanics to the reader’s imagination).

It’s Dorothy Grant’s fault. She has written three tactical romances, and I love them, and I want more but I also want Dorothy to keep liking me so I’m not going to pester her to write faster (much). But in order to find more, first we have to define what we are looking for. Then I can do a Book List, and voila! Happy Cedar reading.

Bob The RegisteredFool said it very well last week in the comments, so I swiped his summary wholesale (thanks, Bob!): ”

They are romances, HEA and all. They are not relationships of expedience, despite fairly difficult circumstances.

There are characters who are men of action, who take on those problems realistically and competently.

The hero and heroine have pragmatic virtues, face the difficulties before them with resolve. You aren’t wondering why a shrinking violet tolerates being around a man capable of violence in difficult times, or why a man with no tolerance for weakness is interested in a women who is nothing but weakness.

I’ve read a lot of romance novels over the years. Not always on purpose, mind you. When you are stuck without reading material, any book, cereal box, or soap bottle will do. Harlequin romance paperbacks are ubiquitous. You could swear up one side and down the other you’ve never bought one in your life, but yet, there they are. I was more likely to have read Barbara Cartland and oh, gosh, I’ve forgotten her name but she did several sultry ‘historical’ romances with interesting linguistics, and of course a steady diet of my mother’s favorites: Georgette Heyer and Grace Livingston Hill. So I know whereof I speak when it comes to ‘Romance’ as a genre. I’ve not read a lot of the modern straight-up romances, but I have encountered quite a few of the books that made me really, really appreciate Dorothy’s take on the tactics.

See if you go looking for romance novels, you’ll find that there is a sub-genre that is, well, let’s call it the appeal of Men in Uniform. Currently it seems the rage is for billionaires, bosses, and men in more corporate white-collar power positions, but dig far enough and you’ll find firemen, navy Seals, and the like in there, too. I can see the appeal, if I squint a little. I do very much appreciate a competent man who can make things happen with his hands. *fans self* Ok, that’s not what I meant, although hormonally speaking, in real life, there’s a reason that level of ability appeals on a biological level.

What I object to, and many other women I respect don’t like any better, is the author who just sticks a ‘competent’ dude in the romance without a real appreciation of what makes that potential sexy. As Dorothy commented when we were talking about this “”Honey, have you ever met anyone in the military, or did you just watch a couple Hollywood movies and them rewrite the men as you think they ought to be?” It’s not simply the uniform, which gets used as a trope for a shortcut. There are uniformed cads and nitwits out there. No, what I want is for the love story to take the back seat. It has to, because otherwise you can’t showcase why she should fall for this guy, and vice versa. It’s classic show-don’t-tell. So primarily what you must have is an action story, where the action hangs together and shows him/her acting in competent ways doing intelligent, practical things. But in order for the author to tell this story in a way that really satisfies a woman like me… they have to know their sh*t.

Which is part of why I love Dorothy’s books, and want more like them. She has written action adventures that are based solidly on tactically correct situations. Her characters are not superhuman, they can bleed. They can feel fear, and push through that to achieve bravery. They can accurately predict and evade a three-pronged ambush. They know how to handle a weapon, and that is written from a perspective of an author who not only knows, but knows her own weak points and gets research assistance from people who have been there, done that. The kind of people I find attractive. Like my husband. See, I’m not looking for a romance that offers me illusions. I want one that feels very real. Fantasy and science fiction aren’t real, no, but the people that inhabit those worlds can be. Should be!

A competent man and a competent woman, working together, planning tactically correct action to get out of this pickle (whatever that may be) and falling for one another on the way. Can I get this in my stories? Yes. I think I can.

What about it? I’m looking for books like:

Going Ballistic

Rats, Bats, and Vats

Pixie Noir

The Scent of Metal 

The Spanish Bride (was used to teach at Sandhurst, Dave Freer tells me. You don’t get much more tactically correct than that)

What do you recommend to add to this subgenre, Dear Readers?



  1. the one i am working on… is but isn’t. I hope people don’t hate it because of that.

      1. the romance part of the romance doesn’t actually happen… lol… its an ‘almost coulda happened’ thing

        1. Ah! Well, if you write to romance genre conventions, and don’t deliver, then readers may object. But my guess is that you are not using romance tropes, so you should be safe.

  2. Does it have to be science fiction related? Because if it does not have to be science fiction related I am going to recommend anything by Roberta Gellis. These are historical romances (medieval) about period correct strong women and extremely competent men. Start with _Roselynde_ if you haven’t read any of them.

      1. My brain firmly believes that medieval-and-before historical fiction IS science fiction… maybe because it generally presents a world that almost was. Competency is required just to stay alive…

    1. At one point I thought Sci Fi might have been an essential, rather than accidental feature.

      Even got to the point of constructing an argument in support of why.

      Argument basically hangs on tactical realism limiting the amount of invention one can put into the dominant weapons systems of the story. As a single writer, I am not smarter than the groups of people that work to perfect an era’s tactical paradigm. If I build a world that lets me use real world tactical research, and do a good job with the research and with internalizing some of the thought process, I don’t show off how much of an idiot I really am.

      I had myself convinced that eras of muscle powered weapons could not be useful, hence I could not easily develop a fantasy based tactical romance, because of male female muscle disparities, and the degree of training for muscle weapons.

      I’m now thinking I was wrong. I’m not sure the heroine actually needs to use a weapon. I’m not sure she needs to be able to use the best weapons available. It isn’t like Dorothy’s heroines are doing controlled fire from battle rifles.

  3. > A competent man and a competent woman, working together, planning tactically correct action to get out of this pickle (whatever that may be) and falling for one another on the way.

    You’d have a hard time selling that to tradpub. “Together” is patriarchical oppression; feminists don’t need men, and woke wymyn go their own way.

    “Together”, past some short-term common goal, isn’t really something that resonates in a hierarchical worldview.

    1. The new Heinlein novel — yes, there is one — The Pursuit of the Pankera — fits Cedar’s request, except that the four lead characters each with their own zone of infinite competence make Mary Sues look like bumbling amateurs.

      1. As romance, no. (Marriages in the first, what? No more than three chapters in.) One “instant attraction,” the other “long in coming but not in this story.”

  4. I am more drawn to a formula that could be described as “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy becomes a man to get her back.” (This is about the only Character Growth Arc that I like.)

    My go to example is North By Northwest–Eve Kendall inspires Roger Thornhill to go from being a rather foolish drone to becoming a man of action. The symbolism of the last shot is perfect–he pulls her the face of Mount Rushmore and we cut immediately to him lifting her into his bed. He only became worthy of marrying her by becoming a man who would risk his life for her.

    I think that’s a formulation that we’ve largely lost. In older stories the man didn’t need the woman to rescue him, he needed her to give him a reason to rescue himself. A lot of “ordinary man unjustly accused” style mysteries followed this formula. Donald Westlake comes to mind (plus his books are hysterically funny.) Also Dick Frances.

    What people who reject the Rescue The Princess trope don’t understand is that Princess is not helpless–her power lies in being able to transform an ordinary man into a hero–that’s a pretty awesome superpower when you think about it.

    1. Ooh. I also like that thought. Maybe more useful for me right now than some of the other cool inspirations I am fluttering after.

  5. based on your description, I think the John Fisher Chronicles, Harvest of Evil, Keeping the faith, and the upcoming Shadow War, by your’s surly, might qualify.

    1. I really like your John Fisher books, although I don’t remember thinking of them as romances for some reason. Must re-read to analyze. Also! So happy to hear you have more coming soon!

  6. Funny, The Spanish Bride is one of Heyer’s regency-period romances I don’t specially care for; maybe because it’s mostly a fictionalized verson of the Peninsular War part of Harry Smith’s memoirs, so there are few surprises in the story. And worse, it doesn’t have the shape I want to see in fiction. It’s too much like real life, one damn thing after another.

    1. it does read very much like non-fiction, which is not what I want in the Tactical Romance. I do enjoy some good escapism. But there are not a lot of exemplars, so it got tossed in.

  7. Competent women are very attractive, particularly in fiction. In fiction they don’t yell at you to pick up your socks off the floor. ~:D

    I did put a bunch of romance into the Angels Incorporated series. One reason is that there has to be some motivation for AIs to pay any attention to humans. Otherwise why would they? Humans are slow, annoying and they don’t live very long compared to a proper AI.

    So the reason turns out to be romance. They like us.

    Having an ultra-competent robot girlfriend raises an issue for humans too, how to be worthy of her attention. It gives the human characters reason to try harder, and to stop paying so much attention to the stupid stuff that sabotages life and happiness. Giving people a reason to make the correct moral choice makes it easier to see why they would, IMHO. There’s a reward for being good.

    But though there’s a bit of tactical business going on, I wouldn’t call it a “tactical romance.” More of an adventure story with romance and some fighting bad guys in it.

  8. There’s an argument that Boykin’s Shikari books are a little adjacent to this. They start about a boy and a girl, and become about the love between a man and a woman, but they are not, I think, truly of the romance genre.

    Grant’s first two, Scaling the Rim, and Shattered Under Midnight, have some mass murder and some racism. I wondered if these were accidental features, or essential features. Going Ballistic tells us they are artifacts of the tyranny feature.

    I think a government that has indifference to human life may be a very useful design choice for Tactical Romance, and such governments do at times dehumanize people, and kill on an industrial scale. A government, powerful group at a similar level, or society with an indifference to human life is a contrast to the hero and heroine.

    I think it is important that the hero and heroine value human life, even if they are hard headed, and take careful risks with it. The realism is not simply application of technique, it is also philosophy. What are the values necessary to realize tactical excellence in practice? Bare minimum, if the hero is an officer, he needs to be able to achieve the bonding with his men necessary to get a basic level of performance from them.

    Anyway, there are degrees of tactical competence. There are concentric circles of readers, who are increasingly good at judging how effective the writer is at honestly presenting real competence.

    I once was more or less bounced out of a story by a dude from the PRC, where the supposed future warlord was all LOL, I’m just going to kill this guy officially subordinate to me, prove my dominance, because that is what the author thought was a the behavior of a hard man, making difficult choices, and becoming a strong leader. I may be being uncharitable. My tactical fu is weak, so that “not realistic good leadership” may be a false negative.

    1. Shikari doesn’t have the necessary romance “beats.” Boy meets girl, sparks fly, boy and girl storm off (or are separated by something), boy or girl consider other partners, crisis, boy wins girl is the current romance pattern. That’s not in Shikari. So while there is love and partnership, and I’d argue that the books could be a Romance, they’re not Harlequin/Regency/Danielle Steele romance.

      Oddly enough, the broad Rada and Joschka arc in the Cat books is much closer to the romance pattern, even though it’s over the course of ten books, more or less. *shrugs tail* Go figger.

  9. Ahh! For *that* kind of tactical romance, you want to start with LMB’s earlier book, “Komarr”. Hero is a brilliant ex-mercenary admiral and spy turned Imperial troubleshooter who figures out (in spite of blunders) that the Space Accident really was a Terrorist’s Evil Plot, who the plotters were, and what the Plot was. Heroine is a very tough and principled survivor who helps him discover who the plotters were, and then when the Plot is fully revealed to her, foils it…by herself. All he has left to do is the cleanup. That’s Part I.
    In part II, “A Civil Campaign”, after he figures out rather belatedly and painfully that she is not a ship to be hijacked and neither needs nor wants to be coddled, the tactical romance gets back on track and proceeds to a proper conclusion.

  10. There’s also LMB’s “Sharing Knife” series, which might be billed as a romance in four parts, on the fantasy side. It’s a May-October sort of relationship, although his kind is long-lived enough they expect to reach the end about the same time. He is a war-weary veteran looking for better answers. She is a bright young thing full of life and sharp, pointy questions. Unlike most romances, this one goes through and past the wedding into married life.

    1. I can’t believe, when talking LMB and romance – that nobody has mentioned Shards of Honor and Barrayar.

      re the latter: I know several women (including $SPOUSE$) whose idea of a nice gift for the man in their life would be the severed head of their mortal enemy…

    2. Yes, but ugh. The sex scenes. So cringe-y. The Sharing Knife series is NOT competence Pr0n.

      Shards of Honor, however, is a solid addition, and Komarr is pretty good for that too, if.you find adultery romantic.

      1. I beg to differ on the competence.

        And, what adultery? Ekaterin only decided to leave her feckless, abusive and probably adulterous husband after discovering he was guilty of embezzlement and treason, too. He promptly got himself killed, making Ekaterin an honest widow, before Miles got much past admiration and thinking “pity she’s married to such a lout.” As he complains to his father, well into the second story “What sex? There hasn’t been any sex. I haven’t even gotten to kiss the woman yet.”

        1. I agree on this. There’s no adultery in Komarr, and Lois writes that clearly, that although there is attraction, both characters do not act on it in any way, because one of them is married. That’s the honorable thing to do. It’s also what slows their courtship later.

        2. My long-rabid interest in the series waned in direct proportion to how much Ekaterin was present. It’s too obviously manufactured romance built on victim rescue (who does which being open to interpretation), and as a result she annoys me to the point of active dislike. Ivan’s Odd Romance felt rather more organic.

          1. I admire her. No helpless victim, she. Here is a woman who consciously chose to stay in a bad marriage for honorable reasons, and consciously chose to leave for wise ones. Resourceful, far more intelligent than her husband (or family) had the wit to appreciate. Proud and self-reliant enough to not want handouts. Independent enough to tell the intimidatingly intense Miles to go soak his head when he failed to be honest about his intentions. I see her as a strong woman, with a woman’s kind of strength.

        3. Sigh. You are correct. Technically. A poor choice of words on my part.

          This is the “married woman wants an better deal to let’s make the husband a parody of Fail, to justify the romance with the upgrade” trope. Killing off the inconvenient husband is … Helpful. If you flip the sexes, the inherent ugliness of the art up is more apparent.

          YMMV. But I do not find these stories romantic. The stories about these people after the traumatic amputation can be, no question.

          Just because something isn’t a satisfactory romance, does not make it any less of a good story, either.

          1. Komarr, and later A Civil Campaign, saved my life. I was trapped in an abusive marriage, through my own personal honor and sense of duty. It was in reading these books that I started to see there was a way out. I didn’t have a Miles – my current husband and I would happen years later – but I found the concept of being willing to reset your honor to keep your self alive something that I needed badly at a time when I was almost done. I connect with Ekaterin on a very deep level. BTDT

            1. Fair dinkum.Though dollars to donuts you didn’t find what you were going through “romantic”) A personal hell, yes. A romance, no. Nothing wrong with either book as a story (And Komarr is a great romance).

                1. I hear you.

                  There is room in the halls of pleasure
                  For a large and lordly train,
                  But one by one we must all file on
                  Through the narrow aisles of pain.

                  Have you read the Secret Country by Pamela Dean? You might find that interesting as well.

            2. I encountered “Komarr” after my own divorce. I, like Ekaterin, had felt trapped by my own sense of honor and duty in a failing marriage. But I had not seen myself as the feckless, incompetent husband, and that perspective hit me like a ton of bricks. (Thankfully, I had never been so abusive)

          2. By the way, I do understand your problem with it. There are people in my own family who would rather have seen me dead than divorced or separated from my first husband. That was part of why it took me 13 years to get out, and darn near killed me.

            1. No. I’m not sure you do understand. A divorce is an amputation. A marriage that requires it is a hellish thing. Using that story as a romance… No.

              Using that story as a hero’s arc? Absolutely.

              1. In this case, it would seem that the hero’s arc blends into the romance. As Ekaterin muses later on, had she met Miles twenty year earlier, neither of them would have been suited for each other.

                  1. Huh. That’s a good point, and I always identified with Jo, growing up (we read that book aloud to one another multiple times. My sister still calls my Mom Marmee)

              2. I think we’re getting too much into the weeds by not separating the two very different things: “romance” and “romantic.”

                “Romance” is a fictional genre – spanning a very wide range, but basically fiction exploring the “love” relationship between two (or these days, more) people. At least in its modern form; “romance” in centuries past had very little to do with such.

                Komarr has a “romance” plot thread woven throughout, although it is also an “espionage thriller,” “action / adventure,” and a few other things besides. Now, I’m not being accusative of LMB, by any means, but I see some very fine file work here on Edmond Rosten (Cyrano de Bergerac).

                A Civil Campaign is a straight-up “romance” – of the comedic variety.

                None of which really has all that much to do with “romantic.” That has a wealth of definitions by the learned and long-winded, but I saw someone post (I don’t recall who, when, or where) the definition by RAH that tickled my penchant for simplicity – “Rub her feet.”

  11. You could try Techno Ranger. I’d think it fits the bill, although the ending is more like a HFN than a HEA. I’d be interested in if you think the romance oriented portions are strong enough to attract a female reader. Happy to send an ARC copy if you don’t have KU currently.

  12. Mary Stewart: My Brother Michael and The Moon Spinners.
    The Dyce Dare series by Sarah Hoyt
    Steve Miller and Sharon Lee – Agent of Change and Carpe Diem
    The Vicky Bliss adventures by wossname, the author who did the Amelia Peabody books (which would technically fit, but Miss Peabody is too insufferable to make those satisfying romances – but they are funny)
    Dragonsbane and the Ladies of Mandrigin (sp?) by Barbara Hambly
    Year of the Unicorn and Witch World and Forerunner Foray and… by Andre Norton (the original SF competence pr0n SF writer!)

    Just some favorites. I can dig up more if you’re serious about the project.

    1. Dyce is like, the opposite of competent, though! I like the books a lot, but the character bumbles.

      See, now, I loved Crocodile on the Banks and view it as a prime example of a non-traditional romance. Maybe because I identify in some ways with Peabody.

      1. Oh, I identify with Peabody thoroughly, as well. Non-traditional romance is a good way of looking at it, but… More at a story that has romance rather than a Romantic adventure (in the modern sense of the word. In the Prisoner of Zebra sense it is hella Romance)

        Interesting take on Dyce, I found her extremely competent, merely desperately over-extended.

        1. Prisoner of Zebra would be a fun story…

          The tactical romances I like are romance backseat to the actual story, though. Because you can’t really *show* the competence if you are simply focused on the love-making (in the old school sense of that phrase).

          1. Oops! It would.

            Have you read Mary Stewart? Some of her books (Nine Coaches Waiting is another) really are the closest books to Dorothy Grant.

            I picture the Tactical Romance as one where the Story is the A plot and the romance the B … But it is a real romance, that romance readers would enjoy. And the adventure is a solid page-turner with capable characters.

            Did I miss the point? (Always a possibility?)

            Oh! Another one: Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.

            1. No, that’s a good way to put it. And Gaudy Night is one I love. I have recently been reading Margery Allingham and appreciating anew Campion and his beloved lieutenant.

  13. There’s also the romantic mystery genre, in which the plucky female detective (often but not always amateur) gets involved in investigating a crime and often becomes the target of a criminal. She usually has the assistance of a male law enforcement, espionage, or military type, and they wind up getting romantically involved. If you don’t mind the Christian flavor, Christy Barritt and Susan Sleeman do this kind of thing. More specifically LDS flavored, Tracy Hunter Abramson. Or without the Christian flavor, Julie Moffett’s Lexi Carmicheal series.

  14. Another genre suggestion, outside of SFF, where you might be able to find stories like this are Westerns. Louis L’Amour is the author I am most familiar with, and his novel Conagher is (I think) a great example. Cohnagher was also made into a very good movie. Ride the River is another I recall.

  15. The Horse Soldiers?

    1959 John Ford western with John Wayne and William Holden?

  16. The Robotech novelizations by Jack McKinney are good for discussing this RE: Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes.

    I’d say Hope Hubris’ various relationships in the Bio of a Space Tyrant series. Also Angela and the Stainless Steel Rat in that series.

    1. Good call on the Robotech books. One interesting aspect of the Robotech Macross story is the triangle of Rick, Minmei, and Lisa. Specifically the changes in Rick’s feelings as he “grows up”. At the beginning, he is besotted by the pretty princess/damsel-in-distress. But as he becomes more experienced he becomes more and more attracted to the girl with more depth and competence.

      There is an older SF book called White Wing, by Gordon Kendall, (which might also qualify as a tactical romance) that uses the term “mass” to denote character and stability. Over the Macross story, Rick Hunter “achieves mass” which changes his feelings towards both Minmei and Lisa. And that growth also changes their feelings towards him, especially Lisa. He starts off as a bit of a cocky punk – a “boy”. But he grows into a man, which makes him more attractive to both.

    2. Thinking more about Robotech Macross, we also have Roy & Claudia and Max & Myria. We don’t get much of Roy and Claudia’s romance, but they are a great example of an established “competent couple”.

      Max and Myria are more of a “Marty/Mary Sue” couple. But their extreme competence in some areas is balanced by both humility (Max) and extreme incompetence in other areas (Myria). Plus the story keeps them firmly in the “supporting character” arena, rather than letting them take over.

      As for the Robotech Masters/Southern Cross story line, I’m not sure if it really qualifies because there is so much of the “mystical attraction” aspect rather than pure competence. But Rand and Rook in the Invid story line probably qualify.

      1. I would have loved to see a novelization of the Global Civil War. Especially Roy Fokker and Edwards’ role in it. Maybe then, yes, we would have gotten a lot more Roy and Claudia.

  17. Several of Catherine Asarao’s Skolian Empire novels seem to fit here. Primary Inversion and Catch the Lightning among others.

  18. I’ve written an action romance with a pair of reasonably competent protagonists. I’m not sure if it would qualify as a tactical romance, but you may enjoy it. It’s called Stealth Warriors by Dianne Carter (a pen name) and it’s available for free on Kindle Unlimited. You might want to take a look.

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