We need to talk about Honourbound. Rachel Harrison’s book about a female commissar fighting alongside the Antari Eleventh Rifles is the first romance novel in the WH40k catalog. No I didn’t stutter, and yes I am completely serious. It’s not a bad thing either; in fact, I think it’s a great thing. Not only does Honourbound prove the WH40k universe is flexible enough to house a romance novel, I’d argue it proves there’s a market for it. Don’t believe me? Let’s dive in, shall we?
I’m a Bit of an Expert
I read three types of books: violent science fiction, dark horror, and western romance novels. I’ve read a lot of all three. In fact, I feel comfortable saying I’ve read more than a hundred romance novels from classics to cheap Harlequins (not those Harlequins). Which is why I recognize romance novel standards and pitfalls from a mile away.
Let me sum up all romance novels and stop me when this sounds familiar: Man and Woman meet. Man and Woman are clearly attracted to each other but either pretend to hate one another or keep their relationship entirely professional. They can’t be together because Reasons™. “No one else would have noticed this smile/laugh/gesture, but s/he did.” “S/he didn’t know that the other person didn’t do/show this trait around just anyone.” Man or Woman is injured helping the other person do Something Rash™. Non-injured party feels guilty. Best Friend™ realizes Man and Woman love one another. Man and Woman confess their love.
Generally this framework is held together by a mystery (seriously, at least 70% of romance novels are a mystery) that is easy to put together. Oh, that semi-suspicious person introduced in the second or third chapter? Yep, they’re the villain. This is Honourbound in a nutshell. And it’s not a bad thing. A story need not be complicated when the characters are your main focus, as they are here.
Love in the Time of Heretics
I want you to think about the classic WH40k novels for a second. The ones that everyone loves and adores. Let’s look at some of the big ones: Gaunts Ghosts, Einsenhorn, The Night Lords trilogy, and Ciaphas Cain. Do you know what all of those have in common? There is a romantic subplot to all of them. (Yes, yes I realize there are no romantic subplots in the Ultramarines series, except for my undying crush on Pasanius. Please bring him back, Mr. McNeill!)
Once you strip away the giant space marines, most of the classic, well-loved WH40k stories are very human stories. Chaos corruption is rooted in human desires, and as such there is a lot of evil in WH40k books, which is fine. But it needs a counter balance, because even in the grimdark future, people are people. Which is why I have to imagine that ADB chose to balance his story about murder-happy Chaos marines with a very sweet and understandable love story between Septimus and Octavia. It’s why so many people have a favorite couple in the Gaunt’s Ghosts books. And why readers were wrecked when Eisenhorn finally reveals his feelings to the woman he can never be with. These are not feelings just for women; we all have feelers.
Now Honourbound is not a subtle romance; it’s an in-your-face romance from start to finish. And it’s wonderful. Because with all the death and darkness, it’s okay to have something that tries to balance it. I look directly to Ciaphas Cain, which has the distinction of being the only humorous look at the WH40k universe. It’s still full of death and darkness, but it has romance and a barrel of laughs, too. Harrison’s Honourbound is just the other side of that scale.
Their Eyes Were Watching Heretics
I have always argued that the WH40k universe is the single most feminist-leaning universe in all science fiction. When Chaos is your enemy, literally every person is an equal combatant. Men and women play every part in the WH40k universe: hero, villain, coward, bravado, assassin, warrior, etc. And they are just accepted in their roles. None of the female characters ever have to put on some tawdry display to demand respect. They just are.
In some ways, Honourbound feels like a torch-pass from the Gaunt’s Ghosts series. I’m sure there will be more Gaunt in the future, but Anarch put a pretty solid bow on the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. It was time for a new specialized group of soldiers with a new flavor and new style. I for one welcome this group of badass men and women with open arms. If these badass men and women also happen to have all kinds of romantic plots (haaaaiiiii Wyck and Zane), all the better!
If anything, Honourbound makes me wonder why the hell we’ve not had a romance novel in the WH40k universe before. It’s about Throne-damned time.