The O’Malley Serries

It’s the month of romance so we’re taking a look at a handful of romance stories that I feel really do romance right, avoiding cliches of sentimentality and accidental relationships and instead providing thoughtful, emotionally and intellectually satisfying looks at romance. This is going to be a particularly hurried look because we’re not looking at a single book but rather a series of six. The story goes like this.

Seven orphans meet in a group home in Chicago and start looking out for one another. With time they reach the age of legal adulthood, change their last names to O’Malley and declare themselves a family. The first rule of the O’Malleys is family will always come first. (No, nothing to do with Fight Club. Not anywhere in the rules.)

So far this probably doesn’t sound like much of a romance series, right?

Well, as it turns out the O’Malleys have found themselves a wide and diverse set of careers to work in, the family includes a U.S. Marshal, a hostage negotiator, an EMT, a firefighter, a trauma counselor, a forensic pathologist and a pediatrician. With such a crazy line-up of careers, and the kinds of personalities that tend to get into such careers, the only logical thing to do is try and marry them all off, am I right?

At least, such is the premise of Dee Henderson’s six book series that explores this wacky and unusual family and exactly what it might take to get such people to the alter. There are a lot of things I like about the O’Malley series but probably the biggest is the way the characters look at each other. Most of the couples meet on the job – no matter how crazy the job is, what they do is never a source of tension in the relationship. Way, way too many romance stories try to treat work as this terrible, horrible thing that will only be a barrier between you and the one you love.

What Henderson does in her books is show how the O’Malley family have chosen their paths as a result of the burdens they bear from their time as orphans or abandoned children, a way to fight back against the wrongs they’ve seen and suffered and make the world a better place. What’s more, she shows how the people who come into the lives of the O’Malleys understand the choices they have made. These are not romantic interests with no connection to the callings the O’Malley’s have undertaken, these are romantic interests who understand those callings and share in them.

In point of fact, each and every one of the O’Malley books centers on a situation that demands the unique talents of one of the family. Solving those situations, whether it be the murder of a Federal judge or a string of arsons across the city, brings one member of the family closer to someone they know or meet and sparks of a relationship built not only on feelings but on shared purpose and the promise of a brighter future. At the same time, the O’Malley family itself is drawing closer together, dealing not only with the promise of better futures but the troubles of jobs that are not always forgiving and the specter of hard times in the distance.

That’s probably what I like the most about the stories – aside from the healthy dose of suspense and intrigue next to the romance. They have a healthy emotional equilibrium. While each story has heroes and villains, romance and filial love, they also balance these things against very difficult personal problems that the O’Malleys have to face when dealing with a world that needs professional firefighters and hostage negotiators.

In a way, the O’Malleys themselves embody what makes their stories so great. Their powerful bond exists only because each and every one of them was once without family or friends and they are grateful for it every day and work to make it a continued reality every moment. It’s a good background for romance – one we can all try to cultivate, whether we find romance there or not.

Cool Things: Elemental Blessings

Okay, let’s just get this out in the open right now – I’m not a big fan of romance novels. They’re typically predictable and unrealistic not to mention the fact that, put bluntly, I’m male and not the target demographic. That said, it’s not like I dislike romance per se, just the way a lot of romance novels present it. An in depth analysis of this, and why I dislike it, might be the topic of a Genrely Speaking post one day, so we’ll let that subject lie.

Instead, let’s look at a romance series I have taken a liking to – Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings novels.

These novels fall into a subgenre I’ll call fantastic romance, though that term technically applies to 99% of everything in the romance genre,  and it’s set in a totally fictional world. While Chialto lacks magic in the sense that most fantasy readers are familiar with, it does have an interesting way of breaking down the people who live there.

The people of Chialto are classified into the five elements of Chinese alchemy (well, very nearly as Shinn chose to replace metal with earth). The classifications of fire, water, air, earth and wood, and their attendant characteristics, will sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a personality quiz, but they also serve a more philosophical purpose, helping people decide on courses of action and also embodying blessings people can expect in life.

Shinn builds a world full of culture and myth. It’s not just the elemental take on personality assessment. The blessings the series takes its name from is an interesting kind of fortune telling, with people pulling coins stamped with their blessings from baskets or barrels to get some hint of what the future has to bring – everything from travel and change to power and triumph and, of course, love. Add in the significance of the numbers three, five and eight, a chaotic and stormy political situation as king and queens fight over throne and succession, and powerful noble families falling in and out of favor and it all starts to look quite dizzying.

Not to worry. While Chialto is an incredibly rich backdrop for stories it is still just that – the backdrop. Each of the two stories (so far) set there is careful to keep the attention firmly on much more familiar things. A devoted daughter who has just lost her father. A man too stoic to speak plainly and loyal to a fault. A woman with great compassion in difficult circumstances. A boy who never quite found a reason to grow up even as he approaches his third decade of life.

These are the kinds of people who inherit Shinn’s world. They bounce off of each other in odd and surprising ways. There is little of fate at work, and a lot of the chaos and unpredictability of day to day life. Rarely are there breathy speeches or banal flirting. But the connections between the characters are no less deep or convincing for it – in fact, I would venture to say that they are much, much stronger.

Oh, and one of the girls calls on the river to flood a city. That’s pretty awesome, if you’re in to that kind of thing.

But if it’s not, don’t worry as that’s not a major focus of the books, either. If you like romance, political intrigue or fantastic world building, I would highly recommend this series.