Calgary author amasses following in U.S., U.K. in spicy romantasy genre

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In the “FAQ” portion of Calgary writer Danielle L. Jensen’s website, the first frequently asked question is fairly blunt: How spicy are your books?

In the world of fantasy-romance – or romantasy – novels, “how spicy are your books?” is code for “how much sex is in your books?” It’s a fair question for the author, particularly since Jensen began her publishing career penning young adult novels. Her newest book, A Fate Inked in Blood, is the first in the Saga of the Unfated series and it is aimed at an adult audience. Jensen reports that it contains “mild sexual content that gets spicier with each book.” Her website also contains content warnings for each of her books. A Fate Inked in Blood, for instance, contains profanity, violence, explicit (consensual) sexual content, alcohol consumption and character death.

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“In this genre, there is an expectation that there is on-the-page sex with some degree of detail,” says Jensen. “But there is a broad spectrum and how explicit. Certainly when you get into the darker fantasy romance there are darker themes that are not for all readers. So there is a huge spectrum and I think it’s important readers do a little bit of research before diving into a book if they are sensitive to certain things because the content is definitely there and you want to make sure you’re reading something that you’re going to enjoy and not something that’s going to be upsetting for you.”

A Fate Inked in Blood is the first in what Jensen says will be a two-book series and the first of the author’s novels to be put out by publishing giant Penguin Random House Canada. The venerable publishing house calls the book “a steamy fantasy novel inspired by Norse mythology.” It tells the story of Freya, a shield maiden who possesses a drop of a goddess’s blood. In Book 1, Freya’s true colours are revealed when her boorish husband betrays her to a power-hungry jarl. She becomes a warrior and learns to control her magic, all the while resisting her growing desire for the fanatical jarl’s fiery son, Bjorn.

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“I was a massive fan of the Vikings series on television,” Jensen says. “I just really fell in love with that period of time and Norse mythology and particularly with Katheryn Winnick’s character of Lagertha. I really wanted to write a tribute to a fantasy version of her. So that would be the origin of A Fate Inked in Blood and Freya’s character. I also very much inspired by The Last Kingdom adaptation and the character of Brida on there, who is also a powerful female character, a warrior and a leader. I wanted to write a story where women got to be the main characters, whereas in those instalments they are secondary characters.”

While certain expectations come with the fantasy-romance genre, Jensen has creative freedom in her work. In fact, her literary career seems to be a journey toward writing exactly what she wants to write, even when signed to a major publisher. Not that any of those early barriers prevented her from success and garnering an international following. Her previous novels include the violent and spicy Bridge Kingdom series for adults and Dark Shores and Malediction series for young adults. Her books have been translated into 15 languages and have topped the bestsellers list in USA Today. Just prior to her interview with Postmedia, she was on a book tour that hit New York, Tampa, Atlanta, St. Louis, Huntington Beach and Seattle. She is also about to embark on a U.K. tour.

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She released her first novel, Stolen Songbird, in 2014. It became a USA Today bestseller and was a finalist for the Good Reads Choice Awards for best debut.

“I started in YA and when I started writing the Bridge Kingdom I knew I wanted to write more adult content,” she says. “Back in 2017 and 2018, there wasn’t a lot of interest – and by that I mean no interest – in the adult fantasy, science-fiction market for writing romantasy-style novels. They wanted you to put them into the YA space, which means aging down the characters and making the content appropriate for the teen section of the bookstore. That was especially the case for female authors, they just wanted us to stay in YA. While a lot of people think romantasy is a new phenomena, it’s not. It’s something that has been very well-established in YA since Twilight. The genre has evolved to the adult market.”

So, female writers began publishing without the help of the big houses and began to find success. A few years ago, publishers realized there was money to be made and began buying up indie backlists, especially in the U.K. Michael Joseph, a British imprint of Penguin Random House, bought Jensen’s Bridge Kingdom series. Now, thanks to the success of titles such as Rebecca Yarros’ Fourth Wing, romantasy novels are all the rage.

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“It’s not that authors don’t like writing YA, but being told that romance-focused fantasy that is character-focused with a faster pace has to be for teenagers is very frustrating,” she says. “At the time, Audible Originals was the only publisher that was willing to take the chance on doing this. No one else was interested in that story. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies at this point. The market was there and indie publishing cracked it wide open and now the big five are here.”

Born and raised in Calgary, Jensen says she was always a storyteller although initially didn’t think it was a practical career to pursue. She first appeared in the Calgary Herald in 1992 as a fledgling, pre-teen writer, taking home first place in a short-story contest sponsored by the Alberta Science Centre. She won a T-shirt and a family season pass to the science centre. Despite that early triumph, she opted for what she thought at the time was a more sensible career. She got a bachelor’s degree in finance and worked in oil and gas but would write novels as a hobby. Eventually, she decided finance was not a good fit. She went back to school, earning an English degree from Mount Royal University and turned to writing full-time.

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While romantasy is not a new genre, it still facing the same growing pains that other genre-fiction such as horror and science-fiction once did. Specifically, there is a tendency to not take it as seriously as work considered more literary.

“Romance is the biggest-selling genre and it has been for forever,” Jensen says. “It is the biggest money-maker of the publishing industry so while people of course make fun of it and dismiss it and say sad housewives are the only people who read it, it’s just not true. It’s read by so many people from all walks of life who are looking for that type of content. Genre is always looked down upon as less serious, less important, less valuable. I think that is just very frustrating because the world continues to be a challenging place for people to succeed and exist in and to provide entertainment and escapism is such an important thing. You pick up one of my novels and for how many hours it takes you to read it, you get to escape to another world and step away from your problems.”

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