Indie Success: "Real Romance in Unreal Worlds”
Fiona West’s subversive romance novel shows that true love isn’t always a fairy tale.Author Fiona West says she “absolutely did not” want to be a princess when she was little—much like her heroine, Abelia Olivia Jayne Venenza Ribaldi Porchenzii. In a recent starred review, PW called West’s debut novel, The Ex-Princess, “a vibrant, voraciously readable adventure whose technocratic fantasy world is grounded by a generous understanding of everyday limitations and love. This perfect confection is socially aware, wonderstruck, and unforgettably fun.”
In the lightly fantastical work, the first of the Borderline Chronicles series, Abbie, who lives with a chronic illness, is heir to the throne of the Brevspor realm, but she wants a regular life. In fact, she has elected to live alone in a tiny apartment, drink copious amounts of coffee, and work in waste reclamation. In leaving behind the royal life, she’s also turned her back on her arranged marriage to Prince Edward of Orangiers. However, she learns that she is still beholden to the marriage contract, and, if she doesn’t agree to the union, the throne will fall into corruption. To complicate matters, Edward has always loved her and he happens to be rather dreamy.West says she didn’t set out to write a romantic modern fairy tale. In fact, the book’s origins might surprise readers as much as the novel’s unexpected blend of the magical and mundane. West, who can’t remember a time when she didn’t love writing and reading, began the book as a way to process the culture shock she experienced after moving to Haiti, where she and her husband work for a nonprofit organization. Though their travel plans had been in the works for months, their arrival coincided with the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake.
“The day we arrived, our teammates handed us a prepackaged military ration for lunch and took us to see the field hospital, which was full of people who’d just had limbs amputated,” West says.
Writing a romance amid such desolate circumstances might seem counterintuitive—but the book’s magical content served as a personal refuge for West, she says, while also allowing her to grapple with the tragedy facing the community. “It has been a conduit for processing a lot of vicarious trauma and pain,” she adds.
But Abbie and Edward’s story is not all coffee with extra cream and magic-powered cellphones. “I wanted the narrative to mimic that feeling of being off-balance, of questioning things you’ve always been so sure of,” West says. “So, rather than the power going on and off as it did for me in Haiti, I made the sun ‘go out,’ and, even in the romance plot line, I wanted to keep the reader guessing a little bit.”
West doesn’t shy away from presenting the less-than-magical parts of falling in love and forming relationships, either. “Edward and Abbie’s first kiss is horrible because they’ve never done it before,” she says. “Of course it’s horrible! I don’t mind stripping some of the fantasy out of the romance if it reveals something meaningful about real relationships.”
The novel also deals with the issue of chronic illness, which West has her own experiences with. “Many people with chronic illnesses have an acute adoration for books—as a treat despite a strict diet, as an escape when they literally can’t get out of bed, as a moment of sanity in periods of hopelessness,” she says.
West says she wanted to reflect on her own challenges with illness, while maintaining a degree of cognitive and emotional distance: “I chose lupus for Abbie because it shared a lot of the same characteristics as my own illnesses. I wanted to dispel the notion that people with chronic illnesses are weaklings; they’re some of the strongest people I know, because they push through so much more than most people realize.”
Though many readers might argue that the novel’s unconventionality is a strength, when it came to publishing, West felt that it might be a detriment—hence her decision to go indie. “I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to publish The Ex-Princess, because it doesn’t fit neatly into the genre categories,” she says. “It tackles some unusual subjects for a romance: human trafficking, chronic illness, culture shock. I wanted the freedom to write about the things that were closest to my heart, and I wasn’t confident that a traditional publisher would accept that.” With her first novel’s success, West may see that theory tested.
In book two of the Borderline Chronicles series, The Un-Queen, Abbwie and Edward are still navigating their relationship: true love, a hearty sprinkling of magic, and royalty don’t extricate the characters from the everyday trials of married life. “They have to figure out how to communicate about their finances and in-law expectations,” West says. “One of my writing mantras is ‘real romance in unreal worlds,’ because true romance should always bring you closer to your partner, not foist impossible expectations on them.”