12 Romance Novels About Dark Places and Tough Topics

Romance is an amazing genre. You can find everything from the fluffiest, cutest, most adorable stories with zero angst to the opposite. The novels, novellas, and short stories here are some of my favorite that deal with dark places, tough topics, and bad situations – all with an HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now). I hope you find something new and good to read here! (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)

I originally posted this list in 2017, but it’s been refreshed and expanded in 2023 after I re-read many of the books here to make sure I was still enthusiastic about recommending them. However, please let me know via my contact form if you find something yikes in a book I recommend.

Fight Fire With Fire by Sionna Fox (Amazon / Goodreads)

Satisfyingly political sapphic romance novella about a museum curator and a musician, centered around a conservative group boycotting an exhibit of a deceased queer photographer’s work. Frannie Thorpe took a professional risk bringing the exhibit to her museum, but she couldn’t pass up the chance to bring Rian Sampson’s work to her community. Ashley Patterson, Sampson’s muse, hasn’t fully dealt with her grief over her friend/partner’s death, but she knows she needs to help save the exhibition after donor support is yanked over the controversy. Frannie’s always had a crush on Ashley, Ashley finds Frannie appealing, but Ashley’s not sure she’s ready for anything real.

The story of why Rian Sampson (nonbinary) died is a kick in the heart. Since I’m old enough to remember the NEA wars of the mid 90s – and we’re going through an even worse wave of oppression as I update this review in 2023 – the political side of this resonated and was compelling. Ashley’s personal journey in dealing with their death was also quite striking, very delicately told, especially in such a short work.

Sometimes it Storms by Cole McCade (Amazon / Goodreads)

Lots of painful topics explored here, but this M/F romance novella about two survivors of childhood abuse making a connection is ultimately so hopeful. Ethan is a bartender, self-isolating and haunted by memories of the sexual and physical abuse he suffered as a child despite the work he’s done in therapy. Aurelie is immediately drawn to Ethan when she meets him at the bar, and Ethan finds the strength to respond to her attempt to draw him out. The story is mostly the two of them figuring out how to talk about their pasts and find what works for them in both emotional and physical intimacy. It feels so kind and respectful, and realistic in its depiction that love doesn’t magically fix trauma, but compassion and care from another person can help with the work you’re doing to live with its effects and heal.

The Love in Los Angeles series by Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese (Amazon / Goodreads)

A complex, messy, often emotionally wrenching queer celebrity romance series that’s so far beyond what the phrase “celebrity romance” brings to mind that I’m almost not sure that’s the right term for it. It starts with Starling, in which Alex Cook, 21, is plucked out of the crew on a hit television series and given a starring role. Alex is a deeply private person, scarred from growing up gay and poor in a small, unfriendly Midwestern town, so his life in the media spotlight turns out to be just as comfortable as you’d expect. His sudden fame puts major stress on his co-occurring new relationship with Paul, a gay writer on the show, who has his own issues.

Paul and Alex’s relationship happens within a social circle / found family that includes Carly, Paul’s ex, a bisexual woman who is in a committed open relationship with Alex’s co-star Liam, a closeted bisexual man (who initially seems possibly non-neurotypical), who also has a somewhat ill-defined romantic/sexual relationship with frighteningly manipulative showrunner Victor, who is asexual (and Latino, though that doesn’t play much of a role in the story).

What sucked me into this series is how it honors the reality that relationships can be really hard and painful, especially when people have experienced trauma, while also supplying meet-cute, sexy, and heartbreakingly tender moments. These characters do hurt each other, make terrible mistakes, and damage their relationships. Paul and Alex even break up/separate more than once. But the authors clearly love every single character, even and especially when they’re being self-destructive, and so they give each one people in their lives who have a deep capacity to understand and care for them in various important ways. That caring is one of the most significant characteristics of this series IMHO, even when it’s a case of the thought being what counts because the execution is a mess.

The second and third books, Doves and Phoenix, broaden the focus to the relationships among Paul and Alex and those other people, though Alex and Paul are still the central couple. (Paul and Alex consider themselves monogamous in terms of being each other’s only primary partner, but if you need your central couple to only sleep with each other once they’re together, this isn’t for you.) Reduced to a plot summary, this series could sound like a soap opera, but it’s much deeper than that. It’s about the deeply strange experience of a personal life being public, how to even figure out building relationships in a culture that prescribes only one type, and how to fix things with other people after fucking up. Sometimes so hard to read because characters you’ve come to love are flailing, but well worth it.

Iris After the Incident by Mina V. Esguerra (Amazon / Goodreads)

A deeply compassionate M/F romance centering Iris, who hasn’t dated since a sex tape she made with her now-ex-boyfriend was stolen and posted on the internet. Iris’s life was turned upside down by that event, dividing everything into before and after, and so far “after” has been kind of treading water. When she encounters Gio, a cute neighbor who just might understand what she went through, she has to figure out whether she’d ready to trust again.

I love how the romance trust-building storyline is braided with Iris being offered a promotion at the job she’s passionate about, but had retreated from because of the “incident.” It reinforces that she’s at a decision point, whether she’s going to let the incident continue to define her, or whether she’s healed enough to move forward. I also appreciate how strong it makes Iris feel to reclaim parts of her life, including sex. Extra kudos for NOT having Iris forgive her family members who treated her so harshly! When someone is a jerk, sometimes it’s their job to fix things, not yours.

This is part of Filipina author Esguerra’s Chic Manila series of romances set in contemporary Manila, but it can be read as a standalone.

Christmas at the Wellands by Liz Jacobs (Smashwords, but also check Kobo, it’s been free often at one or both locations / Goodreads)

After reading Abroad by Jacobs, I was unsurprised that I enjoyed this new adult M/M friends to lovers holiday story. Kev, a Black college student, lost his mother and almost lost his life to depression (suicide attempt), pulling through with the help of his white roommate Andrew. Who Kev has a crush on. Which makes it complicated when Kev agrees to spend Christmas with Andrew’s family. This is happening after Kev is back on a more even keel than when he was dangerously ill, but his recent past is a big presence in the book, underlying the Wellands’ family shenanigans. By the end, though, I felt confident that these two adorable kids are on a good path. Definitely recommended for that vibe of “it’s the holidays, we’re trapped with the slightly dysfunctional family, someone has a secret.”

Content warning on 2023 re-read: on-page racist behavior by one of the relatives, not author endorsed.

I also don’t know that today, I would buy a book by a non-Black author with a Black POV character.

Damaged Goods by Talia Hibbert (Amazon / Goodreads)

A second chance interracial M/F romance. In this novella, Talia Hibbert proves it’s possible for a romance novella about a character escaping domestic violence to be 95% warm fuzzies, without undercutting the seriousness of what that character has gone through. Laura, pregnant for the first time, flees her abusive marriage to a small town she remembers being happy in as a teenager. Samir, her first love, is shocked to run into her on the beach, but more than happy to support her in any way she’ll accept. Whereupon these two people who adore and admire each other have to figure out how to relate to each other as adults, creating something that works for them both given Laura’s impending baby and earned fears. There are some extremely painful scenes here, and a couple that are downright scary, but this isn’t a suspense story where Laura is back in physical jeopardy. It’s about risking your heart after being hurt and finding that someone who has your back no matter what.

The author and some readers recommend reading the first book in this series, A Girl Like Her, before this. I like A Girl Like Her quite a lot, but I disagree that it’s necessary to read that first.

A Fallen Lady by Elizabeth Kingston (Amazon / Goodreads)

One of the most feminist romance novels I’ve yet read. Lady Helen Dehaven is Completely Fed Up With Patriarchy. Specifically, men who refuse to believe that she made the right decision to break an engagement after a horrific trauma. Stephen Hampton, Lord Summerdale, is tasked by Helen’s brother to find out what happened, which to Helen is yet another insult (and she’s not wrong.) She’s built a life with her friends and found a goal worth living for, and she doesn’t need any more condescending interference from outsiders, especially men, thank you very much.

The story of how they become friends and then lovers is an often painful read, because Kingston doesn’t shy away from showing the damage that’s inflicted on women by sexism and by individual men, including Stephen himself hurting Helen. He’s not a bad guy, but he hasn’t done any of the work to unpack his own attitudes and realize how much he fundamentally doesn’t trust Helen as a competent expert on her own life. It takes a fairly nasty incident to shock him out of his complacency and start to grow, which he does unevenly, and I appreciated how Kingston showed his difficulty and didn’t just give him one “aha” moment that fixed everything. That’s not how unlearning works.

The female friendships in this novel are powerful and lovely. Recommended if you want a historical romance that aggressively engages with sexism, and comes out the other side with hope.

Content warning: Sexual violence, described in detail by the character who experienced it.

Empty Net by Avon Gale (Amazon / Goodreads)

I enjoyed just about every book in Avon Gale’s Scoring Chances hockey series, but Empty Net, the fourth book, is the standout. It brings together blue-haired goalie Isaac Drake, a significant secondary character in the previous book, with Laurent St. Savoy, a goalie who in the previous book was part of a rival team that had it in for Isaac’s team and Isaac specifically. Like, way beyond rivalry and into homophobic and physically violent behavior.

What Isaac quickly discovers is that Laurent, whom he nicknames Saint, isn’t evil. His father and former coach physically and emotionally abused him up until the day Saint got away by being traded. Isaac and Saint click, and touch-averse Saint even grows close enough to Isaac to start having sexual feelings for him. (Yep, Saint is demi.) Their relationship may be healing for Saint, but it’s not a magic wand, and both guys finally have to confront Saint’s various issues, including his eating disorder.

It’s such a brave and emotionally raw book, mixed with plenty of sweetness in the quiet moments between Isaac and Saint. Isaac was clearly the kid who would see the outcast on the playground and decide to be best friends with him just because. Saint has so few social skills it’s heartbreaking, no idea how to be someone’s friend, and he’s in so much pain, but Isaac makes space for Saint to be real instead of the jackass persona he projects. Saint may not be okay yet by the end, but he’s making progress, and the distance he covers during the book is awe-inspiring.

Short version: Villain is redeemed, reader is punched right in the feelings.

I think this might be marginally better if you read the preceding book first, Power Play (Amazon / Goodreads), because there’s so much about Isaac there and also you see Saint’s villainy first hand – making it more dramatic when he’s redeemed. Power Play is a solid, sweet book and it’s one of my comfort re-reads! But if you have to prioritize, just go for Empty Net. (Books 1 and 2 of the series aren’t related much to this pair, so you don’t have to go back any further for Isaac and Saint.)

Out of Nowhere by Roan Parrish (Amazon / Goodreads)

A deeply emotional new adult, out-for-you story that’s a cross between a romance and a coming-of-age book for a main character who’s older but has been stuck in place due to homophobia. It’s about Colin Mulligan, a deeply closeted gay mechanic who “deals” with his misery and anxiety through drinking, over-exercising, and panic attacks. Rafael Guerrera, a professional social justice advocate, saves Colin from being beaten to death in an alley and begins the slow, painstaking process of winning Colin’s trust.

If you’re the kind of reader who wants to wrap hurting characters in a blanket and give them a sandwich, you will totally want to do that for Colin. He is so twisted up inside that he can barely see, so heads up, content warning for self-harm, suicidal ideation, internalized homophobia, and honestly, Colin acting like a real jackass to other people. Colin needs the care and love that Rafael offers so much, but these guys don’t have an easy road. So proud of Colin when he finally starts moving the right direction, though! And I love that what brings Colin out of his shell, in addition to Rafe’s affection, is bonding with a group of queer kids through volunteering at a youth center. There’s a really good guy inside of Colin and it’s lovely to see that come out.

This is the second book in a series, and while you can absolutely read this as a stand-alone, some scenes are even more emotional if you saw them first through Colin’s brother Daniel’s eyes in In The Middle of Somewhere (Amazon / Goodreads). The blurb sounds a little hipster ridiculous (“honing his muscular body, perfecting his recipes, and making custom furniture”?) but ignore that, it’s a good book.

Training Mac by Kris Ripper (Amazon / Goodreads)

For my second time in my romance reading career, a book that I thought had a hilarious premise has knocked me down with real feelings. A dude goes to work at an “erotic gym,” haha, right? Wrong. This is a series that grapples profoundly with the fallout of toxic masculinity for men, especially queer men, and after three books in the series I’m still here for that and for Mac’s journey to healing and connection. Mac shows up at the gym homeless, scared, and in some level of denial about his sexuality, only to run headlong into a culture of total acceptance and affection among the sex workers and managers. He has NO IDEA what to do with that, it’s completely disorienting. If you’re looking for a big dose of hurt-comfort, you’ll get it here.

I will admit by the end of the third book that the repeated structure of (a) Mac has a new kind of sex at the gym with client, then (b) comes “home” and has that kind of sex with someone he trusts, might be wearing a bit thin, but not so much that it detracts from the emotional progression across the books. As Ripper’s bringing out more of the other characters’ experiences and their own hurts and needs, the emotional landscape is only getting richer and more varied.

Bring on book four!

Tell Me Anything by Skye Kilaen, who is me (Amazon / Goodreads)

“Freelance editor Isabel needs a refund on this sucky year. Her blackmailing ex-boyfriend is threatening to tell her bigoted family she’s bisexual, and she’s running on fumes trying to meet his demands. Sadly, she hasn’t invented time travel to un-make the mistake of trusting her ex that created this mess.

Derek is an out bisexual man with his own history of family rejection. These days he has a successful business and a caring queer found family, but his personal life stalled after a breakup from his long-time boyfriend. Living alone is getting stale, but will dating just prove he’s too dull to interest anyone? Maybe he should get a dog instead.

When they connect by sheer chance, Isabel discovers that Derek’s so-called boring life is the calm harbor she needs, complete with moral support and pancakes. For Derek, Isabel’s growing affection and genuine interest in his hobbies help him see himself in a new light. As mutual tenderness turns into attraction, Isabel can’t believe this gorgeous, gentle man could want to be part of the disaster she’s made of her life. Even if he did, she can’t trust anyone with her secrets.

But as their connection deepens, Isabel will have to choose: risk it all by taking the helping hand Derek’s offering and also confessing her feelings, or give in to her ex’s extortion and keep her family’s love.”

If You Want Me Close by Skye Kilaen, who is me (Amazon / Goodreads)

“Bisexual event coordinator Simon Novotny thrives on connection. He cherishes his large, queer-friendly family and his friends—especially his cute, brilliant work bestie, gay IT geek Ziah Holdaway.

It’s taken forever for Simon to to coax Ziah out of his shell. Time and again people have let him down, especially those who should have loved him unconditionally. But Simon would do anything for Ziah: text him jokes when he’s down, bring him homemade lunches, change his tire in the rain. Heck, if Ziah needs a kidney, Simon’s got two.

Minor crush? Maybe, but Simon’s not a make-the-first-move kind of guy. So when an unplanned hookup with Ziah proves their chemistry is off the charts, it also shakes Simon to his core. Because for Ziah, it’s not casual, it’s love.

Before Simon can fully process his feelings, a life-altering tragedy upends Ziah’s world. Simon throws himself into helping and also rallies his family. But for Ziah, family means rejection, and Simon’s uber-helpful clan sets off major alarm bells.

Can they find a middle path through the storm, or will this crisis cost them both their romance and their friendship?”

And that’s the list!