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 books 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). Not all of them are drenched in misery, because the main characters are fighters, and most have done or are doing some serious work towards their own happiness even before they meet The One. I hope you find something new and good to read here!

Before we jump in:

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

Satisfyingly political F/F 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 true story of why Rian Sampson died is a kick in the heart. Since I’m old enough to remember the NEA wars of the mid 90s, the political side of this resonated and was compelling, but Ashley’s personal journey in dealing with their death was also quite striking, very delicately told, especially in such a short work.

Diversity note: Fox uses she/they pronouns.

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 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, though, 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

Diversity note: McCade is Native AmeriBlAsian POC and demibisexual.

Second Chances by Racheline Maltese and Erin McRae (Amazon / Goodreads)

Bittersweet short story about a widowed man trying to get his ring off before he and his new boyfriend go to bed for the first time. I’m always impressed by stories that give characters space for still loving their partner who passed away, but letting them find something new as well, and having the new person be okay with that. This is a perfect example.

It’s also a valuable lesson about what you should NOT try to remove a ring that’s too tight. A teensy little story, but well worth the minimal cost on Amazon.

Diversity note: Maltese and McRae are both queer.

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 (download from Smashwords / Goodreads)

After reading Abroad by Jacobs, I was unsurprised that she rocked 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.”

Diversity note: Jacobs is a Jewish woman – with a wife, though I don’t know how she identifies.

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.

Diversity Note: (1) Samir is Italian and Moroccan. (2) Hibbert is a pan, black, autistic woman.

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 on its own and I quite enjoyed it! 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.)

Diversity Note: Gale is queer, and she’s written about her own experience with anorexia here.

Life After Joe by Harper Fox (Amazon / Goodreads)

This novella will punch your feelings right in the face. It follows Matt, a gay hospital resident who’s messily self-destructing after being abandoned by Joe, his best friend since childhood and the love of his life. After years in a committed relationship with Matt that includes co-ownership of a flat, Joe cheated with a woman so he could go pretend to be straight, settle down, and have kids.

I really hate Joe. Grrrr! Unfortunately, Matt doesn’t hate Joe. He’s still in love with Joe, so much that Matt’s destroying his career by running amok with alcohol, drugs, and dangerous sex with strangers. One night in a club, though, he meets mysterious and reserved Aaron, who… refuses Matt’s attempt to seduce him. Annoying! They do manage to connect when Aaron saves Matt from a beating. It turns out they’re both living with grief, neither ready to begin a new relationship, but neither willing to completely break the connection.

Harper’s writing is SO LOVELY. I suspect she is so magic that she looks at words and they line up in beautiful sentences. Here she uses her powers to make you ache with the weight of Matt’s grief, and break your heart for Aaron when he finally tells Matt his story, and OW IT ALL HURTS but it’s totally worth watching these two guys make something new out of their broken pieces lying all around on the floor. Aaron’s love isn’t the magic wand that fixes Matt’s life, but Matt so desperately needed someone to validate his pain and be on his side, and Aaron gives him that.

Content warning: suicide attempt and sexual assault

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. 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 not really accurate and 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!

Diversity note: Ripper is genderqueer and prefers the z-based pronouns.

When All The World Sleeps by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock (Amazon / Goodreads)

A seriously dark story of a BDSM (until it isn’t) M/M romance between small-town cop Joe Belman and town pariah Daniel Whitlock, who has a severe sleep disorder that resulted in him going to prison for murder. Several years ago, a man named Kenny Cooper and his friends had beaten Daniel nearly to death for being gay, and later Daniel burned down Cooper’s house while Cooper was inside it. Daniel has no memory of setting that fire because he was sleepwalking. Now that he’s back home, he chains himself to his bed at night to avoid hurting anyone else.

Bel saves Daniel from a fire set to kill him the way he killed Cooper, and ends up having to re-think a lot of things, especially Daniel’s culpability for Cooper’s death – and, chillingly, whether Daniel deserved to be hurt at least some in the original assault for hitting on Cooper in the first place. The mindset in their small town is that gays aren’t supposed to advertise, and blame the victim is alive and well.

While Bel’s fixing his thinking, Daniel responds to Bel’s care by starting to believe that he might deserve better than the purgatory/hell he’s in, his mental health degraded by lack of a safe way to sleep, and reviled by the community. They both kind of wake something up in each other they’ve never had before: for Bel, a desire for a relationship, and for Daniel, hope. Watching them struggle to figure things out was hard, but enormously realistic and satisfying. Though Daniel asks Bel to be in charge, Bel reminds him that they’re both going to make mistakes. And they do, bad ones. But they both keep trying.

There’s a lot of anger and fear in this book, vivid flashbacks to violence that includes sexual threats, self-harm (including sexual harm), on-page assault, blurry boundaries between pain for punishment and pain for excitement (which both characters recognize and mostly try to fix) and the characters have little support in dealing with any of their various issues, so it’s not for the faint of heart. I spent at least half of this book mentally screaming “oh my GOD will both of you please relocate STAT and find a better team of professionals to help you?!” but only because I cared for both of these characters so much and I wanted them to be okay.

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And that’s the list of my romance novels about dark places and tough topics, all with an HEA/HFN. Hope you found something interesting. If you have any reading suggestions, let me know, and as always, if you found this post helpful, please share it!