5 Excellent Upmarket Novels with Dark Erotic & Romantic Elements

by Jun 14, 2023Genre

I was going to make this a list of my favorite dark erotic fiction and/or dark romance novels, but as I perused my Favorites shelf on Goodreads, I realized a lot of the books I’d listed weren’t proper erotica or romance. I thought about making this a list of my favorite novels, instead, but quite a few non-erotic and non-romantic books would have made the list as well. I do plan on making recommendation posts for dark romance and dark erotic fiction down the road, though.

So instead, this list is comprised of books I love that have strong elements of the dark erotic and/or dark romantic, but aren’t explicit or romance-centric enough for me to label the books as “dark romance” or “dark erotica.”

These books are what I describe in my blog post, Defining Genres: Literary, Upmarket, and Commercial Fiction, as “upmarket genre fiction.”

They don’t necessarily have the widespread appeal of your typical upmarket fiction novel, but they tend to be elevated, with exceptional writing, strong, nuanced themes and characters, and a penchant for breaking genre boundaries. Despite that, they have an engaging central plot and are still accessible.

In a nutshell, this list is comprised of smart speculative fiction with strong erotic and/or dark romantic elements. Really, my absolute favorite stuff and what I aim to write.

Anyway, without further delay, here it is.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

A young woman makes a Faustian bargain with a dark god that causes her to be immortal, but unable to be remembered. This is the setup for this beautiful and memorable historical fantasy novel, which explores what makes life valuable, particularly through the lense of being remembered.

The dark romantic and erotic comes through in Addie’s relationship with the dark god she made a deal with, as he’s the only one who knows her, the only one she can make memories with—and the further she perseveres with her will to live intact, the more fascinated with her the god grows.

I ate this relationship up. It’s a very nuanced and morally complex relationship with a villain who takes the guise of a beautiful young man from the protagonist’s imagination.

Night’s Master by Tanith Lee

Night’s Master is a collection of related short stories—something I wouldn’t normally be into, but Tanith Lee masterfully balances creating distinct stories and tying them all together into one epic tale.

I absolutely love the quality of myth these stories have. It makes it so easy to settle in and listen. And let’s not forget the dark erotic and romantic elements.

These stories revolve around the exploits of Azhrarn, Prince of Demons. Whether the stories feature him prominently or only tangentially, they build up a fascinating, irresistible, larger-than-life figure whom I absolutely love, even if he is incorrigibly villainous.

I’m fascinated with non-human characters whose natures are decidedly inhuman, and this is what you get with Azhrarn. At the same time, he loves, he lusts, he can be hurt, and it’s fascinating to watch. The first story in the collection is particularly fascinating, as Azhrarn takes a beautiful mortal to be his lover, and it ends as tragically as you would imagine.

Docile by K.M. Szpara

The marketing for this book was borderline criminal. Docile poses as an anti-capitalist manifesto. What it really is is beautifully written and refreshingly complex sci-fi MM slavefic. I am so glad I took a chance on it, hoping it was the latter.

With his family crushed by dept, our protagonist Elisha Wilder essentially sells himself as a companion for the rich—someone willing to take on his family’s debt. Most people take a drug known as Dociline in order to get through their indentured servitude, but Elisha refuses it.

His relationship with his purchaser, Alexander, is abusive and decidedly damaging, but complex. I really appreciated how much time Docile devoted to exploring the harm caused by their relationship, even as the novel obviously eroticized said relationship. Maybe I’m twisted, but I actually appreciate some angst with my dark eroticism.

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel’s Dart is epic, gorgeously written, luxurious, sensual, and rife with intrigue. I absolutely adore it and, against all hope, google “Books like Kushiel’s Dart” at least twice a year only to come up empty.

This first book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series tells the story of Phedre, a badass spy, courtesan, and a very rare servant of Kushiel—able to turn pain into pleasure. I absolutely love the way BDSM and sexuality as a whole are woven into Carey’s detailed world.

On top of that, you get a bisexual heroine with several love interests and lovers, a hot female villain, and just a lot of delicious encounters. There is an arc involving rape, but it’s neither particularly horrific or vague nor entirely eroticized. I do think readers into dubcon or soft noncon would generally find it appealing.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

You’ll be hearing a lot about Octavia Butler on this blog. Not only is she my favorite author—pretty much everything she writes is a fascinating blend of the dark, erotic, taboo, and alternatively romantic. Oh, and Butler’s also a master storyteller who wrote nothing but speculative fiction, so.

Anyway, Dawn is the first book in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, a saga about humanity’s run-in with a seemingly benevolent alien race that both saves and subjugates the human race. It is so disturbingly complex because the aliens are increasingly subtle in their manipulation and consent violation.

It’s their genuine desire to do what’s best for both species that’s so freaking chilling. Anyway, in this series, you’ll get weird alien sex, alien-human hybrids, breeding programs, polyamory, and the unsettling feeling of not knowing whether or not the Oankali were right.

This one definitely leans more into the realm of disturbing sci-fi.

These books range in their level of explicitness and how much, if any, time they devote to romantic relationships, but they’re all on this list because they’re books that sucked me in from the beginning and left me utterly satisfied. If you also enjoy well-written speculative fiction infused with dark erotic and/or romantic elements, I highly recommend these books.