Once in a blue moon, if you’re lucky, a book hits all the right notes: you pick it up, immediately dive deep into its world, fall hard for its characters, and don’t look back. For me, Casey McQuiston’s debut novel Red, White & Royal Blue was exactly that. I’ll never forget the day that I forgot to pack a book for a short train ride and picked it up on a whim in DC’s Union Station. Settling into my seat for the next hour, I cracked open the bright pink paperback and was quickly smiling at McQuiston’s cheeky dedication “for the weirdos & the dreamers.” I was instantly smitten with the enemies-to-lovers (a trope that was totally new to me then, but that is now my bread and butter) story of Britain’s Prince Henry and Alex, the son of the first female President of the United States. As I disembarked in Baltimore, I – a famously slow reader – was somehow already 100 pages in and shot off a text to a friend: “I think I just started reading the book I was always meant to read.” Four years later, I’ve read more gay romances than I can count (well, that’s not entirely true – Storygraph tells me it’s somewhere north of 100), but I keep finding myself returning to the modern fairytale – gay love stories where the prince finds his prince and they live happily ever after. With Amazon’s film adaptation of Red, White & Royal Blue about to hit, I thought this would be the perfect time to visit some of these books. I’d say SPOILER ALERT, but I think we all know how these stories end!
When Red, White & Royal Blue opens, Alex and Henry have an ongoing rivalry, which quickly becomes a diplomatic incident when the two get into an argument at the Royal Wedding of Crown Prince Philip and end up falling into a massive wedding cake. In the spirit of preserving U.S.-U.K. relations, as well as both of their families’ reputations, Alex and Henry are ordered into a media friendship that involves attending a prescribed number of events together. As they spend more time together and get closer, it quickly becomes apparent how much these two have in common: they both grapple with questions of legacy and trying to carve out their own niche in these monumental institutions that are more pitfall than opportunity; they both struggle with their mental health and the way that their past relationships, real or not, have been picked over by the media; and for as long as they’ve been “rivals,” they’ve also both been suppressing feelings for the other. McQuiston instills her characters with humor, pathos, and genuine emotional depth, making it easy for the reader to empathize with two young men who are otherwise the epitome of privilege and transcending the fairly rote conventions of romance novels.
In comparison, Paul Rudnick’s 2021 novel Playing the Palace feels like a shallow ripoff capitalizing on the popularity of McQuiston’s effervescent masterpiece. Event planner Carter meets Edgar, Crown Prince of England, while preparing for a gala in New York City, and the two bond when Carter helps Edgar prepare for a speech. With very little preamble they fall into a relationship that is quickly uncovered by the press. Carter, with a stunning inability to recognize his existing privilege and how lucky he should feel that someone isn’t turned off by his utter insufferability, retreats, though it’s not long before he and Edgar are magnetically pulled back together. Lacking the humor, candor, and humanity of Red, White & Royal Blue, Rudnick’s novel nonetheless hits on many of the same tropes that have come to define the modern fairytale.
One of only a few books in this fledgling genre to focus on a prince who isn’t “of England,” Ellie Finch’s holiday-centric 2019 novel A Royal Ruse, the third in her Royal Rendezvous series that follows the royal siblings of the fictional Democratic Kingdom of Alstadia, takes Prince Alaister Louis Cellario-Perrin in disguise to the small town of Yuletide, Maine as he investigates a money laundering scheme involving his country’s government. Also in disguise and investigating the same corruption from the other end is Prince Jean-Michel Amadou Musa des Rois, brother to the king of the fictional small Caribbean nation of Port des Rois. Temporarily freed from the baggage of their titles, Alaister and Ama spend the holidays jumping from one heartwarming Christmas setpiece to the next, all while unknowingly investigating one another. A Royal Ruse works perfectly well as a standalone novel, with only passing allusion to the goings on of the first two books and a convenient dramatis personae at the beginning, and dives perhaps the deepest into the psyches of the princes of any of our modern fairytales. Alaister, in particular, is given plenty of room to explore his history of severe seasonal depression.
Like Finch’s series, Miranda Dubner’s 2020 novel The Spare focuses on the entire royal family: the bisexual Prince Eddie is without question the central character, but we spend chapters with his bodyguard (and love interest) Cole; his brother, the Crown Prince Arthur; his younger sister, Princess Alex; Queen Victoria II; and even all of their respective love interests. Dubner presents a compelling alternate 20th-century history of the British royal family, with the Kensingtons taking over after Edward VII and their current state being one of non-stop tabloid messiness. Eddie struggles with an extreme case of best little boy in the world syndrome that only worsens when years-old photos of him with a college boyfriend surface, ostensibly outing him and leading the Buckingham Palace communications team to shove him as hard as they can back into the closet. Nursing a decade-plus-long crush on his bodyguard Cole, Eddie makes things as complicated as possible for his siblings, their childhood friend Gwen, and Cole, over 400 pages leading to a remarkably satisfying and snappy conclusion. More than any of the other books discussed here, The Spare dissects what it means to be royalty in the 21st century and what responsibility the Kensingtons have not only to the public whose taxes pay for their lavish lifestyle but also to each other and where those two diverge.
The princes of all these fairytales, perhaps by dint of being the protagonists (or at least deuteragonists) of their own stories, are much more complicated than the Prince Charmings we were raised on. They’re anxious, they’re depressed, they grapple with their families’ legacies and the weight of the responsibility of needing to justify their very existence. They all struggle with a past relationship that left them damaged, threatened to tarnish their name, and left them wary of future romantic entanglements. They all have some humanizing connection with “regular” people, whether that be charity work or (in Alaister’s case) an honest-to-God job. All of these books have at least a certain level of wealth porn to them, and their authors struggle to justify monarchy while unavoidably making the case that there really is absolutely no reason for monarchies to still exist. Will I ever really identify with these characters? No, but just like with Cinderella, Aurora, and Snow White before them, that won’t stop me from continuing to seek out the Henrys, Eddies, and Alaisters so that, for at least a few hundred pages, I can laugh and cry with them in their opulent estates. I’m probably good on Edgars, though.