I have a confession. I love angst in fiction. When done well, it takes me through the emotional wringer in a really cathartic way and moves me greatly. I’ve been looking forward to this topic for a few weeks now and quickly came up with my five couples, although I found it harder to jot down a few thoughts on just what it was about each couple that I loved so much. Ultimately all of these pairings are ones that had me making incomprehensible high-pitched noises and/or crying at least once, often from joy and from sorrow.
SPOILER WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for The Lymond Chronicles and A Little Life. The couples are slow-burns who happen later in the book/series, so if you are considering reading these, I’ve kept the actual summary and quotes deliberately vague and safe to read, but don’t highlight the pairing names or parts that I’ve hidden with white font!!
Without further ado, here are the five couples that had me making dying whale noises at least once in anguish and in joy!
1. Francis Crawford & Philippa Somerville (The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett)
The Lymond Chronicles are my FAVOURITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME. I read them for the first time in 2012 and had such a bad book hangover that I found it impossible to read anything else for days. I’ve already re-read the entire 6 book, roughly 500 pages per book, series twice.
There was really no competition for the top position on this week’s top five. If you ever read The Lymond Chronicles, and you should, everyone should, because they are superb in every single way (although they will break your heart along the way, you have been warned) you’ll get it because there is ALL OF THE ANGST, particularly with this couple. They spend most of the book (Checkmate, the last in the series) hopelessly in love with each other and yet pushing one another away. Each person believes that they are doing the right thing and is not aware that the feelings are mutual. With any less gifted an author than Dorothy Dunnett this would just not work, but in her hands it’s wonderful anguish. Just when the pair have realized that they love each other, one person makes a sacrifice for the other that changes them and their relationship forever. This is a true match of equals who complement each other intellectually and who know each other’s soul, but there are a hell of a lot of obstacles that stand in their way.
“As you say, I’m inexperienced. On the other hand, you are not always right. Please listen. Please think. Are you sure, when it matters so much, that you know my feelings better than I do?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not infallible. You might, without my crediting it, fall deeply in love and for ever, with some warped hunchback whelped in the gutter. I should equally stop you from taking him.”
She couldn’t speak. Her breath wheezed in and out. With extreme deliberation, and indeed restraint and moderation as well, [she] raised her glass and dashed it on the parquet. Crystals frosted the carpet between them, and the wine lay like blood.
Speech came back. “God in heaven,” [she] said. ‘Do you think that I care?’
He looked up from the mess. “I know you don’t,” Lymond said. His eyes were black, not blue; and there were red splashes on the white velvet. “But you must excuse the hunchback, who does.”
2. Kaz Brekker & Inej Ghafa (Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo)
I love this pair so much! Kaz and Inej are both scarred by their pasts to the point where it impacts their ability to have normal relationships. Kaz’s childhood trauma has made touching another human being with bare skin so unbearable that he wears gloves to cope, while Inej was captured by slavers and forced to work in a brothel. The depth of feeling they have for one another is intense. Kaz saved Inej and gave her the opportunity to start again as The Wraith, someone to be respected, and he in turn depends on Inej and she is a sort of moral compass for him. They make each other better, and I love that their trauma doesn’t just magically disappear because they’re in love. They begin to heal together but there’s still a long long way to go.
“Stay,” he said, his voice rough stone. “Stay in Ketterdam. Stay with me.”
She looked down at his gloved hand clutching hers. Everything in her wanted to say yes, but she would not settle for so little, not after all she’d been through. “What would be the point?”
He took a breath. “I want you to stay. I want you to…. I want you.”
“You want me.” She turned the words over. Gently, she squeezed his hand. “And how will you have me Kaz?”
He looked at her then, eyes fierce, mouth set. It was the face he wore when he was fighting.
“How will you have me?” she repeated. “Fully clothed, gloves on, your head turned away so our lips can never touch.”
He released her hand, his shoulders bunching, his gaze angry and ashamed as he turned his face to the sea.
Maybe it was because his back was to her that she could finally speak the words. “I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.”
3. Willem Ragnarsson & Jude St. Francis (A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara)
To say anything at all about this pairing is to spoil part of the novel, so highlight to read my thoughts, or if you don’t mind being spoiled for the book/aren’t going to read it.
A Little Life is very much Jude’s novel, but the central conceit is that sometimes a person is so damaged by the trauma they’ve endured, in Jude’s case systematic sexual and physical abuse, that they can’t recover from it. Jude’s battle with his past is very two steps forward, one step back. Through it all he is supported by Willem, his best friend. Slowly Jude realizes that he doesn’t want to be alone and that he loves Willem, but Jude sees himself as unworthy of love and his childhood abuse has left him repulsed by the act of sex in any form. Willem and Jude are truly two halves of a whole who just fit, but Jude’s past places strain on their relationship and both men have to make concessions. Like some of the other relationships on my list (oops I’m sensing a pattern), they can’t overcome and fully heal from their pasts, but the relationship is a stabilizing force in Jude’s life and their connection is beautiful and heartbreaking. It is impossible not to be moved by these two.
“Who am I? Who am I?”
“You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend .. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m Willem Ragnarsson. And I will never let you go.”
4. Damen and Lauren (Captive Prince by C.S. Pacat)
The premise of this m/m novel involves Damianos (Damen), Prince of Akielos, being betrayed by his lover Jokaste and his ambitious half-brother and sold to Laurent, the Prince of an enemy kingdom. Damen keeps his identity a secret, for the Prince despises Damianos, who killed Laurent’s beloved older brother on the field of combat years earlier. Their mutual hate grows into a grudging respect, a friendship, some truly smoldering UST, and even, finally, love, but Damen’s unrevealed identity is a tremendous source of angst and until the final book the reader is left to speculate on whether Laurent already knows and, if not, how he will take the news that he has fallen for his brother’s killer. Angst also stems from Laurent’s childhood trauma and the walls he has built up around him in response. I’ve been reading this series since 2009 back in the Livejournal days and the final book in the trilogy, published last year, was everything I was hoping it would be for one of my favourite angsty couples.
“I hated you,” said Laurent. “I hated you so badly I thought I’d choke on it. If my uncle hadn’t stopped me, I would have killed you. And then you saved my life, and every time I needed you, you were there, and I hated you for that too.”
5. Richard St. Vier & Alec Campion (Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner)
Reckless, sharp-tongued nobleman Alec and honourable, but ruthless swordsman Richard St. Vier are one of my favourite fictional pairings. The very natures of those involved, particularly self-destructive Alec who picks fights for fun, give the relationship a darkness, yet the reader never doubts that they love each other deeply. There’s angst enough in Swordspoint, as Richard believes Alec has left him, but the angst and the depth of love between them continues in a few novels and short stories set years later in the ‘verse, which include Richard losing his sight (a particularly devastating blow to the most skilled swordsman in the city), and their respective deaths.
“Please,” Alec said, still pulling against his arm as though he were ready to start hitting him again; “That’s a new one from you. I think I like it. Say it again.”
Richard’s own hands sprang open; he flung himself away from the other man. “Look,” he shouted, “what do you want from me?”
Alec smiled his feral smile. “You’re upset,” he said.
Richard could feel himself shaking. Tears of rage were still burning behind his eyes, but at least he could see again, the room was losing its red tinge. “Yes,” he managed to say.
“Come here,” Alec said. His voice was long and cool like slopes of snow. “Come to me.”
He walked across the room. Alec lifted his chin and kissed him. “You’re crying, Richard,” Alec said. “You’re crying.”
The tears burned his eyes like acid. They made his face feel raw. Alec lowered him to the floor. At first he was rough, and then he was gentle.
Who are some of your favourite angsty couples in fiction?