Roslyn Sinclair’s sci-fi ice queen romance, The Lily and the Crown, is one of Ylva’s most popular books. What makes this unusual romance so damn good? Is it really accessible to readers who aren’t into science fiction? Ylva author Quinn Ivins explains in a review sure to convert any remaining holdouts.
Launching an ice queen romance into space
In eighth grade, my heart belonged to my history teacher, Ms. Kozlowski. She was tall with a feathery mullet and incisive eyes. A tough grader, she hated sloppy work and excuses. I craved her approval and, shamefully, her love.
All day, I daydreamed about Ms. Kozlowski, inventing scenarios that ended with her in my arms. Sometimes I imagined her in peril, with only me around to save her. She’d lose her grip on the edge of a cliff, and at the last second, I’d appear and grasp her hand.
My infatuation should have been an early clue that I was extremely gay. Instead, I took years to catch on, and even then I didn’t know what to make of my fantasies involving authority figures: Strict professors, ball-busting executives, politicians in power suits. My tastes were oddly specific and not represented in the few lesbian movies available.
Enter the ice queen romance trope
Then I discovered lesbian romance novels. Turns out, my type has a name: ice queens. Specifically, ice queen romances. Fans of the trope devour fiction about powerful women who terrify everyone around them…until a doe-eyed younger woman melts the frosty façade. Once I realized the trope existed, I read every book I could find. And then I found the best one: The Lily and the Crown by Roslyn Sinclair.
Sinclair first posted the story on AO3 as The Devil Wears Prada fanfiction. The movie is legendary among sapphics due to the sexual chemistry between magazine boss Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and her assistant, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway).
Elegant with a lethal tongue, Miranda is the quintessential star of an ice queen romance; her silky insults are like angels kissing my brain. Obsessed fans have written Miranda/Andy romance in countless alternate universes. This time, Sinclair drops them in a sci-fi future where humans have colonized outer space.
Ignore the sci-fi label. Seriously
The science fiction label is off-putting for many romance readers, including me. We don’t want to slog through excessive world-building and ‘space adventures’ before we get to the good stuff.
But that’s not the case here. There are no tedious info-dumps about the made-up history of a make-believe world. The details are sparse, and we encounter most of them in passing. It’s enough to know that there is an ‘Empire’ which faces resistance from a scrappy fleet of ‘pirates.’
Sinclair reimagines the younger character as a reclusive botanist named Ari who lives on a space station run by her father, the powerful ‘stationmaster.’ Ari may physically resemble Anne Hathaway but is otherwise an original character with a unique personality.
Sheltered, awkward, and shy, Ari is an all-around precious cupcake. She avoids social interaction, preferring to spend her days in her quarters tending to her garden.
Ari’s solitary existence ends abruptly when a sentry shoves an angry middle-aged woman into her quarters. After some confusion, Ari works out that her father captured the woman from a pirate ship and arranged for her to live with Ari as a ‘serving woman’ aka personal slave.
One ice queen to rule them all
This is the Miranda-inspired, ice queen character, and she’s glorious.
Despite her predicament, the woman is sharp and self-assured from the moment we meet her. While she claims to be a slave from the pirate ship, there are immediate clues that her story is bullshit. She seems unaccustomed to following orders, and she’s oddly conversant in galactic politics.
But the possibility that she’s lying never occurs to our naive, trusting Ari. As far as Ari knows, this woman has endured a life of oppression at the hands of pirates before being forced to serve her. So, Ari does her best to make the woman comfortable.
Ice queen power dynamic flipped
The setup flips the power dynamic in most ice queen romance stories; Ari is ostensibly in charge of this woman’s entire life. Her response is exactly how I would behave if a forty-something Meryl Streep look-alike were utterly at my mercy. That is, I’d be so benevolent and endearing that I’d inadvertently earn her affection.
For starters, Ari is a reluctant mistress. She opposes slavery, but her father refuses to set the woman free. When the woman claims her only name is slave, Ari is horrified. After some negotiation—this woman really does not want a name—she consents to being called ‘Assistant’ instead.
Assistant expects Ari to be a spoiled princess, but Ari proves herself to be brainy and industrious. She’s working to develop a new strain of pea that will feed the hungry. This is another thing I’d do for sure if a hot ice queen were watching—not the pea project exactly, but something noble and intellectually impressive.
Ari and Assistant spend the majority of the book alone in their quarters, rarely interacting with anyone else. The absence of secondary characters is a refreshing surprise.
Who needs a BFF when you have trees?
Most romance novels feature a best friend or roommate or coworker who serves as an empty receptacle for the protagonist’s self-centered blather. The best friend elicits information through dialogue and forces the heroine to confront her feelings by pointing them out. (“Wait, you’re blushing. Do you like her?”) Some authors manage to make the friends interesting, but usually most of those scenes could be cut right back.
In this case, Ari’s only friends are her plants, and Assistant is far from home. As a result, every scene holds my attention. I wish more romance authors would write about antisocial shut-ins for those of us who prefer a narrow focus.
Consent and seduction
The romance develops in the only way it could without squicking out readers, since sexual relations in a white slavery situation are inherently, um, problematic. Assistant takes the lead, seducing Ari and refusing to be touched in return.
When Ari frets that they shouldn’t be intimate due to the power imbalance, Assistant loses her shit laughing and then ravishes Ari against an oak tree. Plus, Assistant is clearly hiding something, and the hints at her true identity provide extra reassurance that she isn’t a helpless victim.
The revelation of Assistant’s real name leads to an angst-filled reckoning that spans multiple chapters, and Sinclair writes the crap out of these scenes. It’s not a spoiler to say the book ends happily—every romance novel does, by definition, ice queen romance or otherwise—but the ‘how’ makes this book unique and immensely satisfying.
Ice queen romances aren’t for everyone. Oddly, some people prefer warm and relatable love interests. But if haughty sighs turn your insides to applesauce, you will treasure this book for life.