In case you’re new to the Pond’s book recommendation posts, the recommendation posts are brought to you by Varian, the Pond’s very own Toadshifter who is knowledgeable in all kinds of magic! One of Varian’s ambitions is to get better at sewing, hence why whenever Varian has come up with their latest costume, they will always recommend a few books that inspired them!
We have had the immense fortune of having some really great enemies/rivals-to-lovers books in the last year, so I thought to myself: why not write a book recommendation book collating all the wonderful books we have read that have these two satisfying tropes?
There’s nothing quite like a good enemies/rivals-to-lovers story: a romance where there’s delicious, delicious tension mixed with secret yearning and the understated dread of realising that feelings blooms between two people that should not fall in love.
For me, what I love about enemies/rivals-to-lovers is how the story delves into the characters’ motivations, their ambitions, and how one person throws a wrench in their otherwise perfect plans. I love seeing how the characters begin to unfurl at the edges, try to hold steadfast to their goals, but realise that, maybe, sometimes you find someone who is just worth it.
If you love enemies/rivals-to-lovers as much as I do, then I hope you will love today’s book recommendation post!
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
CW: It should come as no surprise that I’m recommending These Violent Delights in my enemies-to-lovers book recommendation post, but for those of you who have yet to read this, here it is: your sign to read it!
- A genre-bending historical SFF retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in 1920’s Shanghai about the two heirs to opposing gangs.
- Roma and Juliette’s romance is delicious; there’s so much tension and yearning, and every scene with the two together feels both like torture and bliss.
- The story is also brutal and violent with Shanghai on the brink as a mysterious monster terrorises the city – setting the perfect atmosphere for Roma and Juliette and how their stories and love for one another intertwines.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.
But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.
When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?
CW: If you’re looking for a solid West African-inspired fantasy with the tension and high stakes of enemies-to-lovers with competing motivations and goals, then you will love A Song of Wraiths and Ruin.
- The worldbuilding in this was beautiful. So beautifully described and vividly imagined and I was immersed immediately. I loved the magic system, how we only see a glimpse of it, and that the events of the book lay foundations for an even more devastatingly magical sequel.
- The tension and high-stakes in this book was sublime. The dynamic between Karina and Malik was so taut, so juicy, and the build-up was spectacular.
- The characters are wonderful; I adored Karina and how she was unapologetically and compellingly herself, emotional, didn’t take anyone’s bullshit, whilst also bearing the burden and pain of royalty, her kingdom and the death of her family. Malik was also fantastic, and the internal conflict he faces was so interesting to read and gave the story so much momentum.
Crier’s War by Nina Varela
After the War of Kinds ravaged the kingdom of Rabu, the Automae, Designed to be the playthings of royals, took over the estates of their owners and bent the human race to their will.
Now, Ayla, a human servant rising the ranks at the House of the Sovereign, dreams of avenging the death of her family… by killing the Sovereign’s daughter, Lady Crier. Crier, who was Made to be beautiful, to be flawless. And to take over the work of her father.
Crier had been preparing to do just that—to inherit her father’s rule over the land. But that was before she was betrothed to Scyre Kinok, who seems to have a thousand secrets. That was before she discovered her father isn’t as benevolent as she thought. That was before she met Ayla.
Skye: I will always have such a soft spot in my heart for my gay disaster sapphics in Crier’s War.
- Set in a world where constructed Automae rule over humans, Crier’s War opens in the quiet whispers of revolution and war. Crier, the naive, curious daughter of the most powerful Automae Sovereign in the region, unwittingly employs the firecracker Ayla as her personal handmaiden—not knowing that Ayla is on a personal quest to kill her for the human revolution efforts. The book builds around them slowly complicating each other’s lives, getting to know each other, and falling in love.
- This book is so, so tender. Its setting backdrop of mystery and political intrigue are immensely compelling, but gosh, I really do think that the characters and the journeys they go on with each other are the highlight of the story. Nina has a real gift for soft, emotional storytelling, and it shines through beautifully in both books in the series.
- Speaking of the series, Crier’s War is the first of two books in a duology, and its sequel has to be one of my favorite endings to a series ever. I have a full review/fanart post of the sequel Iron Heart here on the Pond, should you be so inclined to check it out!
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
Skye: Iron Widow is a wonderful treasure trove for speculative romance lovers, because this book features THREE distinct romantic subplots: a childhood-friends-to-lovers story, and TWO delicious enemies-to-lovers plotlines.
- The premise cocktail of giant sci-fi mechas in historical China with an elemental magic system is just so, so potent. It’s layers and layers of speculative writing condensed into a marvel of a story, that pulls inspiration from anime and Chinese culture and conventional Western story tropes alike.
- Fans of The Poppy War will also get their fill of ruthless female protagonists again: like Rin, Zetian is a poor, spite-driven girl driven thrust into a rotten system, whose character arc details her mad scramble for the power that lies at the very top—because it is the only route that ensures her own survival. History would rue the dark day if Fang Runin and Xiran’s Wu Zetian were ever to meet.
- Speaking of story tropes: did you know that this book has a love triangle that resolves in a polyamorous relationship? Between three consenting and wildly smitten teens? Because. You guys. The romance in this is good. It is very very good. The kids are all so gay for each other.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war.
Skye: This is a wonderful puzzle-box of a sci-fi novella following two enemy spies on the opposite ends of a war to influence time and the future.
- I love letters as storytelling devices in general, and nothing will ever top the wry, soul-wrenching back and forth between our two protagonists here—through enemy lines, through the entire expanse of human history. I do think that this book is best read as a fantastical poem granted the length and breadth of a novella, in the sense that its worldbuilding and lore matter much less than the Feelings, capital-F, it aims to evoke. And gosh, does this book have feelings by the buckets.
- This book is scandalously intimate. The lines it draws around its characters and world are loose, but its epistolary format allows us to swiftly traverse the inner worlds of our enemy-spies-turned-lovers: we know that they hunger, that they yearn and feel and love, despite their being from a time and place entirely different from the world we know, despite their being not-quite-human. We watch in anticipation as they braid themselves into each other and write their way (literally) into each other’s hearts. It’s a marvelous, breathtaking thing to watch unfold.
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.
Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.
But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire.
CW: I cannot wait to read as, what Cube has now dubbed, part of The Golden Trifecta of Sapphic Excellence. But really – The Jasmine Throne has the sweeping fantasy that we all crave, and also has a sapphic enemies-to-lovers with morally grey characters to boot. I haven’t read this yet, despite my many promises to, but I’m recommending this anyway because I know I’ll love this – and I think you all will as well.
The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala
Esha is a legend, but no one knows. It’s only in the shadows that she moonlights as the Viper, the rebels’ highly skilled assassin. She’s devoted her life to avenging what she lost in the royal coup, and now she’s been tasked with her most important mission to date: taking down the ruthless General Hotha.
Kunal has been a soldier since childhood, training morning and night to uphold the power of King Vardaan. His uncle, the general, has ensured that Kunal never strays from the path—even as a part of Kunal longs to join the outside world, which has been growing only more volatile.
Then Esha’s and Kunal’s paths cross—and an unimaginable chain of events unfolds. Both the Viper and the soldier think they’re calling the shots, but they’re not the only players moving the pieces. As the bonds that hold their land in order break down and the sins of the past meet the promise of a new future, both rebel and soldier must make unforgivable choices.
CW: How about an Indian-inspired fantasy that blends a cat-and-mouse relationship with enemies-to-lovers with a character-driven story and rich, gorgeous lore?
- I loved the mythos and lore in this book. I liked that myth and magic are so closely tied to this book’s world and seeped into the story, and I enjoyed the Indian-inspired worldbuilding.
- The characters in The Tiger at Midnight are wonderful, and I love that you get a deep dive of their character development, growth and their internal conflicts. Furthermore, Esha and Kunal have a brilliant dynamic which makes their tense relationship so intriguing.
- The themes in this are wonderful – and you’ll love that this book explores the moral ambiguity of war and conflict, of the people who fight for justice, and that honour is subjective.
Made in Korea by Sarah Suk
There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.
Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…
What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.
Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.
But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.
CW: Looking for an enemies-to-lovers that is as intense as it is romantic, with incredible stakes and a wonderful character-driven story? Made in Korea will guarantee to hit all the sweet spots!
- The rivals-to-friends-to-lovers romance was so soft, vulnerable, and lovely, and I really enjoyed how the story handled miscommunication.
- The book has plenty of fluff balanced well with emotional depth. I loved how the story explores identity, complex family dynamics, and the unfortunate costs of pursuing your dreams.
- Something that I felt was so refreshing was how every character was Asian – and they were all complex, fascinating, and engaging characters. I think I loved every single character; they were delightful in their own way.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigidar
When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life.
Flávia is beautiful and charismatic and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia, and realizes there might be more to her than she realized.
CW: If you like stories that balance serious and sweet, then you’ll love The Henna Wars and how it has the fluffiness of a budding romance between two rivals and its examination of cultural appropriation and bullying.
- The f/f rivals-to-friends-to-lovers was wonderful! I liked how their romance unfolds, and how there was plenty of development between Nishat, who is Bengali-Irish, and Flávia, who is Brazillian-White Irish.
- I really appreciated how this book explored cultural appropriation – like the book portrays, cultural appropriation is harmful and wrong and I liked that Nishat got angry; I really related to her anger.
- Though there are soft moments, but this book also explores and depicts racist bullying, anti-gay sentiments within an all-girls religious school, and Nishat’s family alienating her after she comes out.
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.
On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?
CW: If you love the idea of a dystopian story with a feminist, critical and queer lens, then you will absolutely love We Set The Dark on Fire and how it it is incisive as it is intense and exciting.
- The enemies-to-lovers was brilliantly done, and I loved how the romance subverts expectations – especially when Dani falls in love with the girl she ‘shouldn’t’ fall in love with.
- Set in a heteronormative and sexist society, this story is a brilliant and feminist critique of patriarchal structures and the sexist expectations of women.
- The worldbuilding is Latine-influenced and I loved how it explores the intersections of gender, heteronormativity, and oppression.
Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach
Eliza Quan is the perfect candidate for editor in chief of her school paper. That is, until ex-jock Len DiMartile decides on a whim to run against her. Suddenly her vast qualifications mean squat because inexperienced Len—who is tall, handsome, and male—just seems more like a leader.
When Eliza’s frustration spills out in a viral essay, she finds herself inspiring a feminist movement she never meant to start, caught between those who believe she’s a gender equality champion and others who think she’s simply crying misogyny.
Amid this growing tension, the school asks Eliza and Len to work side by side to demonstrate civility. But as they get to know one another, Eliza feels increasingly trapped by a horrifying realization—she just might be falling for the face of the patriarchy himself.
CW: Put this in your radar, friends! Because Not Here to Be Liked releases in September and you are definitely going to want this hard-hitting feminist contemporary of the year.
- The nuanced, complex, and unexpectedly fuzzy rivals-to-mutual-respect-to-lovers romance between Eliza and Len was fantastic.
- What I loved about Not Here to Be Liked is that it explores feminism from an intersectional lens. The story never tries to be a playbook on feminism, but it portrays feminism in its most real: that advocacy and social justice aren’t these neat things, but also involve this messy process of learning, unlearning, and figuring out the grey, complicated areas.
- Eliza is an ‘unlikeable’ character and she is glorious. Her narrative is sharp, astute, and she’s a little prickly too, which is what I loved about her. Eliza isn’t perfect by any means, despite being the unexpected leader of the feminist movement, and she goes through a lot of learning and mistakes too.