I met my first romance novel at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, where my daughter and I were staying the night. Most of Alaska and hundreds of tourists pass through this jumping-off town to the Denali National Park, and many left books behind for the Roadhouse lending library. Here they sat over the coffeepot on a shelf that ended in a few bear spray canisters, also on loan to travelers who’d forgotten theirs. Almost every battered paperback on offer was a romance.

I’m a New Englander, who until this visit had no experience with romances. I’d read the novels my teachers had given me, which were never romances, and I read addictively. But I was bookless when we got to Talkeetna, so I plucked one from the lending library shelf and took it to bed. My ignorance was dispelled; I was entranced.

When I got home, I headed to a library and got myself a big stack of books with titles like The Moth and the Flame; Dirty, Willing Victim; and Too Tough to Tame. The nice young man at the checkout counter saw my selections, leaned forward, and very discretely offered to let me jump a waiting line of 248 (yes, really) people who wanted to read Fifty Shades of Grey. I just happen, he whispered, to have a recent return right here under the counter. If you’re interested.

Well, of course I was interested. I took them home and entered Romancelandia. Brio! Bad guys with mansions and castles! Great sex! Silliness! Sadism! Dominance. True love. Submission. Salvation. It was clear to me that under the heaving bosoms and wands of pleasure there was something elementally true going on.

In Romancelandia, sex and power were tangled, even interdependent. But wasn’t that the way it really was? Weren’t they also linked in The Taming of the Shrew, in Wuthering Heights, in the evening news reports of recent domestic murders? I hadn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey or Too Tough to Tame until I started all this, but when I did, the struggle to control the lover or be controlled seemed like an old story, recast to play out in billionaires’ luxury condominiums or wooden ships on stormy seas.

And here’s where I thought the thought that became this novel: If someone set a romance plot side-by-side with a “real” story about love, would the struggle to dominate or be subordinated be the same in both worlds? Would both narratives suggest that a power struggle was central to sexual satisfaction? To love? Would both stories slip over a line and become deadly, or would they describe someone’s salvation? In other words, are romances true?

The novel is a romance about romances. It takes place in two settings: Romancelandia, and the post-WWII world of emerging cosmetics industries. Its heroines discover that the forces of evil often have a magnetic, sweet, bluntly sexual pull. They allow themselves to be pulled, and find that when they reach the edge of what’s safe and known, there’s an almost overwhelming urge to jump. Pleasure and danger—they’re an indelibly bound combination familiar to any hiker who plucks a dog-eared pink paperback to carry into the woods along with her bear spray. That’s romance.

Bring on the pirates.

- Sharon Pywell