What does ‘spicy’ mean to you? A fluid, sometimes contentious definition amongst Booktok-ers, Reddit-ors, Tumblr-ites and even the (usually) gentler denizens of Goodreads, this romance novel subgenre covers a surprising range.

For some, ‘spice’ might be anything more than coy, bedroom-door-closed, fade-to-black hints at (vanilla) sexual congress between leads, for others, no less than the darkest hinterlands of kink, dirty talk occasionally dubious consent and explicitly anatomical description will do. It’s also a definition that’s loose, welcoming, and democratic enough to take in sex more likely to feature participants of colour, LGBTQ partners, a spectrum of abilities and body types, as well as humour and dalliances with mythology or the supernatural.

Spicy books can, much like fan-fiction and the best of fandom overall, provide many readers with a space for smut, served with a judgement-free side order of progressiveness and self-discovery.

Curating our selection from the best rated on Goodreads and #Booktok, here’s 5 titles including some for those just getting started with Spice, and for those seeking stronger, harder fare.

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood – with a sparkly, STEM-set plot and a heroine who might be demisexual, maybe even a touch neurodivergent, our first pick’s a little reminiscent of a mainstream hit: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project.

A female-centric spin on what might happen if a coolly scientific approach were applied to sex and attraction, this one might also require actual scientists and those of a strictly logical bent to firmly suspend their disbelief. Not least because ‘Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant’ possesses washboard abs to go with his curmudgeonly personality. The Love Hypothesis also has said curmudgeon agree to participate in that most solid-gold of rom-com tropes: a fake relationship, here with PhD candidate and relationship sceptic Olive.

7th Circle by Tate James (Hades Book 1) – Promising grit and danger of several different kinds, this series from a much loved Spice author introduces Hayden Darling Timber, known as Hades. She’s the leather-clad, hard-drinking gangland boss with strong views on ethical sex work and a connoisseur’s appreciation for the male form.

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Set in the same universe as Tate’s earlier Madison Kate series, 7th Circle shares several key features, including a touch of casual violence and Tate’s trademark ratcheting of sexual tension between enemies and friends to near operatic levels.

The Risk by S.T. Abby – a dark, contemporary revenge fantasy, The Risk has Lana, a vigilante serial killer, sailing close to the wind in bedding Logan, the criminal profiler aiming to bring her to justice. Of course, much tension comes from our heroine staying one step ahead and concealing her homicidal secret identity from her law-abiding partner.  Reading like an ultraviolent plot arc  from pretty profiler shows like Criminal Minds with a wonky moral compass and a lot more skin, The Risk also plays in the Dexter Morgan and Villanelle sandbox, with feeling.

The Fight Game: 5 Rounds by Nikki Castle – a good-old fashioned enemies-to-lovers plot, dropped into an atypical setting: 5 Rounds has friction between an arrogant fighter working the mixed martial arts circuit and his reluctant roommate erupt into passion. Castle’s series opener draws on her personal experience around MMA fighters and gyms, dropping in plenty of convincing details for fans of the sport and sport-set romances.

Her driven, career focussed heroine, Remy, resents being treated as a mere inconvenient distraction by Tristan, an athlete on the path to world-championship glory.  Of course, though their path to love proves challenging, much fierce verbal sparring and mutual annoyance can’t help but grow into more.

It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey – lighter, brighter brushstrokes round out our five (as well strokes of other kinds) from the ‘Michaelangelo of dirty talk’. Bailey’s warm, breezy rom com guarantees a happy ending and love across the class divide. After one party too many, spoiled socialite Piper finds herself banished to Westport, a small town in Washington state.

She’s tasked with running her stepfather’s bar and developing some all-important life skills in the process. Enter one bearded, cynical fisherman with little time for cityfied influencers from LA landing in his beloved town. Cue much fish-out-of-water silliness and some familiar small-town quirkiness, in a familiar, gently spiced and comforting blend.