There are many…many bigger superhero fans than me. And I certainly never believed I needed a superhero novel. But Wistful Ascending kept coming up on book twitter, with praise from many I trust, and when there was an excellent deal on the novel on amazon I jumped at the opportunity to purchase it. The praise is well warranted. This book was just a joy to read.
Rohan is a Hybrid from Earth. What does that mean? He is half human, half some other alien species that rules a significant portion of the Galaxy and passes on super powers to its offspring. So Rohan is a Superhero who fought wars for the il’Drach Empire. But now he is done fighting wars and lives on an Ancient space station hauling spaceships into port (by flying to them with his super powers and pulling them in himself). It’s a simple life, and throughout the novel we come to understand why it’s the life he has chosen for himself.
The book doesn’t so much have an ongoing plot, as a series of events that Rohan must deal with (This aspect of the novel reminds me of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet). These events allow us to meet many interesting characters and species, and provide some incredible action set pieces. But the charm of the book comes from Rohan and his sarcastic, witty, never taking himself too seriously outlook on life. Rohan is a joy to be around, and a wonderful character to explore the world (or system as it were) through.
I’ve already added book 2 to my Kindle Library and will be continuing the series in the not too distant future.
The Blighted Stars is my favorite book I read this year. It’s loaded with things I like in science fiction: great action, compelling characters, complicated worldbuilding that isn’t spoon fed to the reader, and a mystery where the stakes just get bigger and bigger. It’s a five star and will undoubtedly find a place in my 100 favorite SFF novels list when I revisit the rankings.
The reader is immediately thrown into the action as something we don’t quite understand (involving misprints…you’ll get it later) is happening on a spaceship above the blighted planet and our characters must escape. They do, to the planet below and now must survive. But survival also involves understanding of the lichen that is devouring worlds (including this planet) and each little reveal regarding the lichen adds to the tension and stakes.
We experience the story primarily through the two main characters. One is the son of what seems to be the most powerful man in the most powerful family in the galaxy, who is leading the expedition. The other perspective is from a girl who is not who she says she is and is trying to bring down that powerful family. Their relationship ultimately becomes the heart of the story, as both characters are complicated, and likeable. Their interactions are filled with tension and complicated feelings they are both trying to understand. Both are easy to root for, even if they aren’t exactly on the same side.
I can’t wait to continue this series. The novel works in so many ways, and there is plenty more to explore in the universe…and an incredibly high stakes problem still to solve.
I picked up this book almost entirely because of this review from JamReads, which is excellent, and you should read if you are thinking about picking up this book. I was honestly kind of lost at times with what was happening. Living stars threw me and at times I had a hard time picturing the action, the characters and the general setting. Maybe that’s just the way I read.
But here the thing… it didn’t matter that much. This is so much a story about identity, discovering yourself, and loyalty to others. The character work, particularly with Astra Idari and CR-UX, is magnificent. There are layers to what is going on and the author does a great job building on them. I predicted one of those character twists pretty early, but I’d say that’s because it made sense it the way the author was writing the book. It’s not so much a “twist” as a character complication that is well set up and defines the novel.
The minor character work is also good, with complicated antagonists (and side characters) Idari must interact with and deal with. This a story of love and self-discovery and it’s very well told. This is very different from many stories I’ve read, but a worthy choice if you’re looking for great descriptive writing, and exemplary character work.
These are the full on, work for it novels and series that if you really love science fiction or fantasy I will tell you to try. These novels/series are quite the commitment, but the reward is immense. They range from long series that don’t hold your hand explaining how things work or infodumping background information, to shorter series with unreliable narration, to stories with unique structures that aren’t easy to follow. I’m sure I’m missing plenty, but here are four that stand out.
Gardens of the Moon- This is quite the commitment for anyone who wants to try it. Gardens of the Moon is the first in a 10 book Fantasy Series. There is truly nothing like it. The scope of what the author is doing is unbelievable, but he manages to combine it with intriguing characters and completely unique stories. Gardens of the Moon was good, but a lot to process as Erikson just throws you into the world and expects you to slowly get what is going on (really the whole series does this). Every novel in the series seemingly gives you something you’ve never seen before: the Chain of Dogs (from Deadhouse Gates), the incredible siege of Capustan (Memories of Ice), Karza’s intro (House of Chains), a plot centered around economic ruin (Midnight Tides), the creation of the Bonehunters in Y’ghatan (The Bonehunters) and the Malazan march across Latharis (Reeper’s Gale) are all great examples. I’ve just found nothing else like this series.
Shadow of the Torturer- Truth be told I gave up on this series (The Book of the New Sun) of which this is the first novel. It just wasn’t for me (at least not yet, I promise I’ll revisit as too many I trust swear by it). And… I get it. It’s dense and there is so much going on. They stress the brilliance of its construction and hidden layers, its unreliable narrator demanding the attention of the reader at every moment to really comprehend what is going on. I read 2 and half books in the series. I think I’ll try again someday, but it was too much of a chore for me. Honestly, it’s probably the series that I am not into that I regret not being into. I feel like I am missing out on something great.
Use of Weapons- My all time favorite novel. The book is riveting. It’s style takes a bit of getting use to as alternating chapters take you from a present tense story that goes chronologically to flashbacks which by in large go in reverse order. It is in these reverse order chapters where much of the depth is added to our protagonist Cheradenine Zakalwe. The added knowledge to the Zakalwe’s background and motives that you have by the end of the book invites you to scroll back and re-read certain parts. In the end events that happened early on take on significantly more meaning once you fully understand everything going on. I find new things on every reread and I feel like certain chapters are even more perfect than I remember on reread.
Pandora’s Star- This is an incredibly ambitious books with disparate plots all over the place. There are a ton of characters and there is extensive story to tell. Hamilton creates a uniquely developed universe and does a great job of setting up what is ultimately a very interesting plot. The mystery surrounding “the barrier” is unique and fascinating. The alien races he develops are completely original and in the case of the Primes one of the cooler, well thought out alien races I have ever read. It’s big, ambitious, and demanding of the reader. Not one I’d recommend to someone new the genre, but for someone who loves space opera already, it’s a great option.
In Part 5 of my Levels of Science Fiction series we look at Level 4, the more involved Science Ficiton and Fantasy Reads. The first three levels I would feel good about suggesting to someone looking to break into the genre, though I may warn them about Level 3 books being an investment. For Level 4 and beyond, these are books I would be thrilled to recommend, but I want the reader to have already decided they are invested in the genre. These are the kind of novels that make you work, but the reward is wonderful. Some of my favorite examples are:
A Fire Upon the Deep- The “Zones of Thought” grouping used by Vinge is an interesting idea that allows for a novel of incredible scope. The prologue is so brilliantly written and immerses you immediately, making you very aware of the incredible stakes. Vinge creates a universe that requires you to work to understand everything, but the story is so fun and exciting. Science fiction of a grand scope at its finest.
Consider Phlebas- Iain M. Banks is my overall favorite author. I love the Culture Series and this is where it starts. Each Culture book is its own story, so you don’t have to start here, but there is something compelling in starting with a story where the main character is hostile to the Culture. The Culture is such a unique idea a post-scarcity society where everyone is equal, and machines are prevalent enough that nobody is forced to work or wants for anything. Banks anticipates that readers may be hostile to parts of this idea, and he voices those hostilities through his main character early in the book when he addresses why he is fighting for the oppressive, religiously driven alien civilization, “”they are on the side of life… boring, old-fashioned, biological life; smell, fallible and short-sighted, God knows, but REAL life.” The ideas of this story are magnificent, but it’s the visual sequences that take it to another level. Few scenes in science fiction have been as engaging as the escape flight through a Giant Orbital. It’s a lot to take in, but if you love science fiction this is a book I would push any reader to dive into.
Perdido Street Station- Mieville offers a completely different type of fantasy novel. I’ve not read any author who brings a city to life quite like Mieville does with New Crobuzon. There are so many compelling, memorable characters and ideas, but New Crobuzon is the star of this book. The prose are high level and beautiful, but not the kind you can take in without careful reading. With his writing you want to focus on every word because he chooses the words so perfectly. The Slake Moths are absolutely terrifying and the introductory ride into New Crobuzon is breathtaking.
The Blade Itself- I love Abercrombie’s writing and enjoyed the First Law Series so much my first time through it. He develops memorable characters and combines it with great action scenes. There are elements of traditional fantasy to this story, but he takes them in a completely different direction. I always debate whether to recommend starting with First Law or his stand alone novels, because while I love The Blade Itself and its two direct sequels, I love Best Served Cold and The Heroes (two stand alone novels in the same universe) even more. Ultimately, I am glad I started with First Law because of the background to the world it gave me that enhances my appreciation for those stand alone novels (and the exception Age of Madness trilogy) and I usually recommend readers go that way. However, I sometimes worry that the other two would draw them in more and I should just be telling them to read Best Served Cold.
The Fifth Season – The Fifth Season is unique in so many ways and utterly magnificent in how it all fits together. The story takes time to adjust to as we follow three different plots, one of which is written in 2nd person point of view, but they fit together beautifully and as you get 1/3 of the way through the book you keep wanting to press on. There is so much to say about this book, but I don’t want to give too much away. Undoubtedly N.K. Jemisin has created one of the best science fiction / fantasy novels of all time. I cannot recommend The Fifth Season enough.
I look at this group as books that are still fairly easy to follow but have a few things that make for a more ambitious read than the groups before. I think it’s very possible to start someone on fantasy and science fiction and get them engaged with books from this group, but they should know going in that it could be a bigger time commitment or the story might not be quite as straight forward as they are expecting.
Game of Thrones- It’s long and it has a ton of characters so it could be a daunting task for some readers unfamiliar with the genre, but other than that there is a lot about it that makes it highly accessible for readers. The structure of chapters being named for the character they center around makes the novel easier to follow than a ton of series jumping around. Additionally, the magical elements of the story are kept of the periphery in the early books… when we get to them, they matter and jump out at you, but you don’t have to familiarize yourself with complicated systems of magic right away. Most importantly, they are fun, and they move.
The Name of the Wind- Again the length could be daunting but other than that the story follows one main protagonist as he learns about the magical parts of the world he encounters. A school setting is often times a great way to learn about the world and magic because the reader is learning along with the main character, and it doesn’t feel forced. To me what stands out in this novel is that the pros are absolutely beautifully at times. Just the prologue alone is a wonderful piece of writing. I sometimes think how long did it take Rothfuss to craft the line “It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a mind who is waiting to die?”
The Lies of Locke Lamora- It clocks in at 700+ pages and has a unique structure alternating between Locke’s thief upbringing and his present-day exploits, but I’d say other than that it’s a very accessible novel to those new to fantasy. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a tail of deception, revenge, frightfully dark magic set in a hostel dark and violent city. Lynch’s tale moves quickly for the 700 plus pages and in the end the payoff is certainly worth the journey. The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first in a seven-part series (only two others written so far), however, it is also reasonably self-contained so that the reader can be content just reading this one (though I’d imagine you’ll want to move forward after).
The Fellowship of the Ring- It’s the foundation for which so much of modern fantasy sprung and even the fantasy that has gotten away from sword/sorcery/quest type sagas owe so much to the world building. It is a must read to any fantasy reader and frankly can make a great introduction for the right reader.
American Gods- Part of it seems a little dates, but it’s a really cool look at America through fantastical story telling. It follows one character consistently. The fantastical elements of the story worked well, there were a ton of very interesting characters (Gods and Human) who our protagonist met throughout the novel. The big reveal at the end is really perfect. Looking back to early in the book it really made some scenes at the time I thought kind of minor seem much more important. There were a ton of small touches Gaiman added that I really appreciated such as explaining that the lame tourist traps (like worlds largest Carosel) are strong places for the Gods.
Dune- This is a book I put down before I had read much science fiction then absolutely fell in love with once I had gotten more into the genre. It’s part of what inspired me to think of the genre this way. At its core the story is one of a family feud and powerful families seeking more power. However, the story is so much more. It is littered with cool ideas, from the importance of the spice, to the Bene Gesserit, to the prophecy of the Mahdi and so on. The story makes you work but rewards you at every turn.
Snow Crash-I think much of Neal Stephenson’s work would be hard for non-genre readers to get into. However, I think this is the big exception to that. It is a bit dated, but boy is it fun. Hiro and Y.T. (Y.T. in particular) make for great central characters. From the beginning the novel is just so cool. I mean just read this early passage: “The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. He’s got esprit up to here….The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens.” The large Sumerian Linguistics info dump is really the only part of the novel that is isn’t fully immersive and why I put it in this group.
Hyperion- One of my all-time favorites, Hyperion is an science fiction at its very best. Its structure and constant literary references might not make it the most accessible book. Written in the style of Canterbury Tales with elements of Keats and Shakespeare woven in, Hyperion is basically the story of 7 Pilgrims and the journey to the Time Tombs on the planet of Hyperion. Each Pilgrim tells their own tale as to why they are making the journey on their way and each tale is completely unique in style and feel. The stories range from pure intrigue to action packed, to emotionally brutal. The tombs are guarded by a creature called the Shrike who impales his victims on a metal tree. Just an awesome work.
For Level 2, I am looking at very accessible books, for those who have never really gotten into science fiction or fantasy books before. This could be for middle school / high school age kids looking to try Fantasy or Science Fiction out. This could also be for adults who just never have really read the genre or tried to but read a book that just didn’t make them interested. I think there is also some overlap with the previous group. I think Harry Potter or even the Hobbit could easily be books you look to if you are trying to give a new fantasy / science fiction reader something they’ll enjoy and hopefully get more into the genre because of.
Ender’s Game- I chose this first and already have talked about it, mainly because it is the one that hooked me. I still love this book. I’ve memorized whole portions of it from all of the readings I did of the book in my youth. Ender Wiggin was a character I absolutely loved and the supporting characters quickly followed. Even before Ender’s Shadow came out the brief glimpse into Bean’s mind as Ender was graduated from Battle School and Bean given his own Army was just a wonderful bit of writing. Everyone I’ve had read the book that wasn’t big into science fiction has really enjoyed the book, even if it didn’t make them jump full on into science fiction. I personally loved Speaker for the Dead despite it being an entirely different book.
Leviathan Wakes- Two characters, two entirely different styles and stories that come together beautifully at the end. This novel is one event after another with twists and turns and suspense all over the place. I don’t think the follow-up novels lose anything either. Highly accessible, fun science fiction.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy- Light hearted, enjoyable, often laugh out loud funny. I think for certain readers this could be a perfect entry into science fiction. The opening to the novel is an all time classic.
Old Man’s War- This has everything I look for in accessible science fiction. It has a one main protagonist and an accessible, easily understood idea that immediately gets you invested in the story. The idea of older citizens getting basically a new life if they join the military is a great entry for the reader into the wider universe of Old Man’s War. Everything that follows is exciting, military science fiction centered around our protagonist. You are invested in him and his relationships, but you also get plenty of science fiction concepts and ideas to wet your appetite for more.
Red Rising- It’s dystopian science fiction, military science fiction, and a coming of age story. It follows one main character. Its ideas are interesting, it offers moments of true sadness, of excitement and suspense. It almost has an Ender’s Game meets the Hunger Games kind of feel. One of the better very accessible science fiction novels I’ve read in years.
Watership Down- A totally different type of fantasy that maybe does not fit with all the rest here, but I had to mention it. A tale about rabbits leaving their warren as it is being destroyed and searching to find a new life is not a story I ever expected to stick with me, but Watership Down has done just that. This story is very fun, the characters are well fleshed out and the action is great. It offers the kind of world building we want from fantasy that I am sure many will be able to appreciate.
Mistborn- Offers a very detailed magic system, but through the eyes of only a couple of characters. The author really walks you through the world, painting the picture in manageable chunks for you to get what is going on. It’s fun, the characters are engaging, and the Magic System works.
Part 2 of my Level’s of Science Fiction and Fantasy Series
I look at this group of novels as something you would pick up in 4th to 6th grade that could draw you into the fantasy/science fiction universe. When I was in that age group, I read all of the Wrinkle in Time series and loved it. I also read Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Sphere and loved them, but don’t think I was the target and wouldn’t fit them in this group. Despite loving those books, I really didn’t get into other fantasy or science fiction until later. But if you’re trying to build some love of Science Fiction and Fantasy from a young age, these would be some good choices.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone- This seems the obvious choice. It’s the book and series that got so many into reading generally. It has so many great aspects of fantasy: the world building, the layered plot where more and more is revealed as the series goes on, the interesting, fantastical elements. It’s incredibly accessible as the story consistently follows one main character with very few deviations. It’s easy to read but that doesn’t take away from its magic.
The Giver- Few books could get young readers into dystopian science fiction than this highly accessible and well written novel.
The Hunger Games- Deals with some older themes so it’s probably on the edge with level 2, but its writing and structure are simple enough that I think a young reader could really appreciate it. The story is engaging, the characters are interesting, it hits the right emotional notes. The kind of book that can show how fun dystopian science fiction can be.
A Wrinkle in Time- A blend of fantasy and science fiction. I loved this book so much as a child and really enjoyed the follow-up novels (especially A Swiftly Titling Planet). It doesn’t deal with a ton of concepts but I remember how intriguing the idea of the tesseract was to me as someone new to science fiction. I was fascinated by the idea of folding space to travel.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe- I did not fully get into the Narnia novels, but they are incredibly accessible and many love them. I was a big fan of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe on my first reading. Finding that fantasy world within your own home was an exciting proposition.
The Hobbit- Tolkein is the king of fantasy and this is a fun, engaging, less serious story that young readers could certainly enjoy.
The Golden Compass- So much going on in this alternate, magical earth. I think it’s very accessible, but some of the ideas in the last two novels might be difficult for younger readers. Personally I liked The Golden Compass better than the last two in the series and think it is one that could easily get young readers into fantasy.
Redwall- I never actually read this, but it is one that comes to mind based on talking to others I know who loved Fantasy novels.
Another of the great modern Space Opera writers, Martine delivers a fitting and fun conclusion to the Teixcalaan duology. You can tell Martine is having fun with the names, cultures, and world-building. It’s a unique spin, impeccably written, and undeniably fun.
While the first story dealt with the mystery of the previous ambassador’s death and the political intrigue surrounding it, this deals with an outside threat. A mysterious alien species is wreaking havoc and the Teixcalaan Empire must figure out how to deal with it or if they can even communicate with it. The palace intrigue is still there though more on the periphery and playing out in fleet politics. We also get more of the Lsel Station politics and the ramifications to Mahit from her actions in the prior novel.
Desolation certainly lived up to its predecessor and in some ways surpassed it.
Pictured: My tattered copy of Ender’s Game from 8th Grade, read far too many times to count.
This is a concept I came up with a couple of years ago. I have been an avid science fiction reader since my 8th grade English teacher assigned me to read Ender’s Game (still number 5 of my favorite SFF novels ever list). She gave us a week to read the first 5 chapters and I waited until the night before like I always seemed to. I picked up the book at 9:00 p.m. and didn’t put it down until 3:00 a.m. I was absolutely hooked. I could not stop reading. I finished the book that night after school then plowed through Speaker for the Dead soon after. From there I was off, constantly reading science fiction and eventually adding fantasy to the agenda.
There is a lot that drew me to Ender’s Game, but one thing I think back to was how accessible it was. The story essentially followed one character (ignoring brief tangents with Peter and Valentine), the world was revealed to you in a very comprehensive way, the characters were well developed and the plot was interesting. The story worked and it really didn’t make the reader work. For someone relatively new to science fiction it was a perfect entrance. Since then I’ve ready science fiction from Frank Herbert to Dan Simmons to Iain M. Banks. I’ve read accessible classics that are fun and easy to follow and I’ve read great books that make the reader work hard. All are great in their own way.
Now I have a daughter and son who one day I would love to introduce to the great world of science fiction and fantasy reading. I want them to find what Ender’s Game was for me. I hope that would eventually lead them to some of the more ambitious reading endeavors finding enjoyment in those as well. Basically, the levels of Science Fiction and Fantasy deal with accessibility. The more accessible books aren’t lesser just like the books that make you work harder aren’t necessarily better. They are their own thing. I have a great appreciation of books that I would classify at various levels of accessibility and my personal favorites span those groups.
In the next couple of weeks I’ll unvale my Five Levels of Science Fiction and Fantasy based on accessibility. I feel like starting someone in fantasy and science fiction with the novels that make you work hardest could turn them off from the genre. I think having the experience in the genre makes you better appreciate the books that make you work without losing the appreciation from some of the other novels. I wouldn’t tell someone new to fantasy to pick up Gardens of the Moon but would certainly recommend The Hobbit as a starting point.
I don’t want to include every book in this either. I want to pick out the books that would draw people into the genre that would really make them want to read more. Likewise, for those who have been drawn in I want to choose the high-level books that you’d recommend for someone looking for a little more. I also am only including the first book if it is a continuous meant to be read in order series but may include stand-alone books set in the same universe as earlier written books. I hope others will help me further develop this idea.