I would be the first to admit that my taste in fiction is lowbrow. It’s the fairly classic nerd pattern of mostly reading genre fiction – it used to be mostly sci-fi, these days it’s mostly fantasy (I’d like to read more sci-fi, I just don’t often find new sci-fi authors I actually like these days).
But there are still a lot of really good works within those genres, and I try to make sure I read those. e.g. I strongly recommend everything from Among Others onwards (I’m not such a fan of her early work) by Jo Walton because I think she’s genuinely an incredible writer.
If you look at past book recommendations you might get the impression that that’s most of what I read. This is, uh, not the case. I have a Kindle Unlimited subscription for a reason, and that reason is not that there are a lot of hidden gems lurking in Kindle Unlimited.
So here’s a collection from the other side of my reading list: Stuff that is a lot of fun but that I would be hesitant to call good, or that I have to apply some serious caveats before recommending. Many of these are in some significant way Problematic.
(Side note: There’s an interesting gender reversal that I don’t entirely understand – most of the books I read that I think are actually good are by women, and my normal recommendation lists reflect that, but most of the books on this list are by men. I don’t really know why this is, though I have some hypotheses that I won’t go into here).
Apologies to any authors who feel slighted by their inclusion on this list. I really do enjoy your work.
Would you like to read literally dozens of books with a variety of interesting, well-developed, characters from a large cross range of genders and sexualities, with a decent (if not amazingly well handled) range of races and cultural backgrounds? The characters are enjoyable, the world-building is top notch, the plots are engaging, and the books are generally a huge amount of fun.
You would? Great. Oh by the way it’s basically porn. And not especially good porn.
Niall Teasdale is a frustrating author for me in this regard because all of the above is true. I really do enjoy most of what he writes, but there is a very specific pattern where the protagonist is literally always a bisexual (often originally straight but made bisexual through magic and/or science) woman who has a great deal of sex which he describes in detail. If that’s either your thing (remembering that it’s written by a presumably-straight guy) or you are able to overlook it, his work is a lot of fun.
Mother of Learning
Mother of Learning is about a pair of wizards caught in a month-long groundhog day loop.
It’s pretty well written, but violates my rule against reading wizard school books (wizard school is a lazy excuse for infodumping) and my preference against extended battle scenes (lazy filler to make up the word count without having to include actual plot). Also a lot of the appeal is basically watching the endless grind of power up.
On the other hand it has an adorable giant spider named Enthusiastic Seeker of Novelty, so it has that going for it.
It has a fairly major tone shift midway through, and I kinda liked the early half better but I’m still enjoying it.
With This Ring
With This Ring is a self-insert fixfic where the protagonist gets stuck in the Young Justice universe (DC animated series. Highly recommend the series regardless of whether you read this) with an orange power ring. For those not familiar with the DC cosmology, orange is the light of avarice. His ring gives him power to achieve his goals directly in proportion to how much he wants those things, with the unfortunate side effect that he has to constantly work to not be overwhelmed by greed.
He sets about trying to address the question of “If you all have this amazing tech, why are you using it to fight bad guys instead of fixing the world?” among other things. One of this first uses of the orange power ring is to go about fixing the great pacific garbage patch, and at some point he starts using freeze ray technology to start repairing the polar ice caps.
Most people I’ve recommended it to do not like it. There are a lot of problems with it e.g. the author’s politics are somewhat objectionable in places and it shows through in the fiction, and the protagonist becomes increasingly hard to relate to in fairly disturbing ways as the story goes on.
I think some of the appeal for me is definitely the daily updates. It turns out that I’m willing to overlook a lot of flaws for daily updates. Beyond that, I enjoy the fix-fic aspects of it quite a lot – both the attempt to give the DC universe a semi-coherent cosmology and also the fantasy of using super powers to actually try to fix the world.
Worth the Candle
Have you encountered the genre of LitRPG? If not, I recommend this piece about it.
The short version is that LitRPG is a genre of fiction in which game mechanics play an explicit role. Characters actually have levels and gain XP and are aware of it in world. Often, but not always, LitRPG is also portal fantasy – the protagonist has found himself (gendering intentional – LitRPG is overwhelmingly male) transported into a world that is somehow also a game. Often but not always it ends up with a harem fantasy on the side. What you are imagining about both the target audience and the typical authors right now is unkind but probably not unfair.
Most LitRPG is unreadable trash, but occasionally LitRPG is readable trash.
Worth the Candle is the only one I’ve encountered that I would say is actually pretty good. The protagonist is a rather bitter teenager who finds himself in a world that has a disturbing resemblance to a lot of the D&D campaigns he has run, including some of the darkest aspects of it that he wrote when he was going through a rather bad point in his life.
I don’t know how much you will get out of this if you haven’t had some prior exposure to LitRPG as some aspects of it are explicitly deconstructions, but I think the story stands on its own.
If you want examples of LitRPG in its raw undiluted form, I can “recommend” The Arcane Emperor (which is terrible, but I somehow still read 80ish chapters of before giving up on). There’s also “My Trans-Dimensional, Overpowered Protagonist, Harem Comedy is Wrong, as Expected“, which is a rather strange instance of the genre (it’s an insert of a character from one Japanese light novel into another, with a LitRPGish overlay) but is rather better written (but I also eventually got bored of it).
The Laboratory: A Futuristic Dungeon Core
OK, we’ve covered LitRPG. Now lets talk about Dungeon Core.
What is Dungeon Core? Well Dungeon Core is kinda the dual to LitRPG (or a lot of classic fantasy) – instead of the protagonist being the hero, the protagonist is the dungeon that the heroes face.
This isn’t a metaphor. The protagonist is literally the dungeon.
In “The Laboratory”, the protagonist is very clearly GlaDoS inspired. She is an AI named Emma who has been awakened after some sort of apocalypse by Anna, the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Goddamn World” (starting assets: Emma. Her dominion is something of a work in progress). The world is full of upgrade crystals, which can be used to give people powers. Emma has a tech tree, and can see people’s stats, etc. So in this case it’s also somewhat LitRPG (there’s a large overlap between the two genres but neither is strictly a subset of the other).
One caveat: Emma is designed with the built-in flaw that she basically insults people constantly, and this takes the form of a lot of body-shaming (and slut-shaming, and virgin-shaming, and…). It’s kinda a meta-joke that she does this to everyone, regardless of whether the insults really fit, but it’s still there. If that would ruin your enjoyment of the story, best avoid, because it’s pretty much a constant feature. There is also quite a lot of graphic and casual violence.
Ancient Dreams by Benjamin Medrano
This is another dungeon core series (though not explicitly labelled as such).
To quote the description “This is a dark fantasy lesbian romance, with a focus on the dark fantasy”. I would like to note that it is a lesbian romance written by a guy and has all the male gaze aspects you would expect from that. Also the author is very clearly exploring a rather specific fetish around mind control while trying to make it clear that he understands that obviously this is a bad thing to do and consent is important, and goes to some lengths to square that particular circle.
But, you know, the fantasy aspects of it are actually pretty good. Decent world-building, interesting characters (if a bit obviously specifically crafted to fit the specific thing the author is going for), and a plot that properly engages with the way evil can become built into society (while still maintaining the fantasy classic of having a villain who you can just stab hard enough as step one of fixing everything).
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Harry Dresden
Hey do you like The Dresden Files? Would you like to read more of that?
In which case I can recommend The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne and the Pax Arcana books by Elliott James.
I mean, plotwise they’re not carbon copies of the Dresden Files or anything. They have interestingly distinct masquerade worlds with interestingly distinct white male protagonists who make interestingly distinct pop culture references with their interestingly distinct wise-cracking sidekicks and have dysfunctional love lives for interestingly distinct reasons while saving the world from interestingly distinct enemies loosely adapted from western mythology. Um. Yeah.
I can also recommend the Kate Daniels books by Illona Andrews in this space, though I like them more and feel a little bad about including them on a trashy fiction list.
The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Magic by Helen Harper
Ivy Wilde is actually extremely talented at magic, but she hopes you won’t notice because then you might expect her to actually do some work.
Unfortunately someone noticed (more or less by accident), and now she’s had to give up her nice easy job driving a taxi and has to solve crimes and stuff. Oh well at least she got herself a hot boyfriend in the deal.
These are a lot of fun.
Chronicles of Elantra by Michelle Sagara
Unsure whether to include these on the list. It’s a bit unfair labelling them trashy, but on the other hand they’re also not really high fiction that would otherwise make it on to the list. They’re a kind of comfort food reading almost.
Kaylin Neya really wants nothing more than to be a Hawk (basically a cop). Unfortunately she’s been marked as Chosen (yes that’s literally her title) which gives her all sorts of power and absolutely no clue how to use it. This results in a great deal of sarcasm from the various immortals she has to deal with – mostly Dragons (who are mostly human shaped until things get a bit too real) and Barrani (who are definitely not elves. Nope nope nope), but the occasional god-like entity occasionally makes an appearance too. Her greatest fears include that her anthropomorphic cat sergeant will one day tear out her throat for being late for the Nth time (he probably won’t. He likes her really) and that at some point she will have to interact with the dragon emperor in an official capacity and he will be forced to eat her for her complete lack of social graces. The greatest fear of those around her is that at some point her unbroken string of saving the world every other week is going to fail.
Bobiverse Series by Dennis E. Taylor
Bob Johansson is a fairly stereotypical nerd type character who happened to found a successful startup company. Then he gets hit by a truck.
That’s the bad news. The good news that he signed up for a cryogenics program, and now the religious fundamentalist successor state to the united states has resurrected him and wants to turn him into a Von Neumann probe. It’s a very qualified sense of “good”. Fortunately he is able to figure out a way around the blocks they put on his behaviour, and sets out to explore the universe.
Will Wight writes books about protagonists powering up through constant training. There’s a lot of fighting involved.
Cradle is very explicitly a Xianxia inspired series (to borrow the author’s description Xianxia is “Basically? It’s magical martial arts. Even cooler than it sounds, if that’s possible.”). The protagonist starts out very underpowered but due to plot discovers that if nothing is done to stop it his home will be destroyed in a few decades, and he decides that it’s on him to stop it, and sets out to level up hard and fast as possible through sheer bloody mindedness.
(Despite the “level up” description, Xianxia is not LitRPG. There are however a lot of parallels – people are given levels like Copper, Iron, Jade, Gold, and have distinct paths they follow, attributes they gain from them, etc. There are no XP though).
Traveller’s Gate is another series by him which is basically… it’s not the same, but it’s not the same in the same sense that he Iron Druid chronicles are totally different from the Dresden Files books, or that this ass-kicking bisexual robot protagonist by Niall Teasdale is a totally different person from the other ass-kicking bisexual robot protagonist by Niall Teasdale. The protagonist’s father was killed and his mother left traumatised by Travellers (this isn’t actually coded anti-Roma racism. A Traveller in this context is basically a mage – they can create gates to other realms and also gain powers associated with their associated realm). He sets out to avenge himself by acquiring a really big sword and lots of cool powers.
The Dire Saga by Andrew Seiple
Doctor Dire is a Doctor Doom expy. She speaks in all caps (described as “a metallic shrieking voice”), she refers to herself in the third person (not by choice. It’s a problem with her brain) and she has cool metal power armour.
Is she a villain? Well, yes, technically. She codes scary so people assumed she was a villain from the get go, and besides: Heroes are mostly about preserving the status quo. If she were a hero she’d get in trouble for doing things like overthrowing the oppressive dictator of a country and installing herself as its rightful ruler.
OK she still gets in trouble for it, but at least she pulled it off first.
She is a colossal ham, but does so deliberately. adopting Kayfabe as a battle strategy – in a debate you are not actually trying to beat your opponent, you’re trying to win over the audience. A fight is just a debate with more punching and high explosives, so you might as well make a spectacle of it.
Notable achievements include punching Hitler and introducing Dungeons and Dragons to the damned in Hell.
Starship’s Mage by Glynn Stewart
Another one that is borderline unfair to include on the “trashy” list. These are actually pretty good, although they are still solidly in nerd power fantasy territory.
These are set in a world where faster than light travel is accomplished entirely by mages (who are mostly descended from genetic engineering experiments performed on Mars a century or two back) casting teleport spells. There’s plenty of high tech in the world – fusion reactors, computers, anti-matter (produced by mages using transmutation spells for the most part), etc. It’s just that there are also wizards and they are able to consider certain laws of physics to be somewhat optional.
Damien Montgomery is such a mage. He’s a bit underpowered compared to his peers (in ways that will change over the course of the series…), so he isn’t able to find himself the berth he wants on a starship until a ship arrives that is slightly desperate for a replacement jump mage. It turns out he should probably have asked more about why they were desperate, and hijinks ensue.
Also has a parallel series “Red Falcon”. I like it, but am looking forward more to books in the main series (which has some emerging mysteries that I would like to see the answers to).
Glynn Stewart has a number of other series. The only one of them I’ve read is the Castle Federation series, which is perfectly passable military sci-fi but nothing to write home about.
It turns out I read a lot of kindle unlimited, and that going through the list I actually just don’t remember reading most of these books. Some of them are ones that I probably got, read for ten minutes, and then went “Nah” to, but there are ones where I’ve clearly read an entire series but have almost no memory. Fortunately, I think that probably disqualifies them from the list criterion of being fun enough to recommend.
I’m also more than happy to accept recommendations, either in the comments here or on Twitter as you prefer.