Yesterday I geeked out about my literary Guilty Pleasures. Today I want to speak out about some books I don’t feel even vaguely guilty about liking! Most of them are still fun escapism, but they’re books that I think are particularly well done.
I love George RR Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Jacqueline Carey, Robin Hobb, Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, Jasper Fforde, JK Rowling, Gail Carson Levine—basically, a lot of the usual books that most people seem to be reading. No need to talk about those—they’re covered in detail lots of other places. (If any of those names are new to you, I think they’re all well worth looking up.) But I want to share a few books/series that I’ve discovered that I think more people ought to try out. Maybe you’ll find something new to add to your book list!
The Katie Chandler series, starting with Enchanted, Inc., by Shanna Swendson. Series complete (4 books).
I borrowed the first book on a whim (I don’t like our local public library much, so I use booksfree.com—a subscription book-lending mail service) and I loved it. The premise is that a young professional in NYC in a miserable job suddenly learns that magic is real and her world gets turned upside down. It’s cute, light, romantic, and funny without being cloying.
I recommended it to two very different friends. One said that if she’d ever gotten around to writing a book, it would have been this one. She promptly bought all 4 in the series and devoured them. The other (who has a book review blog you can find here) had just finished A Dance With Dragons, which she loved in the way that prevents you from starting other books that are even vaguely similar. She called Enchanted, Inc. the “palate cleanser” she needed.
This is a fantastic series for summer, times of high stress, or any time you need your book to be a true escape. Although the plots of all but the third book stand alone pretty well, you’ll want to read these in order because together they create one major story arc.
The Sentinel Wars, starting with Burning Alive, by Shannon Butcher. Series ongoing (5 books and counting).
Full disclosure: I know Shannon personally and, although she and Jim (yes, that Jim Butcher) have moved far away and we never get to see them anymore, I still keep in touch with her occasionally.
Shannon has turned into a prolific writer—mostly fun, thrilling, and often supernatural romances. Normally, I’d group these books happily into “guilty pleasures.” The Sentinel Wars series, however, stands apart from most romance books, at least in my somewhat limited experience. Each individual book has most of the things you expect from a romantic thriller—they each focus primarily on one couple who you can tell from page one ought to be together. Things get in the way, but eventually they overcome the romantic obstacles, there’s some very hot sex, they overcome the plot obstacles, and the book ends.
The world of the Sentinel Wars, though, is fascinating and it’s revealed in bits and pieces throughout the novels. The Sentinels are three races that have to work together to protect our world from evil (it’s more complicated than that, but I can’t get into it without giving spoilers!). At the point where the novels begin, this protection is crumbling for a variety of reasons. The Theronai (all beautiful, buff, warrior guys, natch) have to find the women of their bloodline who have been raised in the normal human world—completely unaware of the Sentinels or the roles they’re destined to play—or the protective walls will fall and the world as we know it will be taken over by evil creatures who prey on humans. The first few novels focus primarily on individual couples, but as the series progresses you start seeing more points of view than the romantic leads, which allows the mythos of the world to really develop.
You probably don’t have to read these in order (especially the first few), but you’d miss some of the fun of watching things evolve and revisiting characters that were leads in previous books.
Note: I’d love to see this turned into a game world, although it offers some unique design challenges. If someone’s looking for a challenge and has ideas of how to incorporate the tropes of romance novels into a game, though, please let me know! I’d be happy to geek about it.
The Parasol Protectorate, starting with Soulless, by Gail Carriger. Series ongoing (4 books and counting).
I love costume dramas and comedies of manners. I’m a sucker for clever writing. I thoroughly enjoyed Soulless (the only one I’ve had time to read so far) and the rest of the series is in my Booksfree queue.
These books take place in a steampunk Victorian London where vampires, werewolves, and ghosts are a typical part of society. There’s plenty of romance and adventure, critiqued with the snark you’d expect from Jane Austen’s Emma. Attempted murder and being seen in public in a hideous hat or a poorly tied cravat are sins of equal weight. If you’re going to attack someone, at least have the decency to properly introduce yourself first.
Our heroine is clever, resourceful, and amusing. She has a scientific and curious mind, which brings a certain amount of humor to the romantic scenes. Overall, I found Soulless to be a delightful diversion, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
The Catherine LeVendeur Mysteries, starting with Death Comes as Epiphany, by Sharan Newman. Series ongoing (10 books and counting).
I love a good mystery, historical novels, romances, and strong female characters. This series has all of those. Sharan Newman has done exhaustive research, so her world of 12th century France feels real enough to me. She ties in historical characters and lots of details of daily life. Many cultural issues—religious conflicts, gender roles, class conflict—all play a role in the plots without being overbearing. I don’t know if knowing more about this time would make me enjoy this series more or less—I suppose I’d either be delighted by recognizing all the details she throws in or I would be all too aware of where she gets it wrong—but I found the series both informative and diverting.
You probably want to read the first book first, but after that I don’t think the order matters as much. There are revelations about Catherine’s family and the world around her that make reading them in order a bit preferable, but in general they stand on their own pretty well.
The Sundering: Banewreaker and Godslayer, by Jacqueline Carey. Series complete (2 books).
These two books are quite unlike the others in this list. If you’ve read Jacqueline Carey’s best selling Kushiel series, these are nothing at all like those, either.
I found The Sundering absolutely fascinating, though—it’s a classic high fantasy story we’ve all read (think Tolkien), but it’s told from multiple points of view so that nothing is simple, including “good” and “evil.” I really enjoyed these novels and found them very thought provoking. They’re dense—definitely not escapism—but I found them well worth the effort.
I’ve read accusations that these books are derivative, but that’s missing the point. You already know how the story has to turn out because you’ve read it and seen it many times. But I was surprised by how much I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted things to turn out that way, because we’re seeing things from the point of view of the “bad guys.” I had mixed feelings as we moved inexorably toward the ending.
Even though the “bad guys” are the main protagonists of the story, Carey doesn’t back away from their evil deeds, nor does she make them have amazing transformations where they suddenly realize the error of their ways. You just have an understanding of why they do what they do, and you’re not convinced they’re wrong. And her “good” characters aren’t horrible people pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, either. They are good people—they just don’t see the whole picture as they try to decide what they have to do. And even if they did, they might still make the same choices, because a true and meaningful choice is, by its nature, not easy to make.
I didn’t get involved with the characters in these books the way I usually do in my favorite novels, but I found myself really thinking about the story she was telling and how it related to others stories I know so well—it really appealed to the story geek in me. These books are almost more a thought exercise than a couple of novels, although I don’t mean that to sound as dismissive as it might. These books, more than any others, made me wish I had a book club so I could talk about them with other people who’d read them!
Definitely read these in order. It’s basically one huge book split into two.
What books or authors do you think more people ought to know about? I’m always looking for good books to add to my queue! If it’s a series, I’d be grateful if you’d mention the title of the first book or a good book to get started with. And if you want to discuss any of the books mentioned here, I’d be happy to do that as well!