Series That Got Better
This is my first attempt at a group themed post, so here goes. Mostly I picked it because I had a particular series I’d been wanting to talk about for ages.
Top 5 Wednesday was created by Booktuber Gingerreadslainey, and the guidelines can be found on the Top 5 Wednesday GoodReads group.
1. Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott
This series is very important to me as a fantasy reader. Before I discovered it, I’d read the likes of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series, and some other epic fantasy, but Crown of Stars was the first series I ever read where each book got better than the one before (and it’s seven books long), where the planning and research that went into these books showed with every plot twist, and where the series came to a satisfying and logical conclusion. It was, in short, the series that made me realize that long fantasy series can get better. They don’t have to start out with a cool idea and then just sort of peter out with more and more tenuous plot strings.
This series follows the stories of Liath, an orphan trying to discover her own history, Sanglant, mixed race son of the king trying to prove his worth, and a host of secondary characters representing the various kingdoms and races in conflict within this series. The main drivers of the world are a monarchy reminiscent of the medieval monarchies of Europe (with corresponding technology and trade), a religion reminiscent of early Christianity, and overtones of imperialism and superstition that make these somewhat primitive nation states aggressive and riddled with domestic issues.
The thing that makes this series so great (and pretty much any series Elliott has written) is that she doesn’t lay all the major conceits and awesome ideas on the table in the first book. She doles them out slowly for the reader to discover one at a time and add to their shiny collection of ideas and curiosities, to ponder over even while the drama of the story unfolds. Also, Elliott is great at writing characters and subverting well-known fantasy tropes.
2. Eternal Sky, by Elizabeth Bear
Bear has written a lot of series, in a lot of subgenres of both fantasy and science fiction, so it’s no wonder, really, that her most recent trilogy should be her most successful. In this story of an alternate universe where the stars and sky change depending upon which empire rules–and therefore which belief system rules–Temur, grandson of the Khan, who ruled the nomadic tribes of what could be Central Asia, and Samarkar, once-princess and now wizard of the Rasan Empire, must work together to stop a powerful sorcerer and his cult of death who wish to bring about the return of a god long thought destroyed and change the sky forever. It’s a broadly sweeping story that gallops along like the horses so prized in Temur’s culture, that remixes the mythologies of various ages and cultures into something like them, but not.
I have to admit a lot of my enjoyment of this series comes from nostalgia over the year I spent in Central Asia, and how much reading these books reminded me of the endless steppes and towering mountain ranges, and of the feeling that the sky really could go on forever.
3. Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde
This series isn’t actually finished–book 2, Cloudbound, just came out last fall–but it is such an adventurous and unique series that I had to include it. The first book, Updraft, follows Kirit as she attempts to find her place in the sky-bound world of bone towers and rope bridges that make up the City. In doing so, though, she make shake the foundations of everything her people hold dear.
Cloudbound takes place in the aftermath of Kirit’s discoveries, with citizens attempting to rebuild and look higher, always higher, but it becomes more and more apparent to Kirit and her friend Naton that they must look down, backwards, into the history that made their civilization. This book took such a hard left turn at the end that I didn’t know quite what to think, but it reminded me of the Golden Age science fiction that so many people seem to be nostalgic about, the sense of wonder those authors had at the ability to create whole new worlds and universes, that I can’t help but include it in this list and look forward to the third and final installment of this trilogy.
4. Inheritance, by N.K. Jemisin
This series follows a world, and a pantheon of gods, more closely than it does a particular group of characters, which I think is a large part of why I liked it so much and why it improves with each book. It’s a story that doesn’t stagnate, that doesn’t get bogged down in details or how characters continue to navigate in a world of fixed rules or magic or belief. The first book follows Yeine and the ways in which she comes to terms with the gods who have made the world what it is, and, perhaps, subvert a system that has been dying under its own weight for generations.
The next book, though, barely remembers Yeine, and is instead the story of Oree, and artist who has come to live in Shadow, beneath the great city of Sky, in the shadow of the world tree that grew as a result of Yeine’s actions in the previous book. Oree has her own encounters with the gods, must come to terms with the ways in which the world has changed since Yeine’s time, and what it means for her. And finally, book 3, The Kingdom of Gods, is told from the point of view of one of those gods, returning to the royal city of Sky and the family that held onto power there for so long. Again, this series is about moving forward by accepting the past, and Jemisin’s imagination and reinterpretation of creation mythology is top notch.
5. Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
For m last series I’m going to a hard science fiction trilogy that’s also written by possibly my favorite male sf author. This series gets better, I think, because of Reynold’s ability to imagine such far futures, when huge ships traveling close to the speed of light almost create separate timelines and humans and aliens alike modify their bodies in order to cope with the rigors of deep freeze and changes in gravity that come with long duration space journeys. The story, again, is not told from one perspective through all three books, or in a completely chronological progression. Instead, it is just as much mystery as it is space opera, and the reader collects the pieces of how an ancient alien culture was annihilated almost instantly, and whether it could happen again. I like that Reynold’s doesn’t agonize over the question of whether aliens could exist and dither over first contact stories, but gets down to the business of crafting a story around people the reader can identify with, and setting up the possibility-laden concepts of aliens so completely different from everything we know that every discovery is not just a curiosity, but a revelation.
I’m also including this series because Reynolds is a writer I’ve followed for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed watching him consistently improve as a writer with each new novel, each new series. I don’t read a lot of men, but I’ll always check out whatever he comes up with.