When I’m looking for a book for pure enjoyment my three favorites sub-genres are military science fiction, space opera, and urban fantasy.1 I also really, really enjoy long series. So, grouped by a subgenre, here are some of my favorite ongoing series that you should check out if you haven’t yet.
- Military Science Fiction: Frontlines Series by Marko Kloos
- Space Opera: The Expanse by James S. A. Corey
- Urban Fantasy: Fred the Vampire Accountant Series by Drew Hayes
Military Science Fiction
Frontlines (Marko Kloos)
According to his website, Marko Kloos is a “purveyor of space kablooie stories,” and that’s as good a descriptor as any I could think of! As of 2016, his Frontlines series consists of Terms of Enlistment, Lines of Departure, Angles of Attack, and Chains of Command. The next book–Fields of Fire–is due out in February 2017.
The first book in the series (Terms of Enlistment) is an absolutely conventional military sci fi tale: you start out with a down-on-his-luck underdog who joins the military as his only ticket out of a dead-end future and then follow him through boot camp scenes that are as compulsory for the reader as they are for the character. Don’t get me wrong, this plot line is conventional because it works when it’s done well, and Kloos does it well. The action heats up considerably in the second book (Lines of Departure), which is my favorite in the series so far. What I like the most about the Frontlines novels is that Kloos mixes fun and absorbing action with just enough political intrigue and thematic seriousness to be fully engrossing. Instead of losing interest in a parade of cartoon action sequences (which happens with a lot of mil-sf), Kloos’s keeps his characters’ attention riveted to the political and moral stakes of their conflict, and that in turn draws the reader in.
The third book (Angles of Attack) wasn’t the strongest, but Kloos picked a really interesting tangent for the fourth book (Chains of Command) and it restored my faith in the series. Getting a first novel published is hard. It feels–as a reader–that some authors invest so much in getting over that hurdle that when they go to write their follow ups there’s not much gas left in the tank.2 The choices Kloos made with his fourth book showed me that he has the potential to really go the distance. He got his characters and his war both out of their respective ruts, and made me excited for Fields of Fire, which I will absolutely pick up as soon as it’s out.
I also noticed, as I was looking up all the titles of these books again, that there’s also a couple of short stories and a comic book series that I haven’t checked out yet. The short stories, which I believe take places between books #2 and #3 are Lucky Thirteen and Measures of Absolution. The comic book series is called Frontlines: Requiem. I haven’t had a chance to check these out yet, but they do look interesting.
I listened to all of the books on Audible,3 but I just noticed that they’re all free on the Kindle Unlimited program, so if you have access to that check them out that way. In any case: if space kablooie piques your interest, you should check Kloos’s Frontlines series out for sure!
The Expanse (James S. A. Corey)
There are 5 books out already in this series, and they loosely break into two sections. First, there’s an initial trilogy of Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate. Next, there’s a series that includes Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games (so far) with Babylon’s Ashes due out in December 2016, Persepolis Rising in 2017, and two more untitled books in 2018 and 2019.
The series is what I like to call Space Opera 2.0, but that’s my own term and I don’t know if anyone else uses it. What I mean is that it takes the feel of space opera (large cast of characters, large scale conflicts over vast territories) and–by ditching FTL travel and communication and sticking with a harder-edged, near-future sci-fi–locates all of that action within just the Solar System. Because the Solar System is actually a pretty big place. In The Expanse, for example, you’ve got the majority of humankind still living on Earth, but Mars is a rising power, and on top of that you have the Belters (who lived in the asteroid belt) along with settlements around Saturn and Jupiter. Without FTL communication and travel these places are very, very far apart and without other magic sci-fi (like artificial gravity) they are also very, very distinct. Despite various compensating medical technologies, the Belters can never really acclimate to life on Earth under a full gravity, for example, because they are born and raised in low- and micro-gravity environments. So you get a wide variety of cultures, factions, attitudes, and distinct locales even though the entire story takes place within the Solar System.4
The first three books were a little unsteady. The characterization is a bit extreme and even cartoonish at times. James Holden–one of the main characters–is defined by his obsession with transparency. A lot of the interplanetary action and intrigue is fueled by his stubborn insistence on broadcasting every secret he gets his hands on to the entire Solar System, and damn the consequences. Joe Miller–a private detective from Ceres station in the Belt–becomes weirdly obsessed with a missing person report and gives up his life and career and home to track her down out of an awkwardly undefined mixture of romantic attraction and fatherly concern.5 Despite the awkward characterization, I was drawn in by the incredibly detailed and interesting world-building, and also because several of the supporting characters were way, way cooler than the two protagonists: Fred Johnson and Chrisjen Avasarala at the top of the list.6 Still, the first trilogy is there for a reason and it does its job: at the end there’s an even cooler setting than the one you start out with, and it’s ready for more stories.
And that’s when things really pick up. Starting with the fourth book, Cibola Burn, the problems with Jim Holden and Joe Miller are really mitigated. They’ve both changed a lot, and their personalities are way less two-dimensional and cartoonish and much more interesting and relatable. Even more, however, the supporting cast gets more and more emphasis and they easily carry that weight. Basically all of the B-list characters are better than Jim and Joe, not only Fred Johnson and Chrisjen Avasarala, but the rest of Jim’s crew (Naomi Nagata with her mysterious past, Amos Burton as the lovably sociopathic muscle, and Alex Kamal as the damaged genius pilot7) along with Chrisjen’s confidante / trouble shooter Boobie Draper (formerly of the Martian 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.). I’m tell you: you will love these characters.
The fifth book is the best of the series in terms of writing. In Nemesis Games, the crew of the Rocinante (that’s Jim’s ship) part ways during a peaceful time and each go to have their own adventure. The resulting character development is by far the best in the series, and each character really gets fully fleshed out in awesome ways. The only problem is that the book lacks a cohesive plot, although–just as with the first three books in the series–this is probably more than worth the cost of admission given the huge reveal at the end of the book. I cannot wait for Babylon’s Ashes.
As an aside: the names of these books are kind of crazy. Some of the poetically descriptive titles are plain enough: Leviathan Wakes does indeed feature a leviathan of sorts waking up and Nemesis Games is indeed about the schemes of old enemies and rivals. Others–like Abaddon’s Gate or Cibola Burn–are so obscure that they’re impenetrable without a quick trip to Wikipedia. I still haven’t figured out what Caliban’s War is all about.
Based on how strong books #4 and #5 are–and the important roles books #1-3 play in setting that up–I’m going to go ahead and recommend that you get these books and start reading them. Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank (the actual writers behind the pen name James S. A. Corey) are writing something big, and I love large-scale.
There’s also a SyFy adaptation. I’m not sure how popular it is, because I believe that the story would be hard to follow without having read the books first. Having read the story first, however, I’m a huge fan of the show. I really love the time and expense they put into the weightless effects in the opening scene (even if that’s the only time in the movie where they go to such great measures) and little touches like showing the Coriolis effect when Joe Miller pours a drink on Ceres make my hard sci-fi heart warm. The series also gives more screen time to the supporting cast right from the get-go, including small scenes that aren’t in the books but that help flesh out the best characters in the series.
However well the first season did, it was good enough for a second season (in 2017).
In addition to the TV series and the novels, there are also shorter works which I haven’t read yet. There are three novellas you can buy from Amazon:
There is also a pair of short stories–“Drive” and “The Butcher of Anderson Station”–which I’m not sure where to find.
I hope to catch up on the novellas soon, and I definitely recommend this series to anyone who likes hard sci-fi, military sci-fi, or space opera.
Fred, the Vampire Accountant (Drew Hayes)
I don’t remember what prompted me to pick up The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant back in October 2015, but I’m so glad that I did. After military sci fi, urban fantasy8 is my favorite guilty literary pleasure.
The first book in the series feels a bit like a proof of concept, and as I read I wasn’t sure if it was really going to work. There’s a fine line between a throw-away genre spoof and a humorous book that can stand on its own merits, and at first I wasn’t sure which side of the line Drew Hayes’ novel was going to end up on. But then I read a specific passage that convinced me this series had the potential to really go places. In the passage Crystal (who is the urban fantasy equivalent of Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black) is explaining the role of paranormal Americans to Fred (who really is both a vampire and an accountant) and Albert (a recently reanimated zombie who is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree). So here we go:
“It was a good deal all around. The supernatural creatures wanted a country where they had rights as citizens, and the founders of the country needed some way to drive back the superior numbers and might of the English.”
“Are you telling me that vampires and werewolves are the reason America won the Revolutionary War?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“No, I’m saying America somehow managed to pull it out, thanks to the French,” Crystal scoffed.
There was a beat of silence, then Albert said, “You know, when you think about it, her version makes a lot more sense.”
Like any red-blooded American, I find jokes at the expense of French military prowess hilarious, but what this revealed to me was that Hayes really had enough interesting ideas to flesh this setting out and make it a suitable home for some really interesting characters.
Over a year went by, and–in the middle of slogging through the Death’s End–I decided that I needed a break and checked to see if Hayes had written any sequels. As it turns out, he had! I grabbed Undeath & Taxes and learned that–sure enough–Hayes had started to build something special out of his proof of concept. Undeath & Taxes is a series of sequential short stories that take the characters assembled by the end of the first book out for a variety of adventures. The stories are fun, humorous, and interesting. The one drawback is that the book feels more like a disc with a few episodes from the middle of a television show series than a novel. But it proves that Fred isn’t just a one-hit wonder. And then Hayes proved that again with the third book, Bloody Acquisitions. The third book is the strongest in the series, keeping the episodic format but this time synthesizing all the stories into a cohesive narrative arc. Instead of just getting a few episodes of a show, you’re actually getting a complete season.
I can’t resist contrasting Fred the Vampire Accountant with Harry Dresden. For many years, I’ve been a huge, huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. I don’t know how many times I’ve read the books, but for some of the earlier ones it’s probably approaching 10 read-throughs. After 15 books, however, the series has changed a lot, and not always for the better. The most important part of the Dresden Files (for me) was always Harry’s relationship to his friends and family, but the more Jim Butcher has had to up the stakes for Harry’s personal narrative of battling against his inner domens, the more isolated Harry becomes. Then there’s the simple fact that there are more characters to keep track of (he has two daughters at this point) and the fact that some of the characters who have been around the longest have “leveled up” (Molly Carpenter has gone from his best friend’s young daughter to a Queen of the Fae) or aged out (Molly Carpenter’s father, Michael, has passed on his sword to a new Knight of the Cross), and much of what made me fall in love with the series is starting to get drowned out by the inertia of 15 novels’ worth of magical mayhem. Not only is it possible Butcher has bitten off more than he can chew9 or more than he wants to chew10, but for me the weaknesses of the series that have always been there are starting to get harder to ignore.11
For me, Hayes’ series addresses all the problems in the Dresden Files. Part of the problems with the Dresden Files are that the books take themselves very, very seriously. Harry has saved the world several times over, and the constant scope creep is getting out of control. Drew Hayes is not only starting the game with much more manageable stakes, but his character is lovably modest in his ambitions. Fred doesn’t want to be a hero. He doesn’t want to save the world. All he wants to do is offer excellent customer service to his accounting clients, spend time with his girlfriend, and keep his friends close. The series is not only a lot more lighthearted and fun (not to mention free of explicit sex and vulgarity, which are things that do matter to me), but at this point it’s actually doing a much better job of exactly what drew me to the Dresden Files in the first place: celebrating the values of friendship and loyalty in the context of funny and adventurous magical mishaps.
If that sounds like your thing12, then I strongly encourage you to pick up these novels (or audiobooks!) and join Fred, Crystal, and all their friends as they solve paranormal tax dilemmas and try to avoid getting killed by overzealous vampire hunters or overambitious werewolf clans.
So, when is the next one coming out? I have no idea. According to Drew Hayes’ website, however, there will be another one at some point, but it’s not far enough along in development to have an announced title or release date or anything like that. Oh well. If it’s as good as the first three, it’s definitely going to be worth waiting a year or two for!
— Last Updated: 3-December-2016 —