Hello readers! Welcome back! Though you may notice something a little different in the title today.
There have been a few times in the past when I’ve done Being a Better Writer posts that are jokingly titled Being a Better Reader, though not without reason, as each of them was about exactly that. Today, with everything that’s going on in the world, I figured it was time for another one of those.
If you’re confused at all about this post, than I’d urge you to open a new tab and look up news on Covid-19, AKA the Coronavirus. We’re officially in a global pandemic, with cases spreading and multiplying fast enough that whole countries are shutting down. Economies too, with most jobs either having their people work from home or shutting down entirely. My own part-time was among the latter, as were a lot of other jobs worked by people I know. Borders are closing, countries going into lockdown …
Thankfully, these places are doing this to slow the spread, and it is showing signs of helping. I’m not a WHO-speaker or a CDC doctor, though, so I’ll say no more on that front save the standard rallying cries during this pandemic of—
Stop shaking people’s hands. Wash your hands! Don’t touch your face.
Seriously people. Stop doing all three. Fight the spread.
While we’re at it, fight misinformation. Stop, think, and source before spreading something like “Salt water kills the infection!” It doesn’t, and 41 people in South Korea got infected because they believed the salt water thing and shared the same water among themselves.
Okay, so with all this going on, what does it have to do with today’s post? Simple: There are a lot of people around the world who are under quarantine right now, for one reason or another. Either they’re under a full quarantine, where they may have been exposed and are stuck inside a room for two weeks, or they’re under another quarantine where their country has entirely shut down and they’re unable to leave their house. Or they’re under a loose quarantine (my words, not anyone else’s) like the US where their job has shut down and any gathering of more than 50 people has been requested to not happen by the CDC.
In other words, a decently large-sized chunk of the world right now has a lot of free time on their hands. They’re out of work, Earth is closed, and they’re just sitting at home wondering what to do.
At home entertainment, in other words, is spiking. Streaming services and gaming portals like Steam are already setting records for usage. Everyone’s got time on their hands. People are looking for things to do that allow them to stave off cabin fever while stuck at home for the foreseeable future.
Have they considered books?
This brings us to the point of today’s post: Books and series to read during the Covid-19 pandemic. A massive collection of reading material to keep one occupied during the outbreaks. Pages and pages and pages to turn. My own works will be on the list, as well as the works of many other authors I’ve read and enjoyed. We’ll start with books, but then I’ll jump into webcomics that are perfect for an archive binge as well.
Now, a few things to note. 1) These stories will not be about disease. I’ve seen way too many lists of “Best books to read for the Coronavirus” or “Greatest books to read stuck inside during Covid-19” that are just every famous disease and plague book out there, like The Stand.
No. Not doing that. We’re living a pandemic right now. We don’t need escapism that’s just more of that, and worse. Sands, I’m not even going to be linking one of my favorite webcomics on this list, specifically because it’s about a world-ending plague. So no, no stories about disease.
2) Most of these stories will be Science-Fiction and Fantasy. Not too surprising, but I write Sci-Fi and Fantasy, so a lot of what I read tends to be Sci-Fi and Fantasy as well. What I link here is going to be stuff I’ve personally enjoyed.
3) Most entries on this list will be longer, multi-book series. Something you can really dig your teeth into. There will be some smaller, one-shot entries, but I’ll try and keep most of these recommendations in the realm of “This will take you some time.” Because most of the world has it right now.
4) I don’t get any financial compensation here save on my own books. All the books I’ll be linking that I didn’t write? I won’t get any compensation for you clicking the link and picking up a copy. If you buy one over the other and I didn’t pen it, it doesn’t matter to me … but it does matter to the author who wrote it (or their foundation if they’re no longer with us). I’m promoting them because they’re good reading material, not because I’m getting any sort of compensation (again, exception if you purchase one of my books from this list).
5) Click the cover to head to an Amazon ebook page. I don’t get any compensation for that, first off. But if you’re interested in the book, then click the cover to go right to Amazon. By default the page will be for the ebook (no delivery, just download it!) but if you’re looking for a paperback to be delivered to your door, that’s probably an option for most of these as well.
6) I do recommend sharing this list! Especially if you liked what it had on display. Sharing helps more eyeballs discover it, which helps more people find new options for what to read, and in turn stave off boredom and cabin fever during this pandemic. So feel free to share away, on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or wherever else you hang out!
That settles it, so hit the jump and let’s get to the list! We’re going to start with some smaller, one-shot books. Why? Maybe you’re new to reading or want to start small. That’s fine. We’ve gotcha covered. Hit the jump, and let’s see what’s out there!
Shadow of an Empire
What, like I’d start my list with anything else? Shadow of an Empire is a Fantasy-Wild West set in the world of Indrim, a world recovered from the events of something known as The Shattering. While civilization has rebuilt itself and is once again advancing, The Shattering has left its mark in the form of “gifts” that allow select people the power to absorb and emit forms of energy, such as light or heat, something that has in turn shaped their entire society and culture.
One of these gifted, Salitore Amazd, is an Imperial Adjudicator, a wandering judge traveling the desolate deserts that stretch between the two lusher sides of an empire. When a railway transport full of escaped convicts is unexpectedly hijacked and the convicts set free, Sali finds himself paired with an Imperial Inquisitor named Meelo Karn and told to track down the escaped prisoners at all costs before they can wreak too much havoc across the Outlands. What follows is a high-stakes chase of mystery, magical gunfights, and conspiracy.
Yeah, I wrote it. But if you like westerns, with shootouts, lawmen trying to do their job (and the right thing), horseback chases, mystery, steampunk (it makes sense), fantastic characters, shootouts, and a well-developed second world, well, then check this one out. Or if you just like the idea of reading about wild-west gunmen who also happen to be using magic of some kind.
The Icarus Hunt
A Science-Fiction Mystery, The Icarus Hunt follows one Jordan McKell, a down on his luck ship captain during an age when an alien empire known as the Patthaaunutth has outdone everyone else when it comes to shipping and trade with their powerful and proprietary drive technology and ships. Barely making ends meet with his own ship, McKell has been forced to turn to smuggling to make ends meet (and pay back some very hefty debts), so when he’s approached by a prospective client with a side job in a bar one night, he doesn’t hesitate. Money is money, times are tough, and if this man needs a captain to fly his old, decrepit freighter back to Earth, well, McKell needs the cash. Even if the ship, Icarus, does give new meaning to the term “decrepit.” Cash is cash.
When the client doesn’t show up for the trip, McKell is a little concerned. But concern turns to fear when a few hours into the trip, one of the small, ramshackle crew is killed. Worse still, no sooner does the ship arrive at the next port than do they discover that all of them have become wanted felons merely by being aboard the ship, pursued by every authority and hunter across the sector. Racing to stay ahead of their hunters, the crew makes a break for Earth, all the while knowing that one of them is a killer … and may be preparing to strike again.
The only reason I would suggest to not read this book (it’s fantastic) is that it’ll spoil you for good mysteries. Zahn is a master of mystery and misdirection, giving you all the clues while doing so in a way that the reader doesn’t even realize they’re holding them. It’s a fantastic Sci-Fi story full of interesting characters, a clever mystery, and a lot of suspense.
Look, I know most people think they know what that means. But trust me, Spinning Silver is in its own category. It takes the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, or any number of variations upon it, and absolutely makes it dance a different tune.
What emerges is a dazzling, intertwining tale about several different people, all of whom get caught up in the story of a moneylender’s daughter, Miryem, who is so good at collecting on her father’s debts that people began to say that she has the ability to spin silver into gold. Such rumor, of course, attracts attention, including that of the Staryk, grim, cold fey who care little for humans and constantly threaten the kingdoms from their realm.
I’d say more, but I really don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say this is a fantastic journey to be taken on. You’ll spend the first third or more wondering how everything is going to intersect, and then spend the next two-thirds wondering how it’s all going to disconnect and work out. Spinning Silver is a fantastic fairy-tale retelling with strong characters and a great adherence to its roots while still taking everything in a fresh, new direction.
The Robots of Gotham
But this isn’t Skynet. The emergence of AI has changed the world as we know it, leading to social upheaval as AI’s have found their own place in the world … Some of them ruling it, entire nations choosing to elect immortal, robotic leaders that can function with far more efficiency than a human being, some of them existing in it, such as the Jamaican AI news blogger whose commentary serves as interludes between the chapters of the story, and some of them plotting to ruin it for their own gain.
In other words, this is a story about AI that, rather than ask how alien AI can be, instead asks “What if AI was more like us than we realized?” and vastly destabilized a lot of the society a purely human world had developed?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Robots of Gotham only asks those questions in the background. The forefront story is about a businessman, Barry Simcoe, in Chicago, whose work trip is disturbed by yet another robot terror attack but introduces him to 19 Black Winter, an AI attache from the Manhattan AI Monarchy.
It only gets wilder from there. In trying to keep things pieced together in the wake of the attack, Barry and Black Winter stumble across a mystery, and well …
I really enjoyed this one, and felt like it slipped by under the radar for a lot of people. Personally, the AIs here are some of the most varied I’ve seen, a sharp contrast to most series where AI tends to be fairly similar.
Okay, I truncated that title because it literally took up two lines. But it was going to make this list. Even though it is not Science-Fiction or Fantasy but non-fiction … it certainly is a case where one could argue that “truth is stranger than fiction.”
Longitude is the story of the modern clock.
Sounds boring. Sands and storms, you have no idea how wrong one would be to think that.
This story is insane. In the way that only people can be. Longitude is the story of the quest for the world’s first all-weather clock, a clock that would keep accurate time regardless of temperature, humidity, altitude, and any other number of issues that were a major problem with timepieces back in the day. A quest with millions of dollars and lives riding on it.
Why? Because a clock that could do these things was an absolute requirement for ships to chart their course, and prior to its invention, a ship could chart their course as hundreds of miles from where they thought there were due to an inability to accurately chart their longitude. Which could result in, you know, things like running aground when you thought you were somewhere completely elsewhere.
What follows in the hunt for the “ultimate” clock is a mad tale of genius, madness, and people being people. Suffice it to say that even non-fiction can be a page turner when written properly, and Longitude is a fascinating tale that’ll make you realize just how much work and effort went into things we take for granted.
And now for something completely different. Okay, maybe not completely, but different enough (and like Gotham, under the radar) and rare enough that I felt it needed a mention here. The Fold is Science-Fiction, yes, and initially feels like a Sci-Fi Thriller.
And then it goes pure cosmic horror Lovecraft.
That’s really all I want to say about this one, because I’ve already said too much. But cosmic horror isn’t super common in Sci-Fi (or so I’ve been lead to believe) so I wanted to throw those who love that kind of thing something to dig into over the course of the pandemic. The Fold is all about a teacher named Mike Erikson, a man with a neat memory trick who often finds himself doing small side jobs and is approached by an old friend to take a look at a project a bunch of government researchers are working on.
I won’t mislead, it’s not a perfect story. Some elements like “guy gets the girl” are pretty much par for the course standard. But … Cosmic Horror Sci-Fi. I see a lot of people online always hunting for a new entry on that list, and none seem to have heard of this one. So if you like existential dread in your Sci-Fi, add this one to your list.
Colony – UNSEC Space
Again, no surprise that these made the list. Colony and Jungle are Sci-Fi Epics revolving around a trio of people who get caught up in a colony world’s bid for freedom in the not-to-distant future.
Colony and Jungle follow Jake Tames, Annalyne Neres, and Ray “Sweets” Candy, three people just trying to make a living in their own way on Earth. Tames is a corporate investigator, Neres a soldier-for-hire/bodyguard, and Candy a white-hat hacker. All three of them find themselves scooped up by one of the largest of the megacorporations on Earth and press-ganged into finding an old employee of the megacorp who might have committed some truly devastating industrial espionage. Might have because the company can’t prove it. Not without tracking down that old employee.
The issue? He retired and immigrated to one of Earth’s distant colonies, the watery world of Pisces. To keep things quite, their employer wants the trio to go to Pisces, find their old employee, and bring him back.
Of course, nothing is so easy. The trio arrive on Pisces to find that their quarry is not only dead, but that the planet they’re stuck on for the next few weeks is a simmering pot of resentment for Earth and everything it represents, not at all helped by the Earth-appointed military junta running the place. As the mysteries pile up on all sides and the roiling waters of Pisces switch to boiling hot, it’ll take every ounce of the trio’s skills to work together and make it home.
Furies of Calderon – Codex Alera
Yes. Why yes I do. Have you ever heard of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera?
You may have heard of Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files. But while many people read Dresden, I’m of the personal opinion that it should be The Codex Alera that they should be checking out.
You ready? Picture this: Magic-using Roman Empire.
If that doesn’t sound exciting, then just trust me and be excited. Codex Alera is a sweeping Fantasy Epic stretching six books that’s absolutely worth a read. Furies of Calderon introduces us to the setting of the piece, a dangerous world where the inhabitants of the kingdom of Alera push back against dangerous foes on all sides through the aide of magic elemental spirits they can control.
Save our protagonist, Tavi, who starts the series as a young teen on the edges of the empire. Completely unable to master the magic of his people has left Tavi decried and mocked by many. But his uncle knows better, and has raised him to be clever. Which is definitely a good thing, as the Marat, one of their kingdom’s enemies and the same people that cost Tavi his parents during their last invasion, are rumbling once more, eager for war. Meanwhile, the empire itself is beset by schemes and internal division as an heir-less leader grows older.
This is all the first book, mind. It only gets crazier from here, the series covering a good decade-and-a-half as enemies both outside and within the empire beset it, ancient traditions and loyalties are questioned, and Tavi finds himself caught up in the middle of the maelstrom.
Halo: Cryptum – The Forerunner Saga
And the Forerunner Saga is good, laying a massive amount of groundwork for the distant past of the Halo setting. In fact, you don’t need to have played the games at all or be familiar with the setting to enjoy the books. Because they’re set over 100,000 years before those events.
Over 100,000 years before the events of the games, Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting, a member of the alien race that rules the galaxy, visits one of the reserve worlds under their empires “tender” care with the intent of hunting for buried, forgotten treasure left by the Precursors, the empire that predated the Forerunner and gave them the “Mantle of Responsibility” to watch over and care for the galaxy upon leaving.
What he finds instead is an ancient cryptum, a stasis chamber with a long-lost Forerunner warrior-general known as the Didact sealed inside. One who claims much of what Bornstellar knows is a lie, and that everything, even the safety of the Forerunner Empire, is at risk.
Seriously, this is old-school Sci-Fi, despite being a newer series. Crazy tech, galaxy-spanning threats, and lots of alien weirdness.
However, I do want to include a single caution. This one was originally published by Tor/MacMillan, who were practicing some anti-ebook practices at the time. So at the time I read these, the ending of the series was not fully present in the ebooks, the final chapter being restricted as a “bonus” to physical editions only in what was truly a massively dirty move (and why I boycotted MacMillan). I don’t know if that’s since been changed since it’s now published by Simon & Schuster, but be warned that if you’re an ebook reader you may have to track down a physical copy of the final book in the trilogy to get full closure.
The Fellowship of the Ring – The Lord of the Rings
Of course this was going to show up on this list. The Lord of the Rings is one of the foundation stones of modern fantasy, having thrilled perhaps billions over the decades.
Sands, between the massively successful (and infinitely rewatchable) Peter Jackson trilogy and the cultural significance of the books, I almost doubt that I need to recap the first book. You probably know if even if you’ve never picked up a book in your life or seen the movies. It’s been memed and referenced everywhere. But just in case …
Long ago, in another era, a great evil named Sauron arose and attempted to subjugate the lands. He did so in part through use of rings he created, powerful artifacts that granted great power to the wearer. Nine for mortal men, seven for the dwarf lords, and three for the elves. But in secret, he made a final ring. The one ring, allowing him to control and exert his influence through all the other rings. An alliance rose and defeated him … but failed to destroy the ring. As long as the ring survives, so too does Sauron and his will. And now, over a thousand years later, the ring has fallen into the hands of a simple hobbit …
So begins one of the most famous Fantasy Epics of all time. If you’ve always wondered what the fuss was about, love intricate language (Tolkien invented several and fully developed them), or adore old-school adventure, then The Lord of the Rings should be on your to-read list during the quarantine.
Dauntless – The Lost Fleet
Your ship has arrived at the spaceport, reader. Dauntless is the first of eighteen books in the same series (though four star a different set of characters) that aim to deliver one thing: Relativistic-focused space battles.
That’s right, if you want to know about how a fleet battle might be fought when the speed of light (and therefore information) is a factor, this is your series.
Dauntless opens with an interesting premise. Jack “Blackjack” Geary wakes up from a stay in an evacuation stasis pod aboard a friendly ship. An extended stay. His ship was one of the first to fall in the opening salvos of a war between two human factions in space, a war that is still going when he’s woken up more than a century later. He’s been picked up by the alliance victory fleet, who have at last secured a hypernet key straight to their enemy’s homeworld and are going for a backdoor kill. Jack just happens to have been discovered while en-route, his pod having drifted for those many decades.
In the interim, his pyrrhic self-sacrifice victory has become a thing of legend, his face the face of the war and his very name uttered with awe. The victory fleet takes his return as a good omen to have alongside their final win.
Except that Ackbar ensues: It’s a trap. Half the fleet is wiped out, their retreat cut off, and the lead admiral is killed, command falling to the most senior of the officers in the fleet.
Cut off, dozens of systems away from any friendly territory, Jack must command what’s left of the fleet into a fighting retreat, Because if they’re caught … the victory he’s awoken to see may be for the other side.
Sins of Empire – Gods of Blood and Powder
This one might be for you. Sins of Empire is actually the second series in the setting, but personally it’s the better book, and you don’t need to have read the first trilogy as this takes place in another land, though if you’re a completionist you can.
Sins of Empire takes place in the kingdom of Fatrasta, though calling it a kingdom is personally a stretch. It’s a frontier zone, and so what control the government has is iffy at best, and confined to brutal authoritarian measures such as secret police. But the flames of revolution lick at the government’s door anyway, even as their own secret police work to stamp them out, tracking criminals and discontents. Meanwhile a massive, mighty man rots in one of their prisons, swearing once he’s free to kill everyone that betrayed him. And to top it all off, the government has enlisted the aid of a mercenary company in keeping the peace: by force if necessary.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as powerful political games are being played between nations, and Fatstrata may be a pawn … or something else entirely.
Seriously, if you like Napoleonic era combat but also want magic, then a series that’s pure “gunpowder fantasy” will be right up your alley.
Conqueror’s Pride – The Conquerors Saga
How about some more Zahn action? Again resplendent with mystery and intrigue on all levels, Conqueror’s Pride is a tale of first contact gone wrong, as an expeditionary vessel from an expanding Commonwealth of species, mankind included), encounters a vessel that opens fire when hailed, killing even escape pods and taking no prisoners.
As a panicked Commonwealth quickly realizes, the vessel they’ve encountered belongs to the legendary “Conquerors,” a race that has butchered world after world, crushing everyone beneath their iron might, never taking prisoners, and “penalizing” those they conquer by reducing them to pre-industrial states and keeping them there.
Of course, it’s a Zahn novel, so nothing may be as it first seems, even as mankind prepares to drag out the superweapon that ended the last Commonwealth war, a device that destroyed an entire fleet in a single shot, and the Conquerors roll forward, intent on annihilating the Commonwealth completely, held back only barely by their navy.
Past that I won’t spoil it, but this series continues to show off Zahn’s skill at mystery and misdirection.
His Majesty’s Dragon – Temeraire
Ever wondered how the Napoleonic Wars could have been different if there had been dragons in play? No? Well, thankfully Naomi Novik did it for all of us, because the resulting ten book series is fantastic.
His Majesty’s Dragon tells the tale of Will Laurence, a captain in the Royal British Navy whose ship captures a French vessel with an incredible prize: An unhatched dragon egg.
Dragons are highly prized components of the aerial front of the war, serving as scouts, couriers, and even combatants. And when the hatchling that emerges from the eggs decides that Laurence should be its captain, Laurence finds himself swept away from his ship and shoved into the air corp to help serve his duty against the encroaching armies of Napoleon, who so far has been all but unstoppable.
Look, if you like gunpowder warfare, the Napoleonic Era, Horatio Hornblower, or any of those things, then this is the series for you. Temeraire follows Laurence and Temeraire across several continents, all in service of Britain, as empires and dynasties are made (and broken). A fun fantasy epic that’ll keep you turning pages.
Hard Magic – The Grimnoir Chronicles
Hard Magic introduces us to an alternate post-WWI period where magic started cropping up in people all around the world in the mid 1800s, and by the first World War was frequent enough that it was used in great concentrations during the war, to the degree that history has changed completely.
Into that changed history comes a classic Noir setup: The grizzled ex-con who’s recently been released and finding work as a private eye. Except with magic. And true to form, the US Government comes calling for him. Turns out an old acquaintance of his has taken on few new tricks, namely murder and robbery. Tracking her down for the government lands him smack in the middle of a shadow war between two governments: The isolationist United States, and the expanding might of Imperial Japan. Who, by the way, are ruled over by a literal wizard.
Yes, this is one of those stories where all the cool things get flung in a blender and cranked to high power. Tommy guns and prohibition era car chases? Yup! Ninjas with literal magic teleportation powers? Also yep. Final showdown on top of a magitech airship between a magic samurai and a noir detective?
And honestly, if any of that sounded exciting to you, you should probably put this on your list.
One of the longer-running webcomics out there (twenty years as of June this year) and without ever missing a single day, Schlock Mercenary is the brainchild of Howard Tayler, and easily one of the best serial comics on the web. What started as a fun side hobby has evolved into a fully-featured universe Sci-Fi Epic of hilarious proportions, following a crew of intergalatic mercenaries and the many, many shenanigans they get up to over job after job. Always funny, always everyday, and just now entering its big finale after twenty years of build, Schlock Mercenary is a treasure and absolutely worth an archive binge.
And yes, the early art gets far better. The creator himself recommends starting with book two, however, to avoid the worst of it.
What if mad science was even more mad? No, wait, that doesn’t describe it. You know those old pulp adventures? Where a genius can take the contents of a silverware drawer and build a death ray if left alone?
What if he wasn’t the only one? What if society was like that, even in small numbers? What would happen to the world?
Things would go mad. Quite mad. Mad … WITH SCIENCE! Because today is a glorious day FOR SCIENCE!
This is Girl Genius in a nutshell. A Victorian-era world where anyone can be a “spark” (mad scientist) only one eyeball twitch away from screaming ‘Fools, I’ll show them all!’ before unveiling their steam-powered pickle launcher because it was lunch when they were insulted and they got hungry. A world where one of the most dangerous families of all time, the Heterodynes (think they’re the mad scientists that mad scientists talk about) have been missing their heir for more than a decade, and Europe is under the rule of the Baron Wulfenbach, a powerful and genius tyrant who rules firmly, but with only a little madness.
Running for year, Girl Genius is absolute the comic to start binging if you like the idea of “spork launcher cannons” or a literal “circus of whirling death,” It’s funny, it’s mad, and it’s free.
It’s not done yet, nor does it show signs of ending anytime soon. Be warned.
Ever played Dungeons and Dragons? Ever boggle at some of the goofy nonsense that goes on? This may be the comic for you. Order of the Stick starts out as a stick-art (not quite stick-figure) comic about an adventuring party stuck in a dungeon. Like a lot of webcomics, the early days are mostly about finding its feet, but once it does …
Well, let’s just say that to counteract the simplistic approach to the art, the writer instead opted to be clever and witty with his writing. But he didn’t there. Genre-savvy villains, trope aware characters, puns … this comic drops it all. The writing constantly one-ups itself, growing each year and delivering some sizzling jokes, puns, genre plays, and other goofy gags that’ll leave you grinning if not laughing. Sands, I found the newest update grabbing this link and laughed aloud, as it delivered a perfect bit of character humor.
Better yet, this one’s also almost done. If you’ve ever played a campaign of DnD, give it a read.
And that’s it. Sands my hands are tired. I hope you find some great reading material through this list, and hope as well that you share it so that others can find some new Sci-Fi/Fantasy to keep them occupied during this interesting time! And remember: Wash your hands people!
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