Books focused on characters and world building?
November 15, 2020 12:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a book or series that focuses on believable, relatable, well-developed characters in a believable, relatable, well-developed world, being fallibly human while having adventures. The Expanse and Aubrey/Maturin series as main points of reference.

I've already gone through the Aubrey/Maturin series (mostly), The Expanse, the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and ASOIAF.

Setting and plot are of lesser importance, so long as there is some sort of adventure.

I've been leaning toward SciFi lately, as I really enjoyed the harder-SciFi/Space Opera combo of The Expanse, but it's the genre in which I keep running into flat characters and world-building, leading to this post.

I really enjoy technical details; technology as hand-wavy magic is almost always a deal breaker (small exceptions can be made, like the Epstein Drive in The Expanse). I like the many descriptions of rigging, sails, and ship maneuvers in Aubrey/Maturin; the simple, grounded in reality explanations of near-future tech in The Expanse; the nitty-gritty of contemporary/slightly dated technology in Crichton's work.

I'm flexible with writing style. I enjoy the simple and direct writing of The Expanse, the more prosaic period writing of Aubrey/Maturin, or something plain and technical like Crichton. Vague, confusing-on-first-read writing like Peter Watts is also acceptable, but not preferred.

Dry humor is a definite plus.

I feel this may be a difficult set of criteria to work with, so I appreciate any and all recommendations you can give me. Thanks!
posted by rustybullrake to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Helliconia, Aldiss
posted by j_curiouser at 12:41 PM on November 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh you need Rosemary Kirstein's "Steerswomen" novels. Such good character development, solid world-building, no hand-wavey magic (despite the setting, which appears to be medieval). Great stuff.
posted by suelac at 12:56 PM on November 15, 2020 [13 favorites]

Seconding Steerswoman!!
posted by sixswitch at 1:06 PM on November 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I immediately thought of The Goblin Emperor.

I enjoyed the world building immensely.
There's just one adventure/mystery but I think it might fit your criteria.
posted by M. at 1:14 PM on November 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

Perhaps perennial AskMe recommendation Becky Chambers?
posted by matildaben at 2:40 PM on November 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom might be up your alley. (On the fantasy side but hardly swords and sorcery)

I haven't read it, but I've heard good things about the Mars trilogy from Kim Stanley Robinson.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:55 PM on November 15, 2020

Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series. Stunning worldbuilding, definite adventures.
posted by humbug at 3:06 PM on November 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

Given your examples that you enjoyed, you might like The Last Kingdom series by Bernard Cornwell. It's set in medieval England, around the time of the Viking arrival. It follows one person, from the time he is a boy, raised by Vikings, as he navigates the world of King Arthur. There's a Netflix series based on the books (I haven't watched it).
posted by patternocker at 3:08 PM on November 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Just a wee pedantic nitpick (sorry, only mentioning to avoid potential confusion!) - The Last Kingdom book series is based around the world of King Alfred. Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles (which I love) are his King Arthur books.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 4:55 PM on November 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Came in here to suggest The Steerswoman also!
posted by taltalim at 4:58 PM on November 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nthing Steerswoman and Imperial Radch. Both have fascinating wordbuilding, unique technology and flawed-but-fabulous main/supporting characters.

The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham (who co-wrote 'The Expanse' with Ty Franck under their shared pen name). Uniquely focuses on economic innovation in a high fantasy world and how it shifts the tides of war and politics.

The Shattered Sea series by Joe Abecrombie. A quest for revenge in three parts, set in a broken world that thinks it's high fantasy (but isn't).

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. Has a metric ton of nitty-gritty sci-fi tech and wordbuilding surrounding the trials and tribulations of one Miles Vorkosigan. Start with the Young Miles omnibus.

LucasFilm's Alien Chronicles by Deborah Chester. A sort-of-spin-off from Star Wars worldbuilding that never made it into the movies. No human characters; details the fall - economic, technological, and political - of a once great alien empire.

The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stevenson. Focuses on the movement toward a rational, scientific understanding of the universe in a step-to-the-left history of the 17-18th centuries. Weighty, dense, and a delight if you like that sort of thing.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin. A classic. A physicist who lives in the anarcho-communist daughter colony of an oligarchical capitalist planet has to decide whether or not to share a technology he's developed. Part of the Hanish Cycle.

The Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy by Liu Cixin. The hardest of hard sci-fi. A common complaint about the series is its unlikable characters so it's a bit hit-or-miss on that front. Hard to describe without spoilers; 'aliens invade/may invade/have invaded with advanced physics' is the best I can do.

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Set in a world where time travel is routine. A grad student gets stranded in the past when the Black Death rages rampant; meanwhile in the future/present a new pandemic begins.
posted by givennamesurname at 5:07 PM on November 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

what srsly nobody has said the Temeraire series yet? I think it even started as Aubrey/Maturin fanfic iirc. Honestly her technical descriptions of exactly who's doing what on the dragons during the battles go on way longer than I like, so it should be A++ for you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:27 PM on November 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Stormlight Archive: very detailed, phenomenal world building, based on geology, ecology, climatology. Also a nice adventure with fantastical heroes and battles and betrayal and love etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:28 PM on November 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Laundry series by Charles Stross has great characters, it starts as a pastiche of English spy novels, but by the third or so, develops it's own great style.
posted by nickggully at 5:45 PM on November 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

Can't believe I forgot:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. The Jesuit Order sends a secret, self-financed mission to a recently discovered planet with intelligent life to make first contact. Russell was an academic writer before she tried her hand at fiction and it shows in the best way.
posted by givennamesurname at 6:02 PM on November 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thank you Morfil Ffyrnig, I'm always getting Arthur and Alfred mixed up! And I wasn't aware that Cornwell had a series around King Arthur - I'm going to have to check that out.
posted by patternocker at 6:37 PM on November 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Fritz Leiber's Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser stories are like sword and sorcery versions of the Aubrey/Maturin novels. Leiber writes very well, and used paperback editions are readily and cheaply available.
posted by Agave at 7:30 PM on November 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might like the Locked Tomb trilogy by Tamsyn Muir. The first two books are already out, the third scheduled for next year assuming all goes well.

There are good sized previews available if you wanted a peek to decide if they're a good fit (spoilers, natch):
Gideon the Ninth
Harrow the Ninth
posted by miratime at 8:00 PM on November 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

My friend whose tastes run exactly in this direction says that most of his suggestions are already in this thread, but his immediate thought was Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which is slightly more well known as a really fantastic anime, but was originally a series of novels. There are translated editions available, if that’s your thing.
posted by Mizu at 8:30 PM on November 15, 2020

The Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin.
posted by roolya_boolya at 9:30 PM on November 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you are willing to go for more Napoleonic fiction, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell is about an up-from-the-ranks rifle company officer and his men.
posted by fings at 10:42 PM on November 15, 2020

Laurie Marks, Elemental Logic series, four books starting with Fire Logic (James Nicoll review). Great characters, complex and different people loving each other and relying on each other. Some harrowing things happen but for me these still manage to be a comfort read for the characters.

Ruthanna Emrys, Litany of Earth series starting with Winter Tides but actually! first there's a novella you can read online right now, two books so far; she's described her intent as an open-ended series of books like the Vorkosigan. These reconstruct Lovecraft to look at our racism and hatred of Others; the main character is a Deep One whose parents died in concentration camps. Lots of cosmic and very deep time in here too, without the squamosity Lovecraft laid on it.

Candas Jane Dorsey, Black Wine. Gosh I have to reread this, because I loved it for its people and their travel through its world (the "open" kind of worldbuilding you don't learn nearly all of), but I can't give a good writeup. Queer and feminist, won the Otherwise (Tiptree) Award. The author is a poet; the language is often simple but always precise. Hm the more I think about the less I think it necessarily meets your request, but here it is for any who like the sound of it. Or Jo Walton's "Wow! You want to read it!"

Another big + to Rosemary Kirstein with the caveat that if you dislike starting unfinished series, this was started 31 years ago and has two planned books to go.

And + to Tamsyn Muir in many aspects of your request (adventuring! humor! (dry though?) ostentatious necromantic geekery!) To your non-preferring "confusing at first read", it's not vague writing but as far as the plot structure I did just read Harrow through twice to get the pieces lined up and now have a hold on Gideon since I need to see what reads differently now.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:16 AM on November 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ooh, Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries has not yet been mentioned and Murderbot/ART in a funny way hit me how Aubrey/Maturin do -- recurring characters going around and doing a series of semi-episodic things while developing a complex though reserved relationship. If Stephen Maturin were a self-emancipated cyborg fan of entertainment serials while Jack Aubrey was a sentient anti-corporatist starship. (That's the character mapping I make, do you disagree?)
posted by away for regrooving at 12:41 AM on November 16, 2020

Space opera! My favourite sub-genre!

Peter F. Hamilton does excellent space operas with amazing worldbuilding and great characters. Start with the commonwealth saga.

The best space opera of all time is surely Dune. I would say Dune is the Lord of the Rings of SF.

A close second for me is Hyperion. The first part describes a pilgrimage of sorts of a incredible cast of characters. During their voyage every one of them tells their story and what brought them there. These stories are some of the finest short fiction I have ever read.

In the realm of Fantasy, Joe Abercrombies First Law triology and the following standalone novels are great and unlike ASOIAF remain so through all of it's books.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 2:28 AM on November 16, 2020

+1000 to Goblin Emperor!
posted by potrzebie at 11:54 PM on November 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh my goodness, I'm bowled over by your excellent recommendations. These all sound right up my alley, I'll be checking each and every one of them out.

Thank you all so much!
posted by rustybullrake at 7:34 AM on November 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

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