I saw Avengers: Endgame a few days after it came out, and sure, it’s entertaining. As with so many high budget Hollywood movies, though, I also thought it was somewhat dumb. I used to be able to fully enjoy movies like these, but my ability to do so continues to diminish the more I read books of comparable genres. What follows is a list of some of my favorites, and the biggest reasons why I kept looking at the time during Endgame.
I won’t spoil Endgame for anyone, even now, so instead I’ll base the following on the entire science fiction (including super hero) genre of Hollywood and the TV industry, including the likes of TV shows like Star Trek Discovery. The story goes like this: the universe is at risk, and a special little snowflake (or two) has to travel somewhere to locate something small and important that will make it all ok. It doesn’t matter if it’s a ring that needs to go in a volcano, a detonator that someone needs to deactivate with 00:01 left on the timer, or a vial of Death Stuff (TM) that someone needs to catch 5 cm above ground before it’s smashed and released. The abilities of those involved vary based on what looks best: some people will die from stubbing their toe, others will get beaten to near death only to miraculously fight back and win. I don’t even have to give examples here, you have all seen the sort of stories I’m referring to.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this recipe. It’s entertaining, and probably what sells best. I knew what I was going to with Endgame, and I would do it again. That being said, I wish the alternatives were also available on the big (or small) screen, because yes, there are alternatives. My iPad is full of them, in both audio and text form. They’re called books. They have a smaller budget than pretty much anything else in entertainment, and yet to me, some of them cannot be touched by anything that the likes of Chris Hemsworth have lent their likeness to. The reasons are many, but in short, these stories have main characters that are capable, sometimes powerful, but still members of a universe where everything does not in fact revolve around them. A universe that has established laws of physics that are sometimes evolved to fit the story, but never thrown out the window to create a scene that looks good in a trailer. The stories are believable, with far fewer plot holes than their moving picture competition, yet they attract a far smaller audience.
To maybe help rectify that a little bit, I want to share some of my favorite book series. It is these and others that make me expect more from a high budget production like Endgame. To keep it simple, I’m limit myself to talking about books that focus on the entertainment value, and within the science fiction/fantasy genre. These won’t renew your look at life, provide you with a glimpse of the divine, or whatever else the so-called classics are capable of: they will simply keep you entertained. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but as all of these are established series by now, describing the overall concept will give away some of the setup in the early books.
Once upon a time I came across a book series on Audible whose concept sounded so stupid that I immediately dismissed it. Fast forward a few years, and its author is not only my favorite author, but the series itself is my favorite book series: Starship’s Mage by Glynn Stewart (Audible | Amazon | Author’s site).
In the Starship’s Mage universe, humanity lives in a future where magic is real. Mages make up a small percentage of the population, and humanity is ruled by the powerful Mage King of Mars. Magic is however not a substitute for technological advancement, but rather an important alternative where no technological means exist. No one has found a way to travel faster than light without it, so all ships need mages to teleport them a light year at a time using a blink spell amplified by the ship’s amplification matrix. Amplified fireballs work remarkably well as missile defenses, but lack the range to replace them – and so on it goes in a universe where magic and technology both have uses and limitations.
The main series follows a main character who gets to enjoy his time as a special snowflake for a few moments at a time before the author reminds him that everyone has limits and that the universe is a big place. That is what makes the story different from the likes of Star Wars movies, whose Jedi concept shares certain similarities with a key concept in Starship’s Mage. I specify movies here, as the expanded Star Wars universe is much less a victim of Hollywood. Starship’s Mage also has its own mini expanded universe in the form of the spin-off mini series Red Falcon (Audible | Amazon). The currently 9 total books in the expanded series move the story along at a nice pace and there is still more to come.
What makes this my favorite book series is that its inclusion of magic opens up for some story lines that would otherwise not be possible in many of the science fiction series I read. Key to this is Stewart’s ability to balance everything and create a universe where there aren’t plot holes at every turn. Starship’s Mage is, in short, the story of a special snowflake that never goes off looking for the universe-saving suitcase-sized object, because the only thing that can save the universe is the people in it.
Side note: Glynn Stewart has several series, and several that could be on this list. The cover image of the article, for instance, is from the cover of a book in the Duchy of Terra series. Do yourself a favor and check out his work.
The Frontiers Saga
There are many movies and TV shows that have been adapted from books. While that is not the case with Ryk Brown’s Frontiers Saga (Audible | Amazon | Author’s site), it certainly seems like that is goal of the author, considering the series’ episodic approach that is currently in its second out of five parts, with each of the 27 (and counting) books being referred to as “episodes”. Despite a release schedule of 3-4 books a year, these books are lengthy enough in themselves that an equivalent TV show would be quite a few seasons in at this point.
The story starts on Earth, over 1400 years in the future, and 1000 years after humanity’s worst disaster: the bio-digital plague, a computer virus that used its access to people’s cybernetic implants to kill people as well as equipment. Some survive and slowly start over, until a data ark is discovered 900 years after the plague. Its data helps Earth’s inhabitants go into interstellar space once again, and what they find there is a galaxy where Earth’s former colonies have had up to a millennium to advance on their own, depending how long they were in cryogenic sleep on their colony ships. Outmatches by most things that move, the Terrans do however have one advantage: a new propulsion system that was in development when the plague hit, and is still as revolutionary a thousand years later. Like story lines like that of Star Trek Enterprise will tell you, however, it’s not always a good thing to be able to go where no one has gone before – especially not when there’s already someone there.
The Frontiers Saga’s biggest asset is scope. The rapid release schedule has put so much of the story out there already that it all feels like it’s taking place in one part of a large, living galaxy. That is especially so in part 2 (book 16 onwards), which has split the story somewhat and also shows us glimpses of parts of the galaxy that really do not care what the “snowflake gang” is up to. At the same time, part 2 started out rather slowly, and the series dropped from the number one spot on my list of favorites as a result. I may be at fault here: the author wants to provide context and side stories for a universe so complex that I have a million questions about what is going on in one part or the other. Most of these “details” fit into the larger narrative and are well thought out, though the author sometimes stumbles, resulting in some inconsistencies or “overly snowflaky” scenarios. Despite this, the story as a whole comes out on the side of realism and logic – which is more than can be said about the cover art, which is doubtful to pull in any new viewers.
The final series on my list is not my third favorite overall (or even close; I read a lot of series), but it will illustrate a point I have and it has the advantage of not being set in space, which is the case for most of my favorite series. Jim Bernheimer’s D-List Supervillain (Audible | Amazon | Author’s site) instead follows a super
hero villain person, albeit a rather unimpressive one.
D-List Supervillain follows an engineer who is tired of working for a company that makes the gear superheroes use – because of course that’s a thing when you’re not Tony Stark. Cal, the engineer, decides that he will try to make it on his own, but quickly finds out that there are competitive fields on both sides of the law.
If it wasn’t clear from the title/premise, this series does not take itself very seriously. Think Deadpool, or even Thor: Ragnarok. Unsurprisingly, those are also my favorite superhero movies, exactly because they don’t take themselves very seriously. Endgame also has a fair bit of humor, and I applaud it for that, but it still falls into the category of movies that I’m more likely to laugh at, not with. That, to me, is an important distinction. D-List Supervillain is a story that is the exact right amount of serious for one in which you could utter the statement “that guy is an ancient God and that guy has a mech suit”.
As I’m writing this, Game of Thrones just ended, a few days after I sat down to watch the finale of The Big Bang Theory. I wouldn’t be without any of these, or Endgame, but I can’t help but feel like their budgets and popularity are somewhat misplaced. I have finished two books in between these two finales, and I’m glad that there are stories being told that do not require the support of Hollywood to be made – even if they deserve it. Remember that the next time you go hunting for a good story.