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📚 Reading Roundup: Chill Fiction Edition
Mini reviews of books that don't mess with my postpartum emotions. Think overpowered protagonists, slice of life stories, & underpants jokes.
As a natural consequence of having a baby, I haven’t been doing a lot of writing or deep thought work for the last two months or so. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading, though — if anything, I’ve been reading more than usual, because reading is an activity that is quite easy to do one-handed in the middle of the night on my phone.
Most of what I’ve been reading has been fiction, because — as you might expect — I’ve been very tired and have had limited appetite for knowledge work. More importantly, I’ve been on an emotional hair-trigger due to lack of sleep and postpartum hormones, so I have had no tolerance whatsoever for political controversy or arguments or even stories that are too sad or emotionally challenging.
Since I tend to read a bunch of books all at once, and follow authors more than I follow series, the following micro-reviews are organized by author, not by book title. Because my I read a ton and didn't want to spend a billion dollars helping myself stay awake while breastfeeding my very chompy newborn, these are all available via Kindle Unlimited. Incidentally, none of the links below are affiliate links.
Nathan Lowell is the only author I’ve ever read who has actually managed to pull off a sweet “slice of life” story where the protagonist is mostly going around and learning what amount to housekeeping skills.
His most popular book series is a space opera that starts off seeming like a straightforward progression series in the vein of how every Codex Alera book title corresponds to the protagonist gaining a new rank: book one (Quarter Share) he's a brand new spacer, and by the end of the series he's a wealthy captain and owns his own shipping company. One thing to note is that the protagonist has it really easy in the first book: basic understanding of economics is sufficient to render he and his friend superstar traders, even though everyone else aboard the ship should probably know all the stuff they know – this is decidedly not a portal fantasy. But as the series progresses the author made some genuinely surprising choices from an authorial perspective – at the risk of spoilers, you don't see the happy-ever-after get ripped away quite that abruptly, quite that often, even though it's definitely the kind of thing that happens in real life. The later books also deal with themes of depression that I felt were handled pretty well, although I was surprised to see a series that started out so fluffy get heavy.
That said, I actually started reading Nathan Lowell because of a totally different book, which I loved way more than it felt like I should have. Based on the cover you might be forgiven for thinking that the Wizard's Butler is a really campy gay romance, but it is in fact just the story of an former army medic who winds up working for an old rich guy as a butler and discovering that he does in fact really enjoy figuring out how to properly do laundry. There’s some magic (but the protagonist is just a mundane guy who never particularly has to use any violent skills), and ostensibly there’s an antagonist in the form of the rich guy’s money-grasping relatives, but the main focus really is on stuff the protagonist realizing the best person to help him learn how to do his new job is his mom, and going home for Thanksgiving to ask for cooking tips.
Sounds boring when I put it like that, but I skimmed almost nothing, and I normally skim lots of fluff paragraphs in fantasy novels.
I think chronologically the Mad Master Alchemist book is first — and that book is explicitly about the protagonist going full-immersion in an alternate reality video game that uses fancy sci-fi tech — but I started with Battle Mage Farmer and think it’s a better book, not least of which because the stakes are a bit higher because it’s clear that it’s not a game, the story is taking place in an alternate universe but in a world that is very real. This isn’t a series where you’ll be confused if you start out of order, so I’d recommend starting where I did if you think a book about a hella powerful soldier in a video game world tries to retire peacefully to a farming village in order to save the world from himself (yes, literally) sounds fun, then going backwards chronologically to the super rich kid who thinks he’s playing a game and discovers that actually, the “alternate reality” is a different — but very real — world.
Seth Ring has a habit of overusing the word “beyond” (as in “he was beyond happy” or “she was beyond powerful”) in his prose, and his characters are typically wildly overpowered, but that's pretty normal for the genre. His series have a lot of books, emphasizes the importance of “working with your hands” type skills (blacksmithing and farming, mostly), and is pretty fun. They’re LitRPGs which means a lot of the worldbuilding is described in terms of game mechanics, but if you're okay with that kind of thing and want to dive into a genre with a lot of content, almost none of which is emotionally challenging to read, this is a decent starting point.
Urban fantasy is getting a bit stale as a genre, though I still love most of the long-running and super popular series, so I was surprised to stumble across a new urban fantasy series with several books in it that I hadn't heard of. Nice Dragons Finish Last and subsequent books center around the “Detroit Free Zone.” There are gods and powerful dragons and fae and really the point of it all is the recurring motif that being a good person is worthwhile, and that family is complicated.
There’s not a lot of high concept exciting stuff in terms of the premise, but I enjoyed all of the stories and sometimes that’s what matters — none of it made me want to put the book down in disgust, and lest you think I am damning it with faint praise, the same cannot be said of many other things I read and am not mentioning here, especially the series I stopped after book 5 because of how frequently the resolution of critical subplots would get glossed over midway through a book with something like “and the rest of what happened on this day is covered in a novella called…” and it was literally that blatant. I don’t mind a side story getting covered in a novella that takes place between books, chronologically (Ilona Andrews does a great job with this) but these were literally like chunks taken out of the middle of the story, for main-line events that mattered for the plot. Incredibly frustrating, and something Rachel Aaron never did to me ;)
Apocalypse Parenting is a fantastic series, one of the very few stories I’ve ever read that not only has a parent for a protagonist but actually centers the challenges of parenting young children in a way that is exciting and low-key educational. The protagonist’s husband is away on a work trip when the planet is suddenly invaded by aliens bent on turning Earth into a reality TV show for the universe — complete with nanobot-powered “magic” powers and “novelty points” for particularly interesting participants. The show doesn’t end until humanity “captures” a set amount of territory… or has its population reduced by 95%. And they do mean the entire population — the protagonist’s three children, including a toddler, are forced to participate in the game, along with the pregnant, elderly and newborn.
It’s (conceptually) brutal and infuriating, although the prose doesn't really make the reader feel that way, which I appreciate. The protagonist isn't necessarily upbeat, but she's determined to keep her family functioning, and humanity focused on the real enemy (the aliens forcing them to do this) instead of fighting each other for prizes and glory. As such, the story itself manages to be relatively lighthearted and is more relatable than anything. Most of the focus is on the challenges of getting kids under ten to make good choices, and how sometimes other people in society make that hard.
I wish there were more books like this in the world; let me know if you're aware of any.
Dungeon Crawler Carl is another apocalypse litRPG where the premise is that Earth has been selected to host an alien survival-style game show. I particularly appreciated the relationship between Carl and his ex-girlfriend's cat, newly made intelligent by the alien technology that collapsed earth and turned everything into a deadly video game. As with Apocalypse Parenting, I appreciated that the focus was on getting people to cooperate in order to bring down the awful aliens. The main difference – and thing I appreciated most – with this series compared to Apocalypse Parenting (other than that the premise doesn't involve parenthood) is that the protagonist actually gets to meet the aliens and go on talk shows and attempt to ally with activist forces. The mentor figure is also really fun, and there's just a lot more humor than the other books on this list: the System AI has a hilarious foot fetish and effectively plays the troll to Carl's straight man.
Alright, last apocalyptic LitRPG, I swear. David Petrie has a great series called Necrotic Apocalypse. It stars a medieval thief who got turned into a zombie by a local necromancer and then somehow survived after an arctic shipwreck for the next several hundred years, enough to "level up" and regain his intelligence and memories and humanity. This one is interesting because the apocalypse is kicked off by the protagonist instead of being inflicted on the world by aliens, and the antagonist force is a quasi-religious order controlling the video game esque class system. It's existed on our planet for a long time, just in secret.
This one is funny too, but more in a "wow I can't believe they went there" sort of way. There's lots of "let's go find magic items at the natural history museum, because now that magic works stuff like the ruby slippers from the wizard of oz do too!"
If you've got any recommendations for stuff to read that isn't likely to make me an emotional wreck while my postpartum hormones are still getting back to normal, please let me know via email or in the comments! I'm running low on good (free-ish) books. Lately I've been killing time with Duolingo and skimming my Readwise highlights (I've even managed to get a pretty respectable streak going with both!), but sometimes it's 3am and I'm too tired to really concentrate on thinking and just want something to focus on other than the wall.