It’s been nearly three years since I introduced the web serial Worm in this blog. Cue the usual expressions of disbelief at how quickly time flies. It’s hard to be sure but my opinion is that due to the amazing popularity and success of that work, many other authors have since started to try to emulate its author Wildbow and write serials on their own, using it as a platform to earn money whether through direct donations or as a way to promote books that are for sale. For readers, this means a wonderful explosion of stuff to read for free. Here are a few of my favorites from the ones that I’ve sampled so far.
I followed this one for a while and would strongly recommend at least the first couple of books but have since dropped it. It’s both superhero and fantasy at the same time, being set in a world that evokes Renaissance-era Italy. The main characters are all storm-touched, that is, granted superpowers at birth. The interesting part is that their powers are usually expressed through art, so that a master sculptor who works in stone for example can after painstaking effort of sculpting a human statue imbue the statue with life though it’s far from a sure thing. Also unusual is that all storm-touched are accompanied by a ghostly twin, that is a counterpart who can’t interact with the world and can only be seen and heard by the storm-touched.
The protagonist is young girl named Elana who travels to the nearest city to apply to be apprenticed to one of the city’s studios. She is a Fabera, a storm-touched whose power is usually only that they are expert craftsmen. The studio system is how the storm-touched of a city vie against one another for influence and renown, both by creating masterful works and through what is effectively a system of mock combat. As is usual with such stories, Elena starts out being seen as weak but it soon becomes apparently that her power has a wider scope than previously thought and she quickly rises up the ranks.
I stopped liking this as much when Elena’s career surpasses the bounds of the studio system and her influence expands to the entire city, which happens around book three. I don’t think the author does quite as good a job at the wider scale and the same time, the flaws in the worldbuilding start to accumulate. Basically they start to behave more like traditional superheroes and less like superhuman artists. I also dislike how each chapter in this serial tends to be on the short side. I might go back and check it out again once it’s farther along.
The introduction sells this as western-themed fantasy, which isn’t quite true. I think it’s fairer to say that it’s set in a fantasy world which is on the cusp of an industrial revolution, based mostly around a human-led empire that is dominant power of the continent. The frontiers of this empire does have a western feel and one of the main locations for the stories, Last Rock, is on the frontier. At Last Rock is a university which effectively specializes at training adventurers and is led by an extremely powerful mage, so powerful in fact that the gods are wary of her.
There’s no single protagonist. The main characters at first are the newest crop of freshmen at the university who are all very powerful people, either personally or politically. But the cast expands very quickly. In fact, I think the author loves his characters too much. Despite there being plenty of violence and intrigue, I don’t think one single significant character has died and the author can’t seem to resist telling the story behind each and every person.
Still, this story is worth reading for its excellent writing, very likable characters and deep world-building. There are multiple types of magic in play and they interact with one another in interesting ways. Best yet, the characters, both heroes and villains, are perfectly aware of this and readily exploit those interactions. There are gods who can and do directly intervene in worldly affairs in physical form, demons who fly high enough to reach orbit and some really surprising twists in the plot later on. It’s a really fun read.
This one is a new addition and I’m still reading the early chapters, but so far I like what I read a lot and plenty of people are recommending it. Once again it’s set in a fantasy world but one in which the evil empire has triumphed and the good nation has collapsed. The protagonist is a girl who grows up as an orphan in the conquered territory and effectively ends up joining team evil.
While gods exist in this world, they are hands off. Instead, they compete with each other through mortal agents. As such, the world runs according to a kind of story logic in which such mortal agents take on specific Roles, so there are explicit Heroes and Villains. Holding a role grants superpowers appropriate to the world including superhuman strength, speed and durability. On the other hand, each character’s strength waxes when he or she acts in accordance to their Role and wanes when acting against it.
I like this one for how its main character Catherine is competent and clever right from the start and how the entire story is a logical expansion of the evil overlord list. When the story talks about evil, it’s serious about it as the various characters are perfectly willing to sacrifice innocents in the pursuit of their aims. Expect plenty of blood and death in this one.
Conspicuously absent from here are Wildbow’s serials subsequent to Worm. I haven’t read Twig yet but I have read Pact. I did like the world of Pact but the story is such a mess that I have a hard time recommending it. I’m also not convinced that the magic system and the power levels there are very consistent and of course the whole thing is about the protagonist Blake losing more and more and more until there is literally almost nothing left of him. It makes for very bleak reading.
One thing that these stories that I do recommend have in common is a preponderance of female main characters. The Gods are Bastards may have a large cast but most of the freshmen are women. I think this is partly a reflection of current trends but I find that I really like having women in action hero roles. These are light stories that have a strong element of wish fulfillment and I think it’s hard to write that with male characters and avoid him being a sexist creep. Too many fantasy stories with male heroes have harems already and using female main characters is a neat way of sidestepping these awful tropes.