While mystery makes up the bulk of my reading for pleasure, I do pick up books in other genres now and then. Some of them are even among my all-time favorites. Very few of them are literary fiction—been there, done that as an undergraduate English major many years ago. Even fewer are commercial fiction, much of which is plot driven and lacking in character development for my taste. I don’t read hard science fiction or straight romance. So what’s left? Character-driven novels with elements of fantasy, speculative fiction (a term I prefer to “science fiction” because it’s about the “what if” of storytelling rather than the hardware), historical fiction, and yes, mystery and romance. Genre benders. Brilliantly written genre benders about characters I want to take home with me—same as my criteria for mysteries.
At the top of my list is Lois McMaster Bujold, author of the Vorkosigan saga. The books take place in a galactic setting, but they focus on the conflict between a science-fiction kind of universe and a planet that has recently emerged from a low-tech Time of Isolation, complete with horses and a feudal aristocracy. The stories are engrossing (several are mysteries), the world-building impressive, wit and ideas and moral dilemmas abound. And the characters—oh, the characters! Miles Vorkosigan and his friends and family are as real to me as any fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. My favorite book (in all genres, including literary fiction and classics) is A Civil Campaign. Bujold crosses galactic space opera with comedy of manners and comes up with a complex, intensely satisfying, and laugh-out-loud funny read. She dedicates the book to Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy—and I think Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers, once they adjusted to the premises of the genre, would all love it.
Another wonderful writer who takes a science-fiction premise and embeds it in a low-tech world is Sharon Shinn, whose Samaria books I reread almost as often as Bujold’s. Samaria is a world where humans are protected and guided by angels who perform their intercessions with the god Jovah through glorious singing. The first book, Archangel, reads like fantasy. But as the series unfolds, the reader gradually learns that things on Samaria are not what they seem. Each book is a stand-alone with different protagonists. Each displays Shinn’s utter mastery of the arc of story and romance. The conflict and resolution is sheer perfection every time. And the characters, both human and angel, with their vivid and distinctive personalities, have very real flaws, virtues, and dilemmas.
Kate Elliott is another writer whose first series, the Jaran books, is my favorite. Again, she takes a galactic premise—in this case, humans have been conquered by a mysterious and powerful alien race and have to live as a subject people—and pits it against a freshly imagined horse culture on a world so primitive that the Jaran don’t even know that inhabited planets and space travel exist. There’s a heroic romance in the first book, Jaran, and the sequels follow its protagonists and add others. Elliott turned to other projects after the fourth book, so long ago that at least one subplot has become outdated (as Internet addiction has emerged in our present). But I wish she’d go back to the Jaran universe. That alien race is still a mystery.
This is Part I of a series, as there are other authors I’d love to talk about: Sheri S. Tepper, Diana Gabaldon, and Dorothy Dunnett, among others. Who are your favorite non-mystery authors and series, and why?