Cubic Zirconium in the Rough: The Best of Licensed Fiction

A couple of ground rules:

  1. None of this stuff is going to be high art. Usually even really good authors turning their hands to licensed fiction results in less than their best.
  2. Much of this will be personal taste, even more so than fiction as a whole.
  3. I for one do not judge the quality of licensed fiction by how faithful it is to the license, but rather how enjoyable it is to read.

With that said, here’s my personal list of licensed fiction that is at least worth reading, by author rather than license because I find that that is what makes the difference:

Richard Lee Byers: Byers isn’t top tier by any means, but I’ve found his Wraith novel Caravan of Shadows quite enjoyable, his Scarred Lands (D&D 3.0 OGL setting from White Wolf’s Sword & Sorcery line) Dead God trilogy is full of interesting twists and makes good use of the background, and while the prose is a bit rough, he’s done acceptable work in the Forgotten Realms with a Thay-centered trilogy about that land’s conversion to undead rule.

Dan Abnett: Easily the best writer working in Warhammer 40K to date as far as I’m concerned. His Gaunt’s Ghosts series is genuinely compelling SF military fiction, his Eisenhorn trilogy is an excellent Inquisitorial tale, and his contributions to the Horus Heresy series are its main redeeming value. I’m not sure that he’s the only author to do so, but I’m pretty sure he has more to say about the life of civilians in the 40K Imperium of Man than anyone else writing for the Black Library. (I hear Ravenor is also excellent but haven’t read it yet, and my only contact with Abnett’s brief forays into Warhammer Fantasy is the Malus Darkblade series, which I gather is based on a comic he wrote but the novels were written by someone else.)

Michael Stackpole: Virtually the only positive experience I’ve had with Battletech novels and one of the core writers for that setting. He’s also written a few novels for Star Wars that I have not read, and (of all things) the Fiddleback Trilogy for an obscure tabletop RPG called Dark Conspiracy - I don’t think it’s even still around. It’s a cyberpunky sort of setting, but where Shadowrun infuses elves and trolls and dragons into things, Dark Conspiracy has Lovecraftian horrors from alternate dimensions.

Greg Keyes: While Keyes’ own original fantasy is of course far more interesting, he’s done some fairly successful Star Wars novels, particularly in the New Jedi Order series (which, alas, is scattered with much less competent writers as well), and a reasonably enjoyable Elder Scrolls novel, The Infernal City. (This seemed like it ought to have a sequel but I don’t know if that’s happened.)

Peter Watts: How they got this guy to do a novelization for Crysis 2 is beyond me. It’s about as good as you’re going to get as novelizations of fairly brainless shooter plots go. Some interesting ideas, and it made me want to play the game even though I suspect it will prove a very different and much shallower experience.

Karen Traviss: Apparently Gears of War 3’s story, penned by Traviss, sucks. I can’t say, haven’t played it. Her Gears of War novels are much better than they have any right to be, though, and their exploration of the world and characters made them seem like they had some actual depth, compared to the first two games’ bland, macho cliches exchanged by ridiculously beefy men. And her Republic Commando books are one of approximately three good things to come out of the Star Wars prequels. (The other two being Lego Star Wars and the work of another author I will mention shortly.) I’ve heard some fan outrage over her other Star Wars novels set in the post-Empire era, but I haven’t bothered to read those as, like the New Jedi Order series, they’re part of a great big long storyline where the quality of writing varies dramatically, and unlike NJO, they don’t have the hook of this mysterious Yuuzhan Vong enemy to discover.

George Alec Effinger: Effinger’s primary claim to fame are the Marid Audran books, cyberpunkish novels set, unusually, in the Middle East (and which had an Infocom/Westwood adventure/RPG called Circuit’s Edge based on them, with an original storyline by Effinger). But he wrote a great deal of other books as well as part of a constant struggle with medical bills, and one of them is, of all things, a Zork novel called The Zork Chronicles. It’s pretty loosely based on Zork, but then Zork was never an especially coherent setting to begin with. It is also hysterical.

Matthew Stover: This man performs the Herculean task of trying to make Star Wars Episode III work, in the novelization. He fails, but it is a valiant failure, far better than the movie. He has also written a few other reasonably successful Star Wars novels, including a relatively dark solo jaunt by Mace Windu in “Shatterpoint” and one of the New Jedi Order books.

Greg Stolze: Stolze’s -primary- field is not so much novels as writing tabletop RPGs or sourcebooks thereof, including work on several White Wolf properties, Unknown Armies, Everway, Legend of the Five Rings, Feng Shui, Over the Edge, etc. Along the way he’s gotten to write five White Wolf novels - a full trilogy for Demon: The Fallen and books 1 and 3 of a Vampire: The Requiem trilogy, all of which are great fun indeed. He’s also selfpublished a novel called Godwalker, which is not, I believe, technically an Unknown Armies licensed novel but it was written while he was working on UA and based more or less on the concepts involved. I just discovered today that it’s on the Kindle store for $3, so I’m excited for that.

I liked Tim Zahn’s Star Wars novels. Not high art, obviously, but interesting and reasonably well written.

Peter Watts’ Crysis 2 novelization is indeed an order of magnitude better than it has any right to be based on the source material. This was kind of fitting, as his short story “The Things” was likewise much better than something which was technically just movie fan-fiction had any right to be. I’m still curious to see what he’ll do for the trifecta.

I actually have a print copy of Greg Stolze’s Godwalker on some shelf or other; when I was heavier into pen-and-paper rpg’s, Unknown Armies was a favorite. I don’t know if it was licensed per se; I thought he simply had the right to use the setting and characters since he wrote them to begin with. Overall I remember it being okay, but being a pretty sharp exhibition of overpowered “central” NPCs in rpg settings are fundamentally a terrible and uninteresting idea (“The Freak” is ridiculous).

Ditto. Most of the EU books that are actually good are his.

The Watts’ Crisis 2 one is a great suggestion, I forgot about that. Looks like the first 50 pages are online for free:

I should note that the above is based entirely on what I’ve read, and sadly I’ve not yet gotten around to reading Timothy Zahn’s contributions to Star Wars (Stackpole’s Star Wars books and Stolze’s Godwalker get mentioned because they’re relevant and I’ve read enough of both to feel comfortable expecting them to at least be readable.)

Also - this is not licensed fiction in the sense that it was actually authorized or paid for, but Steven Brust is apparently enough of a fan of Firefly that he wrote an unauthorized fan novel in the setting:

Kim Newman’s Warhammer novels and stories (Drachenfels, Genevieve Undead, Beasts in Velvet, and Silver Nails, all collected in The Vampire Genevieve) are entertaining and full of the tricky pop cultural references he makes in his other books. They’re worth a read.

Came to post this. One of the few Black Library books that stands up without the genre crutch.

They are co-written by him and Mike Lee (who is also excellent, Lee’s Nagash series is very well realised).

The Zahn books are really worth reading if you’re not into Fuck Star Wars territory yet. Also, if you liked Stackpole’s books (presumably his X-Wing series?), I always thought Aaron Allston’s entries in the X-Wing series were far better.

Stackpole’s Star Wars books are (I think) the only things he’s written that I -haven’t- read. I’m a fan of his from his Battletech stuff and his various original fantasy novels. When I said I’ve read enough of them to consider them readable, I meant I’ve read enough Stackpole and enough Stolze to consider them readable, not the specific books I mention. I seem to recall being unimpressed with Allston in the New Jedi Order books but the X-Wing ones might be better, I suppose.

My vote is Robotech: The Macross Saga by “Jack McKinney”. According to Wikipedia:

In 1987, the Robotech animated series was adapted into novel form by authors James Luceno and the late Brian Daley and published by Ballantine Books. Having previously collaborated on the animated series Galaxy Rangers, the pair’s Robotech novels were released under the unified pseudonym of “Jack McKinney”. Using fictitious epigraphs in the style of Dune, McKinney’s novels escaped the limitations inherent in the dubbed cartoon and fleshed out its chronology in greater detail; most significantly, by adapting the storyline of the aborted sequel project, “The Sentinels”. The entire series lasted for twenty-one books, the first fifteen of which were later collected into five three-book omnibus compilations in the early 1990s.

I haven’t made it all the way through the first book but it looks pretty good from what I’ve read. And the first three volumes are in a Kindle omnibus edition for $6.99.

While heretical, I always liked “McKinneys” take on Robotech, especially the Sentinels, more than the “official” timeline. It added some much needed adult-ness to the juvenile animation (which I’ve been rewatching thanks to Netflix).

Ian Watson’s Inquisition War is, for my money, the best thing to come out of the Black Library.

Same, although it’s been a few years at this point.

Vonda N. McIntyre. She did terrific novelizations of Star Trek II, adding background, plots, and relationships that carried through all three books. (I read the novelization before seeing the movies, and was perplexed when David Kirk and Saavik never hooked up.) She also did one of the better Star Trek novels, “Enterprise: The First Adventure”, to which her Star Trek IV novel made a sneaky reference.

If I remember correctly, there was a loophole in the legalese surrounding Effinger’s medical bills whereby any of his original fiction got gobbled up, but anything he did work for hire slid under the wire. That let us hire him to do some Trinity work, including the opening fiction in the main sourcebook.

Mike also designed Demon: The Fallen for WW.

I really like William King’s Gotrek and Felix Warhammer series. The newest stories since the license passed on to Nathan Long are IMO okay, but not as good as the original King stories.

Seconding this. Surprisingly good, surprisingly dark and human.