A couple of ground rules:
- 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.
- Much of this will be personal taste, even more so than fiction as a whole.
- 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.