Serial fiction isn’t a new thing—Dickens was doing it back in the 1800s. But there’s been a new surge of serial fiction, with related technology that Dickens never would have dreamed possible. Need your fiction in short bites? There’s an app for that. Several, in fact.
If you’re one of those people who reads in line at Starbucks, and your phone is easier to maneuver than a paperback, check out some of these excellent apps. Prefer a larger screen? Plenty of these serials are available in your browser (or as purchases for your e-reader) as well.
Whether your taste runs to historical fiction (Julian Fellowes Belgravia or Whitehall from SerialBox), urban fantasy (Ilona Andrews’s “Innkeeper Chronicles” or Serial Box’s Bookburners), post-apocalyptic YA (ReMade), Asian fantasy (Lian Hearn’s “The Tale of Shikanoko” or JY Yang’s “Tensorate” series), or something with a little more contemporary flare (Geek Actually), you’ll find something — probably several somethings — to love.
Why serials? Some readers’ favorite writers may be trying out the format. Recognize the names Max Gladstone, Delia Sherman, Malinda Lo, Sarah J. Maas, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ellen Kushner, and Brian Francis Slattery? Odds are good you’ve heard of most of them!
But many serial readers have been groomed by internet reading to read differently. These new readers are looking for a quick read on cell phones: that could be an article on a really excellent geek news website, or it could be shorter-than-novels fiction. The rise in contemporary serial fiction is looking to find a place in that niche reading time.
There’s an app for that.
When Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey launched his Belgravia app for the serial novel he was releasing (see below), his was just one of the apps available for short bites (and bytes) of fiction on Android and iOS devices. While some are single-novel apps, most are platforms where you can access a lot of fiction at various price points. Here are some you should know about:
Radish features a wide variety of self-published authors. Readers subscribe to stories for micro-payments, starting below a dollar, that are charged with each episode. Readers can search by genre as well as tags (including “werewolf,” “rebellion,” and “blackgirlmagic”) to select their titles.
Tapas is a similar app, though you can earn and purchase coins and keys that unlock chapters of stories. Some of these are from traditional publishing houses, such as Hachette, who have licensed their books (such as excellent kid’s book The Wild Robot by Peter Brown) to the app.
Most are from self published authors, including (now movie-famous) Andy Weir, whose The Martian was originally a serial at his own website before it was a feature film, has a number of titles on the app.
The biggest draw-back of the app is that the bite-sized chunks are very small, so readers won’t likely want to just get by on the keys and coins they can “earn” from the app’s promotions.
Online indie serial hosting site Wattpad released a messaging-based story serial app called Tap, which gives serials an extra sense of immediacy that mimics some of the fun of an alternate reality, transmedia game like Andrea Phillips’s brilliant The McKinnon Account.
Serial Box has several serials that can be read–pay per episode or series subscription–through their website, on the e-reader, or via their app. One of the biggest perks of Serial Box serials is that any episode purchased includes the audio version, which is great for readers who need their fiction on the (literal) run. Check out series synopses below.
Bookshots is James Patterson’s bite-sized fiction project: two novellas come out each month, priced at $3.99. Patterson is the idea man while his co-writers do the heavy prose lifting, and several dabble in Patterson’s previously established worlds, including his Alex Cross books.
Now that you know which apps are available, on to the specific serials you should check out…
The Best Serial Fiction You Should Be Reading
While I read a lot of fantasy, in both serial and standalone form, I don’t often get the pleasure of reading contemporary stories about women who like the things I do — all the gamer geeky, SFF fannish fun stuff that fills my every day Facebook feed in my friends circle.
Geek Actually, which launched in June 2017 from Serial Box, is filling a hole in my fiction-reading life I didn’t even realize I had. The five main characters are members of a chat group and circle of female friends who call themselves the Rebel Scum. Most, like me, are women with careers that revolve around their geeky passions.
The focus on powerful and healthy female friendships — a theme that shouldn’t be limited to MLP:FIM — is a delight, and the diversity of the cast is both wonderful and unsurprising, given the writing team behind this serial: Fandom Hearts series author Cathy Yardley, Dirty Sexy Geeky author Melissa Blue, Cecilia Tan of the Vanished Chronicles, and TV-writer-cum-novelist Rachel Stuhler (Absolutely True Lies).
Geek Actually is just in its beginning stages, but I’m really excited to see where it goes.
The first season of this intense YA post-apocalyptic serial recently wrapped, making it perfect for binge-reading all at once.
Twenty three teenagers, all of whom died in the same minute, become the last hope for humanity when they awaken in a brand new world. Here, there are robots that hunt humans, a dangerous jungle, and the ruins of an ancient civilization. For the teens — who might be the last people on the planet — to survive, they have to learn to work together.
With the continued love for YA dystopian futures in longer, doorstopper fantasy titles, this is an entry into the genre that you can take in chunks. The writing team includes some familiar names for YA (and wider) readers: Matthew Cody, Kiersten White, E. C. Myers, Andrea Phillips, Carrie Harris, and Gwenda Bond.
Tor.com has been quietly dominating the novella market, releasing several excellent, critically-celebrated short-ish stories predominantly in e-book format.
Among these are two forthcoming stand-alone novellas that introduce JY Yang’s Tensorate series. The Tensorate series is a technology-vs.-tradition tale of two twin siblings, Mokoya and Akeha, drawn to opposite sides of a rebellion.
The two children of the Protectorate, Mokoya and Akeha, were sold into slavery as children. Mokoya can sense the future, while Akeha can see the mechanics of manipulation among the adults who govern their world.
Akeha views the Machinist rebels against his mother’s rule as a way to free the Protectorate from its rot. Mokoya becomes embroiled in a hunt for the deadly naga, but discovers that conspiracy lies beneath magic.
Both stories release on the same day in September, 2017, so this is a great binge-reading duology, with the promise of more tales to come.
The Witch Who Came in From the Cold
Witch just wrapped Season 2 of a saga set in 1970-71 Prague at the height of not only the Cold War, but an ongoing struggle between sorcerers of the Ice, who want to preserve the status quo, and the Fire, who seek to remake the world with magical fire. In the midst of this conflict are KGB agent and witch Tanya, whose grandfather set her on the course for both the Party and magic, and Gabe, a CIA agent who stumbled into too much magic in Cairo and now has to learn control in order to get his life back on track.
The setting is fascinating — just enough technology to feel modern, right up until the moments when it isn’t, with a sense of things crumbling around the edges while magic seeps in. Season 2 builds on both the conflicts and kinships between Gabe and Tanya, as well as giving some previously minor (and some new) characters the spotlight.
The enhancement of the cast breathes even stronger life into the series, and the banter between Gabe and newcomer Edith is an ongoing delight. Witch has a great writing team (including creator Lindsay Smith, Bookburners creator Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and guest author, multi-time Hugo and Nebula award winner, Michael Swanwick).
When Season 1 ended, Sal Brooks, a NYC detective who has become a member of the Catholic church’s covert team to lock down demons and the tomes that contain them, watches her brother, previously possessed by a demon and now melded with… something else, disappear in front of her eyes. Season 2 answers some of the lingering questions from Season One.
The concept of Bookburners, which had a writing team of Max Gladstone, screenwriter Margaret Dunlap, Philip K. Dick winning writer Brian Francis Slattery, and urban fantasist Mur Lafferty for Season 1, and adds pro transmedia and serial writer Andrea Phillips for Season 2, is that books are one of the few ways to trap and contain the demons plaguing humanity. The demons as depicted by the team are truly frightening — by turn terrifying and grotesque.
But those demons have to confront a worthy team: Liam, a hacker who is getting over his own former possession; Grace, a supernaturally swift martial artist with a curse of her own; Father Menchu, the spiritual and practical leader of the group whose early encounter with an “Angel” shaped his faith; and Asanti, a librarian whose curiosity for the arcane is sometimes too powerful for her own good.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their own past damage and their flaws, these protagonists are imminently easy to empathize with, and while the world becomes grayer over the course of Seasons 1 and 2, those nuances further develop the world.
If you’re familiar with Ellen Kushner’s Riverside fantasy series, beginning with Swordpoint, you’ve already got a great hook to start this serial: Tremontaine is a prequel to the adventures in the novels. It also serves as a great introduction to Kushner’s world for those unfamiliar with her work — or any of the other excellent writers on the team, including Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and Paul Witcover.
Readers meet Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, who is facing financial difficulties but scheming on ways to improve the situation for herself and her city; Ixkaab (Kaab) Balam, a fierce daughter of traders who gets into a duel over a woman’s honor just as she arrives in the city; and Micah, a brilliant young girl from a farming family who is taken under the wing of a scholar who thinks she’s a boy.
Tremontaine has finished its second season, with plenty of swashbuckling and political intrigue to keep readers hooked, and series creator Ellen Kushner has posted a guide to the Riverside novels and the order in which they occur chronologically for readers wanting to delve more deeply into that world.
Husband-and-wife team Ilona and Gordon Andrews have been releasing a series of free novellas on their website as a reward to loyal readers, and the third novella in the series, One Fell Sweep, wrapped in at the end of 2016, with the promise of more novellas to come.
Each weekly installment is a partial chapter, typically readable inside of fifteen minutes, and enough of a bite sized chunk to whet your appetite for whatever comes next. Though no release date has yet been announced for the fourth serial, the first three are available as complete books for purchase (and well worth it).
The story revolves around Dina, an Innkeeper, host for interstellar travelers that include familiar mythological figures like werewolves and vampires, as well as more outlandish aliens. Her inn feeds magic into her, so she can change reality on her inn’s grounds to better accommodate–and defend against–her guests. In Clean Sweep, the first novella, a supernatural danger threatens Dina’s non-magical neighbors. Dina isn’t supposed to get involved, but she’s not the type to let what she’s supposed to do stop her from doing what’s right.
Andrews creates a very cool world mixing fantasy and science fiction tropes and populates it with a fully realized cast, including not only Dina but the local werewolf-in-denial and Dina’s struggling inn’s only regular guest, a vampire noble claiming asylum on earth due to her previous ruthless acts.
If you don’t need a guarantee that your space opera is going to be regularly updated (this serial updates very sporadically because it’s free and the authors write other books as well), you might want to check out The Starkillers Cycle by Sarah J. Maas and Susan Dennard. The pair, known best for their YA fantasy, combine their love for space fantasy and tough women in the 26 chapters currently posted.
The serial opens with Mel, a prisoner who was convicted of murder, killing another inmate in self defense, and choosing to escape and brave the jungle of her prison planet rather than face the consequences of another conviction. Other characters include a debutante who leaves her glittering world to become an accomplished pilot, an ex-military escaped prisoner worried about the sisters he left behind, and a law enforcer whose family thinks he should have a higher profile job–who’s recruited to confront Mel after her latest in a string of supposed crimes.
The language is graphic, and the content is what you’d expect from the darkest of Maas’s work–plenty of threats of torture, blood, and potentially disfiguring injuries–but despite the grim edge, it has the atmosphere of large-scale space fantasy, chock full of adventure, excitement, and rich families seeking to shape the galaxy as they see fit.
If you’re an old-school reader who’d rather wait until the whole story is complete, there are a bunch of finished serials to pick up, too…
Tale of Shikanoko
Told over the course of four novellas, all published in 2016, this mythical medieval Japanese epic features a disinherited lord, courtly intrigue with the heirs of the Lotus Throne, and a sorcerer who creates a mask for a young man, capturing within it the spirit of a great stag.
As the story progresses, the Imperial heir and his sister must survive in wild, spirit-infested wilderness, the sorcerer helps a new race of people, not quite human, not quite demons, come into their own, and both the magical and the political become embroiled in the battle for the throne.
Fans of Lian Hearne’s earlier Tales of the Otori series will definitely enjoy this, as will readers who like their historical fiction with a fair dash of fantasy.
In the mood for courtly drama, full of machinations, intrigue, and fantastic clothing? Settle in for the turmoil of the romance of Queen Catherine of Braganza, her husband, King Charles II of England, and his mistress, Barbara.
Catherine, infanta of Portugal and devout Catholic, hopes for love in spite of hers being a marriage of state. Charles expects little more than to like the woman he initially finds as doll-like, but her love for his dogs (he’s passionate about the Spaniels; his mistress hates them) and her innocent desires begin to break through his resolve to keep her at a distance.
In turn, Charles fears the interference of his wife in the way his mother nearly ruined his father–and all of England–with her desires. And in the midst of this, the married Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, is bearing Charles’s second child, while her husband stews, his pride unwilling to meekly accept the title Charles has bestowed in exchange for his wife.
It’s initially difficult to like the scheming Barbara over the earnest Catherine, but as the risks to her station–and the fates of her children — grow by the second episode, she might gain a little of the readers’ sympathies. Whether she will keep her place at Charles’s side or eventually Catherine will find love propels the story — as well as the stories of the servants, particularly young Jenny, who may well become the Queen’s truest ally.
This is captivating historical fiction, and the 17th century setting is made vivid by a writing team that includes creator and playwright Liz Duffy Adams, fantasist Delia Sherman, romance novelist Barbara Samuel, Regency romance writer and urban fantasist Madeline Robins, fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal, and YA thriller writer Sarah Smith.
Fans of Downtown Abbey will gravitate to this new story written by Julian Fellowes, which revolves around the Trenchant family: James, an upwardly mobile merchant with aspirations toward mingling with the nobility, who has the ear and trust of the Duke of Wellington; his wife, Anne, who would rather be settled and happy than constantly working to socially advance; and their daughter Sophia, a young woman in love with a Lord about to risk his life in one of the greatest battles in European history.
The tale begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo at a ball that has become infamous for its proximity to the battle. The Belgravia team integrates real historical details into the text through hyperlinking, and though the style, where dialogue is hidden within a paragraph of prose, takes some pages to get used to, the setting is viscerally described, and the characters presented with an open eye to their flaws as equally as their virtues.
The series wrapped last year, and both the app (with special features) and the print book are available for binge readers.
Indexing by Seanan McGuire and its sequel, Indexing: Reflections, take fairy tale characters and insert them into a noir-style modern world. In the world of the serial, fairy tales can come to life among normal families, unless they’re disrupted by the ATI Management Bureau, who stop storybook intrusions before they can take over–when they’re lucky.
Rather than being written in chapters, each serial segment was released as an episode, so reading them back to back is like binge-watching Grimm or Supernatural. Indexing was a part of Amazon’s Kindle Serial fiction experiment in 2012, and there are somewhere around 70 other finished serials in the Kindle store.
The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart
The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart by Andrea Phillips is a children’s fantasy originally published in twelve monthly installments. Funded by Kickstarter, the original serial also gave readers a chance to treasure hunt alongside the daring pirate captain Lucy Smokeheart by solving a riddle in each chapter.
The complete edition includes the puzzles and the key to solving them. Phillips’ world involves carnivorous mermaids, praise for both bacon and chocolate, magic, and danger suitable for middle grader readers and adults alike.
If you’re looking to dabble in free fiction, you can always check out Tuesday Serial, a collection of serials from around the web, submitted by the writers who create them. The site has been active since 2010, so there are years worth of chapters to read and enjoy. And if you’re a nook user, Barnes and Noble has launched its Serial Reads program, which offers a serial as part of the new free Readouts nook feature, with Kristin Higgins’s In Your Dreams.
Queendom by Kim Antieau took a different outlook on the serial: she released a fully written and realized novel of a post-apocalyptic, non-dystopian future in five parts, complete with extras that aren’t going to be available in print. Sadly, if you missed the serial in December 2015, those extras are gone. But the novel itself — a politically driven plot in which a cook becomes a spy and an elected queen searches for those who are seeking to destroy her nation’s economy — is available.
The best part about serials is that they’re happening live — and if enough people are reading them, they make great Internet water-cooler conversation. So if you’re catching up on the latest issue of Geek Actually or The Witch Who Came in from the Cold and need to gush — or just want to make sure I know about the hot new serial you’re reading — come on over and find me on Facebook.