SFF Novels for Those of Us Who Just Don’t Want Stress

Are we recovering our enthusiasm for high-tension, high-stakes novels yet? I’m sure some of us are.

So far I’m still preferring low-tension, low-stakes stories. This is partly just an artifact of wanting to focus most of my attention on my own work, but I’m sure it’s also partly that I’m still (still!) not that interested in high-tension novels, even now.

I’m reading The Mask of Mirrors by MA Carrick, but very slowly. I like it a lot and I am looking forward to telling you about it when I finally finish it, but I keep taking breaks from it for one reason or another, and one of those reasons is that I keep hitting some high-tension moment and don’t want to deal with that and pause for a couple of days. (Another reason is that I got obsessive about finishing the Death’s Lady novella for a while.)

In the meantime, I’m also re-reading various low-stress novels, stories I’m familiar with and don’t have to stress over.

One of those is Exo by Steven Gould. This is the last book in the Jumper series. It can be read as a standalone. It’s about Cent (short for Millicent) getting her life in order and building her own private space program. It’s occasionally heavier on technical detail than I would prefer, but not too much so. The actual bad guys make various moves and are defeated in short order each time. I recommend it as a low-stress, cheerful story. The third book in the series, Impulse, could certainly be read first. It’s a girl-goes-to-school story; again Cent is the protagonist. Lots of dealing with bullies and so on. Again, the actual bad guys make a move. Again, they are quickly defeated. This book is also not particularly stressful, though not as thoroughly as Exo.

I realize it’s not out yet, but I hereby also recommend Keraunani as a low-tension story. Sure, Esau and various other people may find themselves in tight spots from time to time. And granted, I’m possibly not entirely unbiased here. But I’m pretty sure that no reader on the planet could imagine that anything terrible is actually going to happen to Esau, to Keraunani, or to any other named character. The tone ought to make that clear.

Anybody who’s got new suggestions for lower-stress SFF novels, by all means drop them in the comments! It’s going to be that kind of year for me, I’m pretty sure, and I bet many of us would also still like these kinds of stories.

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18 thoughts on “SFF Novels for Those of Us Who Just Don’t Want Stress”

  1. Personally, my go-to low-stress sci-fi author is Timothy Zahn – specifically his Dragon & Thief series, or Icarus Hunt. Exciting, but it’s pretty clear that things will work out in the end. And they’re fun!
    For fantasy, I’d say Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, or McKinley’s Chalice. Those are the books I reach for when I’ve had a really terrible week – or, come to think of it, Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, when I need something lighthearted.

  2. Hear, hear. I had just started a novel by Jack Grimwood – Nightfall Berlin. I like the author, but the novel deals with some pretty heavy stuff, and I’m not just not up for that right now. I got about 75 pages in and DNFed it. Well written, but I’m just looking for escapism right now. Started a new author – Glynn Stewart – who has a space opera series out. I see he has another series called Starship Mage that Amazon keeps recommending but that I haven’t read. Anyway, I like his world building and it’s pretty low stress so far. Reminds me a bit of Nathan Lowell, although I think Stewart is a bit better writer in a technical sense.

  3. I did a FB post on the author’s worldbuilding, but I see now this is a new arc in an ongoing universe. Another thing I like about the arc is the position of the protagonists. Their Commonwealth has high ideals but it is indicated it often falls short of those, and is very strong on getting others to join their commonwealth because clearly everyone should be supporting those ideals. At the start of the book, the Commonwealth undergoes a horrendous military defeat that reminds me a lot of the Honor Harrington decapitation strike against Sol. The plucky Alliance, the underdog, has managed to lay the Commonwealth low with a daring plan striking against its communications network. Normally, I’d expect the Alliance to be the protagonists, but as one of the actual protagonists points out, the Commonwealth has now been decisively defeated. A lot of orbital manufacturing facilities have been wiped out along with the communications networks (again, reminiscent of Honor Harrington). Now what?

  4. I should say, this is a lot less grim than the description sounds like. As I indicated, it’s a pretty low-stress read so far. There’s been one space skirmish with a spy Q-ship a neighbor was sneaking into system, but the tone is pretty upbeat, and the characters are all pleasant people, even the ones who disagree with one another.

  5. Sherwood Smith’s The Phoenix Feather series is about as low stress as you can go. I’m not a big fan of her Young Alliance series but this kept my interest for months. Sorry to keep harping on it.

  6. EC, absolutely agree for Chalice. That’s such a warm and fuzzy story. Even though there’s some tension, the reader is really in no doubt that things will work out.

  7. Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Secondary world fantasy; loved the world building. The inn makes for a great setting, and the family dynamics are just right. It’s been difficult to read anything new to me these last two years, but I went through this book and three of the sequels in a flash. (She has more in the same world but darker, haven’t touched those—yet.)

    Also picked up recently: Terciel and Elinor, which is part of Nix’s Old Kingdom. It’s about Sabriel’s parents, which honestly is off-putting at first, knowing how Sabriel starts, but I really enjoyed the characters, and Elinor in particular. I hope we get more stories about her!

  8. Some of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books are for me low stress, low tension. Shards of Honor and Barrayar, A Civil Campaign, Captain VorPatril’s Alliance come to mind. Her Penric’s novellas are also very enjoyable. MurderBot stories by Martha Wells. I loved her Raksura series (have re-read it a lot too). Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen Thief’s series. Also try M.C.A. Hogarth peltiverse novels. L. Rowyn’s books are also quirky in a good way.

  9. I often go for children’s books. The 13 Clocks, for instance.

    Robin McKinley’s Beauty
    The Wizard’s Tale by Kurt Busiek

  10. I’ve read a lot of the more romance/fairy tale leaning T Kingfishers (I know her horror stuff is supposed to be really good, but no horror for me right now, thanks).

    And, in the graphic novel realm, my daughter and I really enjoyed the Tea Dragon series by Katie O’Neil – the art is lovely, and it’s all very gentle.

    I will admit, though, that I haven’t been able to read new stuff very much lately (which is very out of character for me).

  11. It’s been a while since I read them, but I think some Nina Kiriki Hoffmann books might fit the bill – I think I’ll revisit something of hers, maybe see what’s new from her.

  12. Also Beauty by Robin Mckinley (although I kind of like the ending of Rose Daughter more). Lots of Diana Wynne Jones and Joan Aiken.
    I’m also reading the Guild Codex Universe series, by Annette Marie, new adult urban fantasy, which is pretty upbeat. Not exactly stress-free, but things tend to go well in the end (the Unveiled sub-series is darker).

  13. I’ve been enjoying W.R. Gingell lately for low-stress fantasy. I haven’t read any of her City Between series, which seems to be her most popular, but I did really enjoy the Two Monarchies sequence and the Shards of a Broken Sword trilogy, both of which play with fairy tales and have definite flavors of Diana Wynne Jones to them. I also re-read the entire Oz series (well, the entire series written by Baum) last winter, which was delightfully relaxing so long as I didn’t think too hard about the implications of some of the principles of the stories (like the reality of babies and children that never grow any older–can you imagine being a parent who has to spend the rest of your unending life tending a baby, with no hope of ever seeing it grow into an adult?).

  14. Louise, let us draw a veil across the notion of a baby that never grows older and pretend that this is not implied by the metaphysics of the world …

  15. I just read Impulse and Exo, because of this post, and liked them.
    When I started reading, I realised I’d picked up a sample of the first book, years ago, and deleted it as I didn’t like the main character and the impression I got of the story, too negative and dark/stressful for me.
    But surprise! I really liked the two books about Millicent! Without your recommendation here I’d never have picked those up, because of bouncing off the first book about her parents.

    I’m really happy you do these recommendation posts, and also that everyone else here chimes in with corroborations, or warnings (those are invaluable too, as spoiler-averse reviews never mention something like “the dog dies”!), and more recommendations. I have broadened my reading horizons so much, and had so many good times reading, thanks to you!

  16. Thanks, Hanneke! I’m really happy people find these posts helpful. I sure do! I also pick up lots of books because of comments here, plus wow, do I appreciate warnings like The Dog Dies.

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