9 Space Operas to Read While You Wait for Ancillary Mercy


Space opera is having a moment. In a little more than a month, we’ll finally get to read Ancillary Mercy, the final book in Ann Leckie’s all-the-awards-winning trilogy of sentient ships and an intergalactic civil war that began with Ancillary Justice. The reception to the trilogy, and the anticipation for the final volume, only underlines the fact that space opera is back in a big way—and not just in print.

A few weeks ago, one of my new favorite shows, Killjoys, ended its first season on the Syfy channel, while it’s spiritual companion, Dark Matter, aired its season finale last Friday. There’s been a dearth of the fun, pulpy space adventures like Farscape, Babylon 5, and Firefly of late, and Syfy’s freshman shows (not to mention the upcoming The Expanse) fit the niche nicely. While we’re waiting on Leckie’s trilogy-capper and the next new televised space adventure, here are nine space opera universes to fill your SF thrill quota.

The Paradox Trilogy, by Rachel Bach
Rachel Bach’s SF debut trilogy (Fortune’s Pawn, Honor’s Knight, and Heaven’s Queen) is one hell of a ride. Take equal parts Star Wars, Firefly, and Iron Man, mix, and shake well. The result is a fast, energetic space opera that has all the bells and whistles: kick-ass heroine, scrappy starship crew, power armor, strange alien conspiracies, and plenty of action. The series follows Devi Morris, a former soldier and mercenary who signs on to The Glorious Fool. The ship has attracted a reputation for getting into trouble, and before long, the bullets are flying as Morris finds that there’s more to the vessel and its mission than she ever could have guessed.

The Psi-Tech series, by Jacey Bedford
In Jacey Bedford’s new Psi-Tech series, telepaths are used across the galaxy by enormous interstellar corporations to help them keep a competitive edge as they hunt for resources. In the first installment, Empire of Dust, we meet Cara Carlinni, a telepath who is on the run, pursued by her former employer after she discovered massive corruption within the company. She’s been evading them for a year, and they’re edging ever closer. In the followup, Crossways, Carlinni and fellow escapee Ben Benjamin have taken refuge on a far-flung space station with a group of fellow renegades. While trying to avoid the attention of two major corporations, they embark on a search for a missing space ark, determined to save its passengers.

Star Risk Ltd., by Chris Bunch
Chris Bunch died a decade ago, but his Star Risk Ltd. books remain a lot of fun to read. M’chel Riss is hired away from the Alliance Marines by a company called Star Risk Ltd, which will take on any mission—for a price. Their first job? Spring a dangerous supersoldier from a high-security prison. Plenty of action and intrigue, not to mention memorable characters, mean the books more than live up to the engaging premise. The series also includes The Scoundrel WorldsThe Doublecross Program and the posthumously published The Dog From Hell and The Gangster Conspiracy.

The Alliance-Union Sequence, by C.J. Cherryh
If you’re looking for space opera classics, C.J. Cherryh could pretty much populate a dedicated list. Her Alliance-Union Sequence is one of the best-known ongoing series in science fiction (and was noted as a primary inspiration by Ann Leckie). Starting with Downbelow Station, Cherryh has authored an impressive 27 novels in the series, set among stations and worlds throughout human space. Cherryh stages the action between colonists, corporations, and Earth, and there’s enough various environments and characters to keep readers entertained for another 30 years.

Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi
In Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut, Alana Quick is a starship mechanic who signs on to a crew of a very, very strange ship in order to search for her spiritually-advanced sister, Nova. The strange happenings on board the Tangled Axon are the least of her worries: Nova is in a considerable amount of danger, and someone out there is willing to destroy planets to get to her. Koyanagi injects gender and racial twists into traditional space opera DNA, making this book stand apart from the rest of the fleet.

The Warchild Trilogy, by Karin Lowachee
One of my favorite trilogies of all time. Her series, comprised of Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird, forms a loose trilogy, each novel following a different character. Jos Musey headlines Warchild; a former child slave and later trained as an assassin, he finds himself torn between loyalties to the alien civilization that saved him, and his own humanity. In Burndive, the son of a wealthy starship captain is targeted for assassination and sent off into space for protection. Cagebird follows Yuri Kirov, an imprisoned pirate captain given a second chance at freedom when he’s released and enlisted to act as a spy. Each novel connects to the other while standing alone, and all feature an exciting mix of action, piracy, and grey morality, as each character attempts to find their way in the universe.

The Alex Benedict series, by Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt has been quietly adding new stories to the long-running Alex Benedict series since 1989 (it now includes A Talent for War, Polaris, Seeker, The Devil’s Eye, Echo, Firebird, and Coming Home). The books follow Benedict, an antiquities dealer, and his assistant, Chase Kolpath, as they are embroiled in mystery after mystery as part of their trade in tracking rare items: long-vanished spacecraft, ancient relics, missing explorers, and lost colonial worlds. Each adventure takes the pair deep into space and puts them on the trail of a mystery, packing in plenty of action and adventure along the way.

In the Wake of the Templar’s Trilogy, by Loren Rhoads
Loren Rhoad’s trilogy is just beginning: The Dangerous Type was released earlier this summer, Kill Numbers hits September 1, and No More Heroes is due out later this year. The books are quite a bit of fun. Set 20 years after a galaxy-wide war, an assassin named Raena Zacari has been freed after being entombed for two decades. Now, she’s on the hunt for Thallian, a war criminal who had enslaved and later trapped her in stasis for years. For his part, Thallian is ready to sacrifice everything he’s got to put her in the ground permanently. Set during and after the fall of a galactic empire, this series is space opera’s answer to grimdark fantasy.

The Icarus Hunt, by Timothy Zahn
While Timothy Zahn is best known for his work in the Star Wars universe, his non-franchise novels are also excellent. We’ve previously gushed about his Conqueror’s Trilogy, but one of my absolute favorite space operas is Zahn’s standalone adventure The Icarus Hunt. Jordan McKell hires a crew to transport a special cargo across the galaxy. They’re not told what it is, only where they’re going. They head out with only one important direction: make sure that the alien Patthaaunutths don’t get their hands on the cargo. That’s harder than it sounds, as they’re the ones with a tight grip on interstellar transportation and shipping. There’s a Star Wars feel to this novel, and Zahn throws some unexpected twists and turns along the way to keep the reader guessing. The book stands alone, but hopefully we’ll see a new adventure in this universe someday.

What’s your favorite space opera?

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