Let’s Talk Big Arcs

I seem to be on a reading jag of what I’m calling Big Cultural Arcs, and I’d love suggestions of what else to read. My base criteria is that they had a significant impact upon our culture/society, enough to become part of our cultural narrative. I’m mostly not looking for stand-alone titles. I’m reading Big Series that make me think about ourselves and our world. I’m aware this is a very Western list, and would love to see some non-Western suggestions as well.

I’m also aware that below I’ve left out a lot of amazing series, but I’m not looking for merely great stories: Reacher, Nora, Stephanie Plum, Sherlock, Bond, Outlander, etc. I’m looking for those big, impactful arcs.

The list I have so far seems to fall into 3 main categories.

There have been some very impactful ones of these. Even though they’re mostly single book, I felt I needed to include them, though most are epically long, which counts, I suppose.
Roots, Lonesome Dove, The Thorn Birds, Clan of the Cave Bear, (please never mention Follet’s Pillars of Earth in my presence, just a cautionary warning)

Narnia, Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Twilight
Not as impactful, but too significant to ignore?
Planet Trilogy (CS Lewis), Dark Materials, Dark Tower, Wheel of Time, Earthsea Trilogy

Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, Dune, McCaffrey’s dragons, Ender series (maybe)

(could only think of one…which I hated almost as much as Pillars of Earth)
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least a few in other media, but this isn’t the focus of what I’m after:
Star Wars, Star Trek, Downton Abbey, Upstairs/Downstairs, Firefly, The Expanse(?), MCU (Marvel), Jane Austen, Avatar the Last Airbender (doubt this one? just ask your kids), Friends & Big Bang,…

I’d love to hear your suggestions in the Comments below of what favorite Big Cultural Arc I should be reading next and why you loved it! Also feel free to message me directly if you prefer to not share publicly.

Thanks so much for playing along.

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66 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Big Arcs”

  1. Émile Zola
    When I was 12 or so I started to read his books randomly. My mother told me it is too heavy for a young mind. OK it was but I read as much as I found. In a way it shaped my opinion for the tolerance, for the genders and the outside world around my family circle.
    Try it, re-read it 🙂

    1. Haven’t read these. Been a long time since I was reading the French classics (though I did go through a bout of the Russians recently). Suggestions on where to begin?

  2. Mary Beth Bubert

    I recommend the Beach House series by Mary Alice Monroe. They are fiction but focus on conservative and the environment without being one focused on the “Green New Deal” or the climate change hawks. This series take place in South Carolina and its outer banks islands and the turtles.

  3. Val Silvestroni

    Dear Mr Buchman,
    I find you SF list alarmingly lacking, so I respectfully suggest:

    Asimov’s Foundation saga marked a whole generation (besides, it coined terms like “robotics”, was the only series ever to receive Hugo Award’s “best all-time series”, and I’ll stop here. Sorry, I’m a fan. Still.)
    Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers launched a whole genre: the space Marines!
    Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey… well, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

    There are others, of course. But these three marked the genre.

    1. Foundation, Robots, and the merger. Major forehead smack! Have read them all. Same with 2001, 2010. I’ve read a lot of Clarke & a lot of Heinlein. Never got into Troopers (probably due to a high school friend who wouldn’t shut up about them. 🙂 ) Thanks

  4. You might want to try anything written by F. M. Busby but especially the novels in his saga of the Hulzein family.

  5. Alyson Goodey

    What a great idea. It might not be your thing but have you looked at Alexander McCall smith’s No 1 Ladies detective agency. There are a number in that series. Set in Botswana.

  6. Terrel Hoffman

    Hi Matt,
    For Fantasy you can’t go wrong with Robin Hobb. They have several series with sweeping culture-altering themes.

  7. Lorraine Lanning

    Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover and Avalon
    Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series
    Poldark, a great book series made into a TV series, interesting history of Welsh tin mining, culture
    Bernard Cornwell, anything, Sharpe’s and Saxon Tales especially

    I also hated Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

    1. Ooo, several new ones! Loved the Avalon books. Thanks.
      Yeah, Dragon Tattoo. Both of them just too damn stupid to live. Worse than carry a candle into the cellar wearing a nightgown. “It’s a trap. Hello? It’s still a trap!” Sigh!

  8. Start with “A Woman of Substance” written by Barbara Taylor Bradford.

    Also Irish Winters’ series “In the Company of Snipers”

  9. Just listing favorites: Robert B Parker’s “Spenser,” L. Frank Baum’s “Oz,” and Georgette Heyer’s Regencies (and Georgians.)

    1. Good list. I’ve only read a couple of each. Keep meaning to read the complete Oz at a minimum. Maybe after I retire…Ha! Like writers ever do that.

  10. The Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. The first couple are more parodies of current fantasy for those times, but by the third or fourth book he started settling it to really do his world building. His Discworld books have sub series that focus on Death, the Witches, and the Watch, along with the later books that seem to cover the industrial revolution. If you just want one big arc, try looking for the ones that focus on the Watch. For his books with social just built in, The Watch can’t be beat. Both funny and deeply angry at injustices. But if you have the time, reading all of the books in publishing order will offer rewards in understanding more of what’s going on in the background, than if you just read some of them. Basically they can stand alone, but they build on what comes before.

    The Vorkosigan Saga books by Lois McMaster Bujold are also amazing., and have many fans. These are Science Fiction.

    1. Oh, Bujold is Amazingly Amazing! And I’ve never had time to touch the Vorkosigan Sata. Thank you for the nudge back to them. Discworld, yep, check!

      1. Debbie Prather

        Bujold has another series besides the Vorkosigans (which includes A Civil Campaign, my favorite of the series: funny, one of the best love letters ever, and satisfying comeuppance to some twits and villains, and you’ll enjoy it even more if you read the others prior to it in sequence).
        The other series is Fantasy- The Sharing Knife, full of adventure and characters you’ll love.
        (I have to say thank you for your wonderful military and firefighter books, WHPF, the Miranda Chase series, Heart of the Cotswolds, and finally, Big Sky Dog Whisperer, which is how I discovered you!)

        1. More Bujold to read! Yay! (I love Big Sky Dog Whisperer! I just reread it last week as prep for a new dog trilogy and it still makes me sniffle and laugh just like when I wrote it.)

  11. Hi Matt,
    For modern: The Scarecrow and the Jack West series by Matthew Reilly. They are a good read.

    I also really enjoyed your Delta Force and Night Stalkers series. It inspired me to take up writing again.

  12. The Lady Astronaut series starting with The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. Fascinating SFnal alternate world series where a meteor strikes Chesapeake Bay in the early 1950s and it’s an extinction level event because of all the water that goes up so the Space Race occurs a decade earlier to get us off this rock. All from the perspective of a female mathematician who predicts that the end is near if not nigh and wants to be an astronaut so ends up bucking all the social things that says she shouldn’t. Has a LOT to say about society, race, sexism, culture and how much things stay the same no matter how different they are. In Fantasy, A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons (start with The Ruin of Kings) and Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Questions about whether the protagonist is the hero or the villain or both. Kuang’s work comes from a non-western perspective while Lyons series just keeps getting bigger and better at every turn basically about how we really do make our gods in our own image and just how badly that works.

  13. Jeanne Lawrence

    Pat McIntosh’s Gil Cunningham mysteries — set in medieval Scotland
    Agatha Christie — her Miss Marple books and short stores
    Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron’s Galdalara series
    Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe
    Anne McCaffrey — not just the Dragon Rider series but also Brainships series and the Talent/Tower & Hive series
    Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series
    David Weber’s Honor Herrington series
    James White’s Sector General stories. Hospital in space taking all comers, no matter how different.
    Elizabeth Moon’s Pakenarrion and Paladin series.
    Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series — for YA, based on Celtic folklore
    Alexandre Dumas
    Jules Verne for very early science fiction
    Louis L’Amour’s books about the Sackett family

  14. Anything written by Nalini Singh.

    Octavia Randolph’s Circle of Ceridwyn Saga.

    Kresley Cole – The Arcana Chronicles

  15. Jeanne Hurley

    Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden series (korval.com). A friend who became a fan on my recommendation texted me when a new book became available that it was like coming home.

    I also loved Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series.

    Modern English (Oxford) m/m romance – Alexis Hall’s Spires series.

  16. I logged in to mention the Asimov books but some one beat me too it.

    Other Science Fiction, I remember reading is The Chronicles of Amber in the late 70s. I found the first series good with a very appealing main character. I never made it through the later series of the 80s as the tone changed slightly and the characters weren’t not as interesting to me. The Lensmen also is a very engaging read though to be fair I found it rather bad when I revisited it in the 90’s. . While not a series per say I would highly recommend rereading Heinlein. Starship troopers, Stranger in a strange land, time enough for love, The cat who walks through walls, Puppet Masters, and Job: A comedy of Justice. Friday is a fun read but more of a straight adventure story.

    Didn’t notice anyone mentioning Edgar Rice Burroughs… a little out dated to read but they sure were enjoyable to me in the 70’s.

    Piers Anthony..
    The Xanth books are fun to read a little silly maybe a lot silly.
    The Apprentice Adept series
    Incarnations of Immortality. Probably his best work.

    I guess I am one of the few who totally enjoyed all the Girl with the dragon tattoo, though the latest by the different author are not as well written.

    I would add for more spy oriented type of books….
    Personally growing up MY all time favorite reads as a series are:
    Adam Hall Quiller books…. a James Bond type who doesn’t carry guns. Very thought provoking and more psychological in nature. SRobert Parker – Spencer… carries his emotions on his sleeve, rules are very important for him
    Then on the opposite spectrum Donald Hamilton’s, Matt Helm series. In some ways a anti hero. Totally opposite also of the films. I also highly recommend his single books for engaging characters and realism especially his westerns.

    finally the first 6-7 Tom Clancy Jack Ryan books, they fall off rather quickly as the later become more commercial in my mind.

    Westerns… The Sackett books of Louis L’Amour, I would also include two of his singles, How the West Was Won and Last of the Breed.

    TV. You haven’t missed much though the Watchmen can be very interesting though the most recent series is a bit disjointed.
    Personally if you enjoyed reading the Parker books,
    I would recommend the Jesse Stone tv movies.

    1. All the Heinleins – though I found the last few where he tried to take all his disparate writings and force them into a single universe to be very annoying.
      Loved the first three Tom Clancys, then they stop even pretending to edit him. Sigh!
      Yep on L’Amour.
      Forehead smack: Barsoom, Tarzan, Verne, Wells (read most of those)
      Varley’s Amber is pretty iconic.
      My wife’s a fan of Jesse Stone (I haven’t had time for them yet…too busy writing).
      Thanks for the others.

  17. Crystal Kenmuir

    HP, Twilight, and Card sent me down the path of various SF and Fantasy that haven’t been mentioned yet. I ended up reading a lot of urban fantasy and paranormal romance as well. Some authors you may enjoy are Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Jeaniene Frost, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, Richelle Mead, JR Ward, and Nalini Singh (love her Psy-Changelings and Guild Hunter series). I still go back to re-read some YA (very fluffy reads) as well… Cassandra Clare, P.C. Cast, Eoin Colfer, Lian Hearn, Rick Riordan, Cate Tiernan, Charlaine Harris, and Anthony Horowitz). Suzanne Brockmann, Catherine Mann, and Allison Brennan led me to your books!

    1. Thanks for these. I’ve been on a bit of a YA binge as well (not that I’ll probably ever try to write it), but it is fun and keeps me thinking.

  18. Brenda M Cathcart

    I’ll second some of the previous suggestions since those are ones I was going to suggest. F.M. Busby is a must! Lois McMaster Bujold’s Voskosigan series presents all sorts of cultural choices. Many of the books are just plain fun while others have a more serious tone. I will add L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Corean Chronicles. Have fun.

  19. Debbie Sturdevant

    What a great idea! I love seeing many of the ones I thought of listed here and others I am not familiar with but look interesting.
    Stephen Donaldson’s ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever’ six book set of fantasy. I really started out hating the reluctant hero, Thomas Covenant. The story draws you in anyway and changed how I felt about many things. It sticks with you a LONG time.
    Belva Plain wrote a family saga about the Werner’s. ‘Evergreen’ in particular stuck with me for so many years. Loved it. Five books in this series, all good sized.
    ‘The Belgariad series’ by David Eddings is one I read many years ago. My husband loved it and then both my son and daughter loved it. He had others that were also excellent.
    ‘Daughters of the Glen’ by Melissa Mayhue is a series based in Scotland throughout different times in history. This is total fantasy but very readable and enjoyable.
    I really like time travel stories, my favorite series being ‘Outlander’ of course! One of my other favorites that had spin-offs written in different times, were all connected by ancestors. ‘The Highlander Series’ started it by Janet Chapman. Rival and warring Highlanders from the distant past found themselves tossed into the present day state of Maine. A bit of a different spin on the typical time travel story.
    A single title, currently out of print but probably can be found (ABE.com maybe) is ‘Decipher’ by Steve Pavlou. As far as I have been able to find, he only wrote two books. I have both of them and have had four copies of Decipher. If I didn’t have a copy in my possession, I found myself dreaming about this story.
    I find since I retired from being a librarian after 35 years, I have found myself forgetting too many important titles. My patrons loved family sagas and we had many over the years, I wish I could remember more for your project. Have fun!

    1. This is a great list. I seriously enjoyed Eddings. Got through a couple of Outlander. Highlanders in Maine, I’ve gotta try that, I went to college in Maine so it holds a weak place in my brain. I’ve also helped edit a couple of Highlander style T-T Rom, way fun. I plowed through Covenant, but didn’t like him any better in the end than the beginning. LOL!

  20. Terrel Hoffman

    Hi again Matt,
    Consider Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. When I finished it I knew I’d taken a complete emotional journey. It’s a single book.

  21. R. F. Delderfield’s Swann family saga : God is an Englishman, Theirs Was The Kingdom and Give Us This Day

  22. My suggestions are the Old Souls Trilogy starting with Discovery of Witches, the author is Deborah Harkness. She has skilfully woven people of historical significance into the story lines. Another is the trilogy starting with Labyrinth by Kate Mosse and finally a King Arthur and Merlin series by M.K. Hume. These are woven through historical timelines. Hope they help, cheers and good reading. Lyn

  23. Kristine Ten-Eyck

    I have to echo the recommendation of F.M. Busby’s series – it starts with Rissa Kerguelan, pulls in Bran Tregare and then morphs into the Hulzein family series.
    Another shout out for Raymond Feist – I especially liked his Daughter of the Empire series, which is a spin-off of the Magician series he orginally stated with.
    Other authors mentioned about that also deserve reinforcement: Patricia Briggs, Nalini Singh, David Weber, Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Mercedes Lackey…

    Here are some authors I didn’t see above, and I highly recommend all of them, but particularly Wen Spencer and Kylie Chan:
    1. Kylie Chan -The Dark Heavens series (which is a set of 3 consecutive trilogies) is more of a look at the eastern mythos and it got me really interested in learning more about the Chinese myths and gods and such.
    2. Kevin Hearne – Iron Druid series
    3. P.M. Griffin – Star Commandos series. It is older, but I re-read the series every year to 18 months –
    4. Michelle Sagara – Chronicles of Elantra – fantasy, but some really interesting concepts and her lead character is great
    5. Wen Spencer – Elfhome series – The Elfhome series – it is a combination of fantasy, science fiction and just good old fashioned story-telling.
    6. Tamora Pierce – supposedly YA, but the books set in Tortall keep me coming back to re-read on almost an annual basis. She normally writes in a series of 4, with the next series of 4 linking back to previous books but based around a new set of main characters.

  24. All three of my fantasy series are in the same universe, but Hinky Chicago and especially Coed Demon Sluts are “big arc” more than the Slackers. Same characters in each series; each series touches pinkies with the next.

  25. I recognize a lot of books already mentioned and am making a list of ones to check out.

    Jack Campbell – The Lost Fleet. SF – Space Military genre – A man is revived from 100+ years of suspended animation and leads the space fleet back home across enemy space.

    And I’ll 2nd & 3rd Nalini Singh (both Psy-Changeling and Archangel series) and Ilona Andrews – everything by Ilona & Gordon.

  26. I would recommend the Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series. It follows the titular character from her time as a nurse in WWI, her career as a private detective and occasionally secret agent, all the way into (so far) WWII. Very well plotted with lots of gritty details about day to day life in Britain and other places in Europe.

  27. Dorsai series of books by Gordon Dickson. Excelent sories and interactions of distinctly different planetary cultures.

    Looking forward to a few new-to-me writers and their stories. I also 2nd Asimov, Heinlein, Singh, Bujold – check the Komarr series

    1. Hmmm… Dorsai. I might have leaned on that in one of my first attempts to write a warrior race. That reminds me of Blish’s Cities in Flight which I found even more interesting. Thanks for the reminder.

  28. Late catching up with newsletters, sorry. 🙂

    SF: David Brin’s Uplift books, starting with Sundiver and Startide Rising. Once he gets going, in the actual Uplift Trilogy, his aliens are imaginative and very alien.

    SF: Larry Niven’s Known Space series, speaking of imaginative aliens. This is freaking huge, with novels and short stories, and there’s no fixed reading order, although sub-series within Known Space are usually ordered. Niven’s a master.

    SF: Steve Perry’s Matador series. Starts with The Man Who Never Missed, great story about a guy taking on a military force invading his planet by himself, and goes on from there.

    SF: Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Sime series. Can be read in publishing (first book: House of Zeor) or chronological (first book: First Channel) order. Sort of post-apoc, although this is pre-Mad Max, and the world is not a dessicated wasteland. Something (and we never find out what exactly) caused humanity to split into two subspecies — conflict ensues. Lichtenberg likes to explore different ways people (or aliens, in other series) can have relationships (aside from the romantic) and this was her first run at it. New and different ideas, she never got the attention she should have.

    SF: Kate Elliott’s Jaran series, first book is Jaran. This is SF, but most of the first book has a fantasyish feel, with the primary protag marooned on a low-tech planet. Great world/culturebuilding, combined (as the series progresses) with some good galactic politicking.

    Fantasy: Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series. Magic and religion and politics, without ignoring character. Good stuff.

    Fantasy: Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series. One of the most original magic systems I’ve run into. This series crossed over from the fantasy aisle in the bookstore and became incredibly popular with the romance crowd of its day.

    Fantasy: Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series. Late 19th and early 20th century, with magic. Plotlines riff off of fairy tales and other iconic stories. Start with The Serpent’s Shadow, about a young woman who’s half English and half Indian, with a medical degree and magical ability, determined to practice as a doctor in London.

    Fantasy: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain series, started back in the late 70s and continued well into the 21st century. The first romantic vampire series, before it was cool. Influenced generations of writers after her. Starts with Hotel Transylvania, but note that I get the strong impression that when she wrote it, she intended it as a stand-alone. Saint Germain, her vampire, is very different in HT from the Saint Germain of the rest of the series. It’s an interesting phenomenon for a writer to observe. 🙂 These are mostly historicals, set through thousands of years and all over the world. My favorites are the Roman books, about Olivia. Don’t miss the short story collection — “Cabin 33” is great fun and worth the price of the book by itself. 🙂

    Family Saga: John Jakes’s Kent Family Chronicles (first book: The Bastard) was huge in the 70s when it came out; the bicentennial fever boosted it quite a lot. They made TV movies of the first few books, which I enjoyed watching, even as a kid.

    Other Media: Doctor Who was incredibly popular in the original series, and has gotten moreso with the new series, plus the spin-offs.

    Other Media: Babylon 5 (the first four seasons, anyway) demonstrated that you could run season-long or even series-long story arcs and the fans would show up for them, and appreciate the richer, more complex stories you could tell in the longer format. B5 is the major divider between TV series as all stand-alone episodes, with the occasional two-parter, and TV series where each season has an over-all story arc. [It was done before — the first season of Murder One dealt with a single legal case, and it was awesome, but the showrunners chickened out and went back to multiple cases in season two. The show didn’t last long after that.]

    Other Media: the Centennial miniseries from the late 70s. Not as big as Roots, but was pretty huge, with a large chunk of the US watching.

    Agree that Busby’s Hulzein family saga is excellent — he’s one of the few SF writers who goes interstellar while using relativistic time dilation, rather than sneaking around it with wormholes or warp drive or something.

    Definitely make time for Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. She’s all-around awesome, but her worldbuilding is particularly wonderful.



    1. Holy wow, Angie! Thanks for taking the time to create such a great list. Much appreciated! I’ve got this all tracked for future reading (near future for as much of it as I can).

  29. Try Anne Bishop. The Black Jewels books. It starts with a trilogy then she has added on. Great alternate life and a new way of looking at hell.

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