So I’m going to lead with the conclusion on this one: C.M. Waggoner’s Unnatural Magic and The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry are both excellent, and I highly recommend them.
You know how a second ago, in an entry about the Penric books, I was talking about how breezy, enjoyable books are good, but it’s even better if they have other virtues? Yeah, this is an example of what I mean. Because these are fun, fast-reading books that kept me up super-late at night finishing them, but also they’re substantial and original. There’s great world-building, with an interesting magic system, and particularly with interesting cultures.
To expand on that last a bit: As the fantasy genre has picked up on more modern attitudes, it’s led to fantasy worlds that are less… well, heterosexual European-esque default cultures. And that’s great, but the failure mode that I increasingly see books falling into is taking twenty-first century attitudes and lifting them wholesale into fantasy worlds. As creative failures go, it beats the old-school unexamined defaults (today’s attitudes are better than yesterday’s, by and large), but it’s still leaving so much possibility on the table—historical societies have mostly been very different from modernity on whole bunches of axes. Fantasy worlds shouldn’t be perfectly reflective of modern mores and ideas any more than they should be of 1950s middlebrow mainstream American culture, they should be their own thing.
And Waggoner does that really well, with (for instance) a culture where gender is wholly unrelated to biological sex, but where characters from that culture are actually deeply shaped (and constrained) by the idea that these genders are the framing way to view people, even when those people are from other cultures that have different genders.
And those rich cultures lead to great (cross-cultural and otherwise) character interactions. These are fundamentally relationship books—they’re not quite romances, but they’re also not not romances, if that makes sense. (I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Waggoner came up through fanfic; there’s often a real relationship-centric vibe from authors who started that way, and I get that here.)
The two books are independent, each telling a complete story with their own sets of characters, but are related tangentially. I don’t know if more are coming, but this isn’t the kind of series where you need to wait for it to be completed before starting anyway. Go read them.