Tuesday, August 3, 2010

First Officer's Log No 9: Bitter, Sweet and Sour - The Curse of Reading Fantasy Series, or The Sequel That Never Came

I think everyone has that one (or 5 or 12) book(s) that alters one's perception of how books and writers actually operate. Sometimes, a book comes along that is brilliantly rendered, with a fantastic story, rich characters and superior writing. Then the writer announces a sequel. It will be an amazing sequel, with a fantastic story, rich characters and superior writing. It will trump the first volume and pave the way for more stories to create a new experience of the written word. We are assured of this by the writer, and, as readers, we sit back and wait.

Patiently. We wait. And wait. And we wait a little longer. And after awhile, we wander away to find something else to read, because this book that we were looking forward to doesn't appear. In the meantime, we discover a handful of other books by authors who prove a bit more reliable in their sequel-issuing, or we give up on the series altogether, because there are so many other books out there to read.

I confess that I'm one of those people who will wait, patiently(ish), for a new book in a series, especially if I have a particular fondness for the writing style or a certain character. I do admit, though, that I've lost a great deal of my patience for series, especially those that have been going on for several years and show no signs of stopping.

When an author commits to writing a series, I believe, then that author has something of an obligation to continue the series in some form. Even if the time between novels is bridged with short stories, that is still a continuation and it fulfills the desire of readers to spend more time in the fictional universe the author has created. This is the peril which fantasy writers seem to face, and since they are the writers whom I am most familiar with, they are the ones who will bear the brunt of my complaints.

A few years back, there was a novel that hit the fantasy market with a quiet little roar. A reasonably thick volume, it clocked in at just under 600 pages and told a remarkable story in the first person of a man who had become both the greatest legend and the greatest villain of his country in his own lifetime. What made the novel stand out from all the others that were released that year was the voice of the main character, a familiar yet disturbing presence, a man who knew exactly who and what he was, and made no apologies for his nature or what he had done. I was enchanted (do pardon the cliche) by the character and the storytelling style, and when I heard that the author had intended two additional volumes to round out his tale, and they would be published in the two subsequent years, I eagerly set aside enough money to pick up both books in hard cover. This was a writer worth my attention and my money, and so I waited, patiently, for March of the following year, when the second volume would be released.

Well. Three years later and still no peep of that rumored second volume. On a whim, a search of an online database reveals that the novel will be released in the spring of 2011, but I find myself lacking in interest. It isn't that I don't want to find out what happens to the fascinating character that I found myself invested in three years ago, it's that I'm not sure I want to commit to a book series that doesn't deliver its promised volumes. I realize that writers have other commitments in life, and that publishers are as much to blame for delays as anybody else might be, but when a writer can spend his or her time ranting on a blog (pot, kettle, yes I know) about writing as a profession, yet consistently fail to deliver even one shred of a new piece of writing (is a short story too much to ask?), then I'm not sure I want to support that writer.

The past ten years have certainly seen an influx of fantasy series. Every new writer on the fantasy scene appears to be striving to be the next Tolkien. Each new writer creates a vast new world, with critters and creatures, mages and nobles, warriors and pacifists. Each one creates a world so amazing that it cannot be contained within one novel. Such is the curse of the fantasy fan who discovers a new series, only to learn, later, that only Seven More Volumes Are Required to Tell The Story As A Whole.

Except that I don't want to read seven novels to read a complete story. Certain writers create series and draw them out for years and years, never telling a new part of the story, or adding more and more characters; perhaps a war takes place, and it will span three novels, and then a fourth will detail a new Big Bad Guy who must defeat the Heroic Good Guy. On and on it goes, until by the time a series is finally complete(ish), the author is dead and being survived as a ghost writer, or the reader who had interest in the author's series is in a different place, biblio-wise, and no longer interested.

I suppose this is the state I find myself in with regard to fantasy. If I were to really push it, I could suggest that I do enjoy a series of books, but two at the very most. Three books is pushing it; four, and the author's probably a ghost.*

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

* apologies to Dorothy Parker

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