Literary musings: Serial stories

Originally published in March 2004.

What is it with sci-fi and fantasy authors? Can't they write a story that's contained within one book? Is it greed, is it inability or unwillingness to finish the story, is it a continuation of the tradition of serializing novels in newspapers and magazines, or is it something else altogether? Is Tolkien (or rather his publisher) to blame?

You can probably guess by this that I don't particularly like reading an endless series of books that together make up one huge epic. I like it even less when there is no indication of this to be found on the cover and I buy a book thinking it's a stand-alone story and then discover I've bought volume 12 of a 25 volume epic. Gimme a break!

Trilogies are OK, unless they run to 1500 pages per volume, but more books than that - no way. If they are collected in one volume later on I may be tempted to invest in it, but I will not spend my money on a series that goes on and on with no end in sight. It doesn't matter how good it is. What if the author died or the publisher went bankrupt? I would never see the conclusion of the story and it would nag me endlessly.

I came to this resolution after I once started reading a gothic fantasy series that dealt with a large family of witches, starting in the 16th or 17th century and stretching onwards to modern times (I think the last book ended in what was then the future). The books were well written, the historical aspects were detailed and largely correct and there were some interesting sex scenes (hey, I was a teenager, full of hormones and curiosity).

After reading about 10 books I realised three things:
1) that I would have to read every single book in the order of publication to be able to understand goings-on in later books,
2) it would go on for years, and
3) I didn't have the patience.

So I stopped reading them.

As it turned out, I was right on all accounts. The author created a complicated family tree and it was vitally important to know what had happened to who and who was descended from whom; in the end there were more than 40 books of about 150-200 pages each; and when the series came to an end the author began another one about what happened afterwards. According to a friend who read them all, the quality kept on declining the closer the books got to the 20th century. By that time I had long lost interest in this kind of literature and was reading books in which realism reigned supreme (I have since come back to fantasy).

However, I have nothing against books from series that happen in the same fantasy world and even feature the same characters, as long as each book is a separate and complete story and you don't need a "companion" or guide to figure out plot elements or the reasons why major characters are like they are. I used to quite like Piers Anthony's Xanth (before it got silly and repetitious) and I still love Terry Pratchett's Discworld. In both series, having read the other books helps you understand the characters and the worlds better, but a reader unfamiliar with the series can still safely pick up any book in the series and enjoy it on its own.

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