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Fantasy novel series
delirium happy
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I have a theory that I would like to expound. It pertains to series of fantasy novels and goes something like this:

Any fantasy series, no matter how brilliantly it starts, will eventually turn to crap if it goes on for longer than about three or four novels.

My theory is that if you're limited to a small number of novels, you have to be careful, to condense the material you're conveying, and to be careful that everything you're writing actually advances the overall story arc. If you get too long, then you end up meandering a whole lot, and writing self-indulgent drivel rather than actually telling a story.

Evidence for the prosecution, exhibit A: Harry Potter.

Let's be honest here, everything in the Harry Potter series after Prisoner of Azkaban pretty much sucked. This isn't to say that the later books didn't have their moments (except for Half Blood Prince which was pure unadulterated dross) but there was a definite deterioration in quality there, as hype replaced merit as the prime selling point.

Exhibit B: The Sword of Truth.

Wizard's First Rule was a highly enjoyable book. Stone of Tears and Blood of the Fold were decent too. After that, things got pretty dreadful though. There's internal inconsistency. There's political allusion that's disturbingly in your face, and treats the reader like a moron. There's whole books in which absolutely nothing happens. And my own personal lowlight of the whole series, the 30 or so pages worth of graphic descriptions of rape, torture and cannibalism, just to try to get across the point that these people aren't actually very nice. The final book in the series recently came out and I'm looking forward to reading it not because I expect it to be any good, but because after that the arc of the characters I started to care about in the books that didn't suck will be over and I will never have to read another word of Goodkind's dross for the rest of my life.

Exhibit C: The Song of Ice and Fire.

This one's going to be controversial, I can tell. The fact of the matter is, though, that I gave up on this (initially excellent) series because I became bored out of my skull. I still have a bookmark in my copy of A Feast for Crows, but I've not read a word of it or months. The bookmark is at page 246 and absolutely nothing had happened in that book up to that point. This is made worse by the fact that it's always been a fairly heavy going series. This is fine when you're reading heavy going suspense, intrigue and drama, but heavy going nothing at all is pretty much entirely unreadable. Sorry, Song of Ice and Fire fans, but that's just how I feel.

Exhibit D: The Wheel of Time.

I'm not on such firm ground here, since I've never read this series, other than the first book, so I'm going off second hand reports only. However, most people I've heard from seem to think that it went very loose and meandery after a while in the middle. Opinion as to whether it picked up again afterwards seems to be divided, though.

Exhibit E: Anne Rice.

Enough said. Really.

I suspect that the same rule may also hold true for science fiction series, but I'm having a harder time thinking of examples there. The only ones coming to mind for me are Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (hands up, everyone who thought Mostly harmless was actually good?) and the Foundation Series (I'm one of the three people on the planet who actually liked Foundation's Edge (I have a weak spot for telepathy based stories) but Foundation and Earth was pretty terrible).

I'm trying to think up counter-examples, and not doing a particularly good job of it. The Discworld books may qualify, but they're a very different sort of series. Each Discworld book is its own self-contained story that just happens to be set in the same world, with only a very very loose ongoing continuity.

Can anyone think of any exceptions to my rule? Or any more examples that follow the rule?

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I agree. And submit The Dark is Rising series as another exhibit.

Dune is surely the best example ever. Downhill all the way after book 1 i.m.o.!

The first book was constructed like a mystery novel because of so much the reader doesn't know at the beginning. By the end you've found it out, so there's no going back to the unfolding-unknown-trajectory. I'm not sure if I've actually read all the others, but to the best of my recollection, all the ones I've read are "stuff happens, stuff happens" - not "this is mysterious - aha, now we find out what's going on".

Of course I am biased in that I like the mystery-unfolds structure - detective novels are some of my favourite reading.

my 2p :-)

Another exhibit:

The Odyssey series, by A. C. Clarke.

2001 & 2010 are both pretty good, 2061 changes the premise significantly and has a suckage of a few mili-Lovelace. Then 3001 comes out and the suckage tends to several kilo-Lovelace.

I know he tries to pass it all off, claiming each novel is not a direct sequel of the previous, but that sucks too.

Raymond Feist started good with Magician, then after the first trilogy embarked on the let's-milk-the-sh!t-out-of-this path.

Brian Jacques did the same with Redwall.

Counterexample: Katherine Kerr's Deverry series. Currently 14 books with a continuing story in three or four acts (four in the US, three in the UK - bloody marketing). It's one long story, really, but the focus shifts as characters change.

The mention of Pratchett suggests that there's a difference between "lots of stories set in the same invented universe" (which would also cover almost all of Tolkien) and "series in which we keep seeing the same character or other narrow focus."

Mystery novelists sometimes pull off very long series successfully, in part because the stories aren't primarily about the main character: Sue Grafton keeps telling us about Kinsey Millhone, but the books focus on the cases she's investigating, not Millhone's personal life.

A tricky point here is that "book" isn't a neatly defined unit. Three books in (out of an intended four) I think Sarah Monette's story about Felix, Mildmay, and their associates is holding up well--and those three books are as long as six or eight novels from forty years ago would have been. In a world where all publishing was electronic, they might be re-issued as a single work.

Another thing to consider: how are the long pieces being written? Asimov went back to Foundation after a very long hiatus. Pratchett takes breaks for other stories, and as you note doesn't keep focusing on the same characters (though he goes back to many of them). I gather the Wheel of Time (which I haven't read either) was the thing Jordan was doing, at least professionally, for quite a few years.

I've tried to many times to start reading Pratchett's books, failed every single time..

I'm reading the Wheel of Time at the moment and every book is a microcosm of the series as a whole (excluding book 12, not finished/released yet, and Jordon died a few weeks ago *rage*). The series starts off well, gets really exciting, then drags and drags and drags and drags and there's some travelling, some fighting, some using the power, some splodes and then the book's over. Right now I'm only pushing on with them because I've started and hate leaving stories unfinished - same with stories in games.

Exhibit E: Anne Rice. Enough said. Really.

I lol'd so hard, and agree whole-heartedly with everything spoken and unspoken in the above sentence.

Exhibit E: Anne Rice.

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

*ahem*

This one's probably gonna be controversial (since I've tested this theory before and no one's agreed with me so far), but I think Orson Scott Card's Ender series is one of these examples. I personally think that the series took a sharp turn downwards after Speaker For The Dead, and most people I know who profess to LOVE this series never read past Xenocide. To me, Card just ran out of interesting things to say and started either reveling in just how convoluted he could make his books (*points at Xenocide) or just began repeating himself and falling victim to predictable, self-indulgent story lines (Shadows of the Hegemon is awful for much the same reasons that Half Blood Prince is).

Treat the Discworld as several series set in the same universe, as this article does http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discworld_reading_order

Then we can decide whether The City Watch books are rubbish after Men At Arms and if the Witches jumped the shark at Witches Abroad etc.

(Deleted comment)
I think Mercedes Lackey managed to do this a lot whenever she tried to go for same timeframe, it got repetitive. Whenever she explored the history of her fictional world, it got interesting, though.

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