Heroic Fantasy tends to come in series. It’s a well known fact. Only look at the classics. Lord of the Rings. Elric. Earthsea. Notable stand-alone fantasy books are quite the rarety.
In fact, it’s hardly a new observation to point out that the biggest-selling fantasy series of the last decade or two seem to be of more volumes than ever, and those volumes thicker than ever. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – slated to be 7 books of apparently ever-increasing girth. Goodkind’s Sword of Truth – 10 doorsteps of fantasy. Jordan’s Wheel of Time – 12 huge big books. Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (not as big selling perhaps, but certainly very well rated among the fantasy in-crowd) – 10 whacking volumes. In the core market of epic fat-fantasy, therefore, the trend seems to be for series that are fatter than ever.
Which is why it has often struck me as odd that the most common criticism I read of The Blade Itself is one along these lines, from King Rat (and I’m really hoping he’s a human that calls himself a rat, rather than actually a rat that types) over at Rat’s Reading:
“I will say right up front, that this book has no conclusion. That’s not always a bad thing in series fantasy writing. I know several people who prefer long series with no conclusion until the end. I don’t like it, but I can put up with it for good writing. I’d prefer my series to be separate yet intertwined stories. This is not a story in itself. It is the first part of one.”
On occasion the responses to this perceived lack of closure are slightly … more intense. These from my worst two reviews on Amazon.co.uk:
“I know loads of people seem to love this book but I just don’t see it. It is the most blatant ‘read on in book 2’ opening novel that I’ve ever read. When I read a book, I like it to have a story that is completed. Nothing is completed within these pages. Shame, really.”
“It’s all set up for something to happen in later books but I read a book for something to happen now, not in volume six. If this novel actually had a plot and a satisfying conclusion I would have been tempted to buy later volumes. I don’t really know if the plot is any good, because it isn’t here. Maybe it’s in volume six?”
Well, very sorry about that, kind sirs, but, you know, it does say Book One on the cover, and … and … there are only going to be three books actually … so … I mean … sirs? Sirs! Please come back sirs!
Of course, there are many different ways to write a series as far as continuity and long-term plotting go. You don’t necessarily have to leave your readers hanging, at least, not that much. Two extremes of approach suggest themselves. One is perhaps close to a classic crime or western series – a set of books that feature the same central character or characters, often in similar settings and situations, each time tackling a new and self-contained problem. A TV example might be one of my old favourites, Star Trek: Next Generation. Each episode is a self-contained scenario, neatly wrapped up after an hour, and the status quo is pretty much always regained at the end, ready for the next adventure. Long-term story arcs and character developments are kept to a minimum, and usually there’s nothing to stop you jumping in at the start of any episode and still having a pretty good notion what’s going on. Scott Lynch’s celebrated Gentleman Bastards sequence (first book – Lies of Locke Lamora) would seem to be close to this approach. That isn’t to say that it lacks long-term arcs or development necessarily, just that each book is a single, self-contained story, but linked and featuring the same central characters.
At the other extreme are series that make minimal attempts at narrative closure with each book or episode, perhaps just ending at a suitably important event, but leaving very little resolved in terms of overall plot. Often with these type of series long term development of characters is to the fore. Examples from TV? Why, none other than my favourite SF/F show of recent years, Heroes, or my favourite TV show of any kind, the utterly masterful in every department The Wire. In the case of The Wire each series is a single, sprawling investigation, with numerous threads left running between series. It’s confusing enough if you’ve seen every episode, let alone if you try and jump in halfway. The First Law is much closer to this approach. In effect, the trilogy is a single book, split into three parts at (relatively) suitable moments.
Of course, there are many positions between these two extremes. Not-quite as good as the Wire but pretty damn bloody-good cop show thankyou very much the Shield is one example. Each episode tends to revolve around a single case, often tied up before the hour is up, and you could probably still jump in anywhere and still basically get the picture, but each series has its own long-term plotlines, developments and themes. Most fantasy series would seem to occupy this middle ground to some degree.
So what approach is best? An impossible one to answer, since every book or TV series includes a whole range of different factors and every reader or viewer brings different tastes to the table. Plus series both of books and TV often develop as they go along, starting more episode-orientated and becoming steadily more series-orientated. There are certain advantages to both approaches, though. In the case of the self-contained book or episode, there is definitely a satisfaction for the reader or viewer in reaching the end of a part and seeing the various plot-threads come together. They are not left irritatedly drumming their fingers for a week to see the next episode (by which time they may have forgotten some of the previous one) or a year for the next book (by which time, fantasy being generally pretty complicated, they are sure to have forgotten quite a bit of the detail). There is therefore an instant pay-off. With the more drawn-out story, there can still be a satisfaction to the characters and the situations as you go, but the big pay-off really comes at the end (providing it’s done well, of course), as the reader sees the disparate plot threads come together and appreciates the way the journey has gone. With the Shield you enjoy every episode, with the Wire you find yourself a bit non-plussed after the first few of a series, intrigued after the next few, and then stunned by the ingenuity of the writers as the apparently unrelated components come together in unexpected ways.
Now in TV there has been a definite shift in recent years from the Star Trek ‘episode based’ approach, to the Heroes ‘series based’ (or even longer term) approach. Shows like The Sopranos have been hugely successful, despite often not resolving plotlines at all, let alone tying off an episode neatly. The focus here is much more on the characters, and their responses to situations, rather than the resolutions of plot. It isn’t really about what happens to Tony in the end, it’s about what he does on the way there, and why. Broadening the discussion to include a review of an author other than me (which of course I never like to do), this from John Berlyne over at SFRevu onPatrick Rothfuss’ highly successful debut The Name of the Wind:
“More of an issue for me though is the way in which The Name of the Wind fails to adequately resolve its plot lines … It seems to me that currently there is change going on in fantasy – the concept of the trilogy is being redefined. It used to be that such a sequence of novels would tell three separate, but linked and above all complete stories, events overlapping and influencing each other, but with each narrative having a definitive and satisfyin
g resolution at the end. This is not so with The Name of the Wind … it reads as the long first act in a story split three ways and the impression it left me with, after 650 pages, was of something unfinished and therefore unsatisfying.”
The shift Mr. Berlyne observes seems similar to the one taking place in TV, and I wonder if the two are related at all and part of a larger trend – if there is a general shift in entertainment towards more long-term story arcs and away from more traditional one story per episode entertainment. Certainly I feel that recent TV shows like The Sopranos have been a big influence on the way that I put my stories together – possibly a much greater influence than other recent genre books which (honestly) I don’t tend to read that much of.
But it is worth noting that there has been a corresponding shift in the way that TV is watched – a lot of people now download programs or buy them on DVD, perhaps then watching whole series in a few days, rather than spread out over a dozen weeks. This approach particularly favours shows like The Wire, where one can more easily take in the complexity of the whole series in a few sittings. There has been no corresponding shift with genre books. They’re still published, in general, no faster than one a year. In the case of many of the more popular series, they’re published an awful lot slower than that. Waiting a week for the next installment in an unresolved plot can be a pain. Waiting five years for one is something more serious.
But then The Lord of the Rings, surely the sun around which all epic fantasy orbits, makes little effort to wrap up its individual books on anything more than a relatively important moment. No-one ever seems to criticise Fellowship of the Ring for leaving a lot of threads dangling. Perhaps that is the key thing about long arcs. They can be frustrating while readers drum their fingers waiting for the next installment, but once the series stands complete, and the reader can just go and get the next one off the shelf (providing the author didn’t make a balls-up of the ending) such issues are soon forgotten.
With respect to The First Law, at least, I guess only time will tell …
Man that was long. Really better do some actual writing now.