Editorial February 2001 A Surfeit of Series? By Hilary Williamson
Have you noticed the prevalence of series in fiction lately? It seems to be a strong trend, whether the kind that follows character(s) through multiple books or the sort of series that breaks a story up into a set of novel sized chunks. Of course, one can see the attraction for author, publisher and reader. The former develop a captive audience, a known market and brand familiarity. The latter usually gets to buy a known quality, though with occasional disappointment (more and more it seems lately).
The Mystery genre has typically given us character series, in which we get to glimpse the development of a particular protagonist (or set of them) in different settings across the years. Some long running successes amongst this type are: Lindsey Davis's Didius Falco mysteries set in Imperial Rome; Elizabeth George's police procedurals featuring the aristocratic Thomas Lynley and his dogged partner Barbara Havers; and Robert Tanenbaum's wonderful tales of Butch Karp, Marlene Ciampi, and their daughter Lucy. These authors have kept their works fresh by developing their characters' relationships and picking new settings and new motivations for mayhem each time.
On the other hand it doesn't always work. Other long running favorites of mine - Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody adventures and Robert Parker's Spenser series - are beginning to get stale, though the latter has cleverly re-invented his hero by re-packaging him as a young and attractive heroine named Sunny Randall in his new series that began in Family Honor. Even Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta stories are starting to lose their novelty - in this case, the author has introduced a new young lover to rejuvenate them.
Fantasy has taken a different approach in a trend towards epics that seem at times to be never-ending stories. It all started with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (at least that was the first trilogy that I encountered). Apparently the author himself wanted to break the story up into seven books - he was clearly ahead of his time! Robert Jordan set the trend and kept my interest with his first half dozen books in the Wheel of Time series, but it's getting hard to keep track of what's going on in his universe - and numbers eight and nine seem to have done little to advance the story.
The Eddings' Belgariad was lots of fun but their subsequent series have been too much more of the same and their latest Redemption of Althalus was a serious disappointment. George Martin set off to an exciting start in his saga of the Starks of Winterfell and it could have made a superb trilogy. But he filled A Storm of Swords with the groundwork needed to extend the series further and the book suffers in excessive complexity. So far I am delighted to see that my favorite fantasy author has not succumbed to series proliferation. Guy Gavriel Kay writes tales in one to three books (his most recent Sarantine Mosaic includes two), where each one is a complete story in itself.
Science fiction series tend to set new stories in a familiar universe or empire and usually avoid the traps of complexity and loss of focus that Fantasy can fall into. Unfortunately Herbert's Dune series is an exception to that, especially the recent additions to it. Another of my favorite authors, Anne McCaffrey has given us more soap than series in some of her later works such as her Rowan books. However Bujold's Vorkorsigan stories have been new and exciting each time and Elizabeth Moon did an equally good job until she ended Change of Command in what seemed like mid-story.
Series are clearly here to stay, due to reader demand as much as the marketing issues. Why are many becoming derailed? Perhaps it's the pressure to publish quickly or to squeeze just one more out of the production line before taking on the challenge of novelty. Fortunately many authors are continuing to write books that have beginnings and endings, with middles that do not require an advanced degree in Russian literature to decipher. And for readers, the series that do maintain their initial quality provide an 'old slippers' comfort and familiarity that is appreciated.
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