Reading Series – a professional’s guide

Probably the first series I ever encountered was one my three older sisters had “bequeathed” to the family collection – it was the Trixie Belden mystery series.

As I read the single book in the series that we had on our bookshelves, I quickly became aware of (and somewhat annoyed at) the fact that the title in question was NOT the first book in the series.  In the book, references were made to events and characters from the previous novels. Starting the series in the “middle,” so to speak was certainly not ideal.

And that brings us to a fundamental feature of reading a series of novels – depending on the series, it can end up being virtually just one long story.  Many readers consider it vital that they start the series at the beginning.  It’s easy to see why that could be important – in a highly complex series, the plot development, character development, timeline and essential story being told are dependent on a linear progression of comprehension.  Imagine starting The Lord of the Rings trilogy at the second book: who are these people/creatures?  Why is the ring important? Where in space and time is the action taking place?  All these are set up in the first book.

Almost as important as starting at the beginning is having access to the conclusion of the series, or perhaps better stated as having access to the entire series.  Again, using one of the most popular titles as an example, imagine not having access to the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The second book concludes with a “cliffhanger” ending, and the reader is drawn inexorably on to the next/final piece of the story.  The term “cliffhanger” literally means a story (whether a movie, radio drama or book series) where “each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the [audience] in the next installment.” (From dictionary.com)  Of course, it comes from an installment of the story ending with the protagonist hanging from a cliff, and the audience does not know what is going to happen.

As story-consumers, we all want to know what’s going to happen next.  If the story in a book series compels the reader, we are eager to follow the series to its conclusion.  And that introduces another “downside” to becoming addicted to a series – if the series is ongoing, then the reader must wait for the next piece of the story to be produced.

I remember getting the first book in a series once for Christmas.  At the time, the series had four volumes.  Originally planned as a six-book series, I anticipated getting “hooked” on the story, but since the volumes had been getting published roughly a year apart, I did not foresee much difficulty in procuring the remaining volumes.  That book was The Eye of the World, and the series was the best-selling Wheel of Time series.  Well, that book series eventually ran to 14 volumes, and the author died after volume 11.  As you can imagine, distress by the fans was not insignificant.  Luckily for the readers, (if not the author), the author Robert Jordan died from a condition where death was foreseen (although expectations were for four years and he only survived about 18 months).  Therefore, he dictated and completed an outline for how the series was to be finished, and his wife/editor picked an excellent writer to complete the series.

This is not just an isolated example; right now, the highly popular book series A Song of Fire and Ice (on which the Game of Thrones television series is based) is uncompleted.  Originally planned to be a trilogy, it has expanded in the author’s vision to be a seven-book series, of which only five are complete.  The last book was published almost five and a half years ago.  Because of situations like this, some readers will not start a series unless they know that it has been completed.

BEWARE THE DANGERS OF STEPPING UNHEEDINGLY INTO A BOOK SERIES!

On the other hand, there are few reading experiences more potentially rewarding than a long, dense, well-told story.  A reader literally does not want the series to end!

Currently, I find myself following several ongoing series.  Here are some still open-ended series that I eagerly anticipate the publishing of each new installment:

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

The original name for the first title was Semiautomagic, and describes this blend of urban fantasy with noir detective story.

A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin [see earlier link]

The series that is the basis of the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones [see earlier link]; this series takes almost every fantasy trope and stands it on its head.  Compelling reading.

The Necromancer Series by Lish McBride

This is a YA series with a good-hearted hero who unknowingly is heir to dark necromantic powers.

The Checquy Files by Daniel O’Malley

The first book starts with the heroine having no memory, but awakening surrounded by dead bodies.  It gets even more intriguing after that.

The Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Superheroes in a post-apocalyptic world of zombies!  ‘Nuff said.

And here are five series that are completely finished that I’ve enjoyed:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien

This is the ultimate high fantasy series.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A children’s series with surprising depth, it tells the story of an alternate world of talking animals.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson) [see earlier link]

This fourteen title high fantasy series is not for lightweights, but it is a richly developed world, has a multitude of interesting characters, and the long story’s destination is ultimately worth the journey.

The Baroque Series by Neal Stephenson

3 historical fiction novels (with cliffhanger endings) set in the period from the mid-1600s to the early 1700s – they span the globe, and while the main protagonists are fictional, they interact with real historical characters while telling an incredible tale of the real-life wonders that took place around the world during this time period when science was in its infancy.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

This series tells the story of a young wizard through seven titles, each covering a year of his schooling while he and his friends deal with dark and deadly adversaries. {And our library has the titles in Spanish too!}

Finally, there are series where each title is essentially “stand-alone” – if you are hooked by the setting and/or the protagonist, but want to feel free to “dip in and out” with no linear plotlines, I can recommend these:

The Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the first two books do have a “one story” theme, with the first book ending in a cliffhanger of sorts, but the rest are pretty much stand-alone).

A child of noble English lineage is orphaned in the deepest jungle of Africa and raised by apes.

The Reacher series by Lee Child

A lone wolf former military policeman drifts across the US righting wrongs and solving mysteries.

[The Fontana Regional Library system has some or all of the titles mentioned in each of these series!]

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