Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Trouble with Trilogies

Trilogies waiting to be read!
Sometime during 2012 my reading life underwent a radical shift. The combined forces of my YA fantasy-loving daughter and Jo Walton’s Among Others turned me into a dedicated* fantasy, or more accurately, speculative fiction, reader -- just check out Walton's built in reading list. I’m still learning about the genre, or rather multiverse of genres clumped together under this rubric, and I’ve enjoyed wandering around looking at shelves of books I’ve never heard of though they’ve been around for years. My tentative forays have resulted in piles and piles of books in my office waiting to be read (see photo at right) and a steady thrum of energy from a new element in my reading life. New books are the least of it; there’s a big world out there with multiple tentacles reaching far beyond the pages of books that I only vaguely knew existed. Reddit AMAs, comic cons and world cons, more Tumblrs than you can ever hope to track, urban fantasy, grimdark, LARPing, the further I explore the fandoms the more I need to resort to Google to understand it all.

It’s fun, overwhelming, but fun

One of the most challenging parts of this shift in my reading habits is that I am, for the first time, reading book series before the remaining volumes have been released, or even written for that matter. Can a single volume of a saga that will only be finished some three years and a thousand pages hence really be judged on its own?

Yes. And, no.

On the ‘yes’ side of the equation, I find it no different to examine the first book of a trilogy than critiquing a stand-alone literary novel. Are the characters complex and interesting? Is the setting well-rendered, serve the story and the characters? Is the plot credible and organic? Is the book appropriately paced? Does the author’s writing serve the story, or get in its way?

Okay, so far so good. Then the process gets messy. Unlike a self-contained novel, there are considerations of anticipation and completeness, which will vary depending on authorial (and to some degree, editorial) intent. If an installment ends in a cliffhanger or an indication that the action will be continued in a succeeding volume, is that signaling accomplished effectively? Is the reader’s appetite whetted while not giving away too much of what is to come? Is the current novel simply cut-off mid-stream and thereby irritate more than it entices? Is the novel’s narrative structure unbalanced or otherwise marred by the needs of the succeeding volumes? All of these are considerations in reviewing series fiction that don't apply to self-contained novels in a single volume.

In addition to the extra components to be touched on in a review, can I render a critical thumbs-up or down with only partial evidence at hand? If a book doesn’t succeed on its own merits, will my opinion change if once I read the entire sequence? I’ve been struggling with these questions recently because I read Brian Staveley’s debut novel, The Emperor’s Blades which is the first volume in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. In many respects I think it is great. It has a compelling well-structured story, interesting characters, amazing world building and strong writing that left me with a massive book hangover. I can’t wait until the next book comes out – ten long months from now.


I found myself conflicted on how to deal with the book’s representation of women. And, given how glaring the issues are, could I give the book a good review and recommendation?

I’ll enumerate exactly what my issues are in that long overdue review later this week, but what’s relevant here is, that after talking to Brian Staveley at a local book store appearance, the issue isn’t that he’s a sexist asshole who is completely unaware of the issues I and a number of other folks have brought up. He worked to find ways around the problems, but in the end the role of women in this first volume was skewed by the combined effects of paring the first book down to a saleable length, needing to set the stage for the second installment, and the requirements of story and character development that will unfold over three volumes.

I admit to feeling relieved to discover that he thought about the issues, is open to discussing them and has tried to offset the impressions of the first book in the writing of the next two. The proof will be in the pages. Fingers crossed it’s there, but I have high hopes that things for women in Annur will improve on volumes two and three.

Meanwhile, Brian's assurance that women get a much stronger voice in the second volume isn’t going to prevent me from talking about the flaws and transgressions of the first book, but it gives me reason to hope the missteps are not going to sink the overall work -- and my review will reflect that hope. Still, while this limited insider information gives me greater perspective in this one instance, it doesn’t solve the larger problem.

The only credible solution I can propose for myself is to approach each work in a sequence on its own merits, but with an eye to how a series evolves and the promise of returning to review the completed set before rendering a final opinion. Assuming, of course, the first book is good enough for me to keep reading.

Reading is what I need to get back to doing. I could probably have read an entire Brandon Sanderson epic in the amount of time it’s taken to write these 850 words.

*I’ve dabbled in reading fantasy and science fiction throughout my life, but it was never a core element of my internal construct of myself as a reader. Books and TC are two different animals and I was an avid Trekkie from an early age, but if you were too, you already
got that from the title of this post.

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