Agony Column Commentary


Serial Amnesty
Dilemmas in Reading Series Fiction
The Agony Column for November 4, 2004
Commentary by Terry D'Auray and Rick Kleffel

When Terry originally started this thread of thought, she was of the mind that it would just be a bit of news. But as I read, I found myself spluttering and heying, wanting to get in a word here and an "Oh yeah?" there. After all, I myself did not need to imagine some of her series-interrupting scenarios.

Series of Doom.
Series literature -- fiction and non-fiction -- is ubiquitous. It knows no genre and it knows no bounds. From the 'Blank for Dummies' series to the 'World's Greatest Literature' (I believe that there's such a thing, isn't there; if not, you marketing types know where to contact me!), series fiction essentially rules the publishing world. But to readers it presents both opportunities and challenges. Let's listen in as Terry D'Auray starts the ball rolling with her original take on series mystery.....Terry?

Series novels are the mainstay of the mystery genre. Mystery writers, who have slaved to create a winning / complex / moody / eccentric anchor character, to surround him/her with interesting and lively supporting players, are loath to abandon their hard-wrought creations after just one book. (In fact, some writers are loath to abandon their creations ever!) Mystery readers, judging by the number of these titles that top the best-seller charts, love series characters. We form long-term attachments to these series characters, relish watching them grow and change, and get into and then get out of trouble. A good series can offer all the satisfactions of a long-term relationship without any of those annoying domestic squabbles.

Dipping into a series midway is just not acceptable to most serious readers -- it's cheating and makes you feel bad. Which creates an enormous problem when you catch on to an intriguing series that's already multiple books old. Go back and start from the beginning like you know you should (meanwhile the author continues to turn out more, putting you ever further behind)? Or, just sigh deeply and pass on the whole kit and caboodle? TLT (too little time). It's a black or white dilemma, not gray.

[But no, wait, it's very gray! It's gunmetal gray! I've started many a series in the middle, and been both burned and rewarded.]

A dengerous assumption.
(Series authors, of course, may take a somewhat different view, preferring that readers begin not at the beginning but simply wherever they happen to hook up. Just so long as they buy the damn book. And series authors are all particularly careful to provide enough back-story in each novel so that it can adequately stand on its own and readers can get the gist, if not the full taste, of what's come before. But imagine reading Marcia Muller's newest Sharon McCone book. 'The Dangerous Hour', featuring a mature and confident Sharon now managing the large staff of her own detective agency, without knowing the young and naïve Sharon McCone from All Soul's Legal Cooperative, a law office and quasi-commune in San Francisco's Mission District. [ 1 ] Or meeting Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder first in say 'A Long Line of Dead Men' without knowing the hard-drinking, grim and tortured Scudder of 'Eight Million Ways to Die' or 'When the Sacred Ginmill Closes'. Or first hooking up with the mature Elvis Cole in 'The Last Detective' without experiencing the wise-cracking tough guy awash in Disney paraphernalia from 'The Monkey's Raincoat' or 'Sunset Express'.)

But occasionally, series writers whose books have intrigued, whose books you always meant to read but never managed to actually get in front of your face, issue get-out-of-jail -free cards. They write stand alones. It's a perfect chance to test drive the author, try out their prose and their narrative style without investing in multi-book series catch-up. Two well-regarded series authors are currently offering series-amnesty books.

For absent readers as well.
S.J. Rozan's series (8 books and counting) featuring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, PI's in New York are hardboiled, atmospheric and superbly plotted; they're regularly included in lists of the best of hyper-modern crime fiction. Each book is written from one of the PI's viewpoints, and they alternate, first Lydia, then Bill. Rozan has won a Shamus, Anthony and an Edgar for her efforts, along with a large and loyal following. I read the first, 'China Trade' way back when, but for reasons unremembered but certainly not attributable to the novel, just never read the rest. I was ever-so-tempted to break my own rule and pick-up the series midway with 'No Colder Place' a few years back, but, well, I didn't, and I'm now 7 books behind.

Rozan's newest, 'Absent Friends' (Delacorte Press, $24) is a non-series novel that follows a group of friends who grew up together on Staten Island as they deal with the death of one of their members, a firefighter killed in the 911 attack. Mixing old crimes and new revelations, 'Absent Friends' looks to be a meaty mix of crime story and human story, of past and contemporary tragedies, written with a sure hand in elegant prose.

Not a police procedural.
Ian Rankin's John Rebus series has long intrigued me, in part because of its atmospheric and haunting Edinburgh setting, but mostly because of the character of Rebus himself. He's a classic loner fighting the demons of past failures with booze and cigarettes, at home with the disenchanted and the lowlifes, struggling outside the mainstream. All in all, just my kind of hero - make that anti-hero. An added plus is Rankin's own off-beat career path – from grape picker, to swineherd, to taxman, to punk musician, to best-selling author. Not many former swineherds writing these days. Having failed to start reading these novels back in the 80s when I should have, I now face the daunting task of catching up to 14 Rebus police procedurals. But Rankin has given me a momentary reprieve by releasing a stand-alone novel 'Witch Hunt' (Little, Brown & Co, $19.95), which looks to be something entirely different. The first clue, the protagonist is an "ingenious" female assassin. Second clue, she's named "Witch" for her abilities to beguile and disguise. 'Witch Hunt' is an espionage novel, not a police procedural, promising twists and action of worldwide impact. Sounds grand to me.

Terry just turned in this update on Ian Rankin's bit o' serial amnesty...

Not a "Jack Harvey" novel.
It turns out that Ian Rankin's 'Witch Hunt' is not a new work, but a reissue of a novel originally published in 1993, written by Rankin under the name Jack Harvey. It was the first of a three-book espionage series – 'Bleeding Hearts' and 'Blood Hunt' being #2 and #3. Now, reissuing older works is not an uncommon commercial act these days - publishers often leverage the success of well-received, well-known authors by reissuing everything they've ever written (think Alice Sebold, Dan Brown and a multitude of others), and that's fine. In fact, it's often better than fine for an author's fans who want to read absolutely everything that author has ever written. I just wish they'd be a little more open about what they're doing so that readers can set expectations accordingly. I'm not calling for a confession-of-commerce here, just simple disclosure. The title page, had I read it completely, does show that the book was originally published in 1993, but says nothing about the pseudonym or the series. Rankin's website, however, does have the full confession.

At the end of the day, does it really matter whether this is a reissue of something old, or something entirely new? Well, yes, in this case, and probably more often than not among reading junkies. I'd originally looked at 'Witch Hunt' as a chance to try Rankin on for size, to get a sense of his prose and perspective, and this older work, published over 10 year ago, is likely not to be the best measure of that. On the other hand, I'd probably have bought it anyway, simply to see how the current master of Tartan Noir tackles Ian Flemingesque espionage.

More than amnesty, exoneration.
...or amnesty.
Terry's not the only one to receive a "get out of jail card free" recently. I got one from my own Ian -- not exactly, that's Iain, as in Iain M. Banks. Since much of the space opera I read is reputedly grandfathered by Iain M. Banks' famous Culture series -- started in back in 1987 with 'Consider Phlebas' -- I've been wanting to read this series and author for about five years. But the series is a pretty imposing monument. Consisting of six thick novels, I made the leap a while ago and actually bought a first edition hardcover of the first book in the series. The rest will follow; after 'Consider Phlebas', I can read (in order)

'The Player of Games'

'Use of Weapons'

'The State of the Art'



To make things even easier, Night Shade Books has recently released a new version of 'The State of the Art' with over 20 pages of 'A Few Notes About the Culture'. 'The State of the Art' is a collection of Culture short stories (and the title novella), but in 'A Few Notes About the Culture', Banks steps forward and offers his insights into his own series. It's an unusual step that's a great reward for those starting the series. More than series amnesty -- it's exoneration.

But nothing gets you reading like a current release. So I was quite glad to see Banks tackle a new universe in his latest novel, 'The Algebraist'. And having read that, I can see what all the fuss is about. Banks is a talented and very funny writer. Reading the standalone gave me an idea of the texture and feel of the books in the series. And I'm off, up and away.

Reynolds' new standalone.
For me, one of the problems with series fiction is that though series can have an end, they often don't. A writer who offers answers on both counts is Alastair Reynolds. Readers of this website should know by now that I consider his actually, satisfyingly finished 'Inhibitors' series one of the finest pieces the genre has to offer. Complex, baroque, emotional, imaginative, mysterious -- Reynolds does it all in beautifully turned prose. The series started with 'Revelation Space', a novel which really wanted a sequel. But he followed it up with 'Chasm City', which, while it can be read as a standalone set in the same universe as 'Revelation Space', doesn't answer many of the questions raised by the first novel. The next two novels -- 'Redemption Ark' and 'Absolution Gap' answered all the questions inspired by 'Revelation Space', with 'Chasm City' providing a sort of backdrop and depth to the series. Still, for a reader confronted by these novels for the first time, there's a pretty hefty investment involved. For those who'd like to read this author before getting involved, then, there's the upcoming 'Century Rain', which promises to offer a hard-boiled mystery combined with galaxy spanning science fiction. My suspicion is that readers will be ordering up the series before they even finish 'Century Rain'.

Not for beginners.
On the other hand, as much as I enjoyed 'Gateways', the most recent novel in F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack series, I really can't recommend it for beginners. But while the Repairman Jack novels have something of a backlog -- it starts with 'The Tomb', then continues with 'Legacies', 'Conspiracies', 'All the Rage', 'Hosts', 'The Haunted Air', then 'Gateways' -- I can authoritatively say that they’re a very fast read. But should readers require an example of series amnesty, they can always plump for Wilson's science fictional side with 'Sims', or his horror side with 'Midnight Mass'. Wilson's prolific enough to offer pretty much annual amnesty, as well as an annual repairman Jack novel, which this year will be the brand-new 'Crisscross'.

Then there are the series that you really need not read in order. The best example of that is Terry Pratchett's 'DiscWorld' series. This series has reached the rather unique point of having so many novels that it's sifted itself into sub-series. Recently, I started with the very first novel in the series-- really, a collection of three novellas, 'The Color of Magic'. I then skipped about DiscWorld, reading one of the most famous titles, 'Mort' -- a much ripped off novel, may I say -- that stood well on its own. 'Night Watch' was a very fun read, and remarkably well written, but there was a certain feeling that I'd missed out on some of the character interactions, being as it was at the end of a particular sub-series that deal with the policemen of DiscWorld.

A hat full of series, and series within a series.
'Monstrous Regiment' stood a bit better on its own, though Sam Vimes -- the featured character of 'Night Watch' -- made an appearance. Still, for Pratchett, the main thing is the humor, and character schmaracter, damn, the jokes are always pretty damn funny, no matter which Pratchett title you pick up. 'The Wee Free Men' offers a peculiar sort of series amnesty for would-be Pratchett readers. It's set in DiscWorld, but in such a way that the reader need not really care. And it too has spawned a sequel, 'A Hatful of Sky'. You've got to read fast to keep up with Pratchett, who has another new DiscWorld book out as well -- 'Going Postal'. Of course, Pratchett makes that easy with stuff that's quick and light, but pithy.

Series fiction is supposed to be something hard and fast. Either you're writing a series or your aren't. Except when you're a science fiction writer and you're not writing a series so much as you're exploring a universe you've created. Neal Asher's first full-length novel exploration of his Polity universe was 'Grindlinked', an over-the-top spy story chock-a-block full of monsters, cyborgs and world-skipping weirdness. Though it was set in a universe he created in earlier works, like 'Parasite' and 'Runcible Tales', it works perfectly fine as a wonderful, standalone piece of space opera.

Series amnesty from Neal Asher -- all the style but an utterly different content.
He followed this up with 'The Skinner', set in the same universe, but bringing in all new characters and settings. Some of the details that made 'Gridlinked' such a pleasure are present, but you couldn't exactly call it serial fiction. You can read 'The Skinner' and enjoy the almost zen-like levels of violent predation without having read 'Gridlinked', though, as ever, you'd be well advised to read the first novel, well -- first. He followed up 'The Skinner' with 'The Line of Polity', which was in fact a sequel to 'Gridlinked', bringing back his burnt-out space-based James Bond character Cormac and his opposite, the unknowable alien presence that calls itself the Dragon, while introducing a bevy of new -- and utterly compelling characters. But then Asher took a break from the Polity Universe in 'Cowl'.

According to Asher -- who wrote me this morning -- "...if a writer has also been interspersing their series with standalone novels, I'm inclined to focus on all their writing rather than just the series. Standalones also give the new reader a way in to that author's writing and may incline them to buy the series from the start. That's my aim with books like Cowl."

Mission accomplished! Whereas the Polity novels are quite comfortably described as Space Opera (performed by a meth-pumped heavy metal band), 'Cowl' is what you could only call 'Time Opera' (with the same backup band). Like Space Opera, it takes the tropes of a hoary SF staple, in this case time travel instead of space travel, and injects them with a huge scale, lots of action and Neal's usual set of memorable players, human and otherwise. It's unmistakably Neal Asher, no doubt about it. It's got big monsters, colorful characters, and a simplistic-seeming presentation that proves to be quite complex as Asher layers on bigger monsters and the kind of deadly twists that Time Opera encourages. 'Cowl' stands on it's own, but it's a perfect introduction to Asher's Polity universe. It’s got all the style, but a completely different content.

Serial satisfaction, Neal Asher style.
Having offered his potential readers Serial Amnesty in 'Cowl', Asher rewards his regular readers (and anyone who reads 'Cowl' is certain to become a regular reader) as he returns to the Polity universe in his next novel, 'Brass Man', scheduled by Pan Macmillan for April of 2005. This time, not only is Cormac back, but more importantly to Asher's many readers, the highly entertaining Mr. Crane has returned. In 'Gridlinked', Mr. Crane was a psychotic robotic assassin who gave Cormac a run for his money. This time around, he's been resurrected to help hunt the Dragon. The novel begins on an Out-Polity world known as Cull, where ferocious insectile monsters roam, complicating, to say the least, the lives of the planet's inhabitants. A knight-errant who calls himself Anderson decides to light off after a dragon. Mr. Crane is certain to complicate this quest. Asher clearly has a handle on both serial fiction and serial amnesty, to the delight of his readers.

Series fiction really does offer the serious reader a serious dilemma. Start at the beginning or jump in the middle and hope to swim. The end result is that there are even more books out there to read -- and buy. That's a way to gate your reading. Ask yourself -- can you afford to start reading DiscWorld in first editions. The answer is probably not. 'The Color of Magic' will set you back thousands of dollars. On the other hand, sometime later this year or early next year, you'll be able to get a brand new, signed limited edition of 'Rakhoshi', which is F. Paul Wilson's starting point for the Repairman Jack series, for a mere $45.00. I found 'Consider Phlebas' for a mere $70.00 -- a huge bargain in the world of book collecting. You'll likely dash out a couple of hundred for signed first edition of Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space'. Not your firstborn, but a nice night on the town. Of course, 'Revelation Space' will offer you several nights in the cosmos -- and an opportunity for re-reading. With a bounty like that, money is no object, right?

[ 1 ] This is precisely what I did, and I have no need to imagine it. What happens is that you really focus on the writing more than the character-arc developments. So for example, in Muller's case, I was able to see quite clearly that she's a fantastic writer of prose. Her work is so amazingly clean that it's a great joy to read. I couldn't have cared a whit about Sharon McCone's checkered past because I was utterly immersed in her compellingly presented present. For this reader, dipping in to the series enabled me to completely ignore the overarching character-arc that McCone has developed across the series of novels and enjoy the skills that Muller puts into each individual novel. Now, as far as series fiction goes, the continuing evolution of the character is often one of the most compelling parts of the story. Since I wasn't privy to any of McCone's past, I might have missed out on some of the pleasures of her latest novel, but I believe that it also enabled to more clearly enjoy other aspects of her writing that might go unnoticed if you're fully immersed and invested.

On the other hand, when I skipped the first seven letters of the alphabet to read Sue Grafton's 'H is for Homicide', I found myself most interested in the characters who would not be returning. So there's certainly a risk when you dip into a series in mid-stream. -- RK [ Return ]