I recently read and really thoroughly enjoyed C.J. Cherryh’s latest book in the Atevi series, Intruder. It’s book thirteen in the series, and I’m not actually sure it’s a book at all. It would be an impossible place to start reading, and it would little sense to a new reader — this is a very complex world and a lot of things have happened in the previous twelve volumes. But more than that, excellent as Intruder is, it’s not complete in any sense. It has a beginning and a middle and an end, sort of, but it’s not only looking back to the previous volumes it’s also reaching forward to forthcoming volumes. A lot of this book is set-up for what’s coming. It has plot, but it’s not the plot of this book so much as it’s some plot as part of a much wider arc. The first six books of this series are self-enclosed, they have volume-completion. Subsequent to that what you’ve got is not so much a book as a chunk of an ongoing story that fits conveniently between covers.
Thinking about this led me to thinking about another book I thoroughly enjoyed but which is much more a chunk than a novel, George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons. And this led me to think about series again.
Long series are of course quantitatively different from novels, but I think they are qualitatively different as well. We as readers bring different expectations to them, and I think the experience of reading them really is different.
I’ve talked before about the different kinds of series, which I summed up as:
Style One, The Lord of the Rings, one book with extra pieces of cardboard.
Style Two, Doctrine of Labyrinths, where you have some volume closure but need to read the books in order.
Style Three, Vlad and Vorkosigan, where the cumulative effect of reading all of them is to give you a story arc and more investment in the characters, but it doesn’t really matter where you start and whether you read them in order.
Style Four, Union Alliance, where the volumes are completely independent of each other though they may reflect interestingly on each other.
But it seems to me that none of these work for really long series like A Song of Ice and Fire and the Atevi books, where they clearly started off as Style Two, individual volumes that needed to be read in order, but over time and complexity changed to become much more Style One, but much much longer than any one book could be.
I really loved reading Intruder, but it would be impossible to review. All I could say about it is “here’s some more, and if you’ve read up to this point then you’re going to love it.” Which is pretty much what I said about A Dance With Dragons in that spoiler-free review I linked to above. This is quite different from the way I felt about Tiassa or Cryoburn, which are also late books in series but still definitely recognisable books with their own plots, even as they are also part of wider series plot that reaches back and forward. But it’s also different from the way I felt about Explorer and A Storm of Swords. Those were just as much part of the series but they were also much more shaped as novels, rather than chunks.
We recognise that short stories are different from novellas and novellas from novels, and one of the differences is the required weight of the end. The ending has to hold down everything that has come before. A long series is as qualitatively different from a novel as a novel is from a novella. The weight of the end is correspondingly different — whether it’s an extra heavy ending or a complete absence of an ending. An ongoing series has only the possibility of an ending. Yet even without the ending being there, it’s possible to say some things about it.
It’s also possible to divide series into those where the ending looms and ones where the ending is perpetually deferred. This classification cuts completely across my four styles.
First are series that are definitely going to have an end and are working towards it. I think this is certainly true of A Song of Ice and Fire, the whole thing is clearly building towards something. And it’s true of Brust’s Vlad books too (Style Three), he has announced that there will be nineteen books, and though he’s writing them out of order and playing games with us, there’s still definitely a sense of the shape of the whole thing. This is also very much the case with Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. And there are Style Two series like my example above of Doctrine of Labyrinths and like Daniel Abraham’s awesome Long Price quartet which are at this point complete. I think it’s also clear that Leviathan Wakes, though we only have one volume of it so far, is going to be this kind of series. The end isn’t in sight, but it’s still perceptibly looming.
On the other hand, there’s no particular reason why the Vorkosigan series or the Atevi series should ever come to an end. (Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is awesome, by the way, set a couple of years after Diplomatic Immunity, on Komarr and Barrayar, and focused delightfully on Ivan. I thoroughly look forward to reading it again and writing about it here nearer to the time of release.) Bujold and Cherryh can keep writing these series indefinitely. It’s not that they’re not going anywhere, it’s that they go on, like history, rather than heading for a climactic confrontation. The same goes for the Union Alliance books, or any Style Four series, they can just keep on. But Bujold is writing novels in her series, each volume is a complete story with its own end. Cherryh is writing chunks.
I also have an example of a Style One series that has no looming end, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey Maturin books where there are twenty volumes that are all part of one thing, but they just stop when the author died. I said in my review of the last volume:
I think it’s clear that his intent was to live for his full Biblical span of eight hundred years and to write a volume about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin every year. He’d have slowly worked his way through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, we’d have read about their adventures in sailing ships in the Great War, and rescuing people at Dunkirk. Eventually he’d have yielded to history and advancing technology and taken them into space and had them fight against aliens and study the fauna of new planets, always keeping in mind the career of Lord Cochrane and the actual historical accounts of battles and the progress of natural history. I feel sure of this because he died so young, at a mere eighty-six, a few chapters into this new volume, starting new plotlines, dangling new hares, with not the least idea of ever coming to an end.
Robert Jordan arranged for his work to be completed in the face of his own death, but for O’Brian, completion wasn’t the point, and there was no end in sight or even possible. E.C. Tubb eventually let Dumarest find Earth. Agatha Christie wrote last books for Miss Marple and Poirot, to be published after her death. For some series, however long, the destination is essential. Others are more like life, they just keep on going on until they are cut short, forever incomplete.
My examples of really long series where the volumes are still novels, Vlad and Vorkosigan, are both Style Three. I don’t have any Style Four examples where the volumes are chunks — they’re all One or Two. The longer any series gets the more difficult it is for any new volume to work independently, and it’s impressive of Brust and Bujold to manage to do this as well as they do. As a series becomes longer and more complex the pacing tends to get pulled about by the series pacing, and there’s a tendency for the new volume to become a chunk. I’m not sure if this is a problem or just a thing.
Insofar as it’s a problem, it is one because sometimes reader expectations are frustrated by chunks when they wanted novels. The real problem with them though is with critical responses, where all the apparatus of review and critical appreciation is set up to expect a novel, and which doesn’t work well with “here’s some more, yay!” I think this is why Cherryh’s Atevi books don’t get as much critical attention as they deserve. It just isn’t possible to look at them as if they were novels, and while that’s a strength as well as a weakness there’s a tendency to just throw up one’s hands. And I’m as bad as everyone else here. You’ll note that even though I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of reading it I’m writing this post instead of attempting to review Intruder.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.