In the 1995 Hugos thread, Womzilla asked what was THE don’t-miss novel of Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. There has been much interesting discussion in the thread of the idea of a series novel winning the Hugo and specifically of which Bujold to read first, but I think the whole question of “the one don’t-miss volume” is interesting to examine. It’s quite a different question from “Where do I start?” It’s full of assumptions and worth unpacking.
(Pretty much all the links in this post are to posts.)
First, there’s the idea that a series will vary in quality. Now that’s mostly true, nearly all series do vary in quality. Secondly, it assumes that one book of any series is “the best.” That’s often but not always true. In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, there’s a sequence of six books I think of as a high point. With Cherryh’s Union-Alliance series you’d have to ask “the best for what”? Thirdly, there’s the assumption that time is finite and you’re only going to read one book of any given thing. Womzilla says “realizing that I don’t read quickly and will not live forever.” Now, Womzilla is a sensible person who likes books, and it’s perfectly possible that if he liked the one book in a series he read he would go on to read the others, but he’s really not asking where to start, he’s asking which one should he read if he doesn’t go on to read the rest.
Then there’s the whole question of whether later books in a series can be read alone, or whether volumes in a series are actually sensibly considered as comparable to standalone books. CarlosSkullsplitter says, talking about the Vorkosigan books:
I don’t know if any of the books individually are “don’t miss” as such. They depend on their effects by referring to each other in small and large ways. That’s the problem with judging these sorts of series by single books.
In a series like Cherryh’s Union-Alliance, where you have the same universe but different characters and every book complete in itself, this isn’t much of a problem. In a series like Brust’s Vlad books or the Vorkosigan saga, it really starts to be. In a series like the Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books or The Lord of the Rings, where every volume is better seen is a chapter and isn’t in any way intended to stand alone, then it’s impossible. There are ways in which series are qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from standalone novels, the way a novel is qualitatively different from a short story.
I didn’t like this question when I first saw it, because it felt to me like a question that has to do with canon-forming, and I was therefore set on edge by it. Because my novel Among Others is about somebody who reads a lot, I’ve been asked for “the one” canonical SF book too many times this year. My standard answer is that you should read a lot at random and find out what you like. I could do “Ten great books to introduce you to reading SF” but that’s different — and it would still be “Jo’s ten great books to introduce you to reading SF” and everyone else would have a different ten. But canon-forming isn’t inherently buried in this question. It’s not how I want to read, but it could be a reasonable use of limited time.
Finding “the one don’t-miss” assumes you’re only going to read one and ignore, or “miss” the others. This does have some advantages for the recommender. It does away with the problem of spoilers. If somebody really is only ever going to read the best book in any series, rather than trying one to see if they like it, then spoilers suddenly don’t matter. They’re not going to read the others. Spoil away! And it has both advantages and disadvantages for the reader: “Everything you read stands alone” and “A new world every time.”
So, how does one find “the one don’t-miss volume”? Somebody has to tell you, because it definitely isn’t going to be on the cover. If you’re exceptionally lucky you can figure out publication order from the cover. There’s probably (I’m not going to look) a web page out there that tells you the best book of any series. If not, you have to ask a group of sensible people who have read the whole series. So Womzilla was being smart asking in that thread. But there’s no way you can just tell.
Sometimes the first book in a series really is the best: A Million Open Doors, Dune. When this happens it’s usually because the author introduced the world and the characters in the first book and then either went 180 degrees from where I wanted them to go — the Barnes — or kept on squeezing the same lemon after all the juice was out of it — the Herbert. In the first case you get people whose legitimate preference is for where the series went arguing that later books are better, and that’s absolutely fine with me. In the second case, it’s really rare to hear anyone recommending later books. What you hear occasionally is “They’re not as bad as all that.” This may even be true....
Sometimes an author gets better as the series goes along (I’ve heard this said about Jordan, every time I say I only read the first one) or a series will start off uncertainly, like Cherryh’s Foreigner series, or Weber’s Honor Harrington, where you’re better starting with the second more assured book. (But catch my own assumption here, which is always that you want to know where to start, not that you only want to read one don’t-miss volume! I can’t stop myself.)
Sometimes the last book in a series will be the best — but it’s not much use to the “don’t-miss” afficionado, because it’s usually the best because it brings everything together so well, and it won’t work at all without the set up in the previous volumes. The Price of Spring (post, with spoilers).
Other times a series will pootle along with books that are perfectly good examples of what they are, until it suddenly and sneakily becomes something much better. Examples would be Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, and indeed the Vorkosigan saga. I’ve written at length here about Bujold Vorkosigan books as a series that gets better. The “best” Vorkosigan book in my opionion is Memory, but because it’s a sequel to the whole series so far, nobody would suggest starting with it. But if it’s all you’re going to read? Hmmm. Alec Austin does suggests it to Womzilla. I’d actually come right back around and say read (1995’s Hugo winner) Mirror Dance because I think it stands alone better.
In both of these specific cases, I came to the great books by way of the series. I think they read differently if you do that. It’s the same way that the dawn is different if you’ve come to it through the night, or the mountains are different if you’ve come towards them across the land instead of flying straight there. There’s a different quality of experience. Gaudy Night is a real novel with three dimensional characters, and Sayers wrote it after writing a lot of clever detective stories. They do get better as they go along, but Gaudy Night is another whole thing. If I’d read it first I’d have read the others and been disappointed because they weren’t it, instead of appreciating them as foothills leading towards the heights.
But here I go again assuming you’re going to read the others, assuming that time is infinite, books are finite, that you’re going to live to be nine hundred and you’ve got nothing better to do that read.
I keep thinking though, in response to “What is THE don’t-miss volume?” or “What if I can only read one?” “Don’t only read one!” But if I imagine somebody terminally short of time, somebody with only weeks to live... somebody on death row who had seen the light too late and now wanted to get the essence of all these series they’d missed because they were committing crimes instead of reading their book... I suddenly find it quite easy to triage.
So, without further ado, THE don’t-miss volume for the series I like where THE don’t-miss volume isn’t the first one. If I don’t list a series, I’ve read, it’s because I think the first one is the best:
Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet: An Autumn War (with spoilers).
John Barnes Meme Wars series: Orbital Resonance.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover: Hawkmistress!
Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series: Dzur.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga: Mirror Dance.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods books: Paladin of Souls.
Octavia Butler’s Pattern books: Wild Seed.
C.J. Cherryh’s Union-Alliance series: Cyteen.
Cherryh’s Foreigner series: Explorer.
Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish series: The Left Hand of Darkness.
George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire: A Storm of Swords.
Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books: The Sky Road.
Anthony Price’s Audley series: Tomorrow’s Ghost.
Dorothy Sayers’s Wimsey series: Gaudy Night.
Feel free to add your own recommendations in comments, you never know when some poor soul might need this. But keep reminding yourself, it’s not “where to start” it’s “If they could only read one because they’re being executed in the morning.”
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She reads a lot, and had to make a real effort of imagination to be sympathetic about this subject, because if she were on death row she would re-read The Lord of the Rings and hope to be executed at the bit where the old king has a crown again. In fact she thinks she may have done this in her pervious life. It would explain a lot.