Fri
Aug 12 2011 4:00pm

THE “Don’t Miss” Volume?

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.

36 comments
Carrie Vaughn
1. Carrie_Vaughn
Mirror Dance was the first Vorkosigan book I read, and I concur.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
If they could only read one because they’re being executed in the morning.

I'm going to take this a little less literally because otherwise I'll start looking for weird death resonances. =>

Assume the reason is "because it's the best of them" unless stated otherwise.

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books: oh, this is hard, but I'm going to say _The Far Side of the World_, as representative but standalone and full of good stuff.

Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder books: _What's the Worst that Could Happen?_; yes, it feels like the culmination of the series, but it is just so jam-packed with goodness.

Sarah Caudwells' Hilary Tamar books (mysteries, previously discussed here): _The Sibyl in Her Grave_, for the same reasons as _Gaudy Night_, though I think you disagree with me.

J.D. Robb's In Death books (solely because someone asked me this question at Readercon, believe it or not!): _Imitation in Death_, because it minimizes the poor SF worldbuilding and is fun in a finite-universe-of-suspects way (as opposed to the ones where they know who it is and are racing the clock to prove it / prevent more deaths).

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books: without having re-read recently, I will say _Prisoner's Base_, because I like Archie's emotional involvement. 

Laurie R. King's Holmes/Russell series (historical mystery/thrillers): _Justice Hall_ in a walk.

Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia/Queen's Thief series: _The Queen of Attolia_, because while I like it and _King_ equally, _King_ benefits from knowing what the outsider POV does not.

Iain M. Banks' Culture books: _Look to Windward_.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld books: I suspect the canonical answer to this is either _Small Gods_ or _Hogfather_, and I'd be happy with either. I have a real soft spot for _Going Postal_, however.

James White's Sector General books: _The Genocidal Healer_.

Diane Duane's Young Wizards books: _High Wizardry_.

I will now resolutely not think about what I would read if I were on death row, because I could distract myself endlessly and in some really bad ways with that question.
Rohan Verghese
3. Rohan Verghese
I would actually suggest Barrayar as the "I'm only going to read ne" novel of the Vorkosigan series.

It's not strictly a Miles book, so it doesn't have the weight of the series behind it. It's a good introduction to the world. It has humor and action. It has an outsider main character, making easier to understand what is going on.

And if you do decide to read more, it's a great starting point without spoiling the rest of the series.
Rohan Verghese
4. Jeff R.
Orbital Resonance _is_ the first in that series in publication order.

I'd be tempted to go with The Phoenix Guards (for the entire Dragera cycle, including Vlad).

Pratchett is going to be the tough one. I think I'll go for Lords and Ladies.

Uplift: Startide Rising

For Wheel of Time, The Shadow Rising
Kevin Maroney
5. womzilla
"Womzilla is a sensible person who likes books..."--you will turn my head with such flattery!

I wasn't sure how tightly interwoven the Vorkosigan books are, and thus wasn't sure if was a meaningful question. I was perfectly willing to accept "Start at the beginning; it's pretty good, and if you like that, read more" as an answer; if someone were to ask me about the Vlad Taltos novels, that's what I'd answer.

(It would never occur to me to read a single volume of a work like The Long Price Quartet any more than it would occur to me to read just The Two Towers or a chunk in the middle of War and Peace. Though, come to think of it, I did read just "The Grand Inquisitor" in The Brothers Karamazov.)

ETA: "a work like..." being "A work that is presented as a part of a coherent single narrative unit rather than a series of linked, semi-independent works". I realize there are collected works that claim to greater coherence than they actually are, but mostly I trust that if something is sold as The Tale of FOO the BARbarian In the Realms of the UNREALIZED vol. 2, it's telling the truth that The Tale is a single work. It's the difference between "The Elric Stories" and The History of the Runestaff--and admittedly that's an example where the difference is sometimes deliberately blurred, too.
Hello There
6. praxisproces
This post is a perfect example of why I read everything you write, Jo; the analysis is perfect. Gaudy Night is a great example, too, although I might argue that if you're prescribing for a person who authentically isn't going to read any of the other books, Gaudy Night also poses the risk of giving the reader a really inaccurate sense of what the series as a whole is about. Which puts a different possible shading on the question: is it the one book that best characterizes the series, or the one book that is the best work in the series? For example, some people might argue that Deadhouse Gates is the distinctively best literary accomplishment in Erikson's Malazan series, but probably not the one that best encapsulates the experience of that series. Dragon Reborn or Shadow Rising is probably the best book in the Wheel of Time, but someone who only read one of those books really would miss out on the enterprise Jordan undertook in the saga (though there's obviously ample disagreement about whether missing that larger enterprise is a good thing or a bad thing). Assassin's Apprentice is the best novel in Robin Hobb's Farseer series, but doesn't even hint at what FitzChivalry was meant to become. And so on and so forth.

That said I agree wholeheartedly with all your recommendations (for the series I know, at least).
Rob Munnelly
7. RobMRobM
Yes, Mirror Dance if it is gun to head time and must choose one.
Liza .
8. aedifica
Until I saw your further description, I thought the answer to "THE don't miss Vorkosigan book" was "the next one!" But that's a very different interpretation of the question.
Rohan Verghese
9. WandaWolfe
You missed the Liaden books by Lee & Miller. Tough choices there. Think I'd have to go with either Agent of Change or Scout's Progress.
Ursula L
10. Ursula
For Vorkosigan, I'd say Mirror Dance for someone who is going to be executed tomorrow. But for someone who might read only one, but who also is open to reading more if they like it, I'd say Barrayar.

Mirror Dance has spoilers for quite a few Vorkosigan books set earlier in time, while Barrayar only spoils Shards of Honor. Barrayar is enough stronger than Shards that I'd consider it worthwhile to risk spoilers for Shards in order to get a taste of latter (and better) Bujold.

Although, if someone was really going to die the next day, and knew it, giving them Mirror Dance, with its exploration of life-restoring technology might be a bit mean.
Kristen Templet
11. SF_Fangirl
I'm with Rohan@3. Barrayar would be my recommended don't miss. I will admit, though, I like Cordelia more than I like/admire Miles. I don't dislike Miles per se and I enjoy many of the stories where he's the main or POV character, but he's not anyone I'd want to be around.

Asimov's introduced me to Bujold with "The Mountains of Mourning" in the very first issue I recieved and Barrayar serialized somewhat later. Both stood alone very well; although, Barrayar set me searching for its prequel because I wanted to read about the events that happened before that Cordelia hinted at. In the nascent days of the internet, though, I came to believe it didn't exists.

However, I must admit, since the rest of the series is very Miles centric, it doesn't quite give the same taste. I hope Cordelia makes an appearance in every new Vorkosigan novel, but I almost always enjoy them in the end whether se shows up or not.
Rohan Verghese
12. JoeNotCharles
I might choose Borders of Infinity for the Vorkosigan stories - two of the three stories are incredible, and the third is only fun but shows off the series' range nicely. (It was also my first, and I liked it enough to seek out more.)

If that's disqualified for not actually being a novel, I'd choose Mirror Dance for most people, or Komarr if I'm recommending to someone who might be more interested in the domestic aspects, for its portrayal of Ekaterin's relationship.

Mirror Dance was my second, it and has a few problems if you're going to go on to others: some of the beats of Elena's character (and various references to Sgt. Bothari) lose their weight when their backgrounds are only summarized or hinted at, and it totally spoils Brothers in Arms to the extent that I still can't tell if it's a good book because I've never read it without the knowledge of Mark's future. But the second isn't a problem if it's all you're going to read, and the first only makes a very small part of the story suboptimal.
Chad Orzel
13. orzelc
I'm not sure what exactly prompted the original question, but I'll note that one reason for asking it might be to avoid the "not the right ____" problem, where somebody reads a book by an author, dislikes it, and is then told "Oh, you just haven't read the right book-- try this other one instead."

I mostly associate this with rec.arts.sf.written back in the mid-90's, and Bujold was probably second in terms of the regularity with which this was triggered, after Heinlein. It's particularly grating with an author like Heinlein who has so many books to his credit-- "You haven't read the right Heinlein" can go on almost indefinitely. Bujold doesn't have as many books, but as you can see from the lack of consensus in this discussion, if you read one of the Vorkosigan books and are underwhelmed, there will be no shortage of people to tell you you should've read a different one.

(Disclaimer: I like the Vorkosigan books just fine, but I don't think they're utterly brilliant. There's never been a moment in any of them where I seriously believed that Miles wouldn't come out of the book in a better place than he started it. Cryoburn is arguably one where he doesn't, but the way it's done is really cheap and tacky.)

As to the actual topic at hand, a few answers:

Banks: Use of Weapons
Brust: Yendi
Erikson: Deadhouse Gates
Gaiman: Season of Mists
Hughart: Bridge of Birds
Jordan: The Dragon Reborn
Pratchett: Small Gods (second choice: Lords and Ladies)
Rowling: the Prisoner of Azkaban
Westlake: What's the Worst That Could Happen?
p l
14. p-l
As someone who's read only one book of Macleod's Fall Revolution series, I have to say that The Cassini Division stood on its own just fine, gave me a complete-feeling picture of the series's universe and its history, and wrapped up everything up nicely.
Rohan Verghese
15. James Davis Nicoll
I will now resolutely not think about what I would read if I were on death row,

"How to Escape from a Death Row Cell" and "How to Escape from Prison" would figure highly on my reading list, assuming the standard method of casting my mind back through time to the decision point that began the path to the cell didn't work.
Mikey Bennett
16. EvilMonkey
Man you guys are extremely well read. Either my tastes run different or I just need to give more books a chance on my busy schedule. Saying that, I have read some and I do have a couple of suggestions in answer to the question.
On the Honor Harrington series it depends on your tastes. If you like more of the space opera vibe then go with Short Victorious War. If you are more into political machinations I'd go with Flag in Exile.
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series I would go with Green Mars.
Rohan Verghese
17. bujfan2030
Personally I don't think you can go wrong with any of the Vorkosigan books. I've always been partial to The Warrior's Apprentice and Memory. And I have to throw a vote out for Curse of Chalion as my favorite 5-Gods book. The opening paragraph screams "here is a writer to behold!"
Rohan Verghese
18. CarlosSkullsplitter
Thanks for the quote, Jo! I really should put Skullsplitter on my business cards.

There's a parallel problem in the cinematic arts. People will now recommend seasons of television as a unit. That's an enormous time investment. In that same period, I could be watching a half-dozen classic films I've never seen before, or reading a pile of novels, or exploring the amazing range of music that's now available, or a mix. As a result, I will tend to avoid the season of television, even when I have it on good authority that the show is magnificent.

(There is some cross-pollination between this and the fannish tendency, I think: one of the first television shows I heard described in this manner was Battlestar Galactica.)
Rohan Verghese
19. daiyami
To the people recommending Barrayar for Bujold---Shards of Honor and Barrayar are sold in a single paperback as Cordelia's Honor, so I think you get two-for-one, right? (I like Cordelia's Honor as a starting point because it's low-commitment---people worried about getting sucked in can be safely assured they will be okay stopping with that one paperback, instead of driven to read ever-worsening books to follow the character. But that's a different calculus than executed-in-the-morning.)

For Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment might be worth considering. It stands alone very well, but has some nice depth about nations and families.

Bouncing off orzelc@13, surely this post demands a follow-up post on "not the right book". I started with the first book in Honor Harrington, and never went back. I started with the first Discworld and didn't try again for 10 years.
Rohan Verghese
20. Stargazer
I'd put Jim Butcher's _Changes_ in the same category as _Memory_. A phenomenal book, but in large part due to how it builds on, responds to, and reinterprets all that has come before. As Jo said, "a sequel to every prior book in the series". So, even though it's so superb, probably not the one to read if you only have time for one.

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking question... I totally agree this is not at all how I usually think about series books!
Rohan Verghese
21. anef
Of the Wimsey books I have a particular fondness for Murder Must Advertise. It has the downside of no Harriet, but it is stand-alone and hugely entertaining.
Rohan Verghese
22. Teri L
For Vorkosigan, I would choose Memory. Miles goes through such an incredible range of downfall and growth, to me it's the book where he finally grows up and chooses the side of honor, which he has always struggled with.

The other one-book I would recommend would be A Civil Campaign, just because it's so much fun that even non-SF readers can enjoy it.
Susanna Fraser
23. Susanna Fraser
I just loaned a friend Memory as her first Vorkosigan book, but that's partly because it came up in a discussion of authors who do a good job handling identity crises, since she's dealing with similar issues in her current writing project. It's in a three-way tie with Komarr and A Civil Campaign as my favorites of the series.

With Sayers, for just one book I recommend Murder Must Advertise. My first Sayers was Gaudy Night, and I found it kind of confusing and hard to follow on initial read. I liked it much better the second time I read it within the context of the series as a whole--it's more of a culmination than a standalone, IMHO.
David Dyer-Bennet
24. dd-b
If people really do press you for "one book not to miss" in some series, one of the important things is not to give in. At least, not for the cases where you really shouldn't try that.

What's always hard is the edge cases; for some series, it's a very close-run question whether you should say "just don't try that" vs. recommending some specific book.

I suspect that series-reading people giving single-book-not-to-miss advice get it wrong a lot. I really can't separate A Civil Campaign itself from how it relates to the ongoing characters in my head, and I can't really wrap my head around thinking most of the time you can take a piece out of the series and appreciate it properly.

So, if I were going to play this game...could anybody really understand Skylark Duquesne if they hadn't read the rest of the series? To my mind it's both much more morally complex, and considerably better written, than The Skylark of Space (they're last and first, respectively, in Edward E. Smith's Skylark series, and they almost exactly bracket his writing career). Over in the Lensman series it's even harder; I can make pretty good arguments why it isn't each of the 6 books (the seventh, unconnected, book in the same universe is a good standalone read, but doesn't count as reading one of the series). Maybe that's a case where I should just say "you can't do that"?

Sometimes it's an easier question -- people will ask this about "the Heinlein juveniles", which don't form a connected time-ordered series of books. While we may disagree, the question is basically "which of them is best", rather than "what are the tradeoffs between best book and being able to understand it with no background". (Have Spacesuit, Will Travel or The Rolling Stones)
Rohan Verghese
25. a1ay
Of the Wimsey books I have a particular fondness for Murder Must Advertise. It has the downside of no Harriet,

In this context, I think that's an upside; jumping straight into the middle of the Peter/Harriet story with Gaudy Night or Have His Carcase strikes me as being a mistake, and Strong Poison isn't one of the best. So a standalone recommendation really has to be a non-Harriet book, and Murder Must Advertise is definitely the best of them.

Best standalone Hornblower: The Happy Return.
Rohan Verghese
26. Jacey Bedford
In Bujold's Vorkosiverse it would have to be 'Warrior's Apprentice' for me as I think any of the later ones build on what's gone before. You can read the two Cordelia novels later (as a prequel) if the governor steps in at the eleventh hour and cancels your execution. It would be a great shame to die before getting to 'A Civil Campaign,' of course, but I still wouldn't make it the one-and-only.

Bujold's Five Gods: 'Curse of Chalion'. Hands down. I think it's the best thing she's written and - so far - it's still at the top of my books-I-would-rescue-from-a-burning-building list.

Pratchet's one and only would have to be 'Nightwatch'. I adore Sam Vimes and this one is perfect with older Sam and younger Sam in a novel so beautifully paced that the dramatic tension makes you ache before it's released and everything falls into place. Kudos for 'Lords and Ladies,' of course, for the excellent folkloric content, and 'Reaper Man' (because I've always had a soft spot for any character who can crack one-liners IN CAPITAL LETTERS without blinking).
Brian R
27. Mayhem
Hmm, most of these choices are to give the feel of a series in one book.

For Vorkosigan, I'd definitely go with Barrayar.
It has the feel of later works, without the allusions back and forth linking them together. Memory is the linchpin of the series, but relies a lot on the reader having knowledge of the characters and *why* they are as affected as they are. Plus this way they still get the delightful 'Shopping Trip'.

Discworld - definitely Small Gods or Going Postal. Both stand alone well, and both are much more sophisticated than they first seem.

Dresden Files - I'd go with Dead Beat because, hell, its just so much fun.

Malazan - Deadhouse Gates. It combines the feel of the books with one heck of an emotional investment. Great intro book.

Honorverse - The Honor of the Queen, followed by Echoes of Honor.

Wheel of Time - probably The Shadow Rising, but Jordan is definitely an acquired taste, it took me three different attempts to actually get invested enough to finish The Eye of the World when it first came out.

Shannara - Elf-Queen of Shannara, followed by Elfstones. Both stand alone well, and are less derivative of Tolkein.

Riftwar - Magician, the first, and still the best that Feist wrote, it is one heck of a coming of age story. The Empire books with Janny Wurtz beat the main sequence works hands down though.

Harry Potter - Prisoner of Azkaban, its the first time the series gets serious.

Culture - Excession, I love the idea of a group so advanced dealing with something they can't handle. Personally I hated Use of Weapons, though I can see why it is popular.

Redwall - Redwall, followed by Martin the Warrior. Great fun.

Vlad Taltos - Orca or Taltos, both have a nice blend of complex plots with series defining events.

I can't really think of too many other long running series I follow, SF&F tends more towards shorter 2-4 part works these days, ruling many authors out.
C Smith
28. C12VT
I don't think Memory would have the same emotional impact for someone who hadn't read other Vorkosigan books. So although I think it is the best in the series, I wouldn't pick it as the only book to read. I'd probably go with A Civil Campaign.

For the Dragaeran books, I'd probably go with Taltos. Yendi or Jhereg or Dzur would also work. I really like Issola, but I think you have to have read the others to appreciate it fully. Since a lot of the joy of this series for me is seeing how all the books fit together and add to the big picture (the sum is greater than the parts), reading only one book would be an especially terrible idea here.

Dresden Files: Probably Blood Rites or Dead Beat (haven't read Changes yet).

Discworld: I think I'd go with Guards! Guards! Hard to pick just one, though.

I agree that Assassin's Apprentice is the best of the Farseer books, though I enjoyed the others.
Pamela Adams
29. Pam Adams
Hmmm.....

Sayers' Peter Wimsey- The Nine Tailors- no Harriet to confuse the one-time reader (although I think she is hinted at), plus a wonderful vicar, and all the change-ringing.

Discworld- definitely NightWatch. As a backup, Wyrd Sisters, which is the book where I decided that this series might go somewhere after all. (I started with the first two and swore off for several years)

Robert B. Parker's Spencer series- Small Vices
Louis L'Amour's Sackett series- The Sackett Brand
Ellis Peters Cadfael series- The Leper of Saint Giles or An Excellent Mystery
Heinlein juveniles- Citizen of the Galaxy
Adult Heinlein- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons- Winter Holiday
Bujold's Sharing Knife- Passage
Rohan Verghese
30. a1ay
Sayers' Peter Wimsey- The Nine Tailors- no Harriet to confuse the one-time reader (although I think she is hinted at), plus a wonderful vicar, and all the change-ringing.

Good call. The vicar is a great character, it has obscure inside knowledge on change ringing, it has an excellent codebreaking chapter (my favourite part of Have His Carcase is still the chapter in which the cipher letter is broken step by step)... I think it's pre-Harriet altogether though, because he tells her about it for the first time later on, in Gaudy Night. You may be thinking of Murder Must Advertise in which she appears very obliquely and briefly ("he went off to have dinner with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him").
Pamela Adams
31. Pam Adams
a1ay@30,
You are correct- I was thinking of that line.

Almost forgot-
Nero Wolfe- The Mother Hunt
Robin McKinley- Deerskin
John Barnes- One for the Morning Glory or A Million Open Doors
Mikey Bennett
32. EvilMonkey
For adult Heinlien I'd like to nominate Friday.
Rohan Verghese
33. LMB
Series are... structurally interesting. No one seems to study them as an art form in their own right, I suspect because that while you can, maybe, get a class of college students to read and compare six novels in a semester, getting them to read and compare six series is right out. In the tight economic ecology of academia, they don't fit well.

Nevertheless, I am now envisoning the parallel question: "I don't have time to read a whole novel. If I were to just pick out and read one chapter, which should I choose?"

(Which actually gets, nonironically, into the task of teaser paragraphs, though that is not art but commerce, I suppose.)

Ta, L.
Kevin Maroney
34. womzilla
Huh, I just returned to this thread to see with surprise the closing question from Lois herself, "I don't have time to read a whole novel. If I were to just pick out and read one chapter, which should I choose?"

I have in fact done this a few times! As I mentioned, I've read "The Grand Inquisitor" but not The Brothers Karamazov. "The Bear" is often read as a standalone story, though Faulkner considered Go Down, Moses a novel. The first chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude is, except for the first sentence, a brilliant stand-alone short story. (The same is true of the first chapter of Snow Crash; it's unsurprising that Stephenson's truest strength is in set pieces rather than novels.)

Probably the most extreme examples are Kafka's parables "Before the Law" and "An Imperial Message," which each distill their respective (unfinished) novels, The Trial and The Castle brilliantly. In fact, if someone were to ask me, "How I can I understand Kafka in only two pages?", those are what I would give them.
Rohan Verghese
35. celvet
What a great question! I agree about the steerswoman books by Rosemary Kirstein (which are one of my favorite series ever), but think that if one could only read one of them, I would pick The Lost Steersman, because it stands alone better than the others (although the first book and the 4th are my favs so far).

For Diane Duane I would suggest Deep Wizardry.

For Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers I still think that the first book (World of Tiers) is best. I like Kikaha, but he is too perfect to be a good main character.

Zelazny: Nine Princes in Amber. The second series I'd forget about.

Rex Stout: I love Murder by the Book (Novel) and Counterfeit for Murder (novlette) because of Archie's reaction to women who are no longer young and pretty in both (the Counterfeit is the one where Annie stays alive and the young treasury woman is murdered, not the other version). But I also love Method Three for Murder because it has the typical Archie/Wolfe interaction, bargaining going on. In fact, almost any Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novel/novella is great stuff. Just read one. The only two I would maybe give a miss are: The Final Deduction and Where There's a Will. But I even read those over on occasion.

I really dislike Gaudy Night and prefer the next book where they are married: Busman's Holiday. But I would certainly go for The Nine Taylors.

Cherryg: I love 40,000 in Gehenna and think it is a much better book than Cyteen in the Alliance/Union series and also has the alien contact motif. I don't know if I would have gotten through any of the other Union/Alliance books if I hadn't read that book first. I find her forte is her ability to make an alien viewpoint seem absolutely reasonable. As for the Chanur books, it is difficult to choose, as they are "chapters" as mentioned above. Although I like most of Cherryg's books, they make me feel frantic, like a rat running on a wheel in a cage. There's no way out. . . And I really have a problem with that style when it is fantasy. So I can't point to any of her fantasy series.

I absolutely can't choose among the LeGuin Hainish series. I absolutely love City of Illusions, but I also love The Left Hand of Darkness. Of the Earthsea books, I would pick A Wizard of Earthsea.

Niven: Ringworld (maybe this is a Herbert, although The Ringworld Engineers is good).

Jack McDevitt: DeepSix for the Hutch series. I haven't decided for the Benedict series although I like Seeker, perhaps because Chase has to travel to an Ashiyyur planet.

David Brin's uplift books: I think that I like Startide Rising best (and it was the first that I read), but Sundiver gives it a run for it's money.

Lloyd Biggle's Jan Darzek books: A toss-up between All the Colors of Darkness or Watchers of the Dark.

F. Paul Wilson's Lanague Federation series: Wheels within Wheels

Unfortunately I don't like many fantasy series as I feel that they degenerate to mere gossip about the characters which leaves me cold, although obviously it gives most readers a warm fuzzy feeling. In fact, I am trying to think of fantasy series that I like and most are either stand alone or all novels make up a whole (like the Lord of the Rings and the Riddle of Stars).

However, one thing that I find interesting is when a person who writes primarily sci fi writes fantasy or vice versa (that is when someone writes and atypical novel that is excellent). For instance, I think of Marta Randall's Sword of Winter and Patricia McKillip's Fool's Run. I think that both of these are gems. I love that they are stand alones.
Rohan Verghese
36. neroden
Interesting. In Dorothy Sayers I actually think _Gaudy Night_ isn't all that. For one thing, the solution to the mystery is a cheat, an impossibility, which is annoying.

The point at which her series *changed* is _Murder Must Advertise_, probably because of the huge injection of personal experience -- it's the first novel which is really not about the mystery, and that stays true for the rest of the Sayers novels.

I think that's the must-read for Sayers.

I see several others agree. _The Nine Tailors_ is very similar, but I find the advertising material more spectacular than the change-ringing material.

With Bujold I usually have to sound out the reader's *taste*. For some people, _Falling Free_ is the must-read. For others, _Warrior's Apprentice_. For others, _Barrayar_. I myself started with _Barrayar_... but notice that those three have *markedly* different styles and preoccupations.

Heh -- for Tolkein, _The Hobbit_. I've actually met people who'd read _Lord of the Rings_, disliked it, had to be convinced to read _The Hobbit_, and liked it. So that's a case where it matters.

Asimov -- I, Robot (but it's not a novel, is it, so does that disqualify it?)

LeGuin -- again I really have to sound out people's taste first. Some people will be completely bored by _Left Hand of Darkness_ but love _Tombs of Atuan_ -- or whatever. There are a number I consider 'must reads', but some of them just don't speak to some people, so I point them to different ones.

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