Apr 25 2012 2:00pm

Here’s Some More: Long Series, Novels and Chunks

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.

1. nicfitz
Jo, I love reading your reviews. I am so thankful you're a regular writer on the site. That comment about O'Brien is classic.
2. HarryGuinness
The one thing I'd say about the Aubrey-Maturin series is that purely by accident O'Brien managed to end with the achievment of one of the goals Jack had had for the previous 20 books. I read them and actually found it to be a very fitting conclusion. You don't get the start of Jack's career nor the end, just a (long) snapshot.
Sky Thibedeau
3. SkylarkThibedeau
I'd nickname A Song of Fire and Ice, The Labyrinth of Fire and Ice, none of the volumes are standalone. The plot has so many intricate threads its hard to keep your place. I'm fortunate that I did not discover the series until right before DANCES came out so I read them back to back.
Ken Walton
4. carandol
It would be interesting to know what the publishing industry's attitude toward "chunks" is. It can't be all that easy to sell the thirteenth book in a series that relies on the previous twelve, the earliest of which might well no longer be in print. I imagine you have to be a pretty good seller to be able to get away with it.
5. Trib
Where does Discworld fit in this? A series of series set in the same world, that don't have to be read in published order... is it style 3 or 4?
Pamela Adams
6. Pam Adams
I want to be in that universe where O'Brian kept writing forever. (Of course, I'm also green with envy that you've read 'The Ivan Book.')

I tend to prefer my series in Styles 3 and 4. Anything in Style 1 needs to be fairly short- a trilogy or quadrology max.
Anthony Pero
7. anthonypero
Jordan's Wheel of Time books started off as Style 2. I'd say they moved more towards style 1 starting with book 4. However, I would propose there is another style, a hybrid of 2 and 1, where 2 or 3 volumes are of style 1, completing a single style 2 "book", but multiple style 2 "books" create a complete series needing to be read in order. I think The Wheel of Time can be read like this.
Anthony Pero
8. anthonypero
Also, Melanie Rawn's two series in the Sunrunner universe. I wouldn't want to read those out of order.
9. Eugene R.
Good to see Cherryh's Atevi books getting some attention, and such good attention as Ms. Walton typically delivers!

One characteristic of the Atevi series is a shaping of plot into three-book story arcs ("trilogies"), which also contributes to the sense of "chunkiness" for individual works. I would recommend any reading of the Atevi books to be in sets of three.

Also, another characteristic that I have noted (I am up to Conspirator, volume #10) is a magnification of the time-scale within the books, so that where the earlier works covered months and years of time, the latest seem (over similar page counts) to cover weeks or days. With such reduced "durations", it would seem more likely that plot threads would be left untied and that narratives would be less self-contained.
Sean Arthur
10. wsean
Whaaaaat, you already got to read Ivan? No fair! Super jealous.
Rob Munnelly
11. RobMRobM
I'm mulling over how to characterize Hobbs' massive Realm of the Elderlings novels: Farseer, Liveship, Tawny Man, Rain Wilds (plus a bunch of short stories and novellas as well). I guess they are a subgenre of Styles 2 and 3 - you need to read the books within each trilogy (with a soon to be tetralogy in Rand Wilds) in order but it is not truly necessary to read them in the above strict chronological order ... but it may be helpful to gain the full story benefits.

The books address three different regions in this world -Farseer/Tawny Man - the north (and across the ocean); Rain Wilds - the middle; Liveship - the South. Furthermore, there is only limited, if interesting, overlap between characters in the books set in different regions (the Fool from F/T is a minor character in Liveship; Fitz from F/T visits a City that is later visited by main characters in Rain Wilds; the Vesrits from Liveship make an appearance in Tawny Man and have a bigger role in Rain Wilds; the story of Liveship baby dragons continues in Rain Wilds; an adult dragon in Liveship is a major player in Tawny Man and Rain Wilds). The only set that should necessarily be read in strict chrono order is the Farseer-Tawny Man books, which tell the story of royal bastard Fitzchivalry Farseer at different life stages.

Taken together, the various novel provide an intricate an interesting map of the World of the Elderlings and the various cultures and peoples that populate it. I'm a big fan and hope Jo will do some type of re-read some day.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden
12. tnh
Carandol, if you've successfully published twelve books in a series, the thirteenth has an audience already waiting for it. Steve Brust (today is clearly a Steve Brust day) does a riff on two readers discussing a Style Four series. Pared-down version:
"God, those books are bad."
"Yeah, they're really awful. Especially #32."
"Yeah, #32 was bad. I thought #29 had its moments, though."
"I thought so too, but it's still not as good as #14..."
It's different kind of relationship. You aren't getting to know each new book in the series so much as you're hanging out with it. John D. Macdonald's Travis McGee series had that down to a fine art. I wish I had another half-dozen of them right now.
Pamela Adams
13. Pam Adams
Sigh- now I have to go dig out my John D. MacDonald's......
14. BeccaDI
I'll only read styles 2, 3 and 4 - I've gotta have some closure at the end of each book. The only way I'll touch long running "chunk" series is when the entire series is finished. I've started too many "chunk" series, only to have the author lose interest or the contract, or die, or something, and I never get any closure, and am left hanging.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
15. tnh
It's just occurred to me that one of the differences between Style One and Style Four series is that if some matter in a Style Four novel doesn't have all of its loose threads tied off at the end of the book, you don't necessarily expect them to still be active in the next book. In a sense, you know what that book means when you finish it. In a Style One series, you can't know what any of the parts mean until the series is finished.

This is a large-scale exposition problem: managing the opening-up and closing-off of potential readings and connections.

I think the reason Patrick O'Brien doesn't generate unfinished-series anxiety is because he so calmly drops characters and subplots out of the narrative for hundreds of pages at a time, then just as unapologetically fishes them back up when it's time for them to be part of the story again. It gives you the reassuring sense that you aren't missing anything, which for most purposes is as good as remembering everything.
16. seth e.
Coincidentally, I just got a 1959 edition of Revolt on Alpha C for a couple bucks. Based on the first couple of pages, Silverberg didn't do YA Heinlein as well as Heinlein did.

That's all I got.
17. seth e.
Whoops, wrong thread, kindly moderators please delete. Sorry.
18. beckyp
I think that a book should be stand alone, regardless if it is in a series or not. Mairan Zimmer Bradley did it. Elizabeth Moon does it. David Weber does it. To go to a bookstore to try a new author, then discover that it is book 5 in a series, and have no clue what happened before, and needing to know, is just criminal. First, brick and mortar stores rarely have all 27 for the new reader. Then wait a few days to get the rest? Who has the money to get the 26 preceeding ones just to read the one you bought? Even Nancy Drew is stand alone!
Clark Myers
19. ClarkEMyers
I wonder where to place Dickson's Childe Cycle both by intent and content? By exclusion I'd be forced to pick style 3 on a multiple choice test. Arguably the series changes over time. Certainly we'll never know what it might have been with sustained attention by the author.

I'm inclined to think Dickson wrote more fluently (than he thought?) or at least at greater length as his own abilities and the market changed. The extra length of later books does not to my eye carry more meaning. Then too I'm more impressed by Dickson's shorter writings in the cycle or out.

Easier perhaps to think of adjectives for the series than categories?
20. AO
Michelle West transitions most often between Style 2 and Style 1 in the various series set in her Essalyien world (The Hunter's Dulogy, The 6 book Sun Sword series, the two House War trilogies) imo. Certain books could almost be called Style 4, but I think she often writes in Style 2, but is currently very much using Style 1. So those books probably could be classifed in with ASOIAF and Atevi.
Anthony Pero
22. anthonypero
I was under the impression that ASOIAF was always supposed to be 7 books, and now he said it might be 8, because A Feast for Crows/A Dance With Dragons is really one volume.
23. BethZ
And then there is Dorothy Dunnett. The Lymond Chronicles are Type 2, but also Type 1 in the sense that there are things and references in earlier volumes tht you don't understand until you have read Volume 6, so you need to reread it.
Deana Whitney
24. Braid_Tug
I agree with anthonypero @ 7. Some series start at one style, then move into another. One example would be the Hunger Games. Book one is a stand alone, Style 2. Book 2 & 3 are Style 1. They don't work without eachother.
Rob Munnelly
25. RobMRobM
AP - ASOIF volume counts keep going up, as the years go on. It started as a trilogy, then to five, then to six, and now to seven. The current projection of 7 includes FFC and ADWD as separate volumes. I believe GRRM will work hard to keep it there (Seven Kingdoms, religion of the Seven, etc.) but I'm concerned the scope of ADWD may make eight the final number. I sure hope not, though.
26. Lsana
The devolution of a series into "chunks" rather than novels is an interesting phenomena and one that I've definitely noticed in my reading. Of the classifications here, type 1 obviously starts out as chunks rather than novels, but while you might think that type 2 would be the next most likely to slip into chunks, I've found that isn't true. As far as I can tell 2-4 are equally likely to go that route once the series gets long enough.

When a type 3 or 4 series I like stops being novels and start turning into chunks, I drop them. I stopped reading both the Cat Who... series and the Amelia Peabody mysteries when they ceased to be mystery novels and instead just used the mystery as an excuse to check in on the world and the characters. Maybe it's unfair of me, but I can't stay interested in a soap opera where I only get to see 1 episode every 1-2 years. Type 2s I'll hang onto a little longer, because the hanging plot threads get picked up and that can hold my interest, but even those can push me too far. Honor Harrington managed it, and ASOIAF is darn close.
Liz J
27. Ellisande
I love Cherryh's Atevi books, but yes, I have to agree that the most recent ones aren't books -- they're installments. I feel as if I'm only getting what would have been about six chapters in Foreigner or another of the early books in the series. It really has become a soap opera in the sense that it's a serial where there's not much progress in each episode, and we do seem to be gradually building to something, but it's a story that really only needs one book to tell it in.

Which I think is a difference between installments of, say, WoT or ASoIaF -- those stories are far too complex to be told in one volume, so we accept multiple volumes. What I'm objecting to in the Atevi ones is that there seems to be no story-driven reason not to put this story between two covers; each installment is thin and not terribly complicated and at least the last two I've read could easily be one book. And I suppose I object to the feeling that I'm getting taken for my money, regardless of what legit reasons they may or may not have for dragging it out this way.
john mullen
28. johntheirishmongol
I am all over the place here. I am thoroughly frustrated with ASOFAI, but still am all in for WOT. There's a lot of different styles and some work better than others for me. I never could get into the Cherryh books, and I have tried a couple of times. I started reading the Mazatlan but haven't even finished the first. Ray Fiest has a good method of doing separate trilogies in the same universe, but I miss some of the older original characters. The Anita Blake series started out as stand alone urban mysteries and turned into trashy sex novels with some thread of plot. David Eddings wrote the same series, twice and then did it again, but those were primarily character stories. Usually, to grab me in a series, I want likeable characters, and a storyline that moves forward in a reasonably regular pace.
Anthony Pero
29. anthonypero
Yeah, Terry Brooks does the same thing David Eddings does... until recently.

The best example of a long series, to me, is the Dresden Files. For my personal tastes, this is the best combination of tightly plotted novel and overarching storyline across a long series.
30. MarieA
Anthonypero, you beat me to it. I think Dresden files can firmly qualify as style two- every single book is self-contained, but you would still want to read them in order.
Ian Rapley
31. Alfonso Baronso
I often feel out of kilter with the centre of mass of Fantasy as a genre precisely because I don't really like epic length megabooks with casts of thousands.

The Wizard of Earthsea novels, on the other hand, are perfect - stand alone novels that nevertheless come together to form something greater than the sum of the parts.
32. Rush-That-Speaks
Yeah, when I reviewed one of the later atevi books for Strange Horizons it was a difficult balancing act, because things have gotten to the point where not only did the book not work as an independent novel, but where I had to keep saying 'I think we will have to completely re-evaluate this three books from now', which kind of makes one wonder if there is any point at all to the review. Wound up saying a lot of 'you should read this entire series, really you should', and then there was the question of whether that meant I was not talking enough about the book I was actually reviewing, and I'm happy with the balance I ended up with but that review went through so many drafts and editorial discussions...

Which is to say, maybe a reasonable way of giving the series more critical attention would be for somebody to write a new review of one of the ones which is a good starting point every time a new one comes out. It's tempting-- 'here is my review of Invader, Intruder just came now'.

This article that you have just published is quite clever, too.
Peter Stone
33. Peter1742
Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, which starts with Sea of Poppies and continues with River of Smoke (which I'm partway through) is somewhere between style 1 and style 2. It's not pure style 2 because the ending of Sea of Poppies would be truly unsatisfactory without a sequel. And it's not pure style 1, because River of Smoke intoduces a number of new characters, and wraps up the stories of some of the ones from volume one, so it doesn't really count as one long story.
Jo Walton
34. bluejo
Rush: I've done that before here, written reviews of the whole series, and of earlier volumes. And I very much admired your SH review of Betrayer, which I also dodged reviewing here.
Estara Swanberg
35. Estara
First of all thanks for this post, which I've been using mentally and in my few reviews ever since.

2ndly, I find that if I trust the author and have loved the characters for two or three books, I usually like chunk series novels best - even if I don't get a definitive climax I can then imagine the characters lives going on and being interesting, wherever the story stops. As long as it doesn't stop on a cliff-hanger of course ^^

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