What has gone before?

Dear Lords of Publication, Glorious Mountain Press of Adrilankha, (or any appropriate representative on our world),

I am writing to assert my complete and deep agreement with Sir Paarfi of Roundwood on the subject of synopses of previous volumes at the start of subsequent volumes, to whit, they are an abomination, irritating to the writer, unnecessary to the reader, and a complete waste of carbon and trace metals. Paarfi said those who agreed with him should have the honor to address you in these terms, and so I do.

Generally, that’s my position. I appreciate that summaries of the previous book are useful for people who aren’t going to re-read previous volumes before reading the new volume, but I am going to re-read them, so they’re of no use to me. I can also see that they’d be useful for people who randomly pick up sequels without knowing they’re sequels and then read them. I never do that. Well, I never do it knowingly. I sometimes do it by accident, and if I find out before reading it (for instance by seeing a “what has gone before” summary) I save it until I have found the first volume. And similarly if I know I want a book and I find a later volume, I keep it. My inpile has had the second and third Doris Egan Ivory books sitting on it for several years, ever since I found them shortly after enjoying City of Diamond, and being told that Jane Emerson and Doris Egan were the same person. Sooner or later I’ll find the first book, and read them in order. There are plenty of books. There’s no hurry.

Synopses are so annoying nobody could like them could they? Could they?

Well, the rant against the practice that Steven Brust puts into Paarfi’s voice at the start of The Lord of Castle Black, the second volume of The Viscount of Adrilankha, is so spirited and charming, and so well expressed everything I feel on this subject that I nearly change my mind and feel the existence of this one wonderful synopsis justifies the whole procedure. It begins with a rant against the practice as “futile and self-defeating” adds that “were any of the events of the previous volume such that they could have been omitted without severe damage to the narrative, we should have omitted them to begin with” then goes on to give a perfectly serviceable summary of the first volume, enlivened with comments like “several other persons of whom the reader who has failed to read the first volume of our work will bitterly miss the acquaintance” and then goes on to exhort the reader to write to Glorious Mountain Press expressing their agreement.

In fairness to subsequent-volume synopses, I really have never liked them as a reader, but it’s as a writer that I’ve come to loathe them. This is because anything sounds stupid when summarised. I don’t know any writers who like doing them—though I suppose there may be some. But in my experience, being asked to do one leads most writers to mutter: “If I could have written this novel in a thousand words I’d have done that in the first place and saved myself a lot of work.”

And so I most sincerely remain, dearest Lords of Publication of Glorious Mountain Press, your enthusiastic correspondent,

Jo Walton

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer who has been reading too much Paarfi lately and been infected by his style. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, which appears in the Baltimore City Paper list of the top ten books of 2009. She reads a great deal, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where she sits in the window reading and drinking tea and watching the snow fall.


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