While reading Molly Templeton’s recent essay, Is Series Fatigue Real?, I noted an interesting phrase: “the loose series where the books are standalones but they also fit together.” I realized that I tend to divide series fiction into two sets:
A) series in which the books are clearly linked by setting and characters but which can provide readers with the complete plot experience in each volume;
B) series in which each volume is but a fragment of a greater whole.
I strongly prefer the first sort. When I fork over my seventy-five cents—ah, I am informed prices have increased somewhat, so amend that appropriately—I don’t object if the book in hand builds towards a grand series goal, but I do object if the novel lacks a functional, complete plot that doesn’t depend on my having read all the earlier books in the series and won’t be completed without future volumes that are as yet unwritten. Which may never be written.
It’s odd I cannot think of short, snappy terms to distinguish the two models. Do you have any ideas?
In my experience mystery series do a better job of writing Series A books than do science fiction and fantasy series. I’ve never read a mystery at the end of which the detective reveals that the murderer will be exposed in book two. Or possibly book eight, depending on sales. Or maybe never, if other activities distract the author.
Perhaps it’s an accident of publishing history (the accident of history that saw Lord of the Rings published in three volumes) that the book fragment model caught on in speculative fiction and not mystery. Perhaps it is simply that mystery publishers do not care to test how people who invest an undue amount of time reading about violent murder would react to discovering they have only part of a mystery plot. Nevertheless, there are indeed speculative fiction series each of whose volumes can be read and enjoyed without having read all of the previous volumes. Here are five series of which I am very fond.
Melissa Scott’s Astreiant series—the first two of which, Point of Hopes (1995) and Point of Dreams (2001), were co-written with the late Lisa A. Barnett, and the latter three of which, Point of Knives (2012), Fairs’ Point (2014), and Point of Sighs (2018), were solo efforts—examines a secondary fantasy world fumbling its way towards functional modern social institutions, sometimes despite the best efforts of existing archaic institutions.
The specific institution that concerns Pointsman Rathe is law enforcement. In an ideal world, this would involve noticing untoward developments, uncovering the miscreants responsible, and punishing them appropriately. The great and powerful of the kingdom of Chenedolle in general and the city of Astreiant in particular prefer law enforcement that does not interfere overmuch in upper-class matters and which has the common sense not to attribute any crimes to the social elite. All very good in theory, but Astreiant’s malefactors include persons of all classes, and some of the plots have very dire implications for the city. Sometimes a copper (and his attractive boyfriend) have to pursue the guilty, regardless of social convention.
James Alan Gardner’s League of Peoples—Expendable (1997), Commitment Hour (1998), Vigilant (1999), Hunted (2000), Ascending (2001), Trapped (2002), Radiant (2004)—offers a shiny world of tomorrow…with a small flaw.
When aliens offered any human who asked a trip to pristine worlds with all the mod cons, humanity decamped en masse, leaving Earth to fend for itself (which it did…poorly). According to the League’s rules, no being that kills a sentient being (or allows a sentient being to die through inaction) is permitted to travel between star systems. Thus, centuries later, the fraction of humanity that can refrain from killing is an interstellar species, while the murderous fraction is either planet-bound or dead.
Theoretically, they should remain planet-bound because galactic civilization doesn’t want homicidal humans rampaging through their worlds. But homicidal humans keep looking for loopholes in the cordon sanitaire.
Rarely returning to the same viewpoint character twice, Gardner leads the viewer through a series of grand star-spanning adventures. The series is that rare thing in science fiction, the comedic SF novel (and that even rarer thing, comedic SF novels that I enjoy). Unfortunately, the series appears unlikely to continue on in further volumes.
Natsu Hyuuga’s Apothecary Diaries focuses on Maomao, kidnapped from her town’s red-light district and indentured to the Rear Palace (imperial harem) as a servant. This is a woeful waste of Maomao’s skills, trained as she was by her foster father in the apothecary sciences. Imperial politics being ruthless and brutal, the smart thing to do would be to serve out her (involuntary) contract and return to care for her aged foster father. However, a combination of keen observational skills and an inability to keep her mouth shut alerts senior eunuch Jinshi and other members of the Rear Palace that Maomao has unique and valuable skills. An entirely unwilling career of increasingly risky investigations ensues.
Volumes One through Four have been translated to English. Volume Five is imminent. I enjoy the puzzles, as well as the way in which Hyuuga excels in providing her characters—protagonists and antagonists alike—with motivations the reader may not see coming.
Originally conceived as a single standalone novel, the story of Emma Newman’s Planetfall series extended into four complete novels—Planetfall (2015), After Atlas (2016), Before Mars (2018), Atlas Alone (2019)—which can be read in any order.
Cults claiming communication with aliens are nothing new. Pathfinder Lee Suh-Mi’s cult was different in that the Pathfinder’s aliens were real. Certainly the starship Atlas found something alien and enigmatic when it reached the world to which the Pathfinder led them. Success has had consequences, which are played out over several volumes. Powerful, amoral people resolve to appropriate alien riches (if there are alien riches) for themselves. Even more important, they make sure nobody else is able to duplicate the Pathfinder’s journey.
I enjoyed the merciless way in which Newman drags her unfortunate characters towards the logical conclusion of ruthless profit-seeking unencumbered by morals or ethics. It’s not a happy series—for billions of people it is as unhappy as it can be—but it is enthralling.
Some fantasy authors focus on high-level aristocrats and their cut-throat political squabbles. Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito series—Guardian of the Spirit (1996), Guardian of the Darkness (1999), Guardian of Dreams (2000), Traveler of the Void (2001), Guardian of the God: The Book of Coming (2003), Guardian of the God: The Book of Returning (2003), Traveler of the Indigo-Blue Road (2005), Guardian of Heaven and Earth: The Kingdom of Lota (2006), Guardian of Heaven and Earth: The Kingdom of Kanbal (2007), Guardian of Heaven and Earth: The New Yogo Empire (2007)—has as its protagonist a skilled bodyguard of no social status whatsoever. Itinerant bodyguard Balsa shuns entanglement with royal affairs on the reasonable grounds that she would be unlikely to survive. Unfortunately for her, a moment of selfless heroism drags her first into court politics—bad!—and then into divine affairs…which is worse.
This series does present one major complication, from the perspective of an Anglophone: only the first two volumes have been translated into English. Otherwise, this is a nice example of a series on the border between fantasy and mystery: survival often forces Balsa to uncover and confront things her social superiors have gone to some trouble to conceal.
No doubt you have your own favourites. I can think of a couple of dozen examples I didn’t mention because I assume you know about them or which I have not reread recently enough to be sure reality lives up to my fond memories. Feel free to offer your candidates in the comments below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.