The Series Question

Look around the bookshops and the libraries and you’ll see series all over the place. On some stretches of shelves, you could be forgiven for thinking that EVERYTHING is part of a series.series small

And, as an aside, don’t you hate browsing in a library, spotting a book that looks interesting, then flipping it over to reveal it’s ‘Book 3 of the seven book Snurgurupiad Saga’ and Books 1 and 2 are nowhere to be seen?

Fantasy seems to be the home of series. Much of it seems to be in homage to Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, the original trilogy. Those with a sense of history (and those who are at all curious) know that LoTR wasn’t designed to be a trilogy. Tolkien wrote it as a single book, but Allen and Unwin (the original publishers) thought it was simply too bulky to release in one whomping great volume.

But once the pattern was set, it seems as if fantasy readers have come to enjoy and even expect a trilogy – or more. There’s something comforting about a series, where you know the characters, the setting and you can revel in the unfolding story. Of course, some series outstay their welcome. Sometimes you get up to Book Four and the characters are still rattling around and you just want to shake them and yell, ‘GET ON WITH IT! YOU’VE GOT A WHOLE DAMN PROPHECY TO FULFIL AND YOU’VE ONLY GOT THREE BOOKS LEFT TO DO IT IN!’

As a writer of fantasy, a series is often a natural thing. Once you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating your fantasy world, it seems as if there is more than one story to tell.

Some questions. The paradigmatical series, the trilogy. Is it one story split into three, or is it three stories glued together into one? LoTR, as mentioned above, is one story chopped up into three volumes for practical reasons. It reads like that, too.

And what about the problem of the second book? The first book sets up the theme, characters, sets the story in motion. The last book brings it all to a conclusion – often with a massive battle. The second book is a challenge. It must have its own integrity. It can’t simply mark time. It shouldn’t be simply a bridge. It’s a challenge for a writer.

And what do you call your series? ‘The XXX Trilogy’ has been done to death. We have plenty of Sagas, Tapestries, Chronicles, Sequences, Songs, Volumes, Cycles etc etc. What’s left? ‘The XXX Directory’? ‘The XXX Wall Hanging’? ‘The XXX Oratorio’?

I maintain that there are two different sorts of series. One is the classic serial – each book ends on a cliffhanger and isn’t ‘complete’ without the other books in the series. The other sort of series is what I’m trying to do with The Laws of Magic. Each book is complete, comes to a whole and satisfying conclusion. The characters and setting remain the same, however, and with each book they have another set of adventures. Blaze of Glory, the first book, comes to a conclusion. The second book – Heart of Gold – doesn’t take up where Blaze of Glory left off. There is a six month time lapse, then a whole and complete adventure takes off. And so with, Word of Honour, Time of Trial and so on – complete, standalone adventures, each coming to a self- contained conclusion at the end of the book, but united by the overall story arc that extends across what will be six books when the series is completed. In this sense, The Laws of Magic and my new series, The Extraordinaires, are more like novel sequences than a series, something like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books. Or – and I hesitate to raise the name of The Master – something like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. Although I do wonder about how applicable the notion of story arc across the Famous Five sequence is …

Series, serial, novel sequence. In the end this is all just hair-splitting. Series are here to stay. Some people roll their eyes whenever a series is mentioned, but for a writer a series can be the expansive canvas that large ideas and large stories need.