I used to read fantasy book series all the time. Except for required school reading, I read almost nothing but series through college. Returning to the same worlds and the same characters was comforting when I and everything around me seemed to be changing by the minute. No matter what, I could count on Drizzt do’Urden or Walker Boh to stay the same; I would always have the absolute love and faithfulness of one of Anne McCaffery’s dragons or Mercedes Lackey’s Companions. I always knew that there would, through the long days of strife, be, if not a happy ending then at least a solid resolution by time I turned the final page.
Once I graduated from college, got a job, an apartment, a cat, and my own health insurance plan, I stopped reading so many book series. Sure, I was reading George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’, but knowing that there would be thousands of pages to get through before story’s end and possibly years to wait before the next book came out grew tiresome. I branched out in my reading, too. Nonfiction, classics, mysteries, contemporary fiction, historical fiction– just about everything was up for grabs as I refined my literary pallet once I wasn’t being assigned books.
I made the occasional foray into fantasy series. Usually, I disliked book one and didn’t go any further. Once in a while I’d love the first book, but grow dissatisfied with later volumes. Why was this? I’m not sure. News pundits and alarmists would blame it on Facebook and The Great Shrinking of America’s Attention Span, but given that I’ve always been able to get lost in a book no matter how much time I spend on Facebook, I’m going to discount that.
So what drove me away from fantasy (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) series in my twenties and early thirties? Let’s take a look, and maybe we’ll find some answers.
- The Same Old, Same Old: How many YA vampire stories came out after Twilight? A zillion? Two zillion? Once that dreck-turned-messed-up-love-story started selling All the Copies, I couldn’t walk into Barnes and Noble without every New Releases shelf being filled to the brim with vampire stories, most of them touted as a ‘bloody, thrilling new saga full of vampiric love and action’. Nearly every one of them was forgettable. But they were everywhere. Then it was endless dystopia or snarky teens fighting demons. Now we’re onto fairy tale retellings of every stripe or competitions for thrones/galactic glory/mass entertainment. Or mermaids. What’s with the mermaids?
Now, I’m all for a good vampire story or snarky teens, but Dear Publishing Industry, please remember: everything in moderation.
2. It’s A Kind of Magic (System): Magic makes fantasy. It’s half the reason we read it, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like a fire breathing dragon, a self-cleaning bedroom, or chocolate frogs?
But it seems like in the past ten or fifteen years, the main selling point of many fantasy series has become the magic system. “The magic is based on weird metals/oddly shaped stones/offbeat shades of Crayola crayons, and it’s amazing!” is often the first thing you hear about in reviews or recommendations. While I appreciate the creativity and thought that goes into these various systems, it’s not why I read the book. Tell me first if the characters are compelling, and then explain how the magic works.
In other words, if I’m going to get a pages-long lecture on the topic of ‘How Magic Works’, I’d better be at Hogwarts.
3. How much of my life am I devoting to this? I started reading George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire in 2005. The most recent book came out in 2011. I’ve watched all seven seasons of the HBO television show since then. Thus far, I’ve been a fan of the series for thirteen years. Had I started reading when the first book came out, I’d have spent the past twenty-two years wondering what’s going to happen to Jon and Dany and Arya and everyone else.
And we still don’t know what’s going to happen to everyone, because we’ve been waiting for the next book to come out for the past seven years.
Let’s put it another way: I’ve read the first two volumes of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. There are currently three books out of a planned ten-book cycle available. The average page count of the first three books is 1,112. If we pretend that all ten books are out and go by the average number of pages from the first three, then the entirety of The Stormlight Archive will comprise roughly 11,123 pages. According to Goodreads, I’ve read 50 titles this year for a total of 12,393 pages. If we say that fifteen of those titles were audiobooks (which don’t have pages) and toss out four 300-page books to get to around 11,000 pages, then we have 31 books. The comparison looks a little like this:
The Stormlight Archive: 11,123 pages + ten books + four months of reading = 1 story
My 2018 reading challenge so far (adjusted): 11,193 pages + thirty-one books + four months of reading = 31 stories
Do I want one story told at length in four months, or do I want many shorter stories in four months? In general, I prefer to read a variety of stories with different characters in that sort of time period. Does this mean that long series are out by default? No. But we’ve been waiting seven years for Martin’s The Winds of Winter, and Sanderson’s Oathbringer is 1243 pages long…
4. Level Up! And up and up and up and up… There was a series I started reading in high school. It had so much promise– a strong, handsome Good Guy, a beautiful and magical Young Woman MC opposite him, and a perilous evil lurking beyond the borders of their realm. If only it had kept that promise. But by book three, the author had ditched the Young Woman MC for an entirely different, New Young Woman MC, and the Good Guy… Oh, the Good Guy….
By book three, the Good Guy was not only the leader of the army against the perilous evil, he was also the king of the realm, had a badass sword, an amazing magical castle, and he could fly.
Yeah. He could fly. Out of nowhere, it turned out that he had some magical being blood in him, and suddenly sprouted wings. The New Young Woman MC also grew wings, because Awesome! (I guess), and everyone was cool with the fact that the Good Guy was suddenly flying everywhere and that he had ditched his previous fiancee and the child they’d had together, and left them in a forest somewhere. Because Wings and Magic Swords!
I realize that characters are supposed to gain power and experience in whatever field they’re in. But can we keep it within the realm of reason, even if it’s only within the magical world’s internal logic? If I wanted to hear about Amazing Characters and Their Insanely Badass Magical Powers/Items, I’d ask my friends to summarize their most recent Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
Sure. The characters have awesome swords and amazing magical powers by the end of the story, but power has its limits and so should the characters. In Game of Thrones for example, Danaerys might call herself Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, but she can’t storm a keep all by herself. She needs an army to back her up. And she has responsibilities to that army, or she won’t have it for very long. And she needs to bear in mind that power corrupts. And, and, and… For all her power, even Danaerys has limits on what she can do.
So there are some reasons. Maybe not all the reasons, but it’s a start. And because I have plenty of thoughts about what makes a great fantasy (or science fiction) series these days, I plan to write more on the subject. Because, you know, it’s a series.