I have a policy of not reading anything in a series. It’s not absolute, and I make exceptions, but if a book has sequels, or forms part of a trilogy or larger series, I am very unlikely to read it for a few reasons.
- Tolkienitis. Just because the Lord of the Rings got split into a trilogy by the publishers does not mean every freaking fantasy novel has to be part of a trilogy. It is offensive, on the face of it, to set to write a series just because ‘fantasy comes in trilogies’.
- If you can’t produce a complete book, I am unlikely to buy it. I don’t want to have to hunt around for a copy for “Book I” or wait three years to find “Book III”. I read a lot of older stuff anyway and buy used, so this is a pretty big issue for me.
- Too many crap series. From the early 1980s onward, publishers seem to have decided that anything that is a part of a series must be a cash cow. A lot of authors have one good book in them, and then churn out an avalanche of crap. No thanks.
So only 1 & 3 are aesthetic judgements; 2 is purely practical.
My biases are not blind prejudice. I tried to read The sword of Shanarra, Drangonlance, and other series, and never get past the first book. Granted those two read like crapulous rehashes of Tolkien anyway, but I’ve looked at a lot of series before realizing that it was the very fact that they formed part of a series that was off-putting. I think there must be something about the form that attracts bad writers. At this point I’m probably never going to bother with anything written by, say, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, or any of a host of popular fantasy series writers. I did read some of the “Xanth” books as a child, so I did get sucked into some bad series, but those are exceptions.
Having said that there are some series I’ve really liked. Some were not really intended to form a series of books, but are collections of stories (like Lieber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser books). Others are placed in a single setting by the author, and perhaps follow some of the same characters, like Vance’s Dying Earth books (one collection of short stories, two books about Cugel written many years apart, and a book of short stories/novellas about another character). I’ll read a series if I like the author already. If you’re Poul Anderson, Tanith Lee, Jack Vance, or someone like that who has also written stand-alone books or stories that I like, you get a pass. You don’t have to be a great writer either, just interesting. I made my way through the first three Black Company books (but can’t be bothered to seek out more); I’ll read Moorcock in omnibuses, and just picked up two omnibuses of William King’s “Gotrek and Felix” novels.
And in some cases I’ll give a series a try if it comes highly recommended. I read the first Dying Sun book by Gene Wolfe, and it was pretty good, but not good enough to make me want to keep at it, especially after reading synopses of how the story develops. I’m much more tolerant of historical novels that form a series too. Bernard Cornwall’s Winter king, stuff like that. Also series where the order of reading doesn’t matter, like the Flashman books, get a pass.
So the latest ‘series’ I’ve finished is the ‘duology’ by Brian Daley, Doomfarers of Coramonde and Starfarers of Coramonde. Daley is dead, so no danger that he’ll add to the series, and two books seems reasonable. In fact I was prepared to read only the first, but I stumbled upon the sequel a few months after reading the first and decided to give it a chance.
Unfortunately I read the first one more than a year ago, and I got to the second earlier this year, so the first was not completely fresh when I began the sequel. I would say the first book is better than the sequel (it always is, isn’t it?) but the sequel manages to put in a few good ideas. The story suffers a bit from the “all major characters are awesome superheroes” syndrome you see in a lot of fantasy novels, but fortunately the characters who get the most time have a lot of foibles.
The plot synopsis would be: To fight a cabal of evil wizards, some good wizards summon help from another dimension — ours. To give more detail, the help arrives in the form of a patrol of American GIs plucked out of Vietnam. The ‘planetary romance’ plot line gives the author plenty of leeway to have characters spend a lot of time in exposition, but for the most part Daley restrains himself and you are not overwhelmed with pointless details. The protagonist, Gil MacDonald, is a bit of a loner who has leadership thrust upon him first in Vietnam and then in Coramonde, the fantasy world he’s drawn to.
My biggest gripe with the novels would have to be that Daley goes to great pains to make the good guys’ country egalitarian and almost democratic. There is no real king, only princes or lords, most of whom are very ‘down-to-earth’ and spent some time living among the commoners or among “noble savage” barbarians. To some extent this goes along with the ‘all major characters are awesome’ syndrome. No matter how heavy the odds or losses, the nobility always seem to pull through every fight. It creates an impression that characters are never really in that much peril. To counterbalance this, we do see one of the nobles killed very early in the story, but it feels a bit like a bait-and-switch to have a gritty, dangerous plot swept away to make room for dashing heroes and heroines.
The second book manages to keep things interesting by focusing more on characters who appeared in the first book in less central roles. In fact Gil MacDonald spends a fair amount of the second book ‘off screen’.
The cultures and characters are mostly interesting, despite being idealized. I am not sure I’d find the second book as interesting without having read the first, but the first stands on its own with very little need for a sequel.
Daley is otherwise known for his Star Wars novels about Han Solo’s adventures, which were as far as I know the first officially sanctioned ones to follow the movies. I have heard very good things about those books, but have not read them. After that he wrote a lot of “Robotech” books, which don’t interest me, and he also wrote a third fantasy novel, A Tapestry of Magics, which apparently advertised a sequel of its own, but he did not live to publish it, if it was completed (I have read though that excerpts of the sequel appeared in later editions of the book).