Beating the Dead Horse

April 14, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

When it comes to reading, I'll devour almost anything, but my preferred genres are mystery (preferably British) and fantasy novels. When P.D. James releases a new book (a trend that lamentably won't continue much longer since she's getting close to 90 years old), I'll drop pretty much anything to read it. On the fantasy side, there are plenty of choices, but few are as appealing as they once were.

I enjoy multi-volume fantasy tales, and these have been the rule since J.R.R. Tolkien popularized the genre with The Lord of the Rings. A series allows the characters to be better developed and the plot to breathe. Unfortunately, the trend is to drag out things past the point where the reader loses interest. One can almost sense the author's greed. Keep dragging it out... Throw in another volume or two... Milk it for as long as possible...

This isn't an isolated incident, and it's not a new trend. The first time I noticed it was during the late 1980s, but I'm sure it has been going on for longer. Now, it almost seems to be the exception, rather than the rule, when an author comes to a series with a well-defined narrative plan that is adhered to.

When I was in college, I enjoyed reading David Eddings' five-volume The Belgariad. Originality was not the series' strength, but it was a pleasant, easy read; featured nicely-drawn characters; and created a surprisingly vivid world. In a way, its predictability was part of its charm. Five books was enough. At the end, the story was told. Yet that didn't stop Eddings from producing The Mallorean, an awkward and useless five-novel sequel that went a good way towards souring me on this author. The tenth novel in the double-series, something called The Seeress of Kell, was as big a dissapointment as anything I have read. The Mallorean is a roadmap for what happens when money persuades an author not to let go of a group of characters.

Then there's Robert Jordan. When he began The Wheel of Time, it was with great promise. Now, ten books into the saga, he has lost his way. He's spinning his wheels and going nowhere. Supposedly, there are still two more books to go before the whole thing wraps up, but I wonder if Jordan will ever get around to writing them. His most recent novel (not counting a pointless prequel), The Crossroads of Twilight, was nearly unreadable. This series should have ended about three books ago, yet it drags on.

I feel the same way about Harry Potter. For me, the magic lasted about three books. After that, there was a sense that J.K. Rowling was extending the series beyond its natural life-span. (Around the time that book #3 came out, she stated that there would be seven volumes, but it's unclear whether that was the plan from the beginning or became the plan when the first novel was a success.) The fourth book (which I never finished) was needlessly long and self-indulgent. Harry Potter has lost the freshness that initially made it appealing.

The jury is still out on George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice. Three books are on shelves, with at least two more to come. Thus far, Martin has kept things moving, but one wonders how much longer he can maintain this. This series can go either way. I'm rooting for it to come to a proper end because it contains some of the best fantasy plotting in recent years. It would be a shame if success tempts Martin into adding an extraneous volume or two.

To be fair, I can offer a few counter-examples. The first is Katherine Kurtz's Deryni Chronicles, which I believe to be complete (although there's nothing to prevent her from adding additional volumes, since there are gaps in her "history" that can be filled). At present, the saga totals fourteen books, and every volume has its place. It's clear that Kurtz had a plan from the beginning and worked to execute it. Publication of the series took more than two decades, but I would argue that the result justifies the wait - unlike The Wheel of Time.

Last decade, Melanie Rawn wrote a double-series, The Dragon Prince Trilogy and The Dragon Star Trilogy. This was a well-focused six-book set with a clear beginning, middle, and end. As with Kurtz's novels, each book has a point, and the reader doesn't feel like he or she is being strung along. The second trilogy might have been written in response to the success of the first one, but it was carefully plotted and doesn't feel extraneous.

Finally, there are the three Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. It's tough to talk about the third and final series because it's incomplete (the first book was published last year), but, judging by the first and second chronicles, there shouldn't be anything to worry about. Stephen Donaldson doesn't seem motivated by money (if he had been, he wouldn't have waited so long before returning to The Land). The Thomas Covenant books have pushed the fantasy envelope. Rumor has it that the current series is going to have a disastrous ending - something that almost never happens in fantasy. Considering how the second trilogy concluded, this doesn't surprise me. Donaldson's brand of "heroic fantasy" has a decidedly bitter aftertaste.

The phenomenon of a money-driven sequel no more unique to the movie world than it is to fantasy novels. The trend is rampant throughout literature as authors hesitate to venture outside of a comfort zone. With movies, it's easy enough to shrug off bad sequels and concentrate on the good installments. (Watch Alien and Aliens; deny the existence of the other two...) It's tougher with books, especially when the author keeps churning out second-rate prose that serves only to diminish some fine prior storytelling.