Last Argument of Kings by Joe AbercrombieA little over a week ago one of my favourite new authors, Joe Abercrombie wrote an interesting (and wonderfully long) blog post about the trend in the current SF/F markets towards long, drawn out multi-volume stories that seem to lose focus as they trundle ever on *coughrobertjordancough*. Not surprisingly, the ever charming and devilishly clever Mr. Abercrombie managed to get people talking about this very subject. Starting in the Comments section of his blog and eventually making its way to the Westeros Boards (thanks to Adam of The Wertzone and… well, I just couldn’t be left out!

My opinion of it is summed up pretty well by twistedsheets10 (Comments) who says, “For me, the length of the book/series doesn’t really matter all that much. So long as the books have good plots, characters, etc., I’m willing to go through all 12 volumes.” Really I too think that this is most important of all factors: if the novels continue in quality then I’m willing to give the story as much time as needed.” nazfyratu (Westeros) has a slightly more innuendo filled take on the topic, “As with most things, I’d say that length doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with quality, per se. I’ve seen some long series that suck, and some that don’t. Similary, I’ve seen some short series that suck, and some that don’t. It’s not how big it is…. it’s… erm… what you do with it.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. RowlingA perfect example of this is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I feel a little guilty brining this series up (it’s a bit of a safe fallback when arguing about the quality of epic fantasy being produced today), but in the end it really comes down to the fact that George has already given us roughly 3.5-4k pages of a story (bringing us only a little past the halfway mark) and yet, with thousands of pages left ahead of me, I’m already feeling depressed knowing that at some point the series is going to come to an end. I felt the same way when I read the final Harry Potter novel (spoiler-free review HERE), I loved the characters, the world, the struggles taking place, that the series coming to an end (even after so long) was a very bittersweet moment for me.

One author that I’m anticipating will give me this same feeling is Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind (review HERE) and constant figure here on A Dribble of Ink. The thing that so intrigues me about his trilogy is that it was originally written as a single novel… albeit an incredibly long novel. The terrific thing about this is that we can pretty much guarantee that the quality of the remaining two novels will stay consistent with the first. But… the first novel is a good 600 pages long! Multiply that by 3 (per each volume in the trilogy) and you’re looking at a whopping 1800 page novel! It’s no wonder that Pat’s publisher decided to split the novel up into three. Adam (again of Wertzone fame) tackles this issue, along with another of the novel’s pitfalls (the lack of a real ending) in Joe’s comments, “The Kingkiller Chronicle (originally called A Song of Flame and Thunder) was written as one work and chopped in three for publication. However, I’m not sure if this is much of an excuse: Tolkien knew in post-war, cash-strapped 1949 when he finished LotR that no-one was going to publish a 1,000-page novel in one volume as it would be too expensive, and Rothfuss knew in 2005 or whenever he finished that no-one was going to publish a 2,500-odd-page novel in one volume either. The Name of the Wind’s total absence of any kind of ending, not even a cliffhanger, is the book’s weakest feature. It just stops and presumably The Wise Man’s Fear will just start again with no preamble.”

Wizard's First Rule by Terry GoodkindThese long novels/trilogies/series are great… if that’s what you’re looking for. Martin and Rowling, however, seem to be exceptions as far as big, multi-volume series go. On the other end of the spectrum are author like Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan. I LOVED Goodkind’s novels in highschool. I devoured them at a ravenous pace… until he released The Pillars of Creation and all of a sudden it seemed like Terry realized just how popular his series was (though… let’s be honest. Terry knew his series was going to the best thing ever created) and decided it would be the perfect avenue for preaching his beliefs. If I wanted a rambling anti-socialist rant I’d read Ayn Ran. Goodkind managed to turn me from a must-buy-on-release-day fan to a I-still-haven’t-read-the-latest-novel fan.

The Knife of Dreams by Robert JordanJordan led me along a similar, though less violently offensive road. I read and greatly enjoyed his novels, but it seemed to me that after the third novel that Jordan started to fall too deeply in love with his own creation. Of course and author being in love with their novel and the story they’re telling is important, but there is a line that can be crossed. In later novels (I will admit to only having read up to and including The Crown of Swords) it seems that Jordan spent crammed all the story into the last 100-150 pages of the novels, creating terrific endings to his novels, but requiring a lot of work to get to the good stuff. Each novel moves the overall storyline forward on a small amount but manage to leave the reader with a vast knowledge of the current fashion trends of the world. I hear this is alleviated in later novels, but I still think that instead of a mediocre, drawn out thirteen volume series, Jordan could have crafted an incredible 6-7 volume story.

Joe himself touches on this syndrome a bit in the comments to his blog post, “Really long series do tend to sprawl and very often decline in quality. With some you can actually see the books getting fatter as they progress down your shelf – a good indicator of a bit of a loss of focus. Perhaps that’s the real issue some readers have with books that don’t resolve – they’ve seen series decline so often and never really reach a satisfactory conclusion that they’ve come to expect it.” Needless to say, I think he really hit the nail on the head with this one. I’m cooler to long series that haven’t been finished because I’ve seen so many others, with strong beginnings, dwindle in quality in later volumes.

In the end, despite being able to enjoy long, epic-lengthed series, I always find myself drawn more to shorter series and even standalone novels. Right Now I’m reading Tobias Buckell‘s Crystal Rain, a 350 page, stand alone novel that manages to feel chalk full of content despite its short length. Tobias has hit a real sweet spot for me: short, stand alone novels with subtle ties (recurring characters/themes, etc…) and between them. Terry Brooks used to writer novels like this and it was one of the things that first attracted me to his novels.

Crystal Rain by Tobias BuckellSo, I like short novels, or at the very least would prefer a story to be told in nothing longer than a trilogy, which affords the perfect opportunity for the natural beginning/middle/end structure of a story, and I’m not the only one. “For me, if you can’t get a story told in three big-ass books you may need to do some serious self-editing.” says Abercrombie, an author who will publish the final novel in his first trilogy next year and is currently working on a pair of stand alone novels set in the same world as his trilogy. Brahm_K, of the Westeros Forums agrees, “if you can’t say what you want to say in less than 10,000 pages, is it really worth it? I’d say it can be, but its much more often not.”

Taking a look at sales figures, though, it seems that people like myself, Joe Abercrombie and Brahm_K are in the minority. Joe Abercrombie, Charles De Lint and R. Scott Bakker (all authors who generally work in the trilogy or standalone format) are big stars in the message board and blog world, but it’s people like the aforementioned Robert Jordan (11 novels), Terry Goodkind (11 novels), Terry Brooks (19 Shannara Novels) and Raymond E. Feist (26 novels) that resonate the most with casual fantasy readers. For some reason the average person interesting in Fantasy seems drawn to these exceptionally long and often redundant multi-volume series. Is it because they’re safe? No need to take a chance on other authors? Or is it simple a snowballing effect that starting early in the careers of these novelists and just never stopped rolling and growing ever bigger?

Whatever a reader enjoys, I think we can all agree that in the end, short or long, a novel stands solely on the strength of the writing, the charisma of the characters and the ability it has to draw a reader in for as long as needed to tell the story being told.

  • John (Grasping for the Wind) September 11, 2007 at 11:22 am

    I don’t think Brooks and Feist really fall into this category. They have really written a series of trilogies (ok sometimes four books) or stand alone novels that are set in the same world. Some have the same characters, but not always, and new characters are often introduced. Goodkind and Jordan on the other hand have been following the same characters for twelve weary books. Goodkind has finally got it about what Feist and Brooks have done and is calling the last three books in his series a “trilogy” although I’m inclined to think that is just marketing since the same characters are used.

    Anyway, I think that is an unfair comparison. We perhaps need to delineate a line between authors who write in same world, and authors who write about the same characters in a linear fashion.

    Perhaps how the books are published might be a factor to take into account as well. If I can read three of Feist’s books and feel that the story is over (ie. Riftwar Legacy) is it fair to say he is lengthy series writer? I can read Brook’s Talismans of Shannara without cracking any of his other books and feel I’ve read a good story.

    I think I might need to put these thoughts in to a post before I take up all your comment space.

  • Remy September 11, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    – John

    Where do you think R. A. Salvatore fits into this discussion? Based on some of the arguments it could be said that he has lost focus because of 20+ books that revolve around the same characters. However, when I read a Drizzt novel I don’t get the impression that the focus is lost. Is this because they are separate trilogies with varying plots or is it just because the quality of work hasn’t really dropped that much from his first Drizzt novel?

  • John (Grasping for the Wind) September 11, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    My opinion would be that in some cases (such as the servant of the shard series) he did lose focus. I think also that we are expecting less out of the Drizzt stories because rather than epics, they are more sword and sorcery, so our preconception and expectations might be lower.

    I don’t hink his quality has dropped overall, and I think that in part we are just too much in love with the character of Drizzt. The fact that each series of adventures is differnet and new helps us stay with the same characters.

    After all, Feist does use some of the same characters, but I don’t feel at a loss if I haven’t read all his books.

  • SQT September 11, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    Gawd, the never ending series is a dreary thing isn’t it? I don’t mind if an author has many books set in the same world, like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. But for goodness sakes, let us have some closure before we all die.

  • Tia September 13, 2007 at 3:18 am

    I so agree with SQT. I put a response up on an earlier discussion on Joe’s board about long series. They tend to lose me after a while. If OTHERLAND had gone longer than 4 books, it would have lost me. I loved Martin and Jordan’s books, but I cannot get through the middle volumes. I never got past the second book in Goodkind’s series. I did stick out Harry Potter to the end (still reading, actually), but that was an exception for me.

  • Shawn Speakman September 13, 2007 at 8:24 am

    I agree with all of you, as a writer and a reader. Nothing good comes from a story that lumbers through a half-dozen books (or more, in some cases). I have great respect for a larger story — personally I have taken the Pat Rothfuss route when telling my own story — but to publish books that barely push the narrative forward is irresponsible.

    For some reason, there are many writers who feel they can do whatever they want. And while this is true from a creative point of view, it is not from a business point of view. Ten years ago, everyone was saying Robert Jordan was the new Tolkien; now, he is a writer to be ridiculed and scoffed at. That’s how fast things can change if a writer doesn’t stay on point. And the sad thing is, people were making the Tolkien connections about George Martin five or six years ago; now, a great many readers are no longer sure.

    And it’s all because of huge epics that expand and expand and expand. And while they expand, they lose their magic. I think this is partly due to the writer and also partly due to their editor. Editors should be fixing those books but lack the assertive will needed to overcome the burgeoning writer’s fame.

    For me, there is no need to have a story that is 12 volumes with dozens and dozens and dozens of characters. I think in a way Steve Erikson is doing it right because each one of his stories deals with a new set of characters for the most part — the story is merely set in the same world. I think that Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist are doing it right as well; they might not be your cup of tea, but they write self-contained trilogies that wrap up the story each time out (ie. if one of them died, fans would not be left hanging). The Drizzt stories are also done in this way.

    I have rambled enough.

  • The Book Swede September 14, 2007 at 5:22 am

    Hmm, lots of mixed views…

    I happen to love Robert Jordan and his sprawling series, and I have stuck it out through all his books. The thing with Jordan though, is that he was writing huge 1000-page books which were bloody good (I refer to the first 6) but after that, he lost focus … and books 7-10 barely move forward at all. Book 11 is a return to form, with him neatly tying up things very well. Book 12, promises to be fantastic.

    The same applies to GRRM: he writes excellent books and has continued to … right up to book 4 (not counting the book that was separated in two) which everyone hated for introducing lots of new characters, etc … but which I loved. GRRM knows where he wants to go – he’s just taking a long time getting there – that’s his real problem.

    I like Ray Feist and his Demonwar Saga is a return to form.

    Even as a huge fan of Tad Williams’ other works, I couldn’t finish Otherland.

    I’m yet to read Terry Brooks properly, and have had RA Salvatore on my list for quite a while :)

    The Book Swede

  • […] the comments of the original The (multi-volume) Telling of a Story article, SQT brings up a good reason as to why this formula of smaller, self contained […]