buying and reading a fantasy trilogy or series – what to do?

It’s the old question: read the books as they are published, one at a time, or wait until the trilogy, quartet, or whatever is complete, then read them all?

This post is inspired by a comment by Evan Lewis made  in response to my Mailbox Monday post. Evan’s fine blog Davy Crockett’s Almanack is worth a daily visit. He said:

“I get the urge to read a fantasy epic now and then, but I’ve learned my lesson. No more starting a series until it’s DONE. I’ve been waiting 3 years for George RR Martin’s next Ice and Fire, and by the time it comes out I’ll have to reread all the all the others to remember what’s going on.”

Yes, Evan, I feel your pain. Every time I buy some fantasy, I’m faced with that question. We all are.

I recently bought these fantasy books, based on reviews by trusted reviewers and /or recommendations from friends:

The Emerald Storm by Michael J. Sullivan is the 4th book in the very highly praised Books of the Riyria Revelations series, comprised of, so far, The Crown Conspiracy (October, 2008), Avempartha (April, 2009), Nyphron Rising (October, 2009), The Emerald Storm (April 2010). The final two books in the series are scheduled to be published as follows: Wintertide (October 2010) and Percepliquis (April 2011). I read somewhere that these last two books are written, though if that means they are ready to be published, in draft form or somewhere in between I can’t say, and of course publishing schedules are always estimates.

Lord of the Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier is the 1st book in The Griffin Mage trilogy.

Swords of the Six by Scott Appleton is a prelude to, or possibly the first book of, a trilogy (or series) titled The Sword of the Dragon.

Years ago, I would go to the book store, browse the fantasy section, and if somehting caught my eye I’d buy it. If the book was part of a trilogy, as was so often the case, I’d find the first one and buy that. Then I’d read it, and if I liked it I’d go back and get the others. Simple, easy, everything was fine. But then came a problem. I was buying more books than I could keep up with in my reading, so a backlog was developing. This was already the case with other books; general fiction, mystery, science fiction, non-fiction and so on, but that hadn’t been much of a problem. Mostly those books weren’t part of a series, or if they were, almost never part of a trilogy, which seemed then and still does to be a format primarily in fantasy.

But if I didn’t read a fantasy book right away – again, often the case – it got shuffled to one side. Later when I did read it, perhaps even a few years later, id I liked it and wanted the rest of the books I often found they had gone out of print. This was before the relatively easy used book buying on the web, and sometimes I never found the rest of the books. This happened often enough I changed my strategy. I “wised up” and started buying the books as complete sets, reading none until the last one came out, then I read them all.

Well, that didn’t always work too well either. As book stores started shrinking their stock, they often only had the latest or maybe the last two in stock. If it was available, I often had to order the missing book(s) to have the set. Okay, now I had lots of fantasy trilogies, unread, in the house. The problem was, when I got around to reading one of them sometimes I didn’t like the first book. What had looked interesting at the time I bought it had now paled in the reading, and there I was with two more books which I didn’t want to read. What a waste of money!

So, another change of plans. Here’s what I usually what I do now:

  1. Make sure I’m really interested. I have a ton of books here waiting to be read or – in some cases – reread, and I don’t need a lot more books just to decorate the already-bulging shelves.
  2. If I’m sure, I buy the first book and I read it, it goes to the short stack of the TBR and stays there until it’s read. If I like it, I’ll buy the others – but not read them – until the series is complete .
  3. When I have them all I may or may not (depending on how long it’s been) go back and re-read the first one. I can usually pick up a lot from the second book. I may have to skim here and there, but that’s no big deal. Then I read the rest. Not always back-to-back, but pretty close together so I know what’s going on.

I do still, rarely, buy some books in a series without reading the first one, and continue to buy them until I have them all before I read them. It’s rare, I do it, only with series I’m pretty darn sure I’m going to like, such as things by authors whose works I’ve enjoyed or books raved about by trusted reviewers. As I said, I don’t do it very often. I am doing that with the Books of the Riyria Revelations series.

But most of the time I follow my process. It’s what I did with Paolini’s Eragon books, I read the first, have bought the rest as they have come out and now am waiting – somewhat impatiently – for the last one.  I’m doing the same thing with the other two fantasy books shown above that I just bought. They are the first in a trilogy, I’ll read them soon and if I like them I’ll buy more, otherwise I cut my losses, donate the book and that’s it. I figure even if a book is part of a trilogy or series, I should be able to enjoy it by itself, and if I can’t I doubt I want to read any further in that series.

So, what do YOU do?

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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26 Responses to buying and reading a fantasy trilogy or series – what to do?

  1. Chris says:

    The last epic fantasy series I was reading was Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time thing. When I got into it, I was thinking it was a trilogy. About 5 books in it was just dragging on and on, so I said to hell with it. Haven’t read an epic series since.

    I’ve got all of the George RR Martin series that Evan mentions; I’ve picked them up at the used bookstore as they’ve come in, but I haven’t read them. I’m waiting on it to be complete. Same with Tad Williams’s latest series.

    But it’s really been years since I read any fantasy anyway. Other than re-read the old pulp fantasy stuff of my youth (Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, etc.).

  2. william says:

    Virtually the same that you are now doing. Robert Jordan is my favorite example of the wait until the series is complete school. With too much to read, do I really have time to reread books issued a year or more in the past to understand what I need to know? Some authors and publishers do a good job of summarizing what has gone before and that makes a dramatic difference.

  3. Evan Lewis says:

    I got sucked into the Wheel of Time a long time ago, and when it couldn’t keep up with me I lost interest. Is it finally finished?

    My current plan is to ask folks like you, wise in the ways of fantasy fiction, to recommend some worthwhile series that are complete. Then I’ll get the first one from the library and see if it grabs me.

    So how about, folks? What’s good – and done.

  4. I’m with Evan. I’ll wait until the fantasy trilogy or whatever is COMPLETE. I’ve read George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series and was bitterly disappointed. I read over 3000 pages for too little pay-off.

  5. Chris says:

    Evan I don’t know if the Wheel of Time is complete yet, though I do know Robert Jordan died before it was wrapped up. I think the last book may have come out, finished by a guy working from Jordan’s notes, but I’m not sure.

    I know that’s one of the things the Martin fans are worried about, that he’d die before getting the last book out.

    You might try the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy from Tad Williams. I loved it back in the day. The first book is called The Dragonbone Chair. I haven’t read it in years, so keep in mind that it is the 19 yo me recommending it, but I have fond memories of it and will revisit it.

  6. Todd Mason says:

    If its meant to be an open-ended series, such as Vance’s Dying Earth/Cugel stories or Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I’ll read ’em as I come across them. If they are meant to be a closed sequence, at least at first, I’ll wait for all the books just as I wait for all the installments of a serialized novel or shorter work in magazines.

  7. Richard says:

    Yep, Todd, that’s pretty much what I was trying to say, but you managed it in a couple of sentences instead of my long ramble…

  8. Richard says:

    Tracy – good information and I agree, it does take a long time to write a novel and get it published. We readers, of course may choose to wait until the expected story arc or series of them is available to read befroe buying the whole bunch of ’em.

  9. Richard says:

    Evan & Chris – Wheel of Time is finished in a sense, after Jordon’s death, Brandon Sanderson was chosen to complete the series, and has decided it will take three books to wrap up. Book 12, THE GATHERING STORM was published last October. Book 13 TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT is due this coming October, and the final, book 14, A MEMORY OF LIGHT, is scheduled to be published “late 2011”.

  10. Chris says:

    14 books. Wow.

  11. Boy I’m glad I don’t have this problem – I usually don’t get involved in series books. Now watch – I just ordered books in Trollope’s Barchester Tower series, so I may be eating my words in a few weeks.

  12. Your post brought to mind a similar problem I had many years back. This was before the days of internet and easily finding old books.

    I was out looking in the book store of a neighboring town and came across book three of a fantasy series involving dragons. A couple of years before I had read book one and enjoyed it, so I asked the store owner if she could get book two. Assuring me she could, I went ahead and bought the second book. She was never able to get that second book of the trilogy, so they got shoved aside and forgotten, the third forever unread. I think the author was David Bischoff and the missing volume could likely be easily found these days. But what’s the point? I have more than I can read now and I would need to read the first again anyway.

    Let’s see, The Wheel of Time-got bored!
    Goodkind’s Sword of Truth-got bored!
    Martin’s Fire and Ice-got bored!

    I sense a theme here. Long series bore me after a few books. The only Tolkien I’ve read was The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings(numerous times).

  13. Let me add, any series that shows promise of being long-winded, I tend to stay away from.

    Another I forgot to mention is Terry Brooks; Shannara series. I see in Locus he’s signed on for a new one. Oh well, I haven;t read any of them since the first anyway.

  14. Richard says:

    Laurie – I’m pretty sure the Barchester Towers series is completed. George Kelley would know for sure.

    Chris – I read he first one and it was just okay. I tried the 2nd and didn’t finish it, it seemed too long and involved. I read the “prequel” a couple of years ago, and it was pretty interesting. I don’t know of a longer fantasy series, at least not a major one.

  15. Richard says:

    Yep Randy, that’s just the thing that used to happen to me. Long-winded is okay if it’s good, but it often seems the writing quality is inverse to the length, doesn’t it?

  16. Jeff Meyerson says:

    So…WHEEL OF TIME is a 14 book ‘trilogy’?

    Okey dokey.

    Yes, the Barsetshire Chronicles is finished, has been since 1867.


  17. The Chronicles of Barsetshire is a series of six novels by Anthony Trollope, set in the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester. The novels in the series are:

    The Warden (1855)
    Barchester Towers (1857)
    Doctor Thorne (1858)
    Framley Parsonage (1861)
    The Small House at Allington (1864)
    The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

    I loved them all!

  18. Richard says:

    Jeff – I think the proper term might be “series” for WHEEL OF TIME. I knew BT was finished, of course, I was being hilariously clever.

    George – thanks, I’m sure many will buy and read them. Personally, BARCHESTER TOWERS, though enjoyable enough when I read it in college, is likely to be the only one of them I will read.

  19. Chris says:

    Where does King’s GUNSLINGER run fall in this discussion? I’ve never read it — it’s kind of fantasy, isn’t it?

    One thing I’m curious about, and maybe I’m just ignorant, but it almost seems like for fantasy authors there is an expectation that their books are going to be part of some broader series. As a published author in the genre, maybe Tracy can answer.

    If it IS an expectation, what a challenge that must be. Not only must one be a good enough writer to be published, but to have to come out of the gates with an epic? Seems overwhelming to me.

  20. Richard says:

    Chris, it’s not uncommon, or didn’t used to be, for publishers to do three book deals with authors, often initially a one book buy, then if that book is successful a two-book deal follows. In fantasy, there is such an expectation by readers that they will get a trilogy, meaning a long story with two logical braking points, that publishers want that from writers they consider.

    I’ve pinged Tracy so he should be popping in shortly.

  21. Richard says:

    Thanks or that, Tracy, good information.

  22. Fence says:

    It is a dilemma. If I know the book is part of a trilogy, and there is some sort of a publishing schedule I’ll usually read the first one.

    If it is an unending series then I’m more inclined to let a couple of books go buy before starting. Or if there is no publication information on any of the others in the series.

    But I’m in a privileged position, I buy books at work for the library, and our policy has always been to try and complete series, so if book 3 in a series comes in I’ll buy 1 & 2 to complete the set. And if they get regular use we’ll continue buying the series. Plus library books don’t cost me any money.

  23. Richard says:

    Lucky, luck you, although you don’t have them all to talk to late at night… Ha!

  24. Fence says:

    That is true, but I do get to be evil and override our renewal limits 🙂 Although if I really like a book I will buy it. That’s why Laurie R King’s books are sitting on my shelf and why soon enough I’ll be buying Patrick Ness’s YA series Chaos Walking. (which has no zombies, werewolves, vampires)

  25. Richard says:

    I really like King’s books, too, or at least the Russell-Holmes ones, and have them all, two unread. I haven’t heard of that YA series, have to look into it. Thanks for the tip.

  26. Carl V. says:

    I don’t have any hard and fast rules regarding this, but I do tend to shy away from any book series that is already long and is going to go on for a long time more. I don’t trust my memory enough to read them and then have to wait around for years for the next book. I gave up on Jordan because of that and have avoided Martin as well, alth0ugh for Jeff’s sake I’ll probably end up breaking down and reading Martin.

    If it is an author I like, like Scalzi for instance, nothing is going to stop me from going ahead and grabbing the book as it comes out. But if it is an author I don’t know then I am really reluctant to get in at the beginning of a series.

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