Author: Foz Meadows
Say what you will about epic fantasy: after finishing the first volume of a seven-book series, you know what to look for next.
Though the crime fiction and romance genres are also known for their serial narratives, when most people think about stories and characters whose exploits span multiple volumes, they think of fantasy. Lord of the Rings is the trilogy of trilogies, a template on which a multide of stories have been subsequently based, and whose three-act structure has become as much a defining characteristic of the genre as have elves and dark lords. Given that individual volumes within any number of lengthy fantasy series already outbulk their non-magical counterparts, the prospect of reading two or more additional volumes can be understandably intimidating, especially for first-time fantasists. But for a solid decade of my reading life, the seeking out of sequels was a definitive pattern: a source of both comfort and enjoyment.
Sometime in 1995, my grandmother presented me with a copy of Redwall by Brian Jacques, unaware that, rather than being a stand-alone novel, it was the first volume of a children’s fantasy series that is still ongoing today. I read it, and was utterly hooked, devouring the next seven volumes with an eagerness that, even for my bookish child-self, was unprecedented. But then, calamity! The next book was yet to be published. I had to wait. And so, the pattern was set: every year for the next seven years, I would acquire the latest book, read it like lightning, and then resume my vigil for the next instalment. Aged nine when I started reading them, I was sixteen before the thrill abated – not a bad run for a series aimed foremost at primary school-aged readers. It’s been years since I revisted Jacques’s world, but his books were only the beginning. Equally as important as the characters themselves was the lesson that Books Had Sequels. No matter what stories I might read in the interim, Real Books came in sets.
My teenage experiences with epic fantasy only confirmed this rule. On trying new authors, I became judicious to the point of snobbery, as reading one book was effectively the same as committing to an entire series. Abandonment was rare. Throughout my teenage years, in fact, the only four sets I recall leaving unfinished were Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Star, Maggie Furey’s Artefacts of Power and Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth. But otherwise, there was something glorious about always knowing what to read next. There was no hesitation, no doubt: finishing the first book meant starting the second, and by the time I’d run through however many volumes constituted the whole shebang, why – there’d be another set all lined up and ready to go. So many of the series I found were complete that it always came as something of a shock to find that a next book wouldn’t be available for months or years, or that there were multiple volumes still unpublished. Even now, one of my favourite series of all time – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – remains incomplete to the tune of three volumes, with the most recent instalment having been released in 2005. But though I yearn to know the fate of Westeros, part of me doesn’t care how long I wait for the end of the series, so long as it’s eventually forthcoming. In the interim, there are plenty of other books to read, and the strength of Martin’s writing has earned my trust.
But not so long ago, I looked up from my epics and realised – for the first time in more than a decade – that I didn’t know what came next. All the authors I considered mine had either finished their series, were still in the process of writing the final volumes, or were drafting yet new sagas. I had dutifully reread those series which were whole and extant, sometimes as many as nine times, but no new successors had presented themselves. A terrible fear settled over me: there were no more books. As foolish a conclusion as that might seem, it was nonetheless how I felt. And I realised, too, that though I’d been reading constantly for my entire life, I wasn’t nearly as well-read as I thought I was. I had read lots of books, yes, but not lots of authors, and though I knew what I liked about particular stories, the one thing I’d never properly learned to do – the one thing at which I baulked, wrapped in my blanket of familiar narrative – was to take a chance with unknown genres, stories and writers. There and then, I vowed to amend my ways, and in the whole of 2009, I reread only one book. Everything else was wonderfully, terrifyingly new.
I still love epic fantasy. Though no longer my sole occupying genre, it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever abandon. I read more widely now, but although not every book I try belongs to a series, my To Be Read pile still stretches out into infinity, filled with a wealth of stories for which I have not enough time; and yet all the time in the world.
Tags: A Song of Ice and Fire, Artefacts of Power, Brian Jacques, Dragon Star, Epic Fantasy, Fantasy, George R. R. Martin, Maggie Furey, Melanie Rawn, Reading, Redwall, Robert Jordan, Series, Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth, The Wheel of Time, Trilogies, Trilogy