“Is this book a standalone or the third in your trilogy?” A question that I’ve had to address since the publication of my latest book, Spellbreaker. The answer, perhaps confusingly, is yes. When justifying this answer, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the way stories are told in series, particularly in epic fantasy.
I don’t think too many will disagree that in the traditional conception of epic fantasy, the use of a series of books is a logistical necessity, not an aesthetic choice. The Lord of the Rings, of course, was written as one book (to rule them all?) and broken into three only because the printing, binding, and shipping costs would have been prohibitive. This precedent created the current expectation that every book in an epic fantasy series will be the immediate continuation of the last. Since the 1980s, the majority of successful fantasy series have done exactly that. There are many, well-known advantages to this approach; it allows for intricate exploration of subplots; it proves continuous and detailed character development; it creates an experience in which the reader traverses an epic number of pages that mirrors the characters’ journey across and among an epic number of landscapes and cultures. The grandmasters do so effortlessly and with style.
There is, however, a disadvantage to this approach to serialization; it lends itself to expansion and delay. Many fantasy readers can easily think of a series in which each book begins immediately after the last, or perhaps just before, and then to describes a shorter span of time with more words. This trend can turn an epic into a single novel asymptotically approaching an infinite word count while describing an infinitely short span of time. Many years ago, when I started out writing an epic fantasy, I wanted to break away from that pattern. I wanted to write an epic that was like a rock skipping across the surface of a lake, each book a contact point between the rock and the water, each novel containing a story complete that described the most monuments events of that decade or century. Whether or not I’ve succeeded in doing so, I think this approach has merit and writers and readers should consider it more often.
One of the largest advantages that this stand-alone-within-a-series approach provides is avoidance of ‘middle book syndrome,’ in which a book contains merely the connecting action between the excitement of a story initiated and the climactic revelations of the conclusions. A second advantage is that it provides self-refreshing backstory for each book in the series. Because a significant interval of time has elapsed between books, the characters will have developed new dimensions to their characters, which might be brought out with plot reveals. The traditional approach can exhaust backstory quickly and require the author to reach farther and farther back into the past for revelations or reverse a previous reveals — both of which can seem strained or contrived. Of course, pursuing the decade-skipping approach can cause other problems; because readers are so used to having epic fantasy told in an immediate, linear fashion it can cause some readers to have a sense that they’ve ‘missed’ a book in the series. This may cause some fretting and Google/Amazon searches. There is also the trouble of needing to remind the readers of the events in past books while setting up the current situation, which has changed radically from the end of the last book. But these pitfalls are not inevitable.
Perhaps the most important advantage of the stand-alone-within-a-series approach is that it allows readers to enter into the work at many different points. This would be particular advantageous to authors early in their career, whose each book is significantly better than their last as they learn their craft. (Yes. The answer to the question you’re wonder about as to if I’m writing a self-serving essay is yes.) I’d say the master of this stand-alone-within-a-series approach is Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld books are each self-contained but proved different linear stories between books. A friend and reader of mine recently pointed out that Tamora Pierce is a grandmaster of series that standalone but interconnect. There are other examples, I’m sure, that I’m not aware of or failing to remember.
I want to conclude by being very clear that I’m not trying argue that the stand-alone-within-a-series is the way it ‘has’ or even ‘ought’ to be, only that it has particular advantages and is underutilized and under-recognized.
Blake Charlton‘s Spellbreaker is out now, published in North America by Tor Books, and in the UK by Voyager. The first two books in the series, Spellwright and Spellbound, are also published by Tor Books and Voyager.
Here’s the synopsis for Spellbreaker:
Leandra Weal has a bad habit of getting herself in dangerous situations.
While hunting neodemons in her role as Warden of Ixos, Leandra obtains a prophetic spell that provides a glimpse one day into her future. She discovers that she is doomed to murder someone she loves, soon, but not who. That’s a pretty big problem for a woman who has a shark god for a lover, a hostile empress for an aunt, a rogue misspelling wizard for a father, and a mother who — especially when arguing with her daughter — can be a real dragon.
Leandra’s quest to unravel the mystery of the murder-she-will-commit becomes more urgent when her chronic disease flares up and the Ixonian Archipelago is plagued by natural disasters, demon worshiping cults, and fierce political infighting. Everywhere she turns, Leandra finds herself amid intrigue and conflict. It seems her bad habit for getting into dangerous situations is turning into a full blown addiction.
As chaos spreads across Ixos, Leandra and her troubled family must race to uncover the shocking truth about a prophesied demonic invasion, human language, and their own identities — if they don’t kill each other first.