Series exhaustion

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This week, I have been reading Anton Strout’s Simon Canderous series. I reviewed the first one, and I’m now on book four. You note a distinct lack of reviews of books two and three.

Well, the thing is, series exhaustion.

Series Exhaustion, for me, is not the fact that the reader gets tired of the series after umpty-zillion books (for example, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I have not read but which I have heard referred to in less-than-complimentary terms due to the number of books in it).

Series Exhaustion is when the series itself is exhausted – that is, the motivating force, the main idea, behind the series seems to have gone tired and floppy.

This is always a danger when an author writes more than one book in the same setting with the same characters. Is the fundamental idea strong enough to support a series?

In the Simon Canderous series, it appears that it is not. Or, rather, that Strout does not have enough ideas to make it work. The first book was pretty good; not great literature, but an amusing take on the occult-government-department trope that we all know and love. And yes, as urban fantasy fans, we do know and love it. It has a venerable history – at least back to the 1970s (the Omega Files, about a covert British government department dealing with the occult) – and it generally works well. After all, if magic exists, it’s logical that there would be a government department overseeing it, or fighting it, or monitoring it, or taxing it, or whatever. Something, anyway.

So what went wrong with Strout’s Department of Extraordinary Affairs, that it appears to be fizzling after a mere four books? It can’t be the setting, since the trope has been alive and well for over thirty years.

I have an opinion – of course. The problem was not with the setting, but more that the setting was all that Strout had to offer. His Department of Extraordinary Affairs is a caricature of governmental bureaucracy, complete with lots of forms to fill in, in triplicate. Unfortunately, this seems to have been his major ‘joke’, and once the joke was told, and every possible ounce of humour extracted from it, there wasn’t really much left to support a series.

His characters are also rather simple and two-dimensional; the books are written from the first-person perspective, and that is very hard to do. It makes it far more difficult to portray characters other than the narrator in a three-dimensional way, and means that the author is limited to one point of view. It can work brilliantly (see Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, where Harry Dresden’s commentary on proceedings really adds to the story) but when it fails, it really fails.

And, crucially, his plotlines, while potentially interesting – possibly partially due to the lack of characterisation – are not given the development to become really interesting.

But is series exhaustion entirely due to poor writing? Personally, I don’t think so. Take Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series – I was very disappointed when that series came to an end. But apparently sales were falling off to the extent that Connolly decided not to write any more. The reasons give for this falling-off were varied, including the fact that some people felt that the protagonist, Ray Lilly, was not sympathetic enough (I thought he was great – grey enough to be interesting).

My theory is that the real problem was that Ray only had one kind of baddie to fight: predators (think Dungeon Dimensions/Outsiders). Each book was therefore to some extent a replay of the previous one: find predator, kill predator, kill anyone affected/infected. I could see that, and I liked the books. They were well written, had brilliant characters, the series premise was a good one… just too limited to support more than two or three books. What Connolly needed to do – and possibly was doing, just not fast enough – was to change the series so that the Bad Guy’s identity was changed from the predators themselves to the Twenty Palaces Society, the organisation dedicated to fighting the predators, but in a way that had become increasingly inhuman. Fighting against the Twenty Palaces Society and introducing a rival way of fighting predators that did not boil down to ‘kill everything in sight’ would have fuelled a reasonably long and action-packed series. I could see the beginnings of this in the last book, but unfortunately by then book sales had fallen far enough that Connolly obviously felt the series wasn’t salvageable.

So what is the take-home message?

Well, my opinion is that if you plan to write a series, not only do you have to write good characters, good plot, and a good setting, but you also have to have a concept that is big enough and flexible enough to support the number of books you intend to write. Otherwise, no matter how good each book is individually, as a series it will succumb to series exhaustion and fizzle out.

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