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August 18, 2013

Catching Up on a Book Series

Thanks to Aiden Moher, and check out his great book site!
Those of you who follow me on Goodreads know that I've recently started reading a book called Requiem, by Ken Scholes. It's the fourth book in the "Psalms of Isaak" series, a fantasy series that has wowed me since the beginning, though the third book didn't quite so much.

Most book series have editions that come out once a year at most, and sometimes longer (or much, much longer, I'm looking at you, George R.R. Martin). It's been two or three years since book 3, and I found myself having trouble remembering exactly what was going on in the previous books. In fact, for a while there, I felt totally lost.

This is unusual for me, because I don't usually have this kind of problem. Most series that I read, I've picked up and remembered the main narrative after the first 50 or so pages. Who the good guys are. Who the bad guys are. What the bad guy's trying to do. What the good guy's trying to stop. I usually master it quite quickly and thus can get into the groove of reading the current book.

The only time this generally doesn't happen is when the books take a drastically different tone from one to the next. For example, Beth Bernobich's "River of Souls" series. I read Passion Play back in December, and then just recently read the second book, Queen's Hunt. That's not even a year! However, in my memory of the first book, it's told completely from the main character's viewpoint and, while it does go into the politics of the world and begin the search for the magical McGuffins, it's a very personal story about that character.

The second book opens with a totally different character and after the first chapter, I had to go back and make sure that this was actually part of the series. The second book is much broader in scale, incorporating many different viewpoint characters. It was almost a slap upside the head. That doesn't mean it was a bad book, of course. It was pretty good, once I had adjusted my brain to accommodate the change. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had read it a year or two later.

So we've established that I generally don't need much time to have the previous books in my head while I'm reading the current one. Do I catch some of the nuances that go from book to book in the series? Many web sites have ripped apart Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, poring over the minute details of the plot and character and charting how they've changed. Predicting what will happen in the upcoming two books.

That may be going overboard, but it does bring to mind the question: Just how good of a memory do you have to have in order to take little details from previous books and apply them to the current one? When there's a major plot revelation at the end of Book 3 that's been building since only the beginning, how much impact does it have when you only remember the basic storyline from the first two? There may not be that "a-ha! That's why Agent Smith was sneaking into that warehouse on page 253 of Book 1! He was the villain all the time!" moment that the author was going for.

So what's the solution? Most people would probably suggest re-reading the series before getting the next book.

This is not a bad solution, except for the fact that I have been taking longer and longer to get through books these days. So many other distractions in every day life, my gaming (both video and board games) and other things going on. What used to take me 3-4 days to read is now taking me two weeks or more. There are so many other great books out there waiting to be read, I don't want to going back and re-read books again and again. Especially when they're as long as Martin's books.

Another option is to wait until the entire series is out and just plow through them all then.

This is not a bad option, and it's great when you have a series recommended to you that you have never tried out before. Cool! All four books are out there. I can just do them in one fell swoop. That's how I was introduced to Jennifer Fallon and the "Second Sons" trilogy.

There are downfalls to that, though. Martin is a great example, as it's been over a decade and he's not done yet! Also, if everybody waited until the entire series was out, then the books wouldn't sell. If the books don't sell, the sequels don't get published, and then there's no series to catch up on.

It's a Catch-22.

I will continue to do things the way I'm doing them now. It's the way that works best for me, and I usually don't have the problem I had with Requiem. In fact, as I got into the book and it has been coming back to me, I'm starting to really enjoy it. I think it says something about the broad nature of Scholes' plot that it took me longer than usual. It's much more ephemeral and spiritual than I'm used to.

How do you read book series? Do you read them all at once? Re-read them? Just play it by ear?


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