Bookish Rants and Raves: Musing on Series and Longevity

Filed in Bookish Rant or Raves , featured , The Needy Lover Posted on May 3, 2012 @ 3:00 pm 27 comments

Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter

Series. Love em or hate em, they take a single book and turn in into a network of interconnected stories and characters. For my part, I absolutely prefer series reading. Since I’m prone to getting very attached to characters, unwilling to let them go after one book, the ability to follow their growth and development is absolutely wonderful. And that’s not even to speak of the ability to observe detailed and complex world building, epic story arcs, and narrative style that constantly evolves.

But is there a limit to that? Is it possible to have too much world building, too many character development, or–gasp-a de-evolution in narrative style? Is ennui an eventuality that any given series will be up against at some point? One might imagine that there’s a whole constellation of factors that could influence how to answer those questions. So don’t expect answers here (which would probably require a whole book of its own); just musing on these factors that will hopefully get you thinking of theories and explanations.

So I’ll use a few anecdotal examples, instead (very scientific, I know). There are, of course, different types of series structures one might encounter. For example, (1) those that follow the same protagonist and extended cast; (2) those that switch protagonists but generally stick with a specific set of characters (as is often the case in romance series); and (3) those that take place in the same universe but follow completely different stories across multiple timelines.

The Dresden Files

Same Protagonist Series

Group one might include series like Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, or the Stephanie Plum mysteries. Both are near or just past the 20-book mark (not including short stories and novellas). Both series are apparently open-ended; they’ll keep going as long as there’s still material to write. Usually, only fans read later installments since there’s a lot of pertinent story development that directly impacts later tales. But it seems like both are slowly falling out of favor with many fans. Heck–even A.C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series ended up killing off Sherlock to shake up what the author thought was the doldrums. So by the precedent set by the aforementioned series, does it mean that a (currently) shorter series like The Dresden Files will also become stale within a few more books? Or is there not necessarily an inevitable Past Due date (exhibited by the very excellent example of J.D. Robb’s In Death series—thank you Aurian for bringing that up!!!)

Multiple Protagonists, Same Character Group

Group two series would include things like Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter books, Lynsay Sands’s Argeneau Vampires series, Christine Feehan’s Carpatians, and Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changelings. Obviously, there’s no shortage of long-running romance series, particularly in the paranormal genre. And in many cases, some of the most popular, hotly anticipated books have been the later ones–as with Acheron in Dark Hunters and Lothaire in Immortals After Dark, or even Tohr in Black Dagger Brotherhood. Perhaps there is something invigorating about being able to follow your favorite characters peripherally, but still have a variety of narratives, of tone, and of antagonists. And perhaps there’s something to be said for suspending payoff in order to build anticipation. As with Acheron (for sure!).

Disworld reading order chart

Same Universe; Different Everything Else

The third group’s best example, to my mind, is Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series–39 novels and still going strong. It’s such a fascinating subject too, since the Discworld books remain some of the most commercially successful, critically-acclaimed, and beloved books around, from start to end (or current end, at least). So what makes this series maintain its longevity? Is it the fact that it follows various characters with only the loosest of ties; that the universe created is malleable and ever shifting; that it seems to jump sub-genres a bit from time to time? Perhaps that the books’ publication order has little connection to the series’ chronological order–making it possible to jump in at, say, book 33 (Going Postal)?

Questions galore! But the fact remains that certain series types seem to maintain popularity and critical regard, while others amass amounts of disgruntled fans. There seems to be a common length after which some cross that line, too.

So I pose questions to YOU: do you have any theories as to what makes a series able to last? What erodes their popularity and steam?  Do you prefer reading from a particular series type from the three groups listed above?  Do you have certain requirements for new series that you find (no longer than X books; must not be open-ended, etc.)?

About Alisha

Alisha, the bespectacled and ever nerdy California girl, simply won't leave home without a book in hand. She loves language learnin' and is working toward becoming a bonafide grammar ninja. On any given day you'll find her haunting local libraries or baking scores of cupcakes and sweet treats.

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  • aurian May 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Great post Alisha, but I don’t really agree with you. I absolutely still love the Anita Blake books, and await the next book very anxiously. I also adore the Chrstine Feehan series. And how about the In Death series by JD Robb? Still going strong well into the 30 books. So yes, I also love reading series. I hardly ever stumble upon a stand alone novel.
    Have I ever started reading a series and got bored with it? I really cannot think of any. Although I was on the verge of stopping with my autobuy of Stephanie Laurens as they were basically all the same, but the last books sure cured me of that notion, for which I am thankfull. You just grow to love the characters and of course the writing style of the author. Or perhaps I am just an extremely loyal reader. The more series/authors you follow, the more difficult it is to keep up with them all.

    • Alisha May 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      Wanna know a secret? ^_^ The Anita Blake series is still my first and best love, as far as urban fantasies go. I will likely always love Jean-Claude, love Anita’s brand of macabre. I also must admit that I’m not as ardent a follower of the books–I stopped halfway through book 19 and, two years later, am still delaying on jumping back in–but that world and those characters are still the most vivid of any that I’ve read about.

      But it’s been the weirdest thing, seeing a change in the attitudes of so many of my own bookish friends that are Anita Blake fans. Even on the LKH forums, there seemed to be more comments expressing discontent. I wish I could poll everyone to find out what factors keep people satisfied or frustrated with each new AB book.

      All that said, I’m soooo glad to hear that you remain a fan of them. Are you planning on reading Beauty this next week?

      OMIGOSH yer RIGHT! There’s the In Death books. MUST. ADD. to the post. Thanks for bringing up that huge omission aurian!!!

      • aurian May 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm

        What is Beauty? O Alisha, please do try to read on. I have no idea where she is going with the story, but there is Edward and Otto in the last book, and that one is so awesome again.

        And Blodeuedd, the Stephanie Plum books and Sookie books, are those not heroines who are too stupid to live? Those who do not learn or grow? I guess that is a reason to give up on a series. Ooo yes, I stopped reading Queen Betsy by Mary Janice Davidson. Not fun anymore.

        • Alisha May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm

          Tis a deleted scene taken out of the next book. The short story releases on Tuesday, a month before book 21 (whose name I’m too lazy to remember and/or look up).

          Your words are heartening! Edward’s presence is always a plus, imo. My favorite book in the series is Obsidian Butterfly (on most days, at least ^_^). The reason for that? the combo of Edward and Anita being co-badasses. ^_^

  • blodeuedd May 3, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    What makes it so? beats me. The Sookie books died for me. The Stephanie Plum books lost their shine. And there are many more. Then there are those who still work, but, will they still work when they get to book 10?

    • Alisha May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm

      I gotta know….about when did the Sookie and Stephanie books lose their shine? Did the change happen in a single book, or trickle in over a few?

      • draconismoi May 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm

        For me Sookie lost her shine over a couple books. In any series there are books that I like more than others, so one bad one isn’t enough to make me give up on a series. But a neverending stream of steadily increasing stupidity and bullshit? Done, done, done.

  • Stephanie K. May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    If there’s no character development or the plots goes nowhere, then I’m done. I also still read the Anita Blake books and there are some elements from previous books that I do miss, but I still love the characters. Like Aurian, I also gave up on the Queen Betsy series because for me there was too much reiteration of things that had happened in previous books and not much plot. I love the In Death series, even 30 + books in, it’s such a comfort read and there’s always character development and new plots.

    • Alisha May 7, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      Soooo intrigued by the In Death books. How can it be going for over 30 books and still be so well-loved! J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts just had the magic touch, I guess. ^_^

      My curiosity is piqued: what do you think about series situations in which a character (or characters) end up being vastly different than how they started? Like…from a sympathetic character to a villain. Or tortured to happy-go-lucky? So the opposite of character development going nowhere.

  • Marlene May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    The LKH book lost their shine for me when the sex scene count overwhelmed the monster count. I didn’t get into the series for Porn with or without plot, so I lost interest.
    Stephanie Plum just needs to make up her mind. Morelli or Ranger. The triangle thing is getting old. Also, if she were that inept a bounty hunter, she’d be dead.
    In Death, even when they’re less than stellar, they are awesome. But it’s not a romance, it’s a police procedural where the partners happen to be married. And hot. Those series can go on forever if they’re done right. There’s always a fresh corpse.
    Sookie may be ending at the right time.
    The Discworld. OMG the Discworld. I love Sir Terry. Bittersweet, ironic, sad, funny, sarcastic, fantastic. In the Discworld, million to one shots always come in. Too bad it doesn’t happen here. Dammit, dammit.

    • draconismoi May 3, 2012 at 8:49 pm

      Yes. Anita Blake was fun until it was all sex all the time. I stopped reading at Narcissus in Chains and haven’t had even the slightest urge to jump back in.

    • Alisha May 7, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      oooh, and so can a series redeem itself, for you? Say Anita somehow lost her ardeur (unlikely, but stay with me here ^_^), and Stephanie dropped Morelli (or Ranger!) like a bad habit–and wisened up, to boot. Would you get back on board? Or is a series, once it’s lost its sheen, sort of dead in the water for good?

  • Sheree May 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    Sookie lost me after she got increasingly more hurt book after book. Yes, she’s not 100% human and vamp blood goes give her faster healing, but it just got to be too much.

    Even though I LOVE Discworld, I don’t have that many other series that I follow with that many books – well, except the Xanth novels, I suppose – and even then I was less than ecstatic with the latest books in those two series. I think I read a couple of Johanna Lindsey’s Mallory series before giving up and I managed to read a few Cynsters & friends books before giving up on the author. Recently, I didn’t even preorder Jayne Ann Krentz’s latest. *hangs head in shame*

    • Sheree May 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      I’m still reading the Harry Dresden books (love the covers of John Paul Pfeiffer by Craig White!) but I started the series in the middle so I can’t say if the writing changed that much.

  • Thinking Cat May 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    I find that I lose interest somewhere around book five… Especially if the series is fairly formulaic and it’s the same story arc, different characters.

    • draconismoi May 3, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      Yeah, a lot of series seem to miss the point that new characters should have a whole new set of issues. Otherwise it’s a cut-and-paste plot with different names and slightly altered physical parameters.

  • Susan May 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Yeah, another series sucker here.

    It’s very rare that I’ll give up on a series, but I admit to getting frustrated with some of them. For some of those longer series, I sometimes get the distinct feeling that the authors weren’t really prepared to go beyond that initial 7-book contract and really haven’t thought things through. There’s often a lot of flailing around, filler plotlines/books, pointless characters that wander in and then wander back out, etc.

    I’m still on board, but Kim Harrison is guilty of some of these sins. All those BFs that don’t last (that bald dude–Marshall?, Pierce, etc) and the same old stories about Rachel doing the same old stupid things. But, just when I’m gnashing my teeth, Harrison will hit her stride again so I’m sticking it out with her. (Charlaine Harris/Sookie have some of these same problems, but I’m also sticking it out with them.)

    JAK? Well, I did step off that train when it got to the point that I couldn’t tell any of the MCs–or plots–apart. I like her books, but they’re the equivalent of Chinese food–tastes good while you’re eating it, but it doesn’t fill you up. I may yet come back to them one day.

    I have to admit to a certain sameness with the Stephanie Plum books after awhile, too. But this is an instance where I just don’t care. These books still make me laugh out loud when I’m reading them. As long as Stephanie’s cars keep exploding, Grandma Mazur keeps getting into trouble, and Lula is her outlandish self, I’m a happy reader.

    Maybe mystery series have it a bit easier. Basically, they can have someone new get murdered in each book and then throw in enough character development on top to keep things moving forward. (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone/alphabet books.)

    Ah, I could take about series all day. . . 🙂

    • Susan May 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm

      TALK about series. (But apparently can’t type about them.)

  • draconismoi May 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    Most of the series that lose me completely are the single protagonist series. I read a bunch of Iris Johansen in high school. She was in love with Eve Duncan, forensic anthropologist with tragic past. And in every book she became the target of a new serial killer. She’s like serial-killer-nip. They get one whiff and just can’t get enough of her.

    This was supposed to be a contemporary thriller series. At some point, I lost my ability to suspend disbelief. If you’ve been targeted by multiple serial killers over your life and keep losing loved ones to them YOU CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR AND PRIORITIES. Except she doesn’t. Same old repetitive stuff in each book. Just a slightly different setting. Zzzzz.

    This is also my problem with Sookie. And the In Death series. And Mercy. And Cat. When I know how a book is going to end within the first chapter – you are in a rut. There are more interesting things to read. Things not in ruts.

    • Alisha May 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Bwahahahah…. that character needs to just call it a wrap, if she’s a constant target for serial killers. Clearly, she is not meant to be. lol

      Any series that have kept your attention over a long range of installments? if so, what keeps you coming for more?

  • Chrystal M May 3, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Funny enough I haven’t read too many series that are extremely long other than the Anita Blake series and well I have four books still to read in the series. I kinda stopped for a bit, but I own them all so far.

    I have started other series with the knowledge that they are long series, but some I’ve only read one book and others I’ve glanced at the books on my shelf and haven’t picked them up yet.

    I go through phases though and sometimes I crave reading a bunch of books back to back with the same characters because I’ve grown attached to them. And other times I prefer variety and standalones work best for that.

    I have a feeling that it all depends on the series and the person reading it. Some series’ will stay amazing to some people but fall short for others. That’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes. 🙂

    Great post though and I’ll be sharing it on FB etc to bring attention to it since I loved it so much. 🙂


    • Alisha May 7, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      Thanks Chrystal! Question for you: what are some of the characteristics of those series that stay amazing and keep you hooked? A particular genre? A static cast? A changing cast? Good writing, great worldbuilding, or the like?

      So curious, I know. But it’s a fascinating topic!

  • Ren Puspita May 3, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    Wow, you describe it very well Alisha! Maybe I can ask permission to use your article as one of source for my blog? Since I plan to write post about series too ^_^

    I don’t read Anita Blake. See it have more than 20 books, is chicken me out. Same case with Feehan and Sands, even I have Argeneau books. I stop reading Dark Hunter after Zarek’s book, simple because I’m distract by another good books. But I still read In Death. The reason are, Eve and Roarke are stable and steady couple, their marriage problems and their difference make them have a lot to work for. The suspense still good to read, and the secondary characters is one aspect that make this series still has a strong and loyal fans.

    There are some authors that I love their books, but after a long time they don’t know what to do to make readers interested, so they write the same theme and thrope over and over. In my case, is Kerrelyn Sparks. Her Love at Stake is funny and entertaining. But after she kill the big enemy before the story end, the series lost its sparks (no pun intended)

    • Alisha May 7, 2012 at 3:40 pm

      Oh, of course, Ren! I look forward to reading your post on series, too! ^___^

      yeah, there can be something really intimidating about longer sereis. Especially when it follows a linear order (like Anita Blake does; heaven help the person who starts out reading book 20). The prospect of dedicating oneself to a couple dozen books is daunting. Even if the series is supposed to be amazing.

      Case in point? The In Death books! I’m glad you point out that the series stays fresh and keeps interest between the two main characters. because it’s hard to imagine keeping a series of over thirty books fresh; how do you thrill readers that are already used to being thrilled? Ah, well. Still going to pick the series up at some point. ^_^

      Have you read through all of the In Death books? If so, how would you compare the first book to the latest? Still keeping your interest?

  • Anne May 6, 2012 at 8:05 am

    You have an interesting point here. I don’t read too many series that go past 3-4 books, so I haven’t run into this too much, but in thinking about things like the Wheel of Time series, and some of my favorite Mercedes Lackey books it is kind of true. Even Discworld is kind of losing it for me, though it’s still on auto-buy depending on which branch of the series a new book belongs to. I wonder if it’s something about us as readers that we get bored. Or maybe, especially with some of the REALLY long series’ it’s because they bring in a ghost writer (I wouldn’t know about any that you mentioned, but my mom loves “The Cat Who…” mysteries and the lady that wrote those stopped doing them years ago and just handed them off to ghost writers).

    Great post! Gave me lots of food for thought!

    • Alisha May 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Anne! Questions for you! Since you don’t like to read series beyond 3 or 4 books, do you tend to stick to shorter series? And when you stop after the first few books, is it because they make you lose interest, or because of other factors (no time, etc.)?

      Such an interesting topic, the way people approach and interact with series. Some love it, some hate it.

  • ogingero September 23, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    no one has mentioned mc Beaton’s hamish Macbeth or her Agatha raisin series!

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