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MIND MELD: SFF Series That Hooked Us After the First Book

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As an adjunct to Paul Weimer’s recent Mind Meld, this one is about series and specifically, series that improved after book one. Q:Maybe the first book was just “good” but there was potential, then bam!, at some point a that series became either a great or your all time favorite.

We asked this week’s panelists to tell us about:

What series do you love that didn’t get off to a perfect start, but hit the mark later on? For bonus (imaginary) points, what book in the series leveled it up?

Lee Kelly
Lee Kelly is a recovering New Yorker now residing in the wilds of suburbia. She’s the author of City of Savages, which released from Simon & Schuster’s new speculative fiction imprint, Saga Press, this February. Find her on twitter @leeykelly or via her website, www.NewWriteCity.com.

As a “crossover” writer (and an avid reader of both adult and young adult speculative fiction), I’ll mix it up and choose a YA science fiction series for today’s Mind Meld: Neal Shusterman’s haunting and breathtaking Unwind Dystology. For those of you who haven’t read, the Unwind series follows several teens through a dystopian America which has reached a compromise on the abortion debate: from birth through age 13, life is considered sacrosanct, but from ages 13 through 18, parents and guardians have the right to have their children “unwound” (i.e., organ harvested).

The premise of this series is as creepy and compelling as it sounds, and Shusterman sets up his disturbing world masterfully in his first installment. The pacing of Unwind is excellent, and by the end, I found myself equally invested in all three of his main characters, so much so that I decided to continue with the series, which is unusual for me. I’d say I end up continuing to “book two” in about one of three series that I start, and I usually only finish a series if I’m head-over-heels for the world and the characters.

But after Unwind, Shusterman takes his series to another level. More twists and unexpected turns, more flawed, intriguing characters, more depth to his horrific and original setting – and I actually found the final installment, Undivided, to be his most riveting yet. It’s surprising and shocking and packs an emotional punch . . . Undivided elevates the entire series and has cemented Shusterman as one of my favorite writers.

S. C. Flynn

S. C. Flynn is an Australian/British reader and obsessive reviser currently living in Italy. He blogs at SCy-Fy and tweets at @scyflynn. His next major project will be the publication of his completed Australian YA post-apocalyptic fantasy novel.

The Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe.

The first volume of the four-book series, The Shadow of the Torturer, is as cleverly constructed and full of ideas as the other three, and Wolfe’s style is as elegant as ever. However, The Shadow of the Torturer is deliberately written to be intriguing rather than explanatory. This tends to make it less satisfying than the later books in the series.

It is often said that the viewpoint character, Severian the apprentice torturer, is an unreliable narrator. Early on in Shadow, he describes himself as a liar and perhaps insane, although readers do not seem to be in agreement to what precise extent either statement is true.

What is certainly clear, you realize later, is that we see Severian’s world strictly in terms of how he is able to explain it. Most of Shadow seems to take place in the Middle Ages or Renaissance with the occasional anachronistic element intruding. It takes a while to realize that the setting is actually the far-far future. The medieval feel is simply a reflection of Severian’s inability to explain advanced technology that most people in his world no longer understand.

This is compounded by the frame story set out in an epilogue to Shadow. According to that, the text we read is a translation of Severian’s manuscript, which was written in an unknown future language and sent back in time. Some archaic words in the text are therefore explained by the translator’s attempt to find words to describe unfamiliar things from Severian’s world.

So, the first volume creates an air of mystery and poses a lot of questions. The rest of the series does not answer those questions in a simplistic way – this is Gene Wolfe, after all – but it is more pleasing to at least get some kind of solution to puzzles such as:

  • Why does a tower contain a propulsion chamber and metal corridors?
  • Why do its cannons rest in cradles of pure energy?
  • Why was Severian not killed when stabbed in a duel?
  • Do those mirrors demonstrate a kind of faster-than-light travel?
  • Do the rooms in the botanical gardens make use of time travel?
  • Are those past lives she’s remembering?
  • Can eaters of the dead really experience the lives of their victims?
  • Why do so many people seem identical or very similar?
  • Are those alien beings/animals/plants?
  • Didn’t those things become extinct millions of years ago?
  • Was that matter transfer?
  • Was someone just brought back from the dead?
  • Why is it dangerous to live near the sea?
  • And what, in the name of the New Sun, are the Cacogens?
Luke Brown

Luke Brown reviews books for SFFWorld, blogs at www.tangleofdendrites.com and tweets using @lukebrown2. He lives in Canberra, Australia where he works inside the iron cage of bureaucracy during the day, and escapes into imaginary worlds at night.

I need to tread cautiously with this one, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the answer to this question could be construed as a backhanded compliment to any series or author named. Secondly, I have a preference for stand alones and I am usually cautious about approaching series fiction. It has always fascinated me that fantasy and science fiction readers will be prepared to slog through several hundred pages of turgid prose, before they hit the sweet spot. Life, and associated reading time, is too short for that bother.

A series is a big investment, not only for the reader, but also for the author. There’s obviously also a big risk to the career of a new author who has his or her name associated with a series that starts of well with book one, but crashes and burns as subsequent books come out. I generally do subscribe to the theory that no writer is my bitch. However, I also think that it’s not unreasonable for readers who invest time and energy into reading the first book in a series to expect that the author will not only see that series through to completion in due course, but maintain, and hopefully, even improve the quality of that series over time.

Yet, despite my caution I can be sucked in by the charms of a good series in all types of media. Otherwise I would have no explanation for why my lounge room buffet is stacked full of DVDs of every season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite the questionable quality of season one. Like any science fiction and fantasy reader, I can appreciate the soap operatic pleasures provided by following related story lines about the lives of multiple characters over a number of books.

For me, the series that comes immediately to mind when asked this question is The World of the “First Law” books by Joe Abercrombie (both the original trilogy and the three standalone follow ups). Let me state this clearly: I am not expressing the view that The Blade Itself is a bad book. It is actually a pretty solid debut novel, although it does have many of the rough edges that first novels often exhibit. For example, the world building is thin and there is a distinct lack of strong female characters.

Besides the quality of the book itself, Abercrombie’s debut certainly did not standout against other strong novels being released at the time. It did not make the immediate impact that, say, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, did when it was first published in the same year. Nor was The Blade Itself as widely praised as The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, which was that author’s debut novel, published the following year in 2007.

I guess part of the reason for this is that The Blade Itself was originally published in Gollancz and therefore it was only distributed in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. More than a year passed before Pyr picked up the book and published it in the United States. In fact, it took a few years for Abercrombie’s release dates on either side of the Atlantic to synchronize, probably dissipating the impact of the praise his books were receiving.

The Blade Itself was certainly a promising start to “The First Law” series and an epic fantasy debut with many unique elements, such as its moral ambiguity, misfit cast of characters, black sense of humor and cynical tone. Before They Are Hanged, the second novel in series, built on these strengths, but to be honest I felt somewhat conflicted by it. I liked the way the book both conformed to and subverted the traditional fantasy quest tropes. There were definite improvements in Abercrombie’s writing, including a stronger focus on important female characters, albeit one of whom was cast in a more traditionally masculine role. I was also impressed by Abercrombie’s commitment to character development. However, I did feel disappointed by the twist at the end regarding the magical McGuffin known as the Seed, as it left me with a feeling that the reveal had nullified the entire narrative that preceded it.

But now I want those bonus points, imaginary or not, and I can safely say it was with the third book, The Last Argument of Kings, that Abercrombie blew me away – if you are going to end a trilogy, that’s the way to do it. The books had so many awesome moments that had been developing since previous volumes. The accumulation of tension in the lead up to the duel between Logen Ninefingers and Fenris the Feared left me holding my breath, and I physically could not turn the pages quickly enough during the description of the fight itself. As I read the evocative passages depicting the Battle of Adua I could almost feel the ground of the city shaking under my feet.

The most amazing thing Abercrombie did in the Last Argument of Kings was to write a final volume of a trilogy that forced me to go back a lift my estimation of the first two books. Plot strands established in the previous volumes came together in a gloriously satisfying Ouroboros-like structure, providing a tragic resonance to the trilogy. Dark secrets hinted at in earlier volumes are revealed with an impact that is truly startling and unsettling. The twists in the novel subverted fantasy tropes, not only in a way that cleverly defied readers’ expectations, but also made a powerful statement on the epic fantasy trilogy as a narrative form.

Abercrombie finished his debut trilogy with aplomb and continued to write stand-alone novels set in the same world that added further resonance to his series. While he continued to work in an established and familiar setting, he constantly challenged himself as a writer in terms of genre and narrative form. As a result of stretching himself further with every new book, Abercrombie is an author that has improved his craft every time he publishes. The truly exciting thing is that, despite what he’s already achieved in his relatively short career to date, I’m sure his best work is still ahead of him.

Stefan Raets
Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy when he isn’t distracted by less important matters such as eating and sleeping. You can find his reviews on his site Far Beyond Reality and on Tor.com (where he’s also a moderator), and other various ramblings often end up on Twitter.

It’s not that uncommon for a series to improve in later volumes, especially if the opening book was the author’s debut, but even if it isnt. An author learns, and grows, and acquires new skills. The fictional world they’re creating solidifies; the characters evolve.

I very much admire an author who can launch a series and now exactly where they’re going with it (the prime example for me being Steven Brust, who outlines the entire Dragaeran Cycle in opening novel Jhereg ) but realistically, there are probably just as many if not many more authors who end up redrawing their roadmaps between books 1 and 2, 2 and 3, and so on.

The biggest examples, in my mind, are Steven Erikson’s “Malazan” books, Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels, and Pratchett’s “Discworld.” (Obviously, all of this comes with a big serving of YMMV: I’m sure some people will protest indignantly that the first books in these series are their personal favorites.)

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson is a fine fantasy novel. It introduced us to what may be the most detailed fantasy world ever created in terms of sheer scope and history. It’s also a very tough book to get into, especially for less experienced fantasy readers, because the author drops us in medias res and doesn’t take a whole lot of time that explain who’s who and what’s what and exactly why some of these events are so earth-shatteringly important. As I understand it, Erikson spent the decade or so that passed between the release dates of Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates taking some creative writing classes and generally improving as a writer, and it shows: Deadhouse Gates is miles ahead of its predecessor, and the third book, Memories of Ice, is one of the finest fantasy novels written in the last few decades. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve tried to get into the “Malazan” books, only to have them bounce off Gardens of the Moon. It’s the perfect example of a “stick with it, it gets better” book.

Likewise Consider Phlebas and Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” series. Consider Phlebas introduced us to the “Culture” and the big, surreal, post-scarcity, spacefaring interstellar empire we all came to know and love. Unfortunately, it did so in a scattershot plot that amounts to not much more than a huge wild goose chase. Don’t get me wrong: I love the “Culture” books. They’re my favorite space opera series and really my favorite all-time SF series bar none. However, Consider Phlebas is just not a very good novel when compared to the rest of the series. I usually recommend people start with The Player of Games or Use of Weapons.

And finally, there’s the “Discworld” series. I started reading these books back when Sourcery had just come out (dating myself here!), and remember one of my buddies back then telling me “just read Equal Rites and Mort first, don’t bother with the other two until later.” The other two being The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, the first books published in the series and considered by many fans to be much weaker than the next dozen or so entries in the series. It actually took me a decade or so, until the “Discworld” had more than twenty novels under its belt, until I went back to check out those first two books… and I had to agree, they’re just not as good as most of what came after.

There are many other stories and series that didn’t start out at nearly the same quality they ended up reaching. The earlier books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Vorkosigan” series took me a while to appreciate (it gets so much better when Miles actually shows up), the “Sandman” series gets a lot better after Preludes and Nocturnes, and (switching over to TV for a second) the first seasons of both Parks & Recreation and Community didn’t even hint at how excellent those shows would become later on.

It’s hard to stick with something you’re not enjoying, and it’s hard to trust a fan who suggests doing so when you feel you’ve just wasted your time. Still, in some cases it’s more than worth it.

Mike Ferrante
Mike Ferrante is a New Jersey based librarian and dungeon master. You can follow him on twitter @MadmanMike or on his blog King of the Nerds

As a series opener Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon isn’t the easiest book to read. In fact it might even be one of the most epic instances of starting a story in media res that I have ever encountered. I’m not sure I can even think of a novel I’ve been more confused throughout. To this day Gardens of the Moon is the only reason I hesitate recommending Erikson to fantasy fans. Despite my confusion at the end of the novel I was left feeling that I was on the cusp of something great. I didn’t have long to wait.

Opening up Erikson’s second “Malazan Book of the Fallen” novel, Deadhouse Gates it’s almost infuriating to find that the cast is (almost) entirely new. It doesn’t take long for this feeling to dissipate. Deadhouse Gates is one of those novels that has stuck with me throughout the years; a novel that to this day I’ll hold up as a prime example of the height that epic fantasy can achieve. While Erikson’s whole series is a wonderful achievement Deadhouse Gates is a novel that stands almost on its own. It weaves together humor, tragedy, and action into an epic novel that I’m not even sure is equaled over the rest of the series’ 8 remaining novels.

Erikson has always been a master of sneaking in wonderful bits of wisdom throughout his novels and Deadhouse Gates is one of the best of examples of that. Whether it’s the pain when Lull states, “Children are dying. The injustices of the world hide in those three words.” Or the chills induced when Imperial Historian Duiker says, “Name none of the fallen, for they stand in our place, and stand there still in each moment of our lives. Let my death hold no glory, and let me die forgotten and unknown. Let it not be said that I was one among the dead to accuse the living.” Or the sad truth behind the words of the ever melancholy Fiddler, “We are all lone souls. It pays to know humility, lest the delusion of control, of mastery, overwhelms. And, indeed, we seem a species prone to that delusion, again and ever again.”

The Malazan Book of the Fallen” is a long, sprawling and epic series. I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember. But what I do remember is a stupid lapdog named Roach that thinks he’s bigger than he is (he would later go on the urinate on the god of death), a Tanno song that saved a group soldiers, and the Chain of Dogs who crossed a desert and faced death. Gardens of the Moon is a good book but Deadhouse Gates is a great one.

Harry Connolly

Harry Connolly‘s first novel, Child of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 novels of 2009. His new trilogy, a mix of epic fantasy and apocalyptic thriller, is out now. Book one is The Way into Chaos, book two The Way into Magic, an book three is The Way into Darkness. He tweets at @byharryconnolly.

Maybe it’s sacrilege to say it, but I think the series that improved the most after the first book was “Lord of the Rings”.

There’s a lot to admire in The Fellowship of the Ring but at the same time so much is skim-tastic.

I just can’t force myself to read all the tedious descriptions of the landscape they travel through.

The rest, of course, is legendary.

Courtney Schafer
Courtney Schafer is the author of the “Shattered Sigil” trilogy. The first two novels, The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, were published by Night Shade Books. Courtney is currently running a Kickstarter to fund production of the third and final novel, The Labyrinth of Flame. When not writing, she climbs mountains, figures skates, skis way too fast through trees, works as an engineer in the space industry, and chases after her equally active young son. Visit her at www.courtneyschafer.com or on Twitter @cischafer.

One series springs immediately to mind as displaying huge improvement: Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.” I remember reading the first book, Storm Front, and being distinctly unimpressed. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but I couldn’t see why all my friends were raving about the series. The plot seemed awfully simple, and I didn’t feel the characters had much depth. Still, my friends loved the books so much I decided to try once more before moving on. So I read the second book, Fool Moon…and darn if I didn’t find myself getting sucked into caring about Harry. There’s a point near the end where Harry makes a decision knowing it could result in pretty dark consequences, and I blurted out loud, “Oh Harry no!” That’s when I knew I was going to keep reading the series. When I did, I found book after book kept getting better. The characters gained depth, and best of all, they changed and evolved. When significant events happened to characters in one book, Butcher carried through on the consequences in the next. By the time I got to #5, Death Masks, I was just as hooked as all of my friends.

As for an example of a series that started off good in book 1 and became great in book 2, I’ll go with Helen Lowe’s “Wall of Night series.” I enjoyed the first novel, The Heir of Night, which was a well-executed traditional epic fantasy with a cool sf-nal twist to its backstory. But in the second book, The Gathering of the Lost, Lowe’s skill with long-term plot and character development really shine. Disparate threads come together to give revelations that cast earlier scenes in a whole new light, and Lowe makes some really interesting choices with her characters. Throughout the novel, the story steadily gains complexity and depth. For me, Gathering of the Lost leveled up the series to a whole new plane of awesome, and left me salivating for book 3, Daughter of Blood, which is set to release in Jan 2016. (Still so far away, augh! But for books this good, I’m willing to wait.)


About Rob H. Bedford (62 Articles)
Rob H. Bedford writes The Completeist Column and curates Mind Melds here at SF Signal. Elsewhere, he is the Lead Book reviewer for SFFWorld, where he is also a Moderator in their discussion forums. In addition to over a decade’s worth of reviews at SFFWorld, his reviews and articles have also appeared at Tor.com and in the San Francisco/Sacramento Book.

7 Comments on MIND MELD: SFF Series That Hooked Us After the First Book

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // March 11, 2015 at 4:54 am //

    Like Stefan, Malazan is my big example. Gardens of the Moon dumps you right into the mix and it takes that first book to really sort out what’s going on. By the second novel, the series is at a point where it can hook you and not let you go.

  2. Thanks to SF Signal and Rob for inviting me to participate. Malazan seems a clear winner!

  3. Stefan and Mike, you guys absolutely nailed it. I was thinking Malazan myself, with the same challenges in Gardens and Deadhouse, and the same love for Memories. It took me multiple tries to get through that first book, but then I plowed through the next 4 back-to-back and devoured each new release thereafter.

  4. Steve MC // March 11, 2015 at 6:04 pm //

    Thanks for these tips. Great writing and mysterious tone aside, I was hesitant to venture further along with Gene Wolfe, but now may give it a look. And just picked up my first Abercrombie, so it was good timing to hear about him.

  5. Interesting meld, folks!

    Oh no, you mean if I’d finished STORM FRONT and continued to later books, I’d’ve gotten hooked? Bad news – my other half loves the series, so I may have to give it another go now…. Thanks, Courtney. 😉

  6. Memories of Ice is also great!

    Honorable mention goes to Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series. I liked Control Point but both Fortress Frontier and Breach Zone are absolutely amazing.

    Luke mentioned Buffy so I’d toss out Babylon 5 as another great TV example of a series with a terrible first season but a great run following that.

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