I’ve always been one of those people who likes to start at the beginning since, to paraphrase The Sound of Music — it’s a very good place to start. But I have to admit that in the last few years I’ve actually just skipped entire installments and moved on to whatever book has attracted my interest. Part of this is because of the weird order in which Nordic books get translated. But for the most part the skipping about is because I get a lot of review copies for books in series I’ve never read.
Some series are very plot-driven so that it is very hard to go into one of the later books without at least having read the previous installments. A lot of these series tend to be more than 5 books long, which makes it sort of hard to get into them if you don’t latch onto it before that point. Whether the characters are awesome or not, you are unlikely to be able to stop them and ask for directions because they’re probably killing a dragon, beheading a false king, or robbing some rich baron.
Some series are really character-driven and the order is a little less important. Yes, you might want to read them in order because that character you like is there, but if you are sort of free to move about the place if you so choose. And if you skip ahead or forget one of the books in the middle, chances are that character will fill you in on the blanks because he or she isn’t doing much and seems to know you’ve been busy elsewhere. If there isn’t a central character, the series might focus on a family or close-knit cast of characters. That way popular ones can show up again and again whether the book is strictly about them or not.
How long a series goes on for is based on a series of variables that are so different for each book that it would be impossible to figure it out. Popularity and the general reception from critics and readers as well as the quality of writing, world, and character development are probably critical. But I still think some of it has to do with the weather or what color an author’s mood ring becomes as he or she is hard at work.
Length of a series should be a good way to tell what to expect. A trilogy is probably something that really would have to be read in order to make sense. But even a trilogy can lead to another trilogy and chronology won’t always be taken into account. And then a reader sometimes can’t tell what trilogy to read first. And if a series takes place in a certain location, there can be a series order within a series order. And you can end up having to be carted away in a white padded van as you try to figure out what to read first or next.
Genre can be a clue as to what to expect, and actually can be assuming the series you pick up isn’t out to shake things up or defy expecations. This is obviously a gross generalization, but when it comes to series, I usually think of Romance, Mystery, and Urban Fantasy as wanting me to fall in love with a character and then sort of pick and choose what exploits I want to read about. Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror I picture as wanting me to just enjoy the ride and hope most of the people I end up rooting for don’t die along the way.
As a reader who isn’t genre- or plot-oriented so much as world- and character-obsessed, neither approach to series is bad or better, really. If I like an author’s style, a character, or a fictional setting, it doesn’t matter why the series is continuing. I’m usually emotionally invested enough to stick around. Still, there is something to be said for there being a legitimate reason for a series to go on and on into forever.That reason doesn’t have to be particularly lofty or epic although it can help for there to be a real driving force behind the series’ continuation. But that can range from needing to get married to not be disinherited to being charged with killing all the gods in a given pantheon to get one’s daughter back.
That said, I do find myself more interested in a series where the characters I like don’t disappear only to turn up for cameos which tends to happen more often if Romance is vital to the story being told. So for me a series about one group or team of friends is ideal. Because I will always feel that it is a bit depressing when a series about a team of monster hunters having adventures and saving the world from radioactive demons doesn’t last for more than 4 books while a series about a vampire hunter getting laid by every supernatural creature she ever meets never seem to end. But every series seems to have an order or flow of events even if sometimes the characters never seem to leave their sumptuous boudoir.
So what’s a reader to do? I’m not sure.
I want to say that 2012 is the year to shake off the series shackle and only read stand-alone books but… What the heck would that leave me with? Dreadful literary tomes full of pretension, I suspect. I guess I could choose to abandon the rules of reading books in order, but there doesn’t seem to be a real rule so much as a list of guidelines. I could say that I refuse to read a series unless it hasn’t gotten back the 4 book mark, but thanks to the plethora of forthcoming books, I am being won over by the shiny book covers of later volumes as we speak.
I guess the best thing to do is to go where your reading life takes you and hope for the best. So if you want that shiny book you see at the library or bookstore and you don’t want to read any of its companions? Pick up the book you’re interested in and see what happens. Worst case scenario, you don’t it that far. Best case scenario, you can have made an awesome decision and found a series to read that you might have completely ignored had you started at the very beginning.