Friday, June 3, 2011

Sci-Fi Friday Book Thoughts - Series, featuring Plague by Michael Grant

Welcome to the first of my experimental posts - provided I like how this turns out, and depending on feedback, more of my reviews might end up looking like this.

Series are a big thing in the sci-fi/fantasy world right now. Really, they've probably always been a big thing, and for good reason, at least from an author's perspective: you put all this work into creating a (hopefully) totally unique world, why wouldn't you want to stick around and play in it for as long as possible? Using your best settings for a one-and-done story doesn't seem like the greatest use of creative resources from some perspectives, I'm sure.

But there's a tricky balancing act that authors have to do when they're writing a series, and that is how to remind readers of what happened earlier. For one thing, not everyone is going to start with the first book of your series, usually through ignorance that there are earlier books (something that could often be alleviated through good design - I offer the new Uglies covers as a tangentially related aside on an awesome example of how to work the series listing into an awesome cover design). How do you re-introduce previous story elements so they stay fresh for your loyal fans, but keep your new readers from getting frustrated?

But then there are also loyal fans like me, who either have memories like a sieve or just read too darn many books in a year to remember every last detail from your last book. And this became painfully obvious to me when I was reading Plague, the fourth installment in Michael Grant's Gone series.

Plague: A Gone NovelGone kept me thoroughly entertained. Not the slickest writing or most original plot, but an entertaining new take on the "no more adults" genre. And after seeing him speak at an author's panel where he assured the audience that, unlike Animorphs (which he co-wrote with wife K.A. Applegate), he knew how it was going to end and what precisely had caused the FAYZ, I was excited to see where this series was going. But four books in, I'm afraid I have to give up - at least for now. Maybe, if I'm still curious, I'll pick the books back up when the final title is published, but until then I'm sitting out.

Why? There is absolutely no re-capping in these books. There's a huge cast of characters, and each book picks up shortly after the last one ended - with no look back at what happened last time. Through the course of the story some characters will think back on individual actions, but no details are provided. The tipping point for me this time when it was referenced that Astrid had killed Nerezza - and all I could think is "Who the fuck is Nerezza?!" Seriously, was she one of Cain's evil buddies? Was she a tool of the Gaiaphage? I don't know. And that's a problem.

Re-reading the other books before the new one comes out also isn't an option in this series, for me at least, because these are 500 page books. Life is too short to re-read a 500 page book six times because the author won't review what happened in it. At the very least, I need a cast of characters at the beginning of these books. While I'm sure the intention was to give us a diverse cast to illustrate multiple shades of gray morality, it just ends up feeling unwieldy and, of course, it's impossible to keep track of who did what across 2000 pages of story, now that we're through book 4.

So what are some books that have handled review well? The aforementioned Uglies series, for one. It's not always given to us upfront, in part because Tally gets a hard reset at the beginning of each book, but weaving the backstory in throughout the narrative is an organic way to catch us up. In some ways we meet Tally for the first time in each of the first three books (if you're unfamiliar with the series, the first three books are all about Tally, and then the fourth takes us out of the US and over to Japan to meet Aya, though Tally does eventually show up). The Hunger Games, of course, also gives us a fair number of reminders of what happened before - either through Katniss remembering something from the previous book, or the Capital broadcasting the film of what happened earlier. I just finished reading Eona, sequel to Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, and it opens with a preface that tells you all the major things that happened at the end of Eon, so even if, like me, you haven't read the book in two years, you immediately know the gist of the major events of the previous book, and then as necessary Eona fills us in on some character and emotional development that happened earlier. Is it an obvious tool to catch your readers up? Yes. Do I care? Nope!

Some books can get away with less review than others - I noted in my review of Behemoth that I didn't think it would be a good place for new readers to start, because it picks up immediately after Leviathan and is so action-packed there's never a chance to look back at what happened earlier. So why was I okay with that? For one thing, it's only the second book, not the fourth, so there was less for me to remember. There's also a smaller cast, with narration only being handled by Deryn and Alek, so it presents a more cohesive story. And the two books have had relatively straightforward, action-oriented plots thus far, unlike the Gone series which has multiple sub-plots for each character, and at least two major mysteries that may or may not be intertwined: what caused the FAYZ and how can the Gaiaphage be stopped. For all that Leviathan and Behemoth are set during the complex WWI, so far the main mystery seems to be what Dr. Barlowe has in those eggs and why does she want them delivered to world leaders. Much easier to follow than the freaking Gaiaphage.

With the market flooded with trilogies and series right now, it's a buyer's market for ongoing stories. Perhaps a series like Gone just requires a different sort of reader, but for now I'm going to stick with series that either can keep a firm grip on their wide scopes, or provide more in terms of reviewing what happened before so I don't need to keep a copy of Cliff's Notes (or Wikipedia) nearby.
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