More on genre – the novel sequence

A few days ago, some very depressing news was released to the media.  (Some of you may be ahead of me here.)  I refer, of course, to George RR Martin’s announcement that the release of the sixth book in his sequence “Song of Ice and Fire” is delayed, as he hasn’t finished writing it, and therefore it cannot coincide with the sixth series of the TV series “Game of Thrones”.  Depressing, but not surprising.  Am I going to live long enough to learn the true parentage of Jon Snow, and whether any of Ramsay Bolton’s letter is true?

However, I will turn this to my temporary advantage by musing below on the concept of the “novel sequence”.

Cheating, perhaps, for “Song of Ice and Fire” is not really a novel sequence.  It is a single novel, too long for one volume, and therefore told in several.  Presumably this slightly odd story device has its origins in the novels serialised in 19th century magazines (like most of Dickens) but in its current form it is surely inspired by JRR Tolkien’s publication of “The Lord of the Rings” in three volumes over time.  It is nowadays normal practice, in fantasy in particular.  Sometimes each of the individual volumes comes to a reasonable pause; sometimes they don’t.  The fifth volume of “Song of Ice and Fire” had about five different cliffhanger endings.

JK Rowling has pioneered a somewhat different version.  Each of the seven Harry Potter books is a self-contained plot and story, but all contribute to the full story arc.  One could say something similar about Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Chronicles, or Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels about the Saxon warrior Uhtred (“The Last Kingdom” on TV), although in his case the overall arc is provided by the history of Alfred the Great and his children and grandchildren.

A true novel sequence, according to Wikipedia, means a series of novels, each of which stand alone, but which have the same setting, characters or themes.  There are many examples, such as the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brien, the Inspector Wexford novels of Ruth Rendell (and many other detective sequences), and (I believe) the Flashman books.

By contrast, it seems that the single sequel to a beloved book is less common nowadays in literature, although still seen in the world of film.  Most novel sequences could be described as a series of sequels featuring the same beloved characters.

What I find more interesting are the rarer cases of authors who create a county, a planet, or an alternative history, and write completely standalone stories, where the heroine of book 1 may be a minor character, a dead ancestor, or simply not appear at all in books 2 and 3.  This is what, in my wildest dreams, I want to do with the continent of Ragaris, and this is why the second story, which I’m currently writing, is set in a different country, and fifty years later than the first.

Frankly I’m surprised that more authors haven’t done this kind of thing, following the examples in the 19th century of Anthony Trollope and (I’m told!) Balzac. (And the now almost-forgotten Charlotte Yonge – see my favourites on the Author page.)

In fantasy/SF, a prime example is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, which covers thousands of years, in over 20 books, and only rarely has the same hero/heroine for two books running.  For a long time Bradley also refused to provide maps, dates or family trees, and the books can genuinely be read in almost any order.  I still recall the thrill of connecting the dots, and realising that Rohana’s horrible son in “Thendara House” was the same person as Dyan’s horrible father in “The Heritage of Hastur”.  (In later years this author became more famous for her feminist retelling of Arthurian legend, “The Mists of Avalon”, but I prefer Darkover.)

Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series naturally mixed all the above categories.  The first volume, “The Colour of Magic” ends on a cliffhanger (really), and the story comes to a conclusion in the second book, “The Light Fantastic”.  He then went on to write 39 more books set on the Discworld, some of which are semi-coherent sequences about the same characters, such as the City Watch, or Granny Weatherwax’s coven, but one or two (eg “Pyramids”) that stand alone.  Famously, only one character appears in all the books.  “Death comes to everyone.  When he came to Mort, he offered him a job.”

There is a danger in novel sequences of becoming repetitive and (according to readers) lazy.  Anthony Trollope famously responded to two men in a club complaining that he did not invent new characters by telling them, “As for Mrs Proudie, I will kill her myself”, and promptly doing so in “The Last Chronicle of Barset”, before moving on to a bigger literary stage.

But a really good character, like Mrs Proudie, Sam Vimes, or Hercule Poirot, surely deserves more than one book, and so does a good setting, like Darkover.   Or Hogwarts.

Or not?

By the Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Blogger






  • Clint Redwood

    8th January 2016 at 7:04 pm Reply

    Iain M Banks’s Culture novels were a lot like you describe Darkover to be. An interesting “world” but rarely did a character appear in more than one, and the different books have very different structures. However, you come to appreciate the bizarre concept of the “Culture” and it’s Minds as you read the different books.

  • Malachi Malagowther

    9th January 2016 at 1:00 pm Reply

    The novel sequence planned for Ragaris could lead to disappointment among the fans of Gormad. Surely he deserves a sequel where he is the main character rather than just a minor reference as an ancestor in “Twelth Province”. Gormad may provide an object for fan pressure to get a new book. Admittedly fan pressure hasn’t had any effect on George R.R. Martin.

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