As I come to the end of a trilogy I’ve been reading, I started thinking about what to read next, and that got me started thinking about my reading patterns, and I realized that I have a weird problem with a lot of epic fantasy: I tend not to finish series. There are very few of those big, fat fantasy series that I’ve actually finished.
I know the Anne McCaffrey Pern books are technically science fiction, but they read a lot like fantasy and at various times have been published as fantasy. When I was a teenager, I got an omnibus edition of the first few books from the library, plowed through the first book, read the second, and bogged down somewhere during the third book, never finishing it and never reading any other books in the series.
I read the first two Shannara books when I was a teen, but they were self-contained, with the second book picking up a generation after the first. Not long after I was out of college, I discovered that the series has been continued, picking up some time after the second book. I read the third book, which had a cliffhanger-ish ending, read the fourth book, which picked up the story. And I think that was where I stopped. Part of it was because the party was split in the fourth book, with one group going off and the story sticking with the other group, ending with a cliffhanger involving them. But then the next book picked up the story of the group that split off. There was a time gap between books, as I’d caught up with those that had been published, and I couldn’t remember what had been happening with the group that was split off, so I seem to have lost interest entirely and stopped reading.
I got started on the Wheel of Time series when I was on a trip, finished the book I’d brought, and went to a bookstore to buy something to read on my flight home (in the days before e-books). They threw a freebie book into my bag, and that was what I started reading on the plane. It turned out to be just the first third or so of the first Wheel of Time book (so it was about the size of an average mass market paperback). Since it was a freebie sampler, of course it ended on a cliffhanger, and when I got home, I got the whole book from the library and plowed through it. I then immediately went to the library for the next book, and plowed through it. I grabbed the next one, and fizzled out midway through it when I realized I didn’t care what happened. Part of it was that the main character was changing, which is to be expected, but I didn’t like the person he’d changed into. Part of it was that they split the party, and all the characters I liked were with one group, but that wasn’t the group the book focused on. And I think part of it was burnout. I never did go back and read the rest of the series.
On the recommendation of a friend, I bought all the books in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series by Tad Williams. It’s a trilogy, but in mass market the final book is split into two volumes. There’s still a bookmark stuck midway through the last volume. If I were to try to finish the series, I’d have to start over again because I don’t remember anything at all about those books.
Of course, there are series I’ve finished, or at least have managed to read all of the books the author has written. So, what’s the difference?
I’ve learned that I do have a problem with burnout. While there is that urge to read all the books, right now, I’ve found that I do better to space them out, even if they’re all available. If I read something else in between volumes of a series, I’m more likely to finish the series.
To some extent, for me shorter is better. I can generally finish a trilogy, but when I see an unending series of doorstopper books, I feel overwhelmed. I find it helps if a longer series of connected books is broken up in smaller trilogies. That allows some sense of completion rather than feeling strung along forever without a resolution. Somewhat self-contained books are also good, with each book having a beginning, middle, and end rather than just being the amount of pages out of one long story that could fit into the binding.
Don’t split the party! That seems to be the kiss of death for me. I’ll be happy with the first book and the group of characters, and then they always seem to split up in book 2 (Tolkien did this, too). Even if I like characters in both groups, it changes the group chemistry when they’re split. If I don’t like characters in both groups, this is when I tend to skip ahead to find out what’s going on with the characters I like, and then I lose the thread of the overall story. I’m more likely to finish a series that sticks with one main character or group of characters.
Obviously, I’m not the norm for this because all of these series were very successful. Thinking about this has mostly been a way for me to recognize my own reading patterns. As a result, although I want to read the next book in the series I’ve been reading, I think I’m going to take a break and read something else, even though the next book starts a new trilogy in that universe. I like these books and would like to get to the end of the series, so I’m not going to let myself bog down and burn out.