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Elaborating on a Promise: A Tale of Series Fiction and Two Jo(e)s

In the last two months (since early August), I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the first books in two very different trilogies. In both cases, I read the first book in 1 or 2 days, choosing it over socializing and newsfeed-reading and the other things that tend to occupy my non-writing hours. It’s been quite a while (a few months at least) since I’ve had that kind of reaction to a book, so when it happened for the first time, I went out the next day and ordered Books 2 and 3 in that series, happy to know that I would be able to pick them up and devour them at my leisure. With the second series, though, I was more cautious; instead of running to the bookstore, I requested the sequel from the library. As it happened, I liked that book enough that I will probably add it to my permanent collection alongside its predecessor… but I had learned my lesson the first time around. Just because a first book catches your fancy doesn’t mean that the rest of the series will do so.

I’ve blogged here before about the relative joys and tribulations of standalone books and series, but my experience with these two trilogies prompted me to revisit the issue from a slightly different angle. The series I set down unfinished was Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy; the one I would endorse in its (admittedly as-yet unfinished) entirety is Jo Walton‘s Thessaly books. Both series are well-written; Goodreads confirms that both have lots of devoted fans. The two series also do some similar things from a craft perspective. Both present a word that is a mix of history and fantasy; both have multiple viewpoint characters; and perhaps most notably, neither author is afraid to make their second (or third) book very different from the first, and trust the readers to decide whether they want to continue along on the ride. Mild-to-moderate spoilers for both series follow.

The Shattered Sea books focus on a culture that bears a more-than-superficial resemblance to (mainstream cultural understandings of) the Vikings; a world where manhood is marked by one’s ability to go raiding, and wealth comes from what you can take when you burn a village. There are a handful of different nations (most notably Vanstermen and Gettlanders) whose cultures seem remarkably similar, and a few others that are more distinctive. Abercrombie also includes some interesting worldbuilding details which I think are invented; while the peoples of the Shattered Sea have distinct roles for men and women, those tasks apportioned to women include most financial and religious duties, and the pantheon includes some interesting reversals from the most traditional stereotypes (Father Peace and Mother War, for starters). In the first book, Half a King, our hero is Yarvi, the younger son of the King of Gettland, who’s been given to the priesthood (in a role relatively rare for a man) because his disabled hand makes him unable to hold a shield and thus unable to fight. In the first chapter of the book, he learns that his father and elder brother have died, and thus he is now King of Gettland; within the first 50 pages, he’s betrayed by his uncle, left for dead, and sold into slavery. The rest of the book is Yarvi’s struggle to set this situation right, and I loved it: he surrounds himself with memorable characters whose exploits I really cared about, a band of unlikely heroes making their way through the wilderness, and their adventures kept me turning pages right up until the end. I liked that Yarvi wasn’t the traditional hero; I liked that his disability was neither his only character trait nor something to be ignored when it became inconvenient, or cured by book’s end; and I liked the plot he found himself in, with a combination of action and character development.

The second book in this series, Half the World, is the tale of a ship making its way from Gettland to the other side of the known world to attempt an alliance with a far-off ruler. The journey has some of the same elements I loved from the first book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much — in large part, I think, because Yarvi is no longer the viewpoint character. Abercrombie trades him in for two new viewpoints, a man and a woman, and while they both had some interesting elements I didn’t feel that either was as distinctive (plus, there’s an awkward YA-style romance between them, with lots of miscommunication before the inevitable getting together). I made it through the book hopeful that the third, Half a War, would feature more screen time for Yarvi; instead, Abercrombie changes viewpoints yet again, bringing in three new protagonists, and sending heroes new and old off to battle. Given the title of the book, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there was more fighting and less opportunity for character interplay (never my favorite combination), but given how much I’d liked the first book, I kept holding out hope that this one would turn into something closer to what I’d loved in the first book. It didn’t, and I set it down halfway through.

In most ways, Jo Walton’s Thessaly series is as different from The Shattered Sea as it is possible for two books to be while remaining in the same genre (maybe unsurprising given how different Walton’s books and series are from one another). The premise of the first book, The Just City, is that the Greek gods Apollo and Athene have took it upon themselves to test out the model of a city laid out in Plato’s Republic. To do this, they transport a number of Platonic scholars from various points in human history to a remote Greek island in pre-history, and present them with a cadre of “blank slate” pupils — more-or-less contemporary slave children taken from throughout the Mediterranean. The goal is that the children will be raised in line with the Platonic ideals outlined in The Republic; the viewpoint characters include one teacher, one human student, and Apollo, who has elected to take on human form to participate in the experiment directly. Sokrates gets involved; there are robots; and as you might guess, things get complicated quickly. This book is unlike most other things I’ve read, and I loved it; it speaks to the worldbuilder in me, as the protagonists are forced to confront the problems with implementing an untested philosophical system with real people, and to the sociologist who loves stories of utopia and dystopia. I don’t usually like stories focused heavily around ideas, but this book was an exception.

The second Thessaly book, The Philosopher Kings, pushes the plot ahead twenty years: the children from the first book are adults, having children of their own, and the community has spread out beyond a single city and even beyond the small island where Athene originally placed them. Two of the narrators are the same, while a third disappears from the story in the first chapter. Philosopher Kings delves more deeply into theology (specifically issues of incarnation and the rights and obligations of demigods) and the effects of historical meddling, but it remains at its root a book about ideas, with the characters serving mainly as mechanisms to kick those ideas around. It’s not the sort of book I would ordinarily jump at, but I’ve been recommending it to all my fellow “book nerds,” and I expect I will be snapping up the third in the trilogy when it appears sometime next year. Which raises the question — why did I like one series so much and not the other?

I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think it’s specifically because of the changes the authors make between books. Other series, like Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, set their first narrator aside when the first book is done and I go on to enjoy the later books even more; George RR Martin has introduced new settings and characters galore in his later Song of Ice and Fire books and I’ve enjoyed most of them very much. And it’s not as though one series stays truer to its central themes than the other; Shattered Sea has Viking-esque warfare and cultural values throughout, while Thessaly is first and foremost an exploration of what happens when a set of philosophical ideals are implemented in the real world. The difference, I think, is that what I liked in Half a King was something other than Abercrombie’s central theme. I wanted to see more of Yarvi’s story from the inside, not just hear about how he was a great diplomat and priest from the eyes of other characters; Abercrombie wanted to let the world grow bigger, and I wasn’t interested in following along. By contrast, although Walton moved outside the Just City in her second novel, the things I liked about the first one were still central to the story she was telling.

The exercise of comparing the two series has been interesting, particularly since I’ve set myself to writing a set of linked series that will put my protagonist in drastically different circumstances. It’s useful to remember that while contemporary authors are more encouraged than their predecessors to stretch themselves, and new authors in particular are warned to avoid focusing too much on one type of project, every change you make in a sequel will alienate some of your readers. People fall in love with a book for lots of reasons, and not all of those will come with you when you move on in the world.

On the up side, I suppose that even a reader who doesn’t like where a series ended up can still be in love with the first book. I won’t be keeping Half the World or Half a War, but Half a King has earned its place on my bookshelf; and I’ll be ordering Philosopher Kings from my local bookstore at the next opportunity.

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