If you’re a reader of popular fiction, especially in the romance and mystery genres, then you know what I’m talking about when I bemoan the dearth of unrelated books on the shelves. Bookstores, drugstores and Amazon listings are all suffering from an acute case of series-itis that shows no signs of clearing up anytime soon.
As a matter of course, I avoid series historicals like the plague. Since most of my popular fiction reading is in the historical romance genre, this is no mean feat. At first, I thought it was only my disdain for series books that accounted for the apparent deluge of series, but a cursory survey of the past 17 historical romance reviews at All About Romance proves that I am not imagining things. Only five of those 17 historical romances were not part of a series. Of that five, three were Harlequin Historicals.
It’s not that I haven’t given series a chance. I’ve even enjoyed a few. Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series is a favorite of mine, as is Liz Carlyle’s “Never” series and a few of Mary Balogh’s series. But increasingly, I find that I dislike series, and here’s why:
Too many characters. Most series historicals I’ve read are the literary equivalent of a too-crowded party — you’re so busy trying to keep up with everyone that it’s hard to pay attention to anyone. In a well-done historical series, the incidental mention of a character from another book in the series feels natural, and if they’re integral to the plot of the book, then it seems organic and believable. Most of the time, however, these other characters appear at intervals to give advice that’s usually common sense, or simply to create curiosity about these characters’ books in the series. These kinds of name-dropping seem tedious and/or forced — i.e. there’s no real purpose served by having Lord Such-and-Such reappear, but since this is a series, reappear he must. It’s irritating and distracting from the story at hand. Just keeping the names straight can be a headache — if you’ve ever attempted to read a Julia Quinn, you know just what I mean.
Too much backstory — or not enough. Some series writers are smart enough to realize that many readers will discover a series halfway through. Those writers often feel compelled insert backstory from every other character in the series that appears in the book in question, taking precious words and time away from the lead characters. It’s frustrating and repetitive if you’ve read the other books in the series, distracting and confusing if you have not. Other writers, however, are arrogant enough to assume that you have read or will read every other book in the series, and drop these characters in with no hint of who they are or why they are there. I really hate it when a character shows up for one scene, with no explanation, never to be seen or heard from again, or only tangentially, leaving you to wonder for the duration of the book whether this is a character worth remembering.
Writers with either problem would do well to pick up Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series; without presenting a synopsis of every character’s book, Putney always manages to work her cast of characters into other books in a natural, logical way, presenting just enough information about characters to make you curious about their stories without dumping information, or, on the other end of the spectrum, having them appear out of nowhere. It also helps that she never felt compelled to use every single character from every single book in every single book, if such a concept makes sense. Rather than having all of the Fallen Angels (the more I type that, the more I realize how trite that series title sounds, but never mind) appear in each book, only one or two appear, and only when necessary to the plot.
Too little of the main characters/story. The whole concept of the romance series seems to have changed in the past 10 years or so. Putney’s Fallen Angels series and several of Mary Balogh’s series from 12-15 years back, for instance, were more interrelated books than series; i.e. none of the action from one book depended upon action from another, nor was there any real continuation of action from one book to the next. Don’t get me wrong — there’s certainly nothing wrong with series where each book builds upon the other. But writers (romance writers in particular) need to decide whether the book will be able to stand alone, or will depend upon the other books. Unfortunately, many romance writers are trying to have it both ways, and the result is, well, almost every thing I’ve pointed out so far, plus something even more problematic.
When an author is confused about whether or not the book will stand alone or depend upon others, the most obvious sign of the struggle is that the main characters and/or plot are shortchanged. A textbook case of this is Elizabeth Hoyt’s latest book, Thief of Shadows, which is, of course, part of a series. I won’t repeat everything I said on this subject already in my review of that book, but suffice to say that Thief of Shadows suffers from almost every ill I’ve listed here, and something even more dire: a hero and heroine whose story is sacrificed in order to segue into the stories of the other books.
Hoyt spent so much time on other characters from the series, and setting up situations for other books in the series that Thief of Shadows’ hero is, for lack of a better word, emasculated by the need for the series to go on. While reading the book, you feel that she should either have: A. written a longer book that lets the main characters’ story stretch out, while also incorporating the other characters from the series, or B. simply written the book as a standalone, throwing the premise of the series away. Either would have been better than the book as it is.
My biggest problem with the series books I’m seeing now, however, is less specific. To wit, it’s pure laziness. Most series books seem to me to be borne of laziness more than any desire to continue interrelated stories over a number of books. Why come up with an entirely new setting, new characters, new situations, even new verbal tics and slang, when you can just use-and-reuse those from previous books, and get away with it because you are “world building?”
It’s not world-building when nothing new but more character names and a slightly re-worked plot are added to each subsequent book in the series. You’re not building a world so much as moving dolls in and out of a dollhouse when the situations and characters are so similar from book to book that you can’t keep the names or situations straight.
For someone who doesn’t like series and finds Harlequin Historicals to be iffy in quality, series-itis is a disturbing trend. Good thing Carla Kelly, Elisabeth Fairchild and Diane Farr are re-releasing their old Traditional Regencies in e-book format, else I’d be looking for a new popular fiction genre altogether!