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Standalones, sequels, and trilogies: the length of a series doesn’t determine its quality

There are plenty of books around for all tastes, even if someone has monopolised the selling and discovery of books (looking at you, Bezos and Amazon). But sometimes, a tale drags on, the author loses their way, and you pray for the end. It is sad to see this, both because it feels like you have wasted your time if you drop a series, and it is sad to see an author you loved lose what made you love them. There are plenty of examples of successful standalones and series, but not everything needs to run forever.

Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, is a fantastic example of a standalone as rich as any series. While a sequel has been rumoured for almost two decades, she published her second book last year, 16 years after her debut, so I doubt this will come soon, if ever. She uses almost 200 footnotes to provide the lore and entire corpus of her magic scholarship and system, the attention to detail is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. A sequel isn’t needed, but I would love to see the characters again.

The publisher’s desire for that sweet, sweet cash is clear

Seeing characters again is how Michael Morpurgo made the duology of War Horse and Farm Boy, published in 1982 and 1997, respectively. Standalones or trilogies seem to be more common than duologies – Morpurgo tends to write standalones. The interesting thing is that a sequel wasn’t intended, but after many questions about Joey’s fate (the horse), after the war, he decided to write one. It is very different from War Horse,  I admittedly read it first and didn’t find out it was the sequel until a few years later, which is rather telling about the circumstances which led him to write it.

Trilogies, meanwhile, are everywhere. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the quintessential trilogy, escapes all three pitfalls of a trilogy: feeling like a cash grab, petering out, or having a filler middle volume. Some even argue The Two Towers is their favourite and no one can argue The Return of the King peters out, even if you get multiple endings, which Tolkien is certainly allowed a pass for.

Books are art, regardless of length

I am still stuck in the middle of L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Saga of Recluce, admittedly because of laziness and too much article and essay writing, not because it’s 22 volumes long and began three decades ago. This length works, however, because he jumps around the timeline, fleshing the world out as he goes. The same themes and story patterns persist, which I know some criticise him for, but it works, as each tale feels like its own. The fact that he began with the penultimate book and wrote the fifth as the final book if the books were to be read in chronological order also limits him – everything he writes must trend towards his pre-ordained ending. There are also duologies or loose trilogies within, where multiple volumes are dedicated to an arc.

I gave up reading Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series in school almost a decade ago. I stopped mid-way through book seven and never returned, it just didn’t interest me. It is amusing that it was originally contracted by the publisher as a trilogy, and any continuation would be based on this trilogy’s sales. It makes my point for me – publishers can drag a series to its demise. While I don’t doubt Landy’s writing ability, the publisher’s desire for that sweet, sweet cash is clear. But I’ll never finish it, not least because I remember nothing.

This is another problem faced by series: you can forget the plot while waiting for the next volume, or as you catch up with a decades-long tale. An author telling a story in fewer books isn’t inherently better or worse. Books are art, regardless of length. A clear reason for its length can be a boon. But the longer it continues, the higher chance of it descending into a pursuit for cash over a work of love and art.

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