I'm sure we've all been there. A new book arrives and is the latest volume in an ongoing series, the previous volume of which came out a year, or maybe two, or maybe five, years earlier. And yeah, you meant to do a reread, but life's too short to read all the books on your to-read shelf, let alone reread the previous two, or four, or nine, books in the series to remember what's going on.
So you start reading and you get that sinking feeling as you realise you don't recall who the hell anyone is, why they are doing what they are doing and then get even more confused when the plot suddenly turns on a subtle piece of foreshadowing laid seven books earlier that you last read during the Clinton administration.
I recently picked up a book and realised I only had a vague memory of what had happened in the previous volume in the series, although I'd only read it less than two years ago. Reading my own review helped jog the memory a bit, as did some speed-reading of the first book, but overall I found it pretty difficult to enjoy the latest volume until things finally clicked about a third of the way into the book. Even so, I imagine I missed out on a lot by not having reread the previous book immediately beforehand. However, with currently at least nineteen incomplete series on the go, rereading all the previous volumes in these series when the next book comes out is extremely impractical.
This is where a good 'Story So Far' synopsis at the start or end of a novel can be extremely helpful to a reader, but curiously very few authors include them. Off the top of my head, J.V. Jones, Tad Williams and R. Scott Bakker are the only authors who come to mind immediately who include detailed synopses of the previous volumes in their series. Paul Kearney also included such synopses in his Monarchies of God series during publication. Other authors, including newer ones only on their second or third book where such a synopsis would be fairly short, don't really seem to bother. I must admit that a synopsis for The Painted Man or The Adamantine Palace would have been handy at the time of reading their sequels, and I'm now eyeing my review copy of The Rats and the Ruling Sea with some nervousness, as the details of the first book (The Red Wolf Conspiracy) have now faded with time. With the final (sort of) Malazan book looming, hinting at answers to questions laid down over nine previous books and well over eight thousand pages, would a full series re-read be a good idea, even though it would take months?
Of course, with some authors such synopses would be impractical. The various Wheel of Time fansites' summaries of the salient points of previous books are prohibitively massive. My own attempt to create a general Wheel of Time synopsis before Book 11 came out got to 70,000 words and some 110 A4 pages, which is insane and obviously far too huge to include in the front of the books. A Song of Ice and Fire suffers from the same problem, whilst the very structure and make-up of the Malazan series renders attempts to do a synopsis almost brain-numbingly impossible. George R.R. Martin once said that he didn't want to include a story summary because he would feel compelled to highlight foreshadowing elements that some readers hadn't picked up on, and would highlight mystery elements that he'd prefer to remain subtle. Of course, these series are so massively popular that there are many fansites and even just the Wikipedia articles which contain effective, short summaries of the books which are helpful in this regard. Newer authors still establishing their fanbases don't have this luxury.
This is an interesting situation, as a common complaint of fantasy readers is that they don't have the time to reread the previous books before the new one comes out, and that when the new book is running say four years late (in the case of Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear and Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves) their chances of remembering all of the important points from the previous books are pretty remote.
So what do people think? Should more authors of multi-volume series include a 'story so far' section at the start of their books? Or should readers have to man up and reread the previous books before the next one appears anyway?