Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Story So Far...

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?


franti said...

I recently read The Judging Eye, after reading Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy maybe a year or two prior, and I ran into the same problem. There were synopses of each book in the back of the subsequent volumes though, and that helped get a better idea of just wtf was happening.

But there are always other resources. Maybe fifteen years ago it'd be more necessary, but now with all the fan groups and wiki articles and devoted-to-a-series wiki pages and the like I can't say that a summary is totally necessary.

Shouting Into The Void said...

Currently in book 2 of my Wheel of Time reread right now after having finished my reread of A Song Of Ice and Fire which I started a bit ago hoping for a Summer 2010 release of Dance! I read fairly slowly so I'll probably end up finishing The Wheel of Time all in pretty neat timing for the finale.
I think the sort of overview that Bakker does wouldn't work for a lot of books and would run into George's problems. But at the end of the day only for the biggest fantasy series do you see the sort of wiki's popping up that The Wheel of Time gets. A solution might just be to jog the memory with brief character profiles and I think this would be what I'd favour.
At the end of the day a synopsis can't possibly distil all the important elements of a book and nor would you want it to be able to. A reread is always going to represent the best way to get the most out of an epic fantasy book.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic Adam.

As a matter of fact, I completely changed my reading habits because of this. The first big fantasy series I got involved was WOT and read the first 4 books back to back. By the time Lord of Chaos came out, I had forgotten the details and some of the cast so I re-read the series. Ditto for Crown of Swords. At this time I discoverd GRRM and ASOIAF. Those ones needed to be re-read as there are so many subtle foreshadowing clues. The wait between books made it frustrating, so I have resolved to read only finished series for this very reason. I have not read WOT since Path of Daggers, but plan to a massive re-read once the final one comes out.

I agree with Lenty, that the detailed overviews will not work for every book. WOT is just so epic that a 3 page overview cannot possibly summarize everything.
At the very least, I like it when a book has a cast of characters.

I think re-reads or reading a completed series is the only way to really get all the subtle clues or keep track of all the plots/characters. If you choose reading completed series only, the downside is that you have to have iron discipline to not and rush out and buy interesting new debuts.

I wonder if publishers are noting this trend as I see some of the bigger sucesses have had books in quick releases (ie Weeks' Night Angel, Novik's Temeraire).


Adam Whitehead said...

THE JUDGING EYE does have a story so far as well, although in my edition it is tucked in the back of the book instead of the front and is more of a bare bones summary of PoN only focusing on elements relevant to TJE (so no mention of Cnaiur or his storyline, for example, as it was fully resolved within PoN itself).

Jeff C said...

Interesting topic, and one I struggle with quite a bit. I even blogged about something similar here back in February. I've come to the conclusion I need to change my reading habits for some just wait until they are complete. Like you mentioned, some series are too large to re-cap. And I don't have time to do lots of the only real solution is to wait until the series is complete to read it. Either that, or just accept the fact that a lot of little things from previous books will be forgotten when I read later books.

Valashain said...

Even if they are included I always skip them. I think Martin's got the right idea here. When I read one of those summaries I read what someone else thinks the book was about, or what I should have picked up, which is almost never how I experienced it. I prefer taking a few chapters for things to fall into place again over reading a summary.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the main reasons why I've cut down reading multi-volume epic fantasies. I simply don't have the time nor interest to read thousands and thousands of pages over and over again every time a new volume comes out.

There are some few writers (Martin & Bakker) I'm still willing to follow, but I've decided to read their sagas when they are finished.

Give me stand alone books, thank you.

franti said...

Yea, it was the same for mine. I used the summaries at the end of each book to get me through, though, because the one in TJE was a weird overall mythos-defining summary rather than an actual story.plot/character synopsis.

BrianK said...

I've resorted to waiting for many series to complete for just this reason. I read books 1 & 2 of Martin's series back to back, but then couldn't keep up, so I'm waiting for him to be done, then I'll read the whole series in one go. I won't start Rothfuss or Lynch until they're complete. Erikson is the only one that I haven't done this with. I had to reread books 1-4 before I read 5. It's been a slog but worth the time with so many story lines and characters.

On the plus side I can wait until the books are in paperback, or find them used. On the downside, I can't interact with everyone on the interweb who have read the newer stuff.

JT said...

This is a terrific post Wert - and i'd recommend a re-read of "The Red Wolf Conspiracy" myself. I started The Ruling Sea and realized I couldn't remember where things stood, and had to go back and reread TRWC. It was well worth it, though, as the events in The Ruling Sea follow so immediately upon the first book, it requires some recall at least. It really is a shame more authors don't follow the examples of the few you listed, as I've found the synopsis by Williams and JV Jones especially helpful with their series.

Anonymous said...

In agreement with JT above. Recently read Shadowrise by Williams and found the synopses of previous volumes very helpful. The other option you mention, re-reading the series, isn't something I'd be willing to do considering the various multi-volumes epics I'm already in the middle of.

RobB said...

As always Adam, your thoughts are on the pulse of the reader.

Brandon Sanderson had a "what came before" in the appendix of his Mistborn series, at least in the US releases, too.

Although you mention Tad Williams, I was surprised Shadowplay doesn't have the same what came before as his previous books. That didn't matter too much because even though it has been almost 5.5 years since reading the first volume, many elements of the story did come back to me. Still others didn't but this book is a perfect example of what you mention.

This exact problem is why I haven't returned to a series like Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series since I read the 4th(?) volume about 6 or 7 years ago.

All that said, I would love for authors to include such a summary. Speaking from a reviewer standpoint, it would make the task of reviewing a non-first book in a series less daunting. It would also make it more reader friendly to new readers. To put it bluntly, if one of the many books I receive for review is a middle book in the series and it has no recap page, the book automatically goes to the never to be read pile making my selection process of what to read and review all the easier.

While a lot of summary information can be found out here on the netherwebs as you indicate, why should the writer/publisher (purveyor of a product) have the reader (his or her potential customer) seek out required information (i.e WORK more than necessary) to enjoy their currently released product?

Sebert said...

I've recently read part two of David Anthony Durhams Acacia trilogy, and the "The Story so far.." part, even though the series is not as complicated as Song of Ice.. or Malazan series, it really helped me a lot getting back into the story.

In Song of Ice and Fire I am already grateful for the Lists of Houses/Families/Names in the back...without them I'd porbably given up on the last volume.

Anonymous said...

I really have this problem with Peter F Hamilton. I didn't start reading him until after all of Night's Dawn had come out, so that was fine, but the Void trilogy is impossible to follow in real time, especially since it refers back to another sequence entirely... I think I'll just have to wait and whoosh through the lot when they're definitely finished.

Adam Whitehead said...

@ Rob: Interesting point about Williams. I was looking at SHADOWRISE and it indeed has the familiar 'Story So Far' bit at the front that I've seen in all his other multi-volume books, so it seems odd that SHADOWPLAY didn't have one.

David Wagner said...

I don't mind re-reading, actually. But I'm weird like that. I look forward to dusting of the Song of Fire and Ice (or is it Ice and Fire?) books once the 5th book release date is announced...

DiapsonDealer said...

I think "The Story So Far" should be a requirement for all series.

It's the courteous thing to do, after all.

Jebus said...

Maybe it's not so common (or I'm subtly bragging) but I find that once I get into a book in a series, maybe 100 pages in, I'm usually pretty much OK with remembering events from previous books and having it "click" for me. I may not remember every single little detail but I must admit I rarely have WTF moments where I am trying to remember an event or character that was written about 4 volumes ago. Maybe it's just my brain's skill at remembering randomly useless crap and nothing of actual importance.

Anyway, I do like books that have a synopsis at the start but admit I've barely ever read one. I think David Eddings used to do the same thing with his novels?

If I've enjoyed a series a whole lot then I will do the re-read just because it's fun to go back down those paths. I have done that for Ice & Fire and am planning on doing it for Malazan in a few months - Malazan mostly because I don't think I'll be re-reading it for a few years to come just because of its immense size. So even though I'm pretty sure I'd be fine just jumping straight into Crippled God, I want to use this opportunity to go through the series and savour it again before putting it away for quite a few years.

For series' that I've enjoyed but not absolutely loved I'll just start the next book and hope for the best, usually with very few hiccups.

That all being said, in the last few years I decided to make the concerted effort to only read completed series, and it has mostly worked out for me. I wait until the whole thing is out, or the last book is on the near horizon and only then start it. It has meant I could really get into a series all at once and truly immerse myself in it for sometimes months at a time. This worked really well with The First Law, Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, The Long Price, Prince of Nothing, Cassandra Kressnov, Takeshi Kovacs, Night Angel, Liveship Traders & Tawny Man, and even when I got to read all first 7 Malazan books in a row.

I have also stopped reading a couple of series' until they are finished (e.g. Wheel of Time) mostly because I don't want to re-read them over and over again - I like the story but am not so crazy about the books to want to re-read them.

Of course there are the staples like Feist and Pratchett that I read as soon as they come out, but that's cause I started them 20 years ago and there's really no point waiting that long.

Bit of a ramble there but I think I got my points across.

RobB said...

Yes it is strange, both the US MMPB and Hardcover of Shadowplay omit the previous volume synopsis whilst Shadowrise has a synopsis of both Shadowplay and Shadowmarch.

Tarien Cole said...

Also there's more than a little debate about whether "The Judging Eye" synopsis is a true "overview" from an objective standpoint or if it's "Akka's cliff notes."

I'm at the point with Big Book Fantasy that re-reads are the only way to go. Even the Dark Tower, which had an 'argument' for most of the series, didn't really do justice to the re-reads.

For me, if something from the preceding book is SO important it MUST be remembered for the plot to make sense (not the minutiae that most of us *want but can't* remember, then it's only fair for the characters to make some sort of in-character allusion to said fact at an appropriate time to clue the reader in on the arc.

The Writer said...

It always gives me great relief to see such a section at the front of a book that I've been waiting a while for (but I make sure to look for one in the back, too!). It's handy, convenient and doesn't require too much time from the quthor to produce. I certainly hope that when Wise Man's Fear comes out there will be a synopsis of Book 1 at the front.

Jussi said...

Great post Wert. Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books have "The Story So Far", which is very useful.

ediFanoB said...

First of all: Great post Adam!

I made the same experience like you and all the other readers who posted their comments.

I must admit I can't remember when I re-read a book the last time.

My last try: Memory Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams. I read the series around 15 years ago and I read it in German. Last Christmas I got the complete English edition and thought it would be a good idea to read them within the first four month of 2010. But I failed due to several reasons - one was that I was not really in the right mood for it. I will try again later this year.

I think it is nearly impossible to re-read all the series I like.

Summaries can be helpful. I prefer to read reviews of former books.

Last year I read the MISTBORN trilogy back to back and that was most satisfying.

Whenever possible I try to read a series when it is completed.

Anyway the more I remember of a part of a series I read some years ago the more impressive it must have been.

In the end there will be not one solution for all.
Too much depends on the individual reading habits.

Anonymous said...

Although I don't think we should exhort authors to do this, I think it would be nice to have this in long running series, even if it's just detailing main events in the previous 2 or so books, just a little refresher of where we left off. We really don't need to get a whole summary of everything that has occurred in that world, but a refresher of where you left off in the last installment is always nice I think.

Allan said...

I just picked up Dust of Dreams from my library, and I know I'm going to have to spend hours on Google trying to remember who characters are , remember their story arcs , motivations etc etc.

It seems to be a problem that I and many others are having. I have enjoyed series like ,Shadows of the Apt which come out in 6 monthly intervals , and now finding myself deciding to pass series by until they are complete.

There is simply too much to read to go back and re-read Malazan , ASoIaF or Wheel of time every time the next book in the series is released , If it wasn't for the internet then I doubt I would ever start an unfinished multi-volume series.

Maurice said...

I'm a bit torn because on one hand, a brief synopsis does help get right back into a book, but I don't feel I would need to read something like that with Rothfuss or Lynch, and ironically, where the summaries would be useful, like in Erikson's novels, it is more fun to reread and see what you missed out on a first read through.

I read all the books in quick succession when the fifth came out, burned out and now am on my reread of the third to catch up to the last one and while it still remains impossible to retain everything in my head, I do feel that a reread does get you and keep you in a setting, which a synopsis or catch up will not do.

Maurice said...

I'm a bit torn because on one hand, a brief synopsis does help get right back into a book, but I don't feel I would need to read something like that with Rothfuss or Lynch, and ironically, where the summaries would be useful, like in Erikson's novels, it is more fun to reread and see what you missed out on a first read through.

I read all the books in quick succession when the fifth came out, burned out and now am on my reread of the third to catch up to the last one and while it still remains impossible to retain everything in my head, I do feel that a reread does get you and keep you in a setting, which a synopsis or catch up will not do.

Unknown said...

I actually arrived at this page whilst googling for a summary of the Malazan books, as I'm about to start the final one. I never start an ongoing series anymore, having been burned by both George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan. Part of the fun of a huge, sprawling series are the theories one comes up with whilst reading them, and they always disappear between books if more than 6 months pass. Sadly, I was tricked by a friend who said the Erikson books were all separate, finished stories... It was only last year, so I have no desire to reread every single book.
Luckily, I found a chapter summary for GoT, but I'm stumped on a Malazan one. I need something more detailed than a plot summary...