Posts Tagged ‘Series’

The Key to Starveldt is here! My second novel is now a real, live thing that I can hold and flip through and poke! It’s due for release in October 2011, which is barely two months away, which is awesome – but which also means, alas, that my ability to launch said novel will be curtailed until sometime early in 2012, being as how plane trips from Scotland to Australia do not come cheap. But! That doesn’t mean I don’t have Special Things planned in lieu of a timely launch.

Oh yes, internets. Special Things, the nature of which shall be revealed between now and October. But until then: new book! Squee!

Last night, I went with my husband to see the final Harry Potter film. It was good fun – we both choked up a little at various points – and a satisfying conclusion to a narrative which has saturated the popcultural zeitgeist from June 1997 to July 2011. Doubtless, the influence of and significance of the series will continue for many more years to come, but right now, I can’t help but cast an eye back on the past fourteen years and remember what the series has meant to me.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first hit the shelves in 1997, I was eleven years old – the same age as the protagonist, and, like him, just starting high school. I wish I could say I was quick off the mark, a devotee of the series from minute one, but in fact, as was doubtless the case for millions of other people, it wasn’t until the 1999 release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that I started to catch on. Which isn’t to say that I’d never heard of the series before then; even though I was unaware of their popularity,¬†the first two books were so omnipresent that I couldn’t help but notice them. Stopping off at a grimy, tin-shack service station on the way back from a horse-riding lesson at the age of about twelve, I remember seeing the first book displayed prominently on a cardboard rack. My interest was piqued by the cover art, blurb and premise, but the location didn’t inspire confidence. Prior to that day, I’d never a book I’d want to read – or even, possibly, any book at all – on sale in a service station. Though I’d seen it proffered elsewhere, part of me wondered: what sort of book gets sold in a place like this? Unable to think of an answer,¬†I let it be.

But in 1999, aged thirteen,¬†Azkaban¬†hooked me, and for a ludicrously cosmetic reason: the cover. Or, to be more specific, the hippogriff on the cover. A mythology nerd since primary school, ¬†fantastic creatures were both a favourite obsession and a specialty area of knowledge. Unicorns and dragons, though tempting, were common – but a hippogriff? Beyond the pages of my reference books, I’d never seen one drawn before; certainly, I’d never seen them fictionalised. Throw in the fact that the book was a hardcover with a celloglazed dust jacket (I was, and always will be, a sucker for celloglaze) and on sale at a discount, and you had a match made in heaven. I didn’t even care that it was book three of a series – a fact which would¬†paralyze¬†me now, but which mattered much less then, despite the fact that I never got more than three chapters through any out-of-ordered read before lack of comprehension prompted me to abandon it. By all rights, I should have given up quickly, no matter how many hippogriffs there were.

Instead, I read the whole thing in an afternoon, pestered my parents for the first two volumes the rest of that week, and then, when they finally acquiesced the following weekend, I went back and read the whole story – including¬†Azkaban – in a single, day-long session. From then on, I was hooked. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire finally came out in 2000, I bought it on the release day. I was fourteen years old, and my friend Smott – a fellow geekling, responsible in her adult incarnation for my Solace & Grief character art – was visiting for a week. We each bought a copy of the book and read it together the same day: Smott in a nest of blankets on the floor of my room, and me on my bed in the corner. I was slightly quicker, though; just as I’d reached the climatic graveyard scene, Smott exclaimed over some earlier moment, to which I snappishly replied:

‘Quiet! Harry’s fighting Voldemort!’

‘Of course he is,’ Smott said placidly, and the two of us kept reading.

It was three more years before the release of¬†Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix –¬†a longer gap than ever before, filled with fearful suggestions that J.K. Rowling had writer’s block. By the time of its release in June 2003, I was deep in my final year of high school, grappling with exam stress, depression and the perils of being seventeen. When the Weasley twins abandoned Hogwarts, I shouted and cheered them with all the fervour of every student-reader who could only ever dream of doing likewise. Another two years passed, and by July 2005, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, I was nearing the end of my second year at Sydney University. This time, though, I had a different reading buddy. Sometime late the previous year, my then-boyfriend-Sean’s housemate – a shy philosophy student by the name of Toby – had expressed a belief that the Potter books weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The two of us were lounging around in the dim-and-dusty Coogee flat he shared with Sean, who was presently elsewhere. I asked if he’d read any of them; Toby said no, to which I replied that I would respect his opinion¬†if¬†he tried the series. Toby accepted my challenge. Rather than dislike the books, however, he soon became as fond of them as I was. After moving in to a new place in 2005, not only did he take to checking the Leaky Cauldron website for updates on Prince,¬†he even turned his mother into a fan, too. Busy with work on his Masters thesis and coping with family health problems, it took Toby longer to read the sixth book than I did, but once he had, we wasted no time in swapping theories about RAB and where the final installment was headed.

By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in July 2007, Toby and I were engaged and living in Melbourne, with just two months left before our wedding. We each bought a copy from the local bookstore and read it together that same weekend. Since then, we’ve watched all the films together, whether at the cinema or on DVD. ¬†And last night, we rounded things out with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, just one day after we returned from a trip to France to our new home in St Andrews, Scotland.

1997 – 2011. Fourteen years is a long time – long enough for a girl to grow up, change schools, fall in and out of various jobs, get married, become a published author and move continents. It wasn’t Harry Potter that brought Toby and I together, but it certainly helped, and we’ve shared those stories ever since. Come September, we’ll be celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary – and wouldn’t you know it? The appropriate gift is books.

Thanks, J. K. Rowling. For everything.

Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s¬†shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:

Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole¬†series¬†in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings¬†singly rather than as three separate works.

Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss ¬†a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?

And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!

Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?

Me: Night Watch, definitely.

Person: OK, I’ll read that one.

Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.

Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?

Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.

Person: Where should I start, then?

Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo¬†and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.

Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?

Me: About forty.

Person: *faints*

In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or ¬†George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series¬†A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively¬†consider nominating –¬†¬†if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.

ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.

Last night, I stayed up until 2am finishing my ARC of Water to Burn, the second Nola O’Grady novel by Katharine Kerr. Despite being set in San Francisco and following the exploits of Nola, a psychic employed by a secret government agency on the side of Harmony, it’s not quite accurate to describe the series as urban fantasy. For one thing, an ongoing plot point from book one, License to Ensorcell, focuses on the discovery and exploration of deviant world-levels – that is to say, alternate and parallel realities both similar and dissimilar to Earth – populated in some instances by doppelganger inhabitants raised under vastly different circumstances. This puts the flavour closer to SF than fantasy at times, raising questions about the setting’s scientific theories and contributing to a rich sense of narrative possibility. The series is also distinguished by its strong sense of Earth politics: Nola’s offsider, bodyguard and love-interest since book one, Ari Nathan, is a high-level operative with both Interpol and the Israeli government. While some writers might be tempted to mention this merely by way of exotic background detail, Kerr actively incorporates it into events, not only in terms of Ari and Nola’s respective efforts to balance duties and secrets with their personal relationship, but also as a source of cross-cultural commentary and plot relevance. Just as Nola’s character is defined in large part by her family ties, psychic gifts, religious upbringing and Irish-American heritage, so too is Ari defined by his family ties, martial gifts, religious upbringing ¬†and Israeli heritage. Kerr has done her research, and if ever Nola lapses into forgetting that Ari, despite his perfect English, was raised in a different culture, neither she nor the reader is allowed to keep that ignorance for long.

Plot-wise, the events of Water to Burn follow closely on from the end of License to Ensorcell: the Chaos masters who orchestrated the events of book one are still at large, though their influence is being felt in difference ways. A twelve-year-old girl drowns when a freak wave seemingly pulls her from the shore; Reb Ezekiel, the self-professed prophet who ran the kibbutz where Ari spent his childhood, has been sighted in the city, despite having been thought dead for some years; and a shady businessmen appears to be blackmailing Nola’s affluent brother-in-law. Though seemingly disparate at first, these separate¬†occurrences all begin to tie in with the mysterious Peacock Angel cult and its Chaotic adherents, increasing in intensity as Nola and Ari get closer to the truth.

There are several satisfying differences that set this series apart from other UF works. Firstly, the romance: though Nola and Ari flirted and danced around each other for a significant portion of License to Ensorcell, by novel’s end, they’d reconciled their attraction and embarked on an actual relationship. There is no mysterious third wheel waiting in the wings to try and turn things into a love triangle; nor did Water to Burn begin with either party calling things off, thereby restoring a default state of unresolved sexual tension. Instead, they look for a new apartment and move in together, while Nola wrestles internally with her fear that ‘picket-stakes of domesticity’ ¬†are dropping into place in her life, confronting her past issues with commitment and abandonment. Given the fact that her other novels have cheerfully featured romantic, sexual scenes, the fact that Nola and Ari’s encounters are always hidden by a cut-to-black suggests ¬†that Kerr has made a conscious decision to differentiate the O’Grady books from the plethora of sexy, paranormal crime series already available. In this instance, the romance isn’t about wild, passionate tension, but rather about two defensive, similarly wounded people struggling to turn chemistry into love, with all the pitfalls, doubts and self-recriminations that involves.

The series also places a tremendous significance on family. Again, this runs counter to the usual intuitions about urban fantasy: Nola’s gifts are genetic and certainly contributed to her childhood woes, but she is neither an isolate orphan nor an only child. Instead, we’re ¬†introduced to the loving-yet-complicated network of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles – most of them similarly gifted, though in different ways – that make up Nola’s family. We know her mother is in deep denial about her own magical gifts, let alone everyone else’s, while her father, for reasons that are slowly being uncovered, was forced to leave his wife and children while they were still a young family, with consequences that are still being felt in the present. Nola has seven siblings, one of whom was murdered before the start of the first book; a strong relationship with her caring, religious Aunt Eileen; and a plethora of other such kinships, each one uniquely complicated in the way that only extended family can be. So far, we’ve only been allowed to glimpse Ari’s history, but his own upbringing has already proved crucial to the plot, and with Nola fixing to secretly contact his mother, it seems plain that sooner or later, his family secrets will be subject to just as much scrutiny as Nola’s.

Finally, there’s the issue of Nola’s eating habits. As the books are narrated almost exclusively from her POV, the fact that both Ari and her family members are concerned about her having an ‘eating disorder’ is brushed off in her thoughts as meddlesome paranoia. And yet, we also see exactly how much calorie-counting Nola really does: scrimping her portions, foregoing meals, declining various dishes at family gatherings, and generally keeping herself half-starved. It’s both a refreshing and a confronting move on Kerr’s part: refreshing, in the sense that so many heroines are described as meeting society’s physical ideals without any conscious effort on their part or narrative criticism about the value of said ideals, and confronting, because by the end of Water to Burn, we’re left in no doubt that Nola really does have a problem. Happily, our heroine seems to understand this, too, but issues of esteem are never easy to overcome, and we’re left with the knowledge that Nola has a long road yet to travel.

Water to Burn is an immensely satisfying second installment in the Nola O’Grady series. Rather than relying on sexual tension and violence as the backbone of her series, Kerr has instead built a rich, original, complicated world of politics both real and magical, parallel worlds, family ties, cultural clashes and work-in-progress relationships that cannot help but suck the reader in – and I can’t wait to read book three.