Speculative fiction readers gobble up books like they’re going out of style, so this week we set our sights on what we’ve learned from these extra long sagas. Joining us is guest host Ari, who’s read these books about a million times. Listen as we discuss what makes a world worth exploring over multiple books, when you should stop after the first book, and the importance of food descriptions.
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast; with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: This episode was produced thanks to our patron Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Oren: Welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is:
Oren: And, joining us for the first time is special guest Ari.
Ari: Hello, everyone. It’s nice to be here.
Wes: Welcome, Ari.
Oren: If Ari sounds similar to me, that is completely coincidental, and we are absolutely not related at all. Don’t let anything convince you otherwise.
Ari: Yeah, that sounds right.
Ari: I mean, I barely know these people; they just picked me up off the street and told me we were going to talk about some nerd stuff, so now I’m here.
Oren: I heard you were a real nerd, what kind of nerd stuff do you do?
Ari: I do all sorts of nerd stuff. I play all the board games, and I play lots of video games. I have just been- before the show, we were just talking about some of the fun stuff; I’ve been replaying the Dragon Age series and trying to get through it with one character on the hardest difficulty, so that’s been fun.
Oren: I was going to say, did you follow all the advice on that, and you’re going Arcane Warrior Elf?
Ari: Nope, I’m a Bow Rogue.
Oren: Oh, dear.
Ari: I’ve never played a Rogue before, and I’ve never played an archer before, so, I figured I would- I didn’t want to be near anything, because being near stuff is how they kill you, so I would be as far away from my enemies as possible.
Oren: So, you’re basically cutting the world. [Wes laughs]
Ari: Kind of; I abused the stealth skill, because when you’re by yourself, stealth is really powerful. But it’s- I’m using a whole bunch of skills I’ve never touched; I’m using grenades and traps, all parts of the game that I just never used, cause you don’t need them when you have a full party, it doesn’t matter what difficulty you’re playing on.
So, it’s been fun. It’s been a very different experience, playing this game with this mode. Which is kind of the idea of these challenge runs. Besides that, just playing- the Hearthstone expansion just dropped, so I’ve been playing a lot of that, trying to get to Legend. You know, just the general nerd stuff.
Oren: And I also know that you read a lot of fantasy and science fiction books, and you read the same ones over and over again, I’ve noticed this.
Ari: Yes, this is correct, I like to- when I find a book series that I like, I will read it over and over again, because for whatever reason, I have a really hard time starting new series. I will, oftentimes, take long breaks where I don’t read anything, because I finished a series and I just, for whatever reason, have a hard time picking up a new one. Once I start, it’s generally fine.
Like with Expanse- The Expanse series is probably the most recent one that I’ve been reading, but it took me about two months from when I picked up the first book to actually start reading the series. It’s very strange.
Wes: I was going to say, do you find that, when you end up rereading them, Ari, are you looking for something new, or are you just wanting to kind of experience the story and the characters again?
Ari: I just like the stories. I- the series that I reread, we’re gonna be diving into those a bit more; but there’s basically two series, which is, the Honorverse, which is a hard science-fiction space opera, and then, there’s the Dresden Files, which is like, noir urban fantasy magic.
And I just really like the- these are the kinds of series that, even when I reread them, the emotional portions of the story still get me emotional, and I like the twists and the turns they take, even though I know they’re coming. And with the Honorverse, it’s a long enough series that, even- by the time you finish it, you might have forgotten what happened in the beginning. [Oren chuckles]
So, we will talk about that later.
Oren: Yeah, and that is actually our topic for today, is long book series. This is probably going to end up being a two-part episode, because, as- the book series are long, so are the number of them that we have read. So, to define what I at least mean by a long book series, is usually something that goes beyond the standard trilogy.
And that can mean either more books, or just a really long trilogy, like Lord of the Rings, for example, just has a very high word count, even though it’s three books. It certainly strikes me as much longer than your standard fantasy or sci-fi trilogy.
Or like The Stormlight Archive- I don’t actually know if Brandon Sanderson is finished with the third book of that series yet, but the first two are monsters, and if the third one is the same size, I would also count that as being a very long series.
Wes: One, maybe silly question here. I was thinking, while we were prepping this, what constitutes a series? Because, I was starting to think, ‘okay, does it have to be a connected story with the same characters, or could it be a bunch of stories just set in the same world?’
Ari: Like the Silmarillion, or something?
Wes: Or like an anthology. Like, would you say that it’s ‘the Sherlock Holmes series’? That was something that was puzzling me a little bit.
Ari: I think that would be interesting to talk about, cause things like that have their own pros and cons, especially- like, the Sherlock Holmes series is a great example, given how many different writers it’s had, but it’s supposedly the same character in each book. That kind of thing. So, I would be fine- I haven’t read any of them, so I wouldn’t contribute much to that conversation. But I would be interested to hear about it.
Oren: Well, even if we just confine the Sherlock discussion to like, the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, there’s a lot of them. I’d say you could qualify it as a series, my instinct is that I wouldn’t immediately consider it one, because I don’t really get much feeling that those stories take place in the same universe.
Like, they reference each other occasionally, but it doesn’t really feel like they build on each other in any way. Most of the time; there are some exceptions. You can definitely see that Sherlock’s attitude kind of changes the further you get into the stories.
But opposed to something like Discworld, which is a bunch of quasi-independent storylines all in the same setting, I would qualify that as a series, cause it’s pretty clear that most of those books take each other into account when you’re reading them. Except for maybe some of the early ones.
But I’m certainly not going to gatekeep on this. [Wes laughs] I’d be happy to talk about Sherlock as a series if that’s what we’re going for. But the most traditional series is like, following one character or one group of characters over a single overarching storyline that goes from the beginning of the first book to the ending of the last one.
So, that’s my standard. And- one of the first really long book series that I got into was The Wheel of Time. [Ari laughs] Ari, have you read that one too?
Ari: Yes, yes I have.
Wes: How many times have you read it, Ari?
Ari: Oh, no- one was enough. [Wes laughs] I got to book- I think I got to book nine out of eleven, or- I was two away from finishing the series, and I’ve never gone back.
Oren: Yeah, there are- I think a total of fourteen books. I got to nine, and nine was like, the last one that was out at the time, and I just did not pick up the tenth one when it came out. I was just- I was done by then.
So, like- this is interesting, one of the first things I noticed about Wheel of Time- and I actually did a reread of the first book fairly recently, is that the first book feels like a standalone story.
Oren: If you’re not paying super close attention, it really feels that at the end, like, they won. They defeated the dark lord, whatever his name is-
Ari: That guy.
Oren: That guy. I think he’s just called the Dark One, actually, I don’t think he has a name. Does he? Maybe. Something like-
Ari: Someone will tell us, I’m sure.
Oren: I’ll put it in the show notes if he has a name. But like, it really seems like Rand defeated him, right? And Rand had his complete story arc of like, going from farm boy to badass magic warrior. And then it keeps going, and they were like, ‘no, that guy was not the Dark One. That guy was one of his friends. It was like his lieutenant or something.’
Ari: Yeah, there were like, nine of them, or something like that? It was a very large number, that I was not really prepared for, cause I had the exact same experience, where I’m like, ‘okay, this was a good- this was a good book, I had fun with this.’ And then it’s like, ‘well, we got eight more of these people to kill,’ and it’s like, ‘oh. Well, I guess we’re in for the long haul.’
Oren: Cause we have a bunch of disciples, if I recall correctly, and I think it was like, thirteen of them. I don’t remember if it was like, ‘we have to kill each of them in order,’ or if that was just the excuse for who it was that Rand fought in the first book.
Ari: I think it was just, ‘you had- those bad people were still out there, so we still gotta get rid of them.’ I think it was just their setup for being like, ‘okay, we killed one bad guy, but there’s a bunch of others of equal or stronger power level for you to fight, so come back and read the rest of our books.’ [Oren laughs]
Oren: Well, I do think that, as much as I like to- I like to deride Wheel of Time, as you can probably tell. I do think it has some strengths going for it; I do think that, even though its world is not terribly innovative, there is something compelling about it. Like, people- there’s no question that Wheel of Time fans are very interested in the world.
And like, the world is kind of your run-of-the-mill fantasy world; it is clearly very detailed, if not well thought out, certainly there is a lot of thought put into it, and it’s extremely complex. And that certainly appeals to a certain number of readers.
Ari: I certainly agree with that; I think there’s a lot of ideas that people are very intrigued by, like the inherent corruption of magic. It is a very- I like that. That’s something that I find interesting. I think that’s a big part of it that makes people gravitate to Rand as a character. Like, every time he uses his cool magic, it’s slowly turning him to the dark side. And I think that’s pretty cool.
And then, there’s the general- I keep wanting to call him like, Merry or Pippin or whatever. That’s just who he reminds me of. And he’s like, the everyman in the story, where he just hates magic and he’s stuck in this world full of magic that is weird and different. And I think there’s a lot of- there’s a lot of cool ideas there that I can definitely see gravitating- drawing readers in.
And like, a lot of different types of readers; ones that may resonate with stuff they’re going through in their life. So-
Oren: Well, the Mat character, that’s the guy you’re thinking of; the guy who has no magic, but he’s just sort of- he’s at least in theory sort of the normal guy who has to do stuff, right?
Now, of course, he’s anything but normal; he actually has a superpower, that he’s extremely lucky, which I guess doesn’t count as magic. [Wes laughs]
Ari: Luck is very different from magic in, actually a fair number of settings, it’s kinda weird. Luck is like, its own cosmic force.
Oren: And like, I definitely agree that the whole corruption of magic with Rand is very compelling. It’s unfortunate- I mean, part of the problem with the series is the way that its magic is so unnecessarily gendered, so it’s like, only the man magic that’s corrupted, so I think you should probably leave that behind.
But the idea of magic as being both very powerful, but having this really terrible cost that it exacts, that’s not a bad one, and it- that does like, create a natural back-and forth that the main character has to deal with, even after the first book, when he’s gone through his initial arc.
Wes: What’s also nice about those kind of high-fantasy settings with magic and other components like that, is how- it’s drawing on a familiar genre, right? And so, you’re able to be comforted by things that are familiar, but then intrigued by how the author’s playing with it. So, the idea that magic corrupts isn’t necessarily novel, but experiencing how it’s going to happen to these characters in this series really makes it compelling.
So, it’s fun to see how like, longer series can take tropes, or just shared genre characteristics, and kind of play with them. I think that’s where we get- we feel like we need to read the next one because we’re hooked on what the answer is, how it’s going to present something new to us.
Ari: Yeah, the longer your series goes, definitely, the more you can ask of your reader to keep in their head. And fantasy also has the advantage, at least for fantasy readers, that there’s a lot of common tropes that you can just say, ‘well, this is in my fantasy series,’ you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining it, cause most fantasy readers will be like, ‘okay, I get it, there are dragons, there’s magic, there’s elves or whatever, all those things.’
Like, books don’t have to stop and say, ‘this is why there are elves.’ It’s just like, ‘okay, it’s a fantasy series, yeah, there’s elves, that’s normal.’
Oren & Wes: It’s what we do here.
Ari: So, that kind of thing really lowers- it takes a lot of the load off of the author having to do this information dump to kind of explain their world, cause they can just explain what makes their world different and interesting, rather than what makes it fantasy. (Is that a truck in the background? (14:00))
Oren: I also think Wheel of Time is a good example of both how to set up a deep world that will pan out later, versus a point where the author- and where the author had to invent a new bad guy to fill out a book. Cause there are- plot seeds that they plant at the very beginning that pay off way later.
Like, they talk about how the area that Rand is from, like that village and the villages around it used to be part of this big empire. And that’s a really deep plot point, that later comes up when the area finds itself under attack, and they join together and are like, ‘we’re going to be that empire again,’ and that causes problems, right?
And so, that was really cool. What was less cool was when they invented an enemy from across the ocean to come and fill out a few books.
Ari: Why wouldn’t you, I mean, the ocean’s scary. Just put some foreigners on your shore, and there we go. Easy.
Oren: It’s like, ‘who are these guys?’ These guys feel like they came a bit out of nowhere, to occupy the main characters for a bit while they grow in power.
Wes: Well, and that right there is probably a good moment to just kind of pull out of the Wheel of Time series, and talk about a big lesson, I think, from a lot of series and what makes some better than others. Oren, you said Wheel of Time starts off with a book that seems like it could be a standalone book.
And series that are written as a series tend to keep a tighter throughline, and you have a less-likely chance of just random things coming out of the ocean and whatnot. It might be properly foreshadowed. And that’s something I’ve noticed with other books; I remember I picked up Dune, I was ready to go with all the Dune books, and a friend’s dad said, ‘just read the first one, and then move on.’ [Ari and Oren laugh]
You know, and that was great advice. I don’t feel like I missed anything, I was very satisfied with having read the first book, and I felt like I could go try something else instead of seeing what else Frank and his son got paid to write. [laughs]
Ari: That’s certainly true; there’s actually a book series that fits that to a T. The Hyperion series.
Wes: Oh my god, I was just thinking that.
Ari: As soon as you said, ‘don’t read past the first one.’ The Hyperion series- I think it’s pretty old if I remember correctly.
Wes: Dan Simmons wrote that in the 80s, maybe? Someone can let us know.
Ari: It’s kind of like a classic sci-fi story, that was recommended to me by someone. They didn’t tell me to stop reading after the second book, but you should definitely stop reading after the second book, because- like, the story ends after the second book. They win. One of the characters finishes their arc, the big monster is fought and somewhat defeated, they go through their whole resolution, all the storylines are ended.
And then it goes for two more books, and it launches into this really weird, like, the space Catholic Church is evil, and their pope is immortal because of some weird parasite that they use, and-
Oren: Yeah, the immortality parasite, you can pick one up at the drugstore.
Ari: -just have one, and computers run everything, and they have their own special computer world that you can go into. And apparently, computers just rebuilt Earth, cause Earth was destroyed at one point, and the computers just rebuilt it, or saved it, or something to it. Earth is back. [Wes laughs] It’s just very weird, and it feels like a completely different series, and a very bad series.
I highly recommend the first two Hyperion books, they’re great. Stop there. If you haven’t read them, and you like sci-fi, it doesn’t feel super- it doesn’t feel old, in a way where like, a lot of older stories can sometimes have things that are problematic, or they just don’t really- writing has gotten better, and some old stories definitely feel like things that we have learned haven’t been implemented. Hyperion doesn’t feel that way, it feels really good.
Just stop after the second book.
Oren: I mean, I feel like Ender’s Game is another one that’s kind of like that.
Ari: I was just thinking that.
Oren: I was going to say, I haven’t actually read anything past Ender’s Game. I was curious- that’s not true, I tried to read Speaker for the Dead, and I couldn’t get through it.
Ari: So, Ender’s Game is a really interesting book series, because it forks after the first book series, and your natural inclination would be to continue from Ender’s Game to Speaker for the Dead, cause that’s Ender’s story. But for a lot of folks, really, what they wanted was more Ender’s Game, and Speaker for the Dead- I read it, a long time ago. Never felt the need to go back to it again.
It’s just very different. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Speaker for the Dead is a legitimately good book, it’s just a different book than what most people wanted. I haven’t really heard anyone defend the later ones, like Xenocide, and… the last one, whatever it was called.
But then, there’s the Bean books; Ender’s Shadow, uh… all the other ‘shadow’ names. [Oren laughs] The Bean books, they’re the other fork, and that’s really where you want to go from Ender’s Game, is, you want to start reading the Bean series, which I really like. I would recommend that to anyone. I would recommend- buy it used, don’t support Orson Scott Card, don’t ever buy anything of his new. He’s a terrible monster.
But he does write some good books. So, buy it used, or acquire it in some other method. And, read the Bean books; they’re good.
Oren: A book series that I found- and granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read these, but that I found were- I think, worked pretty well despite not really having much of an overarching plot, were the Dragons of Pern.
Ari: I think I read the first one of that one; it didn’t grab me for whatever reason. I’m not sure why.
Oren: Yeah, it’s been a long time, and like, maybe if I picked one up now, I wouldn’t like it, but when I was a kid, I was really into these books. And I don’t think I even read them in the right order, because it used to be hard to tell what order books were supposed to be read in. Like, [old man voice] back in my day, you couldn’t just Google that.
I know that sounds weird to say now, but you used to have to try and figure out which book came in which order, and the book didn’t always say that on the cover.
Ari: Also, some books would have it where, they would only- like, when that book was printed, they weren’t sure how many they were going to have, so it only had up to a certain number, and then you would have to go find later printed books, which would have the whole series in order, like, inside the cover. The Dresden Files did that, the Honorverse has that, cause they’re both really long series.
Oren: So, I don’t think I read the Dragonriders of Pern in order, but- and like, it’s basically a bunch of smaller stories inside what is a fairly generic fantasy world, but with one very interesting difference, which is the whole idea that every so often, like, acid worms fall from the sky.
And, you know, that’s the big thing that makes it feel different; and, the only way to fight the acid worms falling from the sky is dragons.
Ari: Why not? Makes sense.
Oren: Yeah, like you do. And you also find out eventually that it’s also a sci-fi setting, cause it’s like one of those, ‘we came to a planet and lost all of our technology, but we used it to create dragons first.’
Wes: That’s a great use.
Oren: And again, that series- like, they’ve got your standard, ‘okay, we have to fight the acid worms’ plot. That’s one plot that they have. And then they have another plot where they’re like, ‘okay, so this isn’t- the acid worms aren’t even in this series, this series is just about a really jerk noble guy who is running his fiefdom into the ground, and really making people’s lives miserable, and we’re trying to figure out how to get rid of him without causing a war.’
And then they’ve got this story that’s just about this bard, in that world, he’s just- he’s a bard. I think he’s called a Harper, or whatever. And again, he doesn’t even ride dragons. So, it’s like, that series, I felt- it was a world that was big enough to contain multiple stories, and so, each story didn’t have to top the story that came before. It could be different.
Which frees it from some of the problems that you see in long series, where it’s like, ‘oh, man, last book, we cleansed magic of the Dark One’s power, and we defeated the bad guys from across the sea.’ How does the next book top that?
Ari: ‘Where do we go from here’ kind of problem.
Oren: And I felt like the Dragonriders of Pern did that fairly well, just like, creating a world- and again, not a particularly original world, but, whatever. I think that, as long as you do something- if you do something well, I think that goes a long way towards being okay that it’s not super original.
Wes: Since you’re talking about series from childhood- Redwall comes to mind.
Oren: Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.
Wes: It’s that same kind of story; it’s an intriguing world, we’ve got animals with swords. Awesome. But also, you could- it’s that childhood problem of like, ‘what’s in my elementary school library,’ and you don’t know what order they come in; that, they’re the Redwall books, and you just grab one and go.
Oren: If I recall correctly, the Redwall books are like, there are a handful of connected stories, but most of them are super standalone.
Ari: If I remember correctly; it’s been years since I’ve read a Redwall book, but I used to read those all the time.
Oren: Redwall has certainly made a really strong cultural impression. Like, when I’m trying to explain Mouse Guard, it is both a blessing and a curse. Because I can lean on Redwall and be like, ‘it’s kind of like Redwall.’
But then, it’s also not exactly like Redwall, and so, that leads players to make certain assumptions when they think about Redwall versus Mouse Guard, and they’re like, ‘okay, I want to be a badger,’ and it’s like, ‘you can’t be a badger in Mouse Guard, the badgers are like, a goddamn elephant compared to a mouse.’ [Wes laughs] ‘You can’t play one.’
Ari: How much food porn are we gonna have? Cause like, Redwall tricked me into thinking a lot of food would be delicious, when it is not.
Oren: There’s- I like to contrast Game of Thrones with Redwall because Game of Thrones makes me think that food that I love is disgusting. In Game of Thrones, they basically eat bread, meat, and cheese, which is like, my staples. I love bread, meat, and cheese. But the way that they describe it makes it sound really unappetizing, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to eat that.’ [Wes laughs] ‘No thank you.’
Whereas Redwall, it’s like, ‘yeah, we put some roots in a pie,’ and it sounds like the most delicious thing that anybody has ever made. And I would actually hate that if someone actually gave it to me.
Ari: Just describe it to me and I’ll enjoy it.
Wes: Somebody might need to verify this, but I remember hearing that one of the reasons why the description of the food is so good, and other things in those series, is that Brian Jacques wrote them to be read out loud, because- I can’t remember if it was like, his kid, or was close with somebody who was blind, and so, he wanted to have a lot more sensory words in the text, to try and paint better pictures or descriptions of it.
Of course, that could just be folklore. Who knows at this point?
Ari: Well, if that is the case, it certainly worked for me, cause I started those being- my mother read them to me, cause I didn’t like reading when I was really young. So, things like Redwall and like, The Magic Treehouse, and stuff like that; those were my childhood reading staples. And it was very evocative.
There are lots of problems with the Redwall books, but the text is definitely good at bringing the world alive.
Oren: Yeah, Redwall shows both the advantages and the weaknesses of relying on a formula. Because the books are very formulaic. Which, on the one hand, you can be pretty guaranteed that- again, it’s been a while, but I don’t really recall thinking, ‘this Redwall book is worse than the last Redwall book.’ I remember their quality level being really consistent.
There were a few that I liked more than others; I really liked the one about- the lady who goes by ‘Gullwhacker’. I forget her first name, but anyway, I really liked the stories about her. I think that was more just because there were so few Redwall stories about a female character, that they really stood out to me, than because they were better written.
But at the same time, it- once you read enough Redwall books, they start to get really predictable. And that’s a problem, if you want people to read your giant, epic spanning series, right?
Ari: That’s certainly true. I think it helps when- if it’s targeted at kids, kids probably are less likely to pick up on that.
Oren: That’s true.
Ari: Because I didn’t. I was just like, ‘this is awesome.’ [Wes laughs] People- it was really cool to me, cause normally in the books, the good guys always live and win the day, and in Redwall, some of the good guys die. And that was cool to me as a child. Now, it’s just like, every time, I can pretty much guess who’s- I can kind of play ‘guess the token death character.’
But as a kid, that was awesome. I did not think about it that way. And now, maybe, that’ll be different, because we have more options in fantasy now than when I was a kid. So, maybe children will become a more discerning audience than I was as a child.
Oren: There was also, like- there was a lot of repetition in finding the magic sword. Although, never to the same extent as it was in the first book, but there was still- a lot of stories depended on like, ‘well, we need to find the McGuffin.’ And those stories, again- those are interesting stories, and especially, they provide a lot of novelty for kids, right?
But if you get a little older, even into the teenager range, and you start reading those books, you’re like, ‘wait a minute, I know what they’re going to do here. They’re going to find a magic sword.’ [Wes laughs] Not actually magic, but you know what I mean.
Ari: Maybe it’s like, the only good sword; like, all of their steel is really bad, so it’s the one really quality sword, so everyone thinks it’s magic, but it’s just a good sword.
Oren: Just a really nice sword. It’s apparently made out of a meteor; which, in reality, meteoric iron is actually lower quality than most iron you would mine out of the ground, but-
Ari: Don’t tell Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sokka would be very disappointed.
Oren: I would never disappoint Sokka like that. Alright, so, we are at the end of our time for this episode, and as you can tell, we have barely scratched the surface of our discussion of long series. So, we will be back next time for part two of our discussion of long book series.
Ari, thank you for joining us for this episode.
Ari: Of course, thank you for having me.
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