On Reading a Series Out of Order

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Series need to be read in order. Or at least, the best ones do. The ones that sweep you away because you’re so completely invested in the characters and what’s happening to them.

Since the second book in my first series recently came out, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the issue of reading series — in order and out. I’m urging anyone who’ll listen to read mine in order, but it’s not entirely because you can’t basically catch what’s going on if you start with book two. Heck, I can’t expect readers who gobble up a dozen or more books a month to remember everything that happened in book one even if they did read it six months ago!

No, the reason is that when characters grow and change, it matters very much that you read a series in order.

Generally speaking, there are two types of series that don’t need to be read in order:

1. Romances in which each book contains its own HEA. There’s a standard formula for genre romance that involves marrying off something like 4-8 siblings in subsequent volumes. The characters don’t tend to grow or change except during their own romantic interlude and their presence in the other books is more by way of the reader getting to revisit a familiar friend for a few brief moments. If you haven’t already read their story, nothing’s ruined — unless you really haven’t figured out by now that all romance ends with an HEA!

2. Mysteries in which each book contains its own self-contained mystery and in which the detective doesn’t change much from story to story. I don’t read much of these because mystery without a bit of something extra (wizards, aliens, romance) doesn’t usually interest me that much. Yeah, I’ve read a few Agatha Christie books and she’s the master. But IMHO very, very few people can provide the sort of twists and turns that make mystery interesting in isolation. At the very least, a quirky character gives them an edge, and as soon as you bring in a quirky character….

If you haven’t caught on by now then it bears repeating: I’m a character girl! That’s one of the reasons I enjoy series so much, because it’s hard to really get to know a character in a single volume. When people ask me who my favorite characters in fiction are, one of the reasons I think about Harry Dresden is quite simply that I’ve spent over a dozen books with him! We’re really close. 🙂

Fantasy is one of my favorite genres BECAUSE of how many series there are, and because of how many opportunities I get to read about characters learning, growing, and changing. You can’t read about any of those things out of order, even if some element of a self-contained plot makes a modicum of sense.

In this day in age, I honestly don’t understand why anyone would read any series out of order, regardless of genre. Fewer people are browsing old bookstores for discounted books any longer; ebooks are becoming the norm rather than the exception. If one click will buy you the first or second book in a series, why would you click on the second?

This does put a lot of pressure on me as an author to make sure my first book is WOW. The whole rest of the series is riding on my ability to start a story. But if that pressure gives me a chance to show you layers and depth, then it’s worth it.

After we put all that work into it, are you really going to mutilate our art by looking at it upside down?

Posted in ChitChat.

One Comment

  1. I’m in the middle of a couple different fantasy series’ (notably N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy and Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore) which feature self-contained stories set in the same world. Characters are interrelated, but each book is a complete story. I still enjoy reading physical books (I read in the bathtub, and let’s face it, water and electronics just don’t mix), and there are a surprising number of occasions when a bookstore has the later books in a series but not the earlier ones. In general, I end up passing on an entire series when that happens, no matter how interesting it looks.

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