I, Probert

Former GeekPlanetOnline Site Editor Dave Probert is a man with an ear to the ground of the geek community. When that ground starts to rumble, our man in East Sussex has something to say...!


Thanks to owning a Kindle I have gotten back into reading in a big way. I have just finished China Miéville's fantastic book Kraken. For those unfamiliar with the book it's a wonderfully written urban fantasy novel and is a great showcase for the author's talent for world-building.

After I had finished it, I was really keen to see further books set in that world and I sincerely hope that at some point Dr Miéville decides to revisit it. This made me think about what normally puts me off delving into the fantasy genre as a whole. It's being told I have to embark on a saga.

 While Kraken is set in a wonderfully realised world which combines magic, gangsters and popular culture, and which has scope for further stories, the novel itself is a self-contained tale. Most new traditional fantasy novels, when first published, proudly announce that they are book one of the so-and-so cycle or the thingummybob series and this immediately turns me off the idea of reading them.

I dislike the idea that I am being told, before I have even started reading, that the book I am holding is not the complete story. Should I wish to find out how the story ends I'm going to have to slog my way through an indeterminate amount of books in order to reach anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion. It feels less like reading for pleasure and more like homework.

The other thing I dislike about this approach is that is seems rather presumptuous on the part of the author. The belief that their story can't possibly be contained in one book and the assumption that their readers will happily stick with them over many volumes in order to see how the story will end. It's the literary equivalent of being stuck next to a dull person on a long train journey who has assumed, based on nothing, that you want to hear their entire life story.

The blame for this style of fantasy storytelling becoming prominent can in many ways be laid at the door of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but in fairness it really isn't Tolkien's fault. He wrote his epic fantasy as a single book and it was the decision of the publishers to split it into three separate ones, so as not to put off readers with the breeze block that is the complete novel. As it turned out this was something of a canny sales move as it increased the story's profits, but it led to the idea that the public want multi-novel sagas.

Compared to most modern fantasy series The Lord of the Rings' three books seems a rather paltry number. Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series stands at 13 books and counting and has run for so long that it has actually outlived its author. The fact that it was originally conceived as six books but has been stretched out to more than double that makes me even less inclined to start reading them. When a series starts making money the publisher seems reluctant to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The other problem with a fantasy series gaining popularity seems to be the increasing indulgence of the author. As JK Rowling's Harry Potter books became a global phenomenon so did they increase in length. The first three books are all reasonably sized children's novels but from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire onwards they suddenly dwarf most telephone directories. Even staunch fans of Rowling's work (at least those to whom I have spoken) admit that in the latter books she was in dire need of a firm editor, but it seems her increasingly rambling narratives were indulged, as by that point the books would have sold millions even if they had contained nothing but potato prints of broomsticks.

I enjoy books that feature recurring characters or are set in the same world, but I prefer them to be self-contained stories. This seems to be far more prevalent in the realm of comedy fantasy. While I haven't read many of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, I know that I can pick any of them up and read them without having to have read the rest. I understand that there is more to be enjoyed if you have read them all, but it isn't essential in order to understand what is going on in any individual book. Robert Rankin's comic urban fantasy books set in the London borough of Brentford are also in this category. The same characters occur throughout but you can read them out of order and they still make sense as individual stories.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for sprawling fantasy series. George RR Martin's (what is it with fantasy authors and initials?) Game of Thrones series has a massive following and the upcoming TV adaptation has a lot of people as excited as The Lord of The Rings films. I just wish that it wasn't the standard model for writing and marketing fantasy books, because it really turns me off the genre.

So have I got the fantasy genre all wrong? Am I missing out on some genuinely quality storytelling? Are there fantasy series where each entry works as a self-contained story? Let me know.