Thursday, 2 September 2010

Guest Post: Third Book Ennui

While I am away on vacation I am pleased to welcome Andrew Reid to my humble blog! I hope he looks after it in my absence *grin*. Andrew has a blog My God, It's Raining and can be found loitering on Twitter as @mygoditsraining.

Hello all!

Just to warn you right off the bat, this post isn’t going to be a book review. Instead, I thought it’d be interesting to bring up something I’ve started noticing in my reading habits: something I’ve noticed, and have been wondering if it happens to anyone else.

I’d like to call it Third Book Ennui.

People have a thing for threes, especially when it comes to stories. The three-act structure of narrative (setup, confrontation, denouement) intuitively makes sense to us, and is easy to express and understand. Likewise the format of a trilogy – in fantasy literature a triumvirate of books is a fairly commonplace phenomenon. I’ll not say it’s the template; there are many excellent standalone fantasy books out there as well as series that run beyond even the author’s original expectations. Nevertheless, there are a lot of trilogies.

What I’ve discovered over the past year or so of reading is that more and more often I’m just not motivated to finish reading them. I pick up the first volume in a set of three, read it, enjoy it immensely and then either rush out to buy the second or check to see when the release date is. Then, when I read the second book, something odd happens; I lose interest. The motivations and goals of the main characters seem to sag, to lose momentum, and with that my investment in them fades. I no longer want to know what happens at the end because I no longer care about what’s happening to them right there and then.

Now that would be fine if it was with just one series. If that was the case I could blame the author and claim that their skills were not worthy, or myself for being incapable of seeing into the heart of the text. Unfortunately it seems to be happening more often than not.

To give an example; while reading the Engineer Trilogy by KJ Parker, I could put my finger straightaway on the problem that, for me, killed the second book for. The titular engineer of the series, Vaatzes, is a man with a plan – a plan that requires a lot of people to die for the sake of his revenge. Now that’s fine in the first book, because he makes a plausible offer to the people he will use as pawns in his machinations, and they, quite reasonably in the circumstances, take him up on it. In the second book, though, everyone has reason to be wary of him, primarily because he’s just got a lot of people killed (albeit indirectly). Even the author knows this, and hangs a terrific lampshade off the fact by having characters muse in dialogue to one another and him that wow, this sure is a great opportunity to orchestrate events and the doom of a whole country to satisfy his own ends. Instead of yanking his intestines out with a hook, the supporting cast plod along like simpletons, happy to feed themselves into the wood chipper of his destiny.

Just looking quickly at the incomplete trilogies on my bookshelves, I have the following: two books of The Quickening Trilogy by Fiona McIntosh, two books of the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks, two books of the Dark Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan...I was going to say two books of the Twilight Reign by Tom Lloyd but a quick check on Amazon tells me it’s now four books.

I won’t go into the particulars of each case, because this isn’t intended as a review of them; it’s just an observation of my reading habits and a growing sense that the trilogy seems to be failing me as a reader. What is it about them that means I can’t bring myself to finish?

Perhaps it’s just me being fickle and over-analytical. Long gone are the days when I could read Polgara the Sorceress and actually enjoy the story as opposed to sitting grinding my teeth at how mind-buggeringly smug the eponymous enchantress is. That said, I still endure the Lord of the Rings trilogy every year or so with nary a grumbled word about the time Sam and Frodo spend plodding past pools of polluted water on their way to Mount Doom – although I do skip the songs.

Thankfully, though, it’s not as bad as it could be. Fantasy trilogies have yet to go the way of Hollywood, where a successful standalone title results in a trilogy spawning out to “satisfy demand” – although whether satisfaction is intended for the fans or the investors is hard to define. There are a couple of examples of this in speculative fiction (*cough* Ender’s Game *cough*) but they are sufficiently few and far between for me to rest easy about it.

For the moment, at least.

Enormous thanks for that Andrew! Please give Andrew lots of lovely comments - do you agree? Disagree? Which trilogies have you not managed to finish thanks to general apathy?


  1. I do understand perfectly what you mean.
    I think the main reason is that fantasy trilogies usually end in the same way : nice people win, bad people lose, the peace comes back and everybody lives happily ever after.
    So, we may be quite interested in the first book (setting of a new fantasy world) and the second book (the plot), but we don't really want to know how it ends, we already know that...
    I think that if fantasy authors try to consider each book as a whole, we would be more appealed to finish it.

    By the way, I recommend you to finish the Dark Magician trilogy : the third book is the best, and the end is quite surprising.

  2. I hear that, especially these days, trilogies and multi-parts sell far better than standalone novels, which is another reason that authors and publishers try to shoot for more than one book to their series. More books sell, and even if it turns out that the first book it awesome and the rest of the books suck, an awesome first book convinces people to go out and buy the rest anyway, so they can see what happens.

    I too dislike how a lot of series seem to lose steam as the books go on and yet they keep pushing out more and more books. There comes a point where it really seems like the biggest motivation is greed, especially when it seems like the majority of some books in a series feel like little but filler material.

    I was tearing my way through the House of Night series earlier this year, and the first few books were really enjoyable. Good pacing, interesting characters, fun plot. Then I started noticing a lot of repetition, like the authors were writing the story as though they were getting new readers jumping into the series halfway through book 4 or something. Then the second most recent novel just turned to crap with a complete shift in styles, and it felt like the characters turned from real people with many layers into caricatures of their formers selves. It was so bad that I still haven't been able to bring myself to read the most recent novel of the series.

    I was actually quite impressed when I spoke recently to author Gillian Shields, who mentioned that she was working on the sequel to a novel that I'd just finished reading. She said it was odd to do a two-book series when so many authors were doing 3 or more, but, and I quote, "that's just how many books the story turned out to be." That made my respect for her rise immensely. She didn't try to pad the story with fluff in order to get another novel out of the deal. She didn't set out deliberately trying to write a trilogy and thus stretch the plot thin. She just wrote, and let the story she was telling dictate the number of books it would be told in. I wish more authors would do that, quite honestly. It might make "third book ennui" less prevalent.

  3. I understand this problem, and yes, I've experienced it too. I think much of the problem has to do with the nature of story-telling: the middle of a story is usually the most tedious. The beginning is where everyone and everything is introduced, and everything is set in motion, and you are eagerly anticipating what will happen next. The ending is where the excitement happens, battles are fought, everything comes together, the strands are finally woven into a magnificent tapestry. The middle? It's how you get from Point A to Point B, but it's rarely as interesting as the points themselves.

    Thankfully, in a book, the middle doesn't last that long, and the reader is usually able to endure whatever needs to be done to get to the "good stuff." In a trilogy, you have an entire book dedicated to the middle, and by the time you're done, you're often so exhausted that you've lost sight of why you cared to begin with.

    This is, of course, a generalization (I can think of half a dozen books right off the top of my head that DON'T follow this pattern), but it's common enough that I almost always find myself wary of trilogies these days. Give me two books or four, and I'm much happier!

  4. I have to admit I rarely start a trilogy unless all 3 books are out in print. This is so I can read all three books without too long a gap between them as otherwise I do the same thing and loose interest half way through the second book!

    Each book in a trilogy should be a complete story by itself - so many books are spread over three books with a lot of padding in between. One of the best trilogies I've read has to be The Ancient Furture by Traci Harding - each book has a plot with a beginning, middle and end but when read together add up to more than the indiviudal parts!

  5. I'm usually pretty good with finishing trilogies. There are a couple of series I didn't (yet) finish, mostly because I just lost interest. The Runelords series by David Farland being one. Two I do plan to finish are the Fool's Gold trilogy by Jude Fisher and the Symphony of Ages series by Elizabeth Haydon. Those two are series I really enjoyed but once the third or in the second case fifth book came out, life was hectic and I just never got round to reading them (while I did buy them!). That's when series fall flat for me, if they do... not so much ennui as having to wait too long for the last book and then just forgetting about them.

  6. I felt exactly the same way about the Engineer's Trilogy. It took me a total of 5 weeks to read the three books, a week for #1 and #3.. but 4 weeks to read #2.