Talk to any writer you know, and you’ll find that they probably fall into one of two camps: those who plan, and those who fly by the seat of their pants. Both methods have their strengths, but when it comes to making the commitment to reading a fantasy series of epic proportions, I tend to hope that my author is one of the former.
Take the Harry Potter series: spanning ten years from the publication of the first to the last, and seven years of storyline; as the world created by Jo Rowling expanded, it also grew more complex. Throwaway lines in Philosopher’s Stone (the flying motorcycle Hagrid “borrowed off Sirius Black,” for example) suddenly hold far greater meaning once you’ve read Prisoner of Azkaban. A plot device we thought we’d left behind in Chamber of Secrets turns out to be the key to Voldemort’s demise in Half-Blood Prince. From start to finish, the series as a whole could be a textbook example of near-perfect planning: no loose ends left untied, no minor characters left without their due. As a young and devoted reader, eagerly awaiting each book in turn, never once did I fear that Jo would let me down, or that Harry’s story would turn out any way but exactly how it was meant to. The proof was in the very fabric of the books, from the very beginning.
Another story altogether is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Originally intended to be six books, one could say that things got a little out of hand, with Book Thirteen the most recent to hit the shelves. Jordan’s world-building is solid, his characters intriguing, his plots action-packed. But as I reached Book Seven, Book Eight, Book Nine, with more and more characters and subplots being added, and seemingly no nearer to a conclusion than they’d been three or four books before, I began to question my fealty to the series.
It took a plot device that turned three strong female characters into nothing more than sister-wives to the protagonist to finally cause me to despair, and Mr. Jordan’s untimely death sometime after the publication of Book Eleven sealed the deal. The author was forward-thinking enough to leave behind copious notes so that his loyal readers would not be left hanging, and fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson stepped up to the daunting task of bringing the series to its conclusion. The final irony, perhaps, is that even Mr. Jordan’s planned twelfth and final book had to be stretched into three. Whether the Wheel of Time, in the end, fulfills its grand intentions or reveals itself to be nothing more than a decades-in-the-making hot mess remains to be seen with the publication of Book Fourteen next year.
George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is another vast and popular fantasy series that has overshot its mark – meant to be a trilogy, and now set for seven volumes. No one could argue that Martin hasn’t been planning – the absurd amount of detail about noble families, foreign lands, and personal sigils speaks to that – but the increasing expansiveness of the series has me worried that it’s going the way of the Wheel. The fifth and most recent book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, was six years in the making and yet took us not much further ahead, in terms of timeline, than its companion A Feast for Crows.
New narrative characters are being introduced more quickly than old ones are being killed off, and those we know and love (or love to hate) are drifting so far apart that one wonders how Martin will be able to bring them all back together within a mere two books for the great finale that must be coming. Some characters are given only one or two chapters per volume now, and the overall effect is one of just floundering around, waiting for something to happen. At the beginning of Book Five, we are poised for war. And at the end of Book Five… we are poised for war. By contrast, a recent reread of Book One revealed a novel that was well-paced, manageable, and offered satisfying character arcs for each of its eight main narrators. As a reader who at this point is well invested in the world of Westeros, I can only hope that Martin will come through with a payoff that is well worth the wait.
I wish I could trust that he will.