I’ve been reading a lot of series fiction lately. Not surprising, really, considering that this seems to be the currently publishing industry standard for genre and young adult fiction. And for publishers, it’s no surprise that this would become accepted business practice: people gravitate toward what they know, and with a built-in audience, sequels to successful books are a much lower risk than a single book with a new author. And publishing’s most recent mega-successes, Harry Potter and Twilight, were both series.
But is this always the best course of action? Yes, as a reader, series fiction gives you the chance to connect with characters and stories over multiple books, and it’s nice to come back to something you know and are comfortable with. But sometimes, isn’t a book better if it stands on its own?
At the end of last year, I named Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater as my favorite book of 2009. Even now, seven months later, I stand by that decision. Shiver is, in my opinion, nearly a perfect book. It tells the story of Grace and Sam, two seventeen year olds who fall in love under impossible circumstances. Sam is a werewolf–which, in Stiefvater’s world, means that he turns into a wolf during the cold winter months and back into a human during the summer, and that he will eventually turn into a wolf forever, never to return to his human state. It is Sam’s last year as a human when he and Grace fall in love, and as the temperature grows colder they struggle to hold on to one another against all odds.
The point of view alternates between Grace and Sam, and at the beginning of each chapter we get to see the all-too-quickly falling temperatures. Unlike many young adult romances, Grace and Sam’s relationship never feels like a “teenage” romance. Both characters are unusually mature for their ages, but believably so: Grace has absentee parents and was forced to be self-reliant from a very early age, and Sam was nearly killed by his own parents after he was turned into a werewolf. Furthermore, Stiefvater’s beautiful prose helps the book become something more than just a simple love story. As I am, arguably, the least poetic person I know, my focus when reading tends to be more on what the words say rather than how they say it; even in writing, my language use tends to be very utilitarian. (Such is a discussion I had with our TV editor, Phoebe Raven, after she wrote this article several months ago.) But Stiefvater’s words read like poetry, or music; they have a transcendent, almost melodic quality–so much so that even I, oblivious though I may be, couldn’t help but marvel.
Shiver is a complete story in and of itself, and the ending is bittersweet and perfect. There are a few loose ends, but nothing that would have kept me awake at night. The story was so great the way it was that, long before I read the sequel, Linger (which was released earlier this month), I thought that it was a shame to dilute the poignancy and the beauty of the story by adding on to it with a second book.
I finished Linger earlier this week, and it’s not a bad book; it’s just not nearly as good as Shiver. With four narrators instead of two, it can be a little bit difficult to follow at times. (I found myself on more than one occasion flipping back through pages because I had forgotten which character was narrating a scene.) The plot doesn’t have that tight, dire sense of urgency of the first book. And some of the rules and characterizations Stiefvater set out in Shiver seem to be contradicted in Linger–Grace’s disinterested parents suddenly getting all authoritarian on her, for example. The loose ends that I remember from Shiver aren’t addressed in Linger. But the worst part? By adjusting the rules of this world as we know them, Linger artificially extends the plot that should have–and seemed to be–resolved in Shiver.
Like I said, I understand from a publishing standpoint why series fiction is lucrative, and I honestly don’t know whether the decision to make Shiver a three-book series belonged to the publisher or the author. But sometimes, books are better, more impactful, when they stand on their own. Can you imagine Gatsby’s Return, in which Nick Carroway discovers that Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan had an illegitimate son who’s gone to Hollywood to sell the story of his doomed parents? Or Mockingbird Lives, in which Scout Finch follows in Atticus’s footsteps and becomes an idealistic attorney determined to right all the wrongs in her racist southern town? Or Closing Time, a sequel to Catch-22 in which an elderly and depressed Yossarian lives in contemporary New York City? Oh, wait, that one actually did happen and with only three stars on Amazon, clearly readers don’t find it as resonant as its predecessor.
As I said, I have nothing against sequels or series fiction in and of itself. Most of my favorite reads of the moment are book series, as a matter of fact. Picking up the latest book in a favorite series is a little bit like meeting up with old friends; I’ve got three such books on their way to my Kindle this week. But that decision should be dictated by the story, not by sales potential, and both authors and publishers should keep that in mind when deciding whether a book will be a series or stand alone.