I confess that I have a fondness, a weakness for single volume fantasy novels, and it is a fondness that nagged at me all throughout childhood until I finally embraced it in my 20s. Like many other fantasy readers, I first experimented with the ever-popular gateway drug some call The Lord of the Rings, and while Mr Tolkien intended that to be published as a single volume, the fact remains that it led to a surge of fantasy trilogies that is only now starting to die down. Some of these works embrace the form and truly do good things with it (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, for example). Others…
I’m not going to point fingers at a bunch of trilogies that I feel were nothing but long novels bloated and expanded so Ballantine and Del Rey and TOR could publish three titles and not just one, mostly because a lot of these offenders are books that I still like and still think people should read. But anyone, especially anyone who has read trilogies during the boom of the 80s, can pick out a few. These are the trilogies that start with a bang and limp to a close in book one, build characterization and mythology (slowly) in book two before suddenly picking up and hurtling into the beginning of book three, and then slow down again before they finally build to a climax in the third book. Pick up any one of these offending trilogies, perhaps one where you felt you had to struggle through book two but still told yourself that you liked the overall story. Pick one up and go through it like an editor. Better yet, go through it like you’re an editor with a budget and a bottom line that only lets you publish a 600-page novel by this author, no matter how good it is. Can you find stuff to cut? I’ll bet you can.
The sad thing is that one complaint I hear regularly from readers who don’t like fantasy is that they’ve tried and just got bored. And I believe them. It’s sometimes hard to remember the times I powered through three or five chapters in a book or two of a trilogy, progressing solely on faith that the climax would make everything worth it. But I can do this simply because I’ve read enough fantasy to know that this is often the case. Someone who decides to pick up book one of a new trilogy just to see what the fuss is about might not have that ability, and if the book he or she picked up is one of the many bloated volumes, that ability might never be developed, and fantasy just lost another potential reader.
This is something that shouldn’t have to happen. We’re raised on fantasy, but except for a few (mostly written by authors emulating the fairy tale tradition, like Hans Christian Andersen), there are no trilogies or series in the realm of fairy. And literary fiction is brimming with examples of magic realism, pointing to the simple fact that we as a species like to think that there is another world just beyond the one that we know, one just out of touch. Few things make me feel more like a child than slipping into the first chapters of a fantasy novel and finding myself stepping out of reality, and few things slam me back into my reading chair or the subway or my desk at work during my lunch break than long sections of a book that really just don’t need to be there.
I think this is why I most respect authors who can create a new world with every book. This is the realm of writers like Stephen King (yes, yes, I know, The Dark Tower, Doctor Sleep, that book that never should have been written called Black House… but look at the fifty other worlds he created) and Peter Straub and Richard Adams, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. This is the small pantheon of authors who set out to create an entire world every time they write a new book. Writing a trilogy or a series can be compared to taking a different route to work every morning; you see a few different things, you might hit a different traffic pattern, but it’s the same general geographic area every time. Those writers who write single volume fantasy novels essentially commute to a completely different job every time they set out to create. True, there may be a few similarities, and many authors like giving old characters and locations cameo appearances, but the journey and the destination and the method used to get there are new.
Do yourself a favour and look for one of these novels. I recommend the Mark Helprin novel Winter’s Tale or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana as good starting points. Then keep digging. It may feel bittersweet to turn the last page and realise that you will never know these characters again, not like you did in the book you just finished, at least. But because of that, the story will stay with you longer, and will have that much more power. I myself would love to know what happens to Peter Lake after the end of Winter’s Tale, or if Thomas Abbey was successful in what he did at the end of The Land of Laughs. And because I’m left with this feeling of wanting, of needing to know what happens, I create my own worlds for others to slip into and enjoy.