Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Trilogies: Third time’s not always the charm

     I saw a book the other day. It's cover caught my eye, so I  picked it up, thinking I might like to read it: “Pure” by Julianna Baggott (Grand Central Publishing).

     The cover background was black, with the title in white, calligraphic  script. A dark dome with a shadowy, brown interior was depicted, with a blue butterfly in front of it. It looked classy and distinctive, though I could tell nothing of the plot or even the genre. I turned to the front jacket flap. It described some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario. Some of the survivors, such as Partridge, live a protected life in “the Dome”; others, such as Pressia, endure a precarious existence amid the rubble. The plot description ends:
“When Pressia meets Partridge, 
their worlds shatter all over again.”
     The précis continued on the back flap, followed by a photo of the author, then a one-sentence biography. So far, so good. I thought I might actually enjoy the book. Then one word in the last sentence on the flap prompted me to put the book down:
     “For more information about (the author) or the Pure trilogy, please visit
     “trilogy: a set of three related plays, novels, etc. which together form an extended, unified work, though each has its own unity” (“Webster’s New World College Dictionary,” third edition, 1997). 

     “Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien is probably the best-known modern example of a literary trilogy. While there are many examples of sequels and series, by the original authors and by other hands, and so-called three-volume novels were once common enough to be mocked by Oscar Wilde in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” before Tolkien actual trilogies were rare. Now three-book series and longer seem the rule rather than the exception in the science fiction and fantasy genres.
     I hate it.
     While I enjoy some multivolume stories, lately it seems a writer comes up with an idea and decides to stretch it out over many volumes whether it merits it or not. It seems a marketing decision, not an artistic vision.
     I still read trilogies and longer series,  but more often than not I regret it  (J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books are a pleasant exception).  
     By strange coincidence, three of the first four books I’ve finished this year are parts of trilogies, and I was disappointed in each of them. They each illustrate one of the reasons I don’t like trilogies:

Reason No. 1: They don’t answer basic questions until later volumes.

by Jay Lake
     “Mainspring” has an intriguing premise: The Earth and heavens seem to literally run on clockwork. A young clockmaker’s apprentice is visited by an angel who tells him the world is running down, and he must find the master key and rewind it. From there, he goes on a quest, has adventures, explores this strange-to-us version of our world. He spends half the book among some caveman-type natives (with one of whom he loses his virginity in an awkward passage), slowly heading to the South Pole where he can rewind the world. Unfortunately, despite the tech-heavy premise, the plot turns out to be a straight fantasy: He is the key, with mysterious magical powers.
    The main story of “Mainspring” is resolved, so it need not have been part of a trilogy – I believe subsequent volumes follow other characters – but the greater mystery of how the clockwork planet came to be is never addressed, nor whether this is the real world or a virtual reality simulation, an alien experiment, etc. Possibly those questions are addressed in one of the two sequels, but I doubt I’ll bother to read them. 

Reason No. 2: They start out promising, but then go astray.

The Curious Case 
of the Clockwork Man
by Mark Hodder 
     This is a sequel to “The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack,” which I greatly enjoyed. The series  is an alternate history-steampunk concept with real historic personages as characters, including explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne. The first book had no hint of the supernatural (fittingly, since Pyr is the science fiction arm of Prometheus Books, which has published many nonfiction titles debunking psychics). Unfortunately, this volume lost me by adding the spirits of the dead (some justification, as spiritualism was rampant at the time of the books) and zombies (no excuse!) to its heretofore strictly science fictional world. Also, the narrative is interrupted several times for untold adventures of Burton (which may be written up as short stories for a subsequent book, I suppose). Then the villains are revealed to be Madame Blavatsky, a notorious spiritualist who in this case seems to have real powers, and Rasputin, the “Mad Monk,” who sends his spirit backwards in time to create a future where Russia dominates the world. I thought time travel was just the setup, just the one change that causes the series’ steampunk world to come into being. Instead it seems like its raison d’etre. As book three is a direct sequel to the events of book two, and involves a search for more of the “magical” black diamonds that caused much of the mischief in this book (and, retrospectively, powered the time machine used in the first book, too), I may skip it. 

Reason No. 3: By the end, it seems to be another series altogether. 

The Night Eternal
by Guillermo del Toro 
and Chuck Hogan
     Both my wife and I read the first two volumes of “The Strain,” a vampire trilogy with ugly, evil (as opposed to good-looking, sensitive, love-stricken, sparkly) vamps in the context of vampirism as a plague (albeit one with supernatural effects). There was little mention of God, Satan, angels, demons or heaven and hell (not even holy water burning vampires or the crucifix repelling them). Book three, alas, involves many deus ex machina elements (such as God, apparently, arranging for the International Space Station to crash to Earth merely to distract the vampires at a key moment while the good guys do something), plus revealing that the creation of the vampires was caused by an act by one of the angels sent to Sodom and Gomorrah (turns out Lot’s wife didn’t turn to salt; she was a vamp who crumbled to ash or dust when the sun came up), and God’s punishment of said angel (cribbed from the fate of Osiris in Egyptian myth). Since the first two books, depicting the spreading of the vampire plague, causing a nuclear winter, the deaths of many, the perversion into vampires of many more and the destruction of human government, if there is an activist God in the universe of “The Strain,” apparently he approved of at least some of these effects. 

     So that’s why I don’t like trilogies (or longer series) as a rule. Do you have some favorite and/or hated trilogies? Tell me about them.


Blogger MrTact said...

Actually, none of the books set in the same universe as Mainspring DO answer the question of why the universe is that way (having read Escapement but only heard bits and pieces about Pinion, I might be wrong). It Just Is.

I'm curious why that is your most important question about the book. To my mind, it's approximately as germane to the events of the novel as a quantum mechanical explanation of how gravity works would be to your average John Grisham novel.

January 26, 2012 at 11:36 AM 
Blogger Stephen Bitsoli said...

The short answer is that the events of a John Grisham novel (I've only read one, so I may be wrong) don't revolve around a quantum mechanical explanation of anything. Grisham's world is roughly our world, while Lake's world seems to be our Earth, with some of the same history and geography, in Europe anyway, with this one huge difference. For me, my interest in that huge difference (which is the main reason I picked up the book in the first place) overwhelms my interest in the fairly standard hero-quest plot.
But you bring up a good point: reviewers sometimes criticize a book not for what it is, but for what they expect it to be. That may be the subject of a future post. Thank you for your feedback.

January 29, 2012 at 7:30 AM 

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