What Hath Tolkien Wrought?

Picked up another fat book at the library this week — The Hidden City, by Michelle West. Subtitled “A Novel of The House War.” That should have alerted me. Trusting fool that I am, I took “a novel” to mean “a free-standing novel.” Set in a larger world, to be sure, but a self-contained story.

Now that I’m 150 pages into it, and quite enjoying it, I’ve taken a moment to look it up online, and learned that it’s the first of six novels in a series. Book Five is titled Battle, and has a cover featuring a man brandishing a sword. Oh, dear. That’s exactly the sort of thing that doesn’t appeal to me at all.

What I’ve been enjoying about The Hidden City is that it seems almost a novel of character, as opposed to vigorously plotted adventure fiction. We meet a bitter and cynical thief, who befriends a homeless girl — a young girl, I mean, ten years old. In the cover illustration she looks rather like Shirley Temple, although she is, to be sure, holding a dagger. By page 150, very little has happened to them. There are no monsters and only a couple of glimpses of magic. The thief has killed a couple of street bullies with a sword, but it wasn’t a battle, he just interrupted a mugging.

What appears to be a novel of character turns out to be simply the leisurely opening of a large and ornately carved door, the merest corner of a very wide canvas. What have I gotten myself into?

And what is it with series, anyway? They’re everywhere. Seven Harry Potter books. And how many Star Wars movies have there been now?

Earlier authors wrote series, certainly. Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, John MacDonald, Rex Stout (one of my personal favorites), L. Frank Baum, and of course Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Perry Mason mysteries were a veritable avalanche between 1930 and 1960. But those novels were all free-standing stories. You could read them in any order, because the series characters never changed.

The trend toward the broad ongoing saga may have started earlier — maybe some kind soul will enlighten me on this point — but it seems to have shifted into high gear with Tolkien. From what I’ve read, Lord of the Rings was never intended to be three separate books. The publisher split it up because it was judged to be easier to package and sell that way. But in short order, the trilogy became almost inevitable in fantasy.

And beyond the trilogy. Robert Jordan spun out a long series, which I’ve never bothered to tackle. George R. R. Martin, obviously. Apparently Robin Hobb’s books about the Fool comprise four separate trilogies. Gawd.

The cynical among us might be forgiven for feeling that the engine powering this trend is commercial — that authors keep churning out series novels because they (and their publishers) know readers will keep coming back for more. But there may be more to it than that. Today’s fantasy books tend to be thick. A 600-page hardback is not unusual. Rather than saying that readers want the comfort of the familiar, it might be more honest to say that readers want to be immersed. They want to be swept away, carried along in a grand drama, a Mississippi River of passion and danger, of magic and bloodshed.

So little in our lives has this grand sweep. Most of us understand all too well what T. S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” We yearn for something more than that.

There are no coffee spoons in the hidden city.

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