Writing a multi-volume epic is a popular pastime these days. This may be a market-driven trend: Once you’ve hooked readers with the first book, you’ll have a built-in customer base for the rest of the series. But it’s not always a cynical move. Some stories are simply too large, too multi-threaded, too sweeping and grandiose, to fit into a single book.
Keeping track of all the details in a multi-volume epic is hard work. Once you’re juggling several balls — or more likely a bowling pin, a razor-sharp scimitar, a blazing torch, and an egg — you have to make sure nothing falls on the floor. Or maybe it’s not quite that hard. If you drop something along the way, most readers probably won’t notice. I don’t like to insult readers, but I’m pretty sure that’s the way it goes.
Last night I was up until 2:00 finishing Shadowheart, the fourth and final volume of Tad WIlliams’s Shadowmarch series. This series has a lot going for it — imaginative world-building, great characters, suspense, emotional complications, and generally excellent writing. But because I’m really picky, I noticed a few places where Williams seems to have cut corners, confident that readers would be swept along by the action and not ask inconvenient questions.
Such as, why did the autarch go to the trouble of having Queen Anissa’s maid kill Prince Kendrick? When the murder happens in book 1, we learn that the maid did it, but we don’t know why. In book 4, it finally becomes clear that the maid was an agent of the autarch; the magic she used was something the autarch provided. But … why? No explanation is given.
Why did the fairies bring Flint back across the Shadowline? Flint wanders through the story not doing much, though he does play a role briefly near the end. But why did the fairy king send him? The answer is not a good one: The fairy king had been looking over the author’s shoulder at the plot outline.
This happens a couple of other times. Princess Briony disguises herself and sneaks into a heavily armored enemy encampment because she has heard that her father, King Olin, is being held prisoner there. Upon arriving in the camp, which is the size of a city, she walks straight to the tent where her father is being held. She has no information on where he’s being held — and in fact he’s only in that tent temporarily, for reasons that are rather flimsy. And then she leaves the camp and goes back to her own people, without the slightest difficulty. How did she manage to find her father, and how could she possibly imagine that such an insane risk would be safe? It’s obvious: She had been peeking over the author’s shoulder at the plot outline. (This is my tongue-in-cheek way of suggesting that the author wanted something to happen and didn’t waste much time worrying about whether the character had a scrap of motivation for doing that particular thing. It’s often a temptation, but it’s a bad habit.)
Where did the queen of the fairies get her battle armor? She and Barrick travel magically across hundreds of leagues to arrive at the besieged castle, and they certainly aren’t carrying any luggage. There’s nothing in the story to suggest she has the power to conjure up a suit of armor out of thin air. Yet a couple of chapters on, Williams tells us that she’s putting on her armor.
The cave system under the castle is improbably vast and complex. The castle sits on an island in the bay, and large portions of the cave system are below sea level, yet the caves are entirely watertight — not a crack or a leak anywhere. There’s a plot-related reason for this, which I won’t spoil for you, but it doesn’t seem very likely, does it?
The story is a good read. I’m not complaining, not really. I think what I’m doing is suggesting (to myself and to any aspiring writers who may read this) that you can get away with defects of this sort, if — and this is a big “if” — if you have a good story, a well-imagined world, fascinating characters, and a firm command of your prose. Readers will forgive a lot of imperfections if the story is good.
What constitutes a good story — well, that’s a different kettle of fish. More on that topic some other time.