Commitment-phobe: Why I don’t do series (except when I do)

Books discussed in this essay: Ancillary Justice  (Ann Leckie; 2013),  Ancillary Sword (Leckie; 2014), and The Warrior’s Apprentice (Lois McMaster Bujold; 1986). No spoilers.

As a science fiction reader, this may be heresy to say, but I am not a fan of series. In fact, I actively avoid them as a rule. You could say I’m averse to commitment.

Reader, know thyself. I like to read widely and sample many different authors. But I am also a completist at heart. If I start a series I like, I feel obligated to see it through to the end. (Fortunately, I have no compunctions about abandoning a series that isn’t doing all that much for me.) This isn’t such a problem when it comes to short, engaging trilogies like Jo Walton’s Small Change alt-history/mysteries, which I devoured in less than a month. But if I pick up Game of Thrones, suddenly I find myself spending half a year with George R. R. Martin. He’s an entertaining writer, and I can see going on a date or two, but jeez, I don’t want to marry him. And even after all that, he still left me hanging! Thanks, George.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThat’s another problem with reading series: the waiting around, if the series is still in progress. I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice when it first came out, intending to treat it as a standalone. It was too good, though, and the ending too much of a cliffhanger, so a year later, I picked up Ancillary Sword. I wasn’t about to reread Justice beforehand, but I probably should have, as I had forgotten a lot of little details that hampered my enjoyment of the sequel. If a lot of time goes by between books, I feel like I’m better off abandoning the series altogether, but that also leaves me unsatisfied.

61906It seems easier to avoid series in the first place, which means there are a lot of authors I’m just not reading. That was the case with Lois McMaster Bujold, a popular author I never got around to reading. Every time I looked at her oeuvre, the sheer length of her Vorsokigan series seriously daunted me. Not to mention that I had no idea whether I needed to start with Book 1 or if I could jump in later and not feel lost. Fortunately, we live in the age of prolific online reviews, from which I learned that The Warrior’s Apprentice was actually a good place to start.

The reviews were right. I did not feel at all out of my element when reading this fun space adventure. Bujold included enough details, possibly from earlier books in the series, to give me a good feel for her universe and her character’s history. While I enjoyed the book, I didn’t feel compelled to move on immediately to the next in the series. No annoying cliffhangers–just a satisfying resolution.

I appreciate this about Bujold’s writing. She understands that there are all kinds of readers. Some adore series and will snap up anything set in a favorite universe. Nothing wrong with that. Others will want to dip their toes in from time to time. And some may just want to read the one or two best books by that writer, so we have time to get to all the other great stuff we haven’t read yet.

Having read The Warrior’s Apprentice, I now trust Bujold to provide a similar experience with her other books. If I want to go out on another date, great–and she is a fun date. But I don’t have to worry about a shotgun wedding.

The hard part, though, is knowing which series authors we non-series readers can trust. Bujold makes it easy. She includes a helpful guide at the end of her books, letting readers know where they can start and what they can skip. As an author, she is being a good friend to her readers–all her readers.

I likely will still avoid trilogies and series in the future. But I will try not to be so gun-shy.

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First Impressions: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

These are my first impressions after reading Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie; 2013) in August 2014. I will be discussing Ancillary Justice in a future essay.

At one time, the artificial intelligence Justice of Toren was the brain of a massive starship as well as of the crew members on-board and the security forces keeping peace on a conquered planet, inhabiting the bodies of human prisoners-of-war, called ancillaries, whose brains have been wiped clean and repurposed. But now the AI, called Breq, is confined to just one of her ancillary bodies, as she doggedly pursues revenge against the one who betrayed her while becoming embroiled in a complicated struggle for power over the galactic empire.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAncillary Justice brings a new and unique flavor to the sub-genre of space opera. The story jumps great distances in time and space as it comes together, which may leave the reader feeling untethered at first–but stick with it. Leckie is building a complex empire, and she takes her time with it, allowing us to gradually become immersed. By the time Breq’s ship is destroyed, a heart-stopping moment, I was enthralled and couldn’t wait to keep turning the pages.

Beyond all the political machinations, the betrayals and conspiracies, I enjoyed this book for its interesting take on gender and for its completely unique point of view. Breq, the narrator, is at one point the mind for many bodies as well as a spaceship that can observe everything happening on-board. As such, the point of view is nearly first-person omniscient, which I don’t think I’ve seen done before. After the spaceship is destroyed and the AI is confined to only one body, Leckie continues to thwart narrative norms. For instance, Breq was created in a gender-neutral society where everyone is referred to as “she,” so she cannot distinguish between the genders and uses the same pronoun for everyone she meets, male or female. The effect on the reader is disconcerting, and leads us to question some of our assumptions about gender, especially in science fiction. This is just one of the many interesting questions Leckie raises in this multi-faceted novel.

I always enjoy it when a skilled writer takes overly familiar tropes and tries twisting them in new ways. 

Ancillary Justice won the Nebula, Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards.