Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Books, Series, and All That

I’m worried about the First Book Syndrome.

At some point, part way through college, I discovered a fascination with similarities and patterns in literature. I’ve noticed a new trend recently—one that is either discouraging or encouraging, depending on your point of view.

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I christened it “The First Book Syndrome.” It could be called even more accurately “The-Unsatisfying-Ending-in-the-First-Book-of-a-Speculative-Fiction-Series Syndrome.”

That unfortunately, is a little too long to be a proper title.
What is this all about? It’s my high literary analysis of modern speculative fiction fads, starting with Harry Potter and ending with The Hunger Games. To be honest, it really did start last spring, when I began reading Harry Potter.

The first couple books happened as the mental relief during my lunch break between the morning class I didn’t particularly enjoy and the afternoon class I rather did enjoy. Apart from all that, though, I considered the first book to be nice, light children’s reading. Nothing particularly great, nothing particularly bad. Not something I’d probably read again. I didn’t get the obsession with the stories.

Part way through the second book, I began to get it, and by the time I read the third book—after school got out—I definitely understood the obsession.

Now, I personally am not obsessed with Harry Potter. The books haven’t got any Old English, for one thing (though they do make do with Latin.) It’s just that the first book didn’t live up to the hype I had heard about the series—it certainly didn’t live up to the intensity and excitement of the other books in the series.

Then, this winter, I started reading another series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians (written by Rick Riordan). The basic gist is that the Greek gods aren’t dead—they’ve just moved to modern America. Olympus is above the Empire State Building. Just try guessing where the entrance to the Underworld is.
Does that sound disturbing? It is.

At the same time, I consider the first book in the series, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief to be an incredibly inventive story (for the first two-thirds of the story). Disturbing, yes. Corny, yes. Junior Highish, definitely. But an entertaining and amusing distortion of Greek mythology and American culture all the way up to the end. And then it flopped. Let’s just say that ‘Perseus’ Jackson and friends against Medusa works, but Percy bringing back the head of Medusa might not be such a great idea?

Actually, the first three books flopped. The characters run like mad all the way through the story, before they limp away at the end in a “oh, no, look what’s coming—hey, we made the prophecies work!” sort of way.

The last two books, however, kept the endings together better. I rather enjoyed the search for Daedelus in The Battle of the Labyrinth. Oh, and someone gets to tell Hera off—big time.

That’s followed by the Manhattan battle of the underworld in The Last Olympian. While I had to suspend a little disbelief at the denouement, I did enjoyed getting a decent wrap up to the stories—one that didn’t leave me questioning a mind-boggling let-down in suspense. (Again, much of the humor and interpersonal relationships tend to be on Junior High-type topics, so don’t bother with the series if that happens to get on your nerves.)

By the time I read Divergent (by Veronica Roth) last month, I was beginning to notice the pattern. Young girl, coming of age, doesn’t really fit in, wants to find her proper place in life. Not a particularly thrilling premise until the “proper place” turns out to include getting half-killed during her training.

And, of course, you have to include the romantic complications, along with minor problems about plots, wars, and the end of the world. (The warning above applies here also, though more so. The book includes quite a bit of violence and messy romantics. There is also an extremely awkward relationship that includes no mention of marriage.)

The pace keeps ratcheting up until the bombshells start falling at the end (semi-figuratively). Then the biggest bomb of all lands. Actually, a couple bombs fall, and they’re duds.

I do understand the need to keep the story going after the first book ends—after all it’s only the first book in a series. Insurgent, the sequel, is due out in May, so probably I’ll have to hunt up a copy sometime and figure out just what was keeping the story alive.

Still, it feels awkward to watch everything blow up, but then try to scurry around and figure out what happens next because not everything’s blown up. That, ultimately, is the First-Book Syndrome—the complications that occur when an author has to wrap up the story from book one, while continuing it on into books two, three, four, etc…

Now I have to decide whether it’s time to start worrying about the pattern.

Divergent, by the way, fits my definition of science fiction (futuristic and technology-based rather than supernatural influence.) I have been told, though, that the proper term is dystopian. Just don’t think it is fantasy. It’s not—there is not only no supernatural presence, there is apparently no moral grounding for any of the characters. Now that’s disturbing.

It’s also one of the more disturbing problems that I noticed in The Hunger Games, more so than the First-Book issue.

Oh, yeah—the Hunger Games. I read the book Thursday morning last week, so I could go watch the movie that Friday. I’ll tell you my version of The Hunger Games in my next post.

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