Starting a series in the middle

So, I recently happened across this post by Sara Brady at Barnes and Noble, suggesting decent starting points for someone wanting to come into a long series, but not necessarily wanting to start right at the beginning. Interesting idea!

The series Brady mentions include:

1. The Pride series by Shelly Laurenston, a UF/Paranormal series I’ve never heard of that does sound possibly like fun, though do I really need another long UF/Paranormal series to get into? Even if there are honey badgers and male lions exclaiming (in human form) about their beautiful hair?

2. The Animal Magnetism series by Jill Shalvis, which from the description sounds like a romance series involving veterinarians and small-town life. Brady says, “Like all Shalvis heroes, the dudes are great big burly manly men, and in this series they do things like heal wounded puppies.” I must admit, that sounds charming.

3. The In Death series by JD Robb. I’ve listened to a couple of these, chosen at random from the local library’s collection of audiobooks, and they were just okay for me. Evidently the series is up to 49. Wow. Brady suggests reading at least the first couple in order. I didn’t and it was fine, but I’m not saying she’s wrong, maybe I’d have rad the whole bunch if I’d started properly at the beginning.

4. The Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost, a paranormal series that I’ve heard of but haven’t tried. Brady suggests reading in order.

Well, this was all very interesting, so I wandered down to my own library, perused the shelves, and I think I’ve identified six series of each type. I think in some cases particular authors have written both series that can be read out of order and series that really ought to be read strictly in order. Here they are:

Type A: Series that may actually be better if you start in the middle:

1. Terry Pratchett’s Sam Vimes series. Guards! Guards! is readable, I guess, but the series gets massively better as it goes along. If I’d started with the first one, I doubt I’d have gone on to the second. Instead, I happened to start with Night Watch, still probably my favorite of all the Diskworld novels. Then I worked my way out from the middle until I’d read the rest of the series. This worked really well and I always recommend Night Watch to someone wondering where to start the Diskworld books.

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2. Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Whimsy mysteries. There is such a sharp division between the ones that are cool, clever detective stories and the ones that engage the reader’s emotions. Gaudy Night is the novel that demarcates that line. I would definitely suggest anyone start with that one. Then read the successive ones in order. Only then would I suggest going back to the earlier ones.

3. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Vorkosigan series. They all stand alone, but I can see that different books would very likely have greatest appeal for different readers. I can think of one person who started with the early Miles books, but since she is especially into romances, I would have suggested starting elsewhere – with Shards of Honor or possibly even Komarr, though I wouldn’t ordinarily suggest starting with that one. But for someone who loves space opera best, then I wonder if, Warrior’s Apprentice wouldn’t be the best starting point.

4. If someone wasn’t keen on tackling CJ Cherryh’s immense Foreigner series and wanted to skip the introductory part, where would you suggest they start? You probably know that the series is broken into fairly self-contained trilogies, but that doesn’t give as much guidance as it might because after all there are five trilogies in the series now (and the start of a sixth).

As it happens, my favorite single book in the series is Explorer. Unless you have a better memory than I do for the very unmemorable titles in this series, you won’t remember which book is which, but that is the one where Bren et al go out to the abandoned station, meet the kyo, and rescue the people on the station. I absolutely love seeing Bren at his best as he deals with the station personnel and with the kyo. That is the third book of its trilogy, and it’s the second trilogy of the series, so that forces me to suggest that a new reader skip no more than the first trilogy and start with the 4th book, Precursor. I know skipping just the first three books doesn’t get you very far ahead, but there you go.

5. Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. Although I really, really love the first couple of books — Jhereg and Yendi — the different books are all so distinct that even though the storyline is continuous, the reader can start anywhere. After all, Brust didn’t write them in internal chronological order, so that makes sense. Although I sure wouldn’t suggest anybody start with Teckla, by far the low point in the series. And Athyra would not be my first choice of a starting point, either. And perhaps not – well, never mind, the point is that although there are places I wouldn’t suggest a new reader start the series, there are lots of books in the series that would make good entry points.

6. I’m of two minds about Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniel’s series. I think it takes off at the 3rd book. But I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to skip the build-up provided by the first couple of books either, so I don’t know that I’d suggest someone actually start with the third one. It’s a tough question.

Type B: Series you ought to start at the beginning:

1. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany series. I suspect this set of novels works best if you start at the beginning, with Wee Free Men. Not that you couldn’t enjoy them out of order, but Tiffany’s character arc builds so smoothly from one book to the next that I would never suggest starting in the middle the way I do, routinely, with the Vimes series.

2. Barbara Hambly’s Ysidro series. It’s hard to beat Those Who Hunt the Night as a place to start the series. Also, it’s a really good standalone novel. Yes, yes, all the novels in this series stand alone. Even so, I think the series would probably not work as well starting anywhere but at the beginning.

3. Elizabeth Moon’s Trading in Danger series. This space opera story is a set of five novels and they do not stand alone very well. The storyline flows straight though from front to back. I can’t remember whether there are actual cliffhangers, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Unlike the Vorkosigan books, I would never suggest starting anywhere but the front or going in any order but straight through. Incidentally, this is quite a good series and I definitely do recommend it to anyone who enjoys space opera.

4. While we’re on the subject of space opera, Tanya Huff’s Valor series is another one that undoubtedly works best read in order. The books are fairly self-contained, but various important plot elements flow from one to the next. I don’t think keeping to the published order is as important as it would be for Moon’s series, but probably more so than for the Vorkosigan series.

5. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series. The story is just too continuous. There’s nowhere to start but at the beginning. Straight through, that’s the ticket.

6. Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles. Really, you must start at the beginning. Very dense, complicated books; you’re liable to get lost if you go wandering around out of order.

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14 thoughts on “Starting a series in the middle”

  1. Agreed about starting Lord Peter in the middle, but I think you really must start with STRONG POISON for GAUDY NIGHT to work. And preferably read all the books with Harriet in them too, imo. (I have kind of thought about this a LOT.)

  2. Well, after two seconds of thought, I have to say you are absolutely right. I did in fact read Gaudy Night first by pure chance, so that can work, but yes, I do think you should start with Strong Poison. And the Harriet ones are the ones I go back to and re-read; not so much the ones before that.

  3. I agree that Pratchett gets better with time, but I’m still inclined to recommend the early Guards books first just because getting to know who these people are feels like part of the process. (That said, I bounced off Discworld the first time by starting with Rincewind, and never warmed to him, so I’d never recommend starting Discworld with the very first book.)

    L. started me on Bujold (long, long ago) with The Warrior’s Apprentice, and it clearly worked. One interesting thing is that it and Shards of Honor spoil each other. Read TWA first and you know how SoH ends. Read SoH first, and you know the answer to a mystery Miles is pursuing and can guess why his plan to address it is a really bad idea.

    (She also started me with Gaudy Night, and while I liked it I never went any further with Peter Wimsey. But I suspect that’s just that I’m not a huge mystery fan. Maybe I’ll go back someday.)

    With Brust, I would recommend publication order. The first one is an inviting entry into the series– even as a young author, Brust had first person smartass down pat. And at least current readers can throw themselves straight into the good bits again after slogging through Teckla.

    Since I bounced off Foreigner, I’d recommend starting Cherryh with a different series. :-) I love the Union-Alliance stories, but it’s really tough: Cyteen is probably the best of them, but it’s much more powerful if your first impression of Union comes from Downbelow Station. Unfortunately, while I like DS, I suspect it’s not a friendly entry point. It more or less opens with an Encyclopedia Galactica entry (which I have a minority taste for but most people hate), and then spins into a cast of thousands war story where no one has time to explain anything. Maybe one of the smaller merchanter stories, like Merchanter’s Luck?

    (At least the Morgaine and Chanur books are straightforward series where it makes sense to start with the first book.)

    Huff’s Valor series is complicated by the fact that all of the books are available electronically except the first. L. leapt into the second, I waited till I could ILL the first.

  4. The Vlad Taltos books were intentionally written so they couldn’t be read in any chronological order. (It gets even worse if you add the Phoenix Guard books, I think. Vlad’s story is briefly visible in the background in one of them. That’s how it works when you’re a long lived elf.) I would start at the beginning of publication order myself, but only because it’s hard to visualize anything else.

    Regarding Cherryh, you could also try the Chanur books, which have a unique charm of their own. Kkktttt.

    Of course, readers who like technothrillers, cold war, naval actions and suchlike can happily dive into Downbelow Station. I know I did. It did win a Hugo back in the good old days.

  5. You know, you guys keep mentioning Dunnett and Cherryh as favourite authors, but then whenever you talk about the books you keep saying how difficult they are . . .

    I guess I’d like to think of myself as an intelligent reader who can handle difficult stuff, but in the meantime there are all these other pretty shiny books! I may never make it to Lymond or Foreigner. Sigh.

  6. Speaking as someone who’s less fond of Cherryh than she deserves, I’d still recommend the Chanur books as a solid starting point.

    I’ve heard of so many different entrees to the Vorkosigan Series working that I’d be inclined to tailor that recommendation to the individual. The mutual-spoiler thing Mike points out is interesting.

    Jim Butcher gets a heck of a lot better as the Dresden Files progress: it’s one of those series where I’m glad I started in the middle. That said, I’m not sure the short story collection I used was the best choice, since it spoiled important revelations. Maybe Summer Knight?

    I should mention that I finally persuaded someone to experiment with reading the Griffon Mage trilogy in the order 2-1-3, and he reported that it does work that way.

    Oh, and the current push to put the Narnia books in chronological instead of publication order is a horrible mistake. But all right-thinking people know that, right?

  7. I bounced off DOWNBELOW but got into the Merchanter setting with MERCHANTER’s LUCk, then DBS was much more interesting.

    For a starting point, I agree CHANUR is likely good, or CUCKOO’S EGG. The Teen got in via FORTRESS and RUSALKA.

    I like the Peter Wimseys, too, and of the non-Harriet volumes really like MURDER MUST ADVERTISE.

    I’ve started people on Pratchett with all sorts of volumes, from FEET OF CLAY to .. ummm… whatever Discworld #1 is… WEE FREE MEN, to SMALL GODS. They all work.

    Of course the Narnia re-ordering is nonsense.
    I figure one can never go wrong (if one cares about reading order) by chronological by publication date, as clearly they were written to be discovered in that order. We will ignore the occasional instance of different publication order in the UK and the US.

  8. With Steven Brust I started with Dzur and I liked it so much I went right back to Jhereg and kept going. Smartass foodie, what’s not to love?
    I read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls first then went back to Curse of Chalion. Didn’t like the third book much but the first two are vintage Bujold.
    There has always been an introspective and cerebral quality about CJ Cherryh’s writing so I’ve preferred to read her series from first to last. For those who like to get their teeth into the action right away, Merchanter’s Luck, Heavy Time, Hellburner and Finity’s End are excellent books to start with. And don’t forget Martha Wells! You have to read her Raksura and Fall of Ile-Rien series from first to last, no other way to do it.

  9. Mike, I really didn’t like GUARDS! GUARDS!. I was never going to like Vimes until he sobered up and became competent, and if I hadn’t known he was going to do that, then probably the first book would have been the last for me. That’s why I feel like starting in the middle is perhaps a wise choice with that series. And yes, I disliked Rincewind and doubt I’ll ever read those books.

    I do like publication order for Brust, but honestly, though I can’t see deliberately starting with DZUR, why not? It’s one of many that ought to work perfectly well as an intro. I also agree with Kootch that starting with THE HALLOWED HUNT for Bujold is not the best idea.

    Oh, and yes, there are any number of trilogies that you must read in order — Wexler’s THE THOUSAND NAMES is the one that I started to mention as another example, but it’s just going to go to quadrilogy length and I thought I’d try to stick with longer series.

    I quite liked SKIN GAME, but I’m not sure I feel much of an impulse to go back and read the rest of the series.

    A publisher has re-ordered the Narnia series, really? No, no, publication order, that’s the ticket.

  10. Re Narnia: It wasn’t the publisher, but Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham, who reordered them because (as I read it) he took Lewis’s response to a fan’s letter way too seriously.

    In 1957, a boy wrote Lewis asking him to settle an argument between him and his mother over the proper reading order.

    I think I agree with your order {i.e. chronological} for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found as I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.

    It seems pretty clear to me that Lewis is indulging a fan about an issue he as much as says doesn’t matter to him very much, rather than laying down writ. (And I’d personally say that it’s precisely because the series obviously wasn’t planned that publication order is preferable.)

    But Gresham went with it, and I think it’s been on the order of two decades since they were numbered in publication order.

  11. Like Maureen, I think Gaudy Night loses a lot of its emotional impact if you haven’t read Strong Poison and Have His Carcasse first (and in that order! Don’t read HHC first, or you’ll be grumpy at Harriet and wonder what on earth Peter sees in her – speaking from personal experience here, alas). It’s an amazing book all on its own, but wow, so much more when you know the backstory going in.

    Night Watch was the first Discworld book I ever read, and I felt so lost all through it that it put me off Pratchett for years. It wasn’t until I tried The Wee Free Men that I was able to dive back in. Then I read Guards! Guards! and can appreciate Sam et al SO much more now. But then, I’m the finicky sort who gets very irritated if I feel I’m missing something, so I usually prefer to start at the beginning of a series anyway, even if it is ridiculously long, and even if there are some real stinkers along the way.

  12. Really, Louise? I guess I’m pretty tolerant of missing threads, because I knew perfectly well there was a lot of backstory when I read Night Watch and it didn’t bother me.

    But I’m glad I didn’t read Have His Carcasse before Gaudy Night Strong Poison. I don’t think that would work even for me.

  13. I bounced off of the first few (published) Cherryh books until Merchanter’s Luck and Pride Of Chanur came out. After that I was hooked….so I read everything else of hers in published order. Talk about starting in the middle, Hunter Of Worlds and Brothers Of Earth were published first and they are in Cherryhs own words “Very, Very Far Down the Time Line”

    Other series in my library:

    I started the Grimes books by A. Bertram Chandler with The Big Black Mark which is a story set in the middle of Grimes’ career. I bought each new one as they came out and haunted used books stores looking for anything by Chandler. Luckily the stories use a time twisting space drive so a reader can start any where.

    The Diadem (and related stories) by Jo Clayton I started with the first and read them in order. I think they have to be read that way because it is one long story.

    The Rissa Kerguelen universe stories by F.M. Busby all tell the same story but you get the POV of several different characters involved in the same events. I liked that way of telling the story and think it works better than the similar approach in the Game Of Thrones books.

    I have always liked long series and my favorites are the ones were the reader can start with any book and piece together the universe in their own mind

  14. Oh, hey, I didn’t happen to notice Busby’s Bran Tregaire/Rissa Kerguelen series on my shelves, but that’s another long series I really enjoyed. I like the overlapping stories, but it makes it hard to decide what order to read them all in. But going in roughly internal-chronological order is important, no matter how exactly you sort out the ones that overlap.

    It’s been a long time since I read the Diadem series. As I recall, I had the impression Clayton sort of changed her mind about how the universe was structured as she went through the series, so in some ways, though it’s all one story, all the details don’t necessarily hold together all that well.

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