Why do book series go bad?

It‘s come to my attention that there is a new (seventh) book in the „James Asher“ series by Barbara Hambly. I registered this information with a sort of … grouchiness. This weird mix of disappointment, envy and schadenfreude that I feel towards TV shows and book series that I dropped. The truth is that I really didn‘t enjoy Darkness On His Bones (#6), and judging by the plot description of the new installment, it doesn‘t seem that this was a fluke. The things that vex me about this series are, in fact, intrinsic to its concept and „direction“, and won‘t go away. (Spoilers)

I put “direction” in quotation marks for a reason: This series isn’t actually leading anywhere. This annoys me because Kindred of Darkness (#5) seemed to culminate in James Asher’s decision to nope out of the vampire business and have nothing to do with them anymore. And that decision felt like it was a long time coming and perfectly justified by all the stress, terror, moral qualms and life-threatening injuries that Asher had had to endure. Buuuuuut Darkness On His Bones went back on this development and even culminated in Asher making the exact opposite decision: he’d continue compromising his morals and stuff, because World War 1 is coming, the greater good, something something! Sigh.

Judging by the plot description of Pale Guardian (#7), that’s exactly what’s happening. The book also appears to mix and match elements from previous novels. Reading it did not stir the tiniest bit of curiosity in me. Militaries trying to use the supernatural as weapons, Lydia and James struggling with their conscience, Isidro helping Lydia, the Others, blah … Seen it all before. Think of something new!

I have to say that the prospect of more military/war-related things is especially unappealing to me. It’s probably going to mean more wrong stuff about the poor German language. And Barbara Hambly is hit-or-miss when it comes to the language stuff. A lot of authors are, but … I think that if you must write a book about a linguist spy, and if you must make it a plot point that ~the syntax errors in a letter betray the writer’s true German identity~ … then you really should put in some effort and research German syntax, instead of doing what Hambly apparently did, and just make something up. I’m sure a lot of research goes into these books, but there are clearly aspects that the author just doesn’t care much about, and you can tell. The same has always applied to characters. The small core cast is pretty cool, but the supporting cast is usually utterly forgettable.

I have another problem with the series, and that’s Isidro. I didn’t have a problem with him originally – au contraire: I found that the first three books did a pretty good job keeping him ambiguous. But in more recent books, this ambiguity has pretty much disappeared. You no longer get to wonder whether he helps James or Lydia out of affection/whatever or because of selfish reasons, whether he could turn on them at any time, or vice versa. These uncertainties created a nice tension, but it’s pretty much gone now. In the more recent books, Isidro practically exists to swoop to the rescue, selflessly risk his life for no personal gain whatsoever, and … meh. I preferred him when he was more believably dangerous, occasionally threatening. Although, even back in the day he was never actually “allowed” to do something really evil. Even when it seemed that way for a moment, at the end of Traveling With the Dead (#2), it turned out not to have been him who killed that woman, whose name I forgot, whoops. Sure, he does kill innocent people, since he’s a vampire, but it’s never shown, it’s something that happens off-page and thus remains abstract. Nothing actually spoils this image of the perfect, if undead gentleman. You could argue that it’s in his best interest not to do that sort of thing in front of the books’ POV characters, since they’re constantly questioning whether or not to kill him and witnessing something of that sort might be the final straw. But! This leads us back to the original problem: These moral qualms are never going to be resolved anyway, so why bother?

Maybe this is unavoidable. After all, if James and Lydia turned on Isidro, they’d probably manage to kill him. Or he’d kill them. Either way, it’d be the end of the series. You just can’t draw out these conflicts forever, some dynamics eventually run out of steam, and characters (and plots) become predictable. It is especially difficult to preserve the tension of the “enemies forced to work together” concept that gave the original Those Who Hunt The Night its cool atmosphere … Maybe the real problem of this series is that it’s been made clear, time and again, that Isidro isn’t human and won’t ever change, which means that you can’t even give him a redemption arc like you could another character in that situation. All you can do is undermine the character, by making him more nice and tragically heroic than he seemed at first, by finding increasingly weaker excuses and contrivances for him not to actually show his true self so openly, and that’s really disappointing.

I kind of wanted to segue into a more general observation about how a lot of book series just become dull after a while, but I’ve sort of run out of steam now … XD But it’s like … some concepts just don’t work forever. The same reasons that made a story good can eventually make it terrible.

In conclusion: writing a series is hard.


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