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)

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The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

A few days ago when I was searching for books to read, I came across The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. OK, if I am being honest, I think I had read the title before, but had dismissed it, thinking it was about sea travel. Apparently I have something against sea travel??? Anyway, this time I read the actual blurb and discovered that in this case, “steerswoman” refers to a certain class of people in this fantasy world, women (and some men) who travel the land and gather information. Anyone can ask them questions and they must answer, but the person must be willing to answer the Steerswoman’s questions in return, or they will never answer them again, ever ever. So they’re kinda like Google.

I immediately liked several things about this book:

The writing is clear and unpretentious, without any of the awkward attempts at “beautiful” and “deep” language thatsome authors are so fond of.

The book doesn’t waste any time, but starts straight-up with the actual plot, which I really appreciate. Fantasy novels have that tendency to get stuck in dull worldbuilding infodumping before the story is finally allowed to start on page 50 or 100. Of course, The Steerswoman has a strategical advantage: The protagonist’s role as a well of information, who will answer any question she is asked, means that informative dialogue that fleshes out the world is just a natural part of the story.

The most outstanding aspect of The Steerswoman is its protagonist and her analytical way of thinking. It’s just so delightful to watch an intelligent person think. Rowan uses logic and maths to figure out a mystery that’s been fascinating her. It’s a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge! Science! Not twee pop-culture ~doing science~ nonsense, but science as a way of thinking, a way of approaching the world and trying to make sense of it. It’s inspiring.

The Steerswoman is actually from 1989, with several sequels published over the years – and apparently with more on the way. I feel like I should have known about this series sooner, especially since it has not aged badly at all. I’m reading the sequel now.

There’s so much I have on my “to do, and enjoy it” list, but there’s always room for another book or four.

MW by Osamu Tezuka

After I finished Black Jack, Alicia told me to read MW, only to say afterwards, “I didn’t think you would”. Hoho. But I always do what I‘m told!

I guesss MW isn‘t the kind of manga most people (in the west?) would associate with Tezuka … It‘s a bleak crime thriller with an abundance of sex and violence (and sexual violence), held together by some dark social/political criticism. It‘s like American Psycho except – obviously – not American but Japanese, and set in the 1970s instead of the 1980s.

Spoilers follow.

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Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka

I read all the entire Black Jack manga in ten days. @_@ Well, not all all of it. I have not read the “sealed chapters”. But that’s still 17 manga volumes! And considering that Black Jack is episodic, so every chapter is a short story of its own, with its own plot and characters … well, I shouldn’t have read so much in such a small time frame, it’s too much input and not enough time to digest! Originally, I just meant to read the first volume, because I had not read any Tezuka and my manga expert friend Alicia recommended this one. Yeah, I wanted to read one volume and move on with my life.

But Black Jack is the equivalent of a bag of chips. You don’t just eat one.

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Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

I immensely enjoyed the first novel in Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, Three Parts Dead, but just couldn’t muster the same level of enthusiasm for the subsequent novels. Which made me a little sad and disappointed. It’s not that I hated the books, I just found them OK, when I was hoping to find them precious treasures. At least Four Roads Cross is a direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, which means it stars my favourite Tara in the leading role, and deals with the aftermath of the first novel’s plot. These are good things! Yay!

Other than that … I just don’t know. I still want to like this series, but the truth is that I just find the books … sort of middling. And so frustrating and boring at times. Meh. Looking at other people’s reviews, I am pretty much alone with this impression. Four Roads Cross has some neat ideas and great moments, and evoked some cool visuals in my mind’s eye, but most of the time, I found myself bored and wondering when the pace would pick up, what the relevance of a scene or a whole subplot or character was even going to be. When would it all pay off? U_U

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Book talk. The Craft Cycle by Max Gladstone

This is what I get for not really keeping up with book news … I just saw (in a post from last September =_=) that the fifth book of Max Gladstone’s Craft Cycle will be about … Tara! Taraaaaaa! This is my personal best case scenario, because I loved the first novel (with Tara!) and was not as enthusiastic about the other books (without Tara), and – in case it wasn’t clear – I was kind of thinking that this might have to do with Tara.

It is a little frustrating that I didn’t like Two Serpents Rise more. The setting – Aztec-ish metropolis, noir-ish, magic made mundane – reminded me of Grim Fandango, which is always a good thing. But the pacing was odd, and slow, and the characters never seemed to come alive like the cast of the first book. I don’t want to just blame it on Caleb and say he’s booooring, because I want to like Caleb and want to care about his daddy issues … but maybe he is just too passive and slow to be a good protagonist. He takes after his father, I guess, because First Last Snow was even less engaging. It was a prequel to Two Serpents Rise that somehow managed to add nothing relevant, which was really disappointing …

Full Fathom Five was alright, though! It’s just … for me, it still didn’t come close to Three Parts Dead. That one was so dense and full of ideas and memorable characters … *happy sigh* And it kind of vaguely reminded me of Discworld in places, though I wouldn’t be able to say why. I am looking forward to the sequel.

Takashi Morita’s Arsène Lupin manga review(-ish rambling)

On a whim, I bought the first volume of an Arsène Lupin manga by Takashi Morita. The original Japanese title is Aventurier – Shinyaku Arsène Lupin. There’s something that I like about the idea of gentleman thieves! Rather than being a loose reimagening or new take or modern reboot, this manga is about the actual Arsène Lupin character and adapts original stories by Maurice Leblanc, reportedly very faithfully. This first volume is based on a theatre play, and you can tell: It is very dialogue-heavy, with some info-dumping, and most of the plot takes place in one location.

I didn’t quite like the artwork, which struck me as pretty old-fashioned with fluffy 1990’s hair and exaggerated features. I’d have preferred something sleeker and cleaner, personally. But it’s easy to follow the story, which is more important than my personal preferences concerning the character design. :o Still …

The story itself is OK, but does not really contain any surprises or twists. I’ve never found Arsène Lupin to be thrillingly exciting, so it feels unfair to treat the manga’s predictableness as an outright flaw, but still. It’s an entertaining, occasionally amusing story, but it’s just not impressive.

I might check out the second volume one of these days, perhaps after reading the original story that it’s based on. So far, I’ve only read a handful of them – enough to recognize the references in this volume, by the way!

And like I said, I find the idea of gentleman thieves intriguing, but neither the original Lupin stories, nor this manga, have quite gripped me. Maybe one day I’ll find my perfect take on this classic concept, but it’s not happened yet, alas. My ideal Arsène Lupin manga would be visually stunning, stylish and full of psychological tension. Ayup. Maybe one day.