I finished reading The Long Sunset yesterday, the eighth and final (for the moment) book in the Academy series by Jack McDevitt.
It was dire. The prose felt like it was written by someone with only the most basic grasp of English, full of repetitive sentences and “of course”s that were anything but. I toughed it out, because I’ve read all of the previous books in the series. And because the book I read before it, Starhawk–book seven in the series–was actually worse.
This was all prompted by the fact that one of my old coworkers had finally gotten around to one of my recommendations: The Engines of God, the first book in the series. That spurred me into checking on if there were any new books in the series, and hence the two novels sitting on the Library Stack next to my oversized recliner.
My reading of Starhawk and The Long Sunset, along with a comment by that friend about the repetitive way McDevitt introduces characters, prompted something of a crisis of faith: were these books always bad? Did I just read the first few when I was less of a critical thinker, not as prone to actually judge the quality of the prose I consumed? Because if the most recent books were anything to go by, I never should have recommended McDevitt in the first place.
My copies of the early books are hiding in a box somewhere, but this morning I managed to find excerpts from the first few books in the series on HarperCollins’ website. My current conclusion: they may not be perfect, and still show some signs of that later decline into third-grade reading material, but there’s no question that Deepsix and Chindi are much better written than the more recent books.
So: what happened? Has McDevitt lost the command of the language he once had, or does he simply care less about carefully crafted sentences now that he’s published twenty-plus novels, or is it something else entirely? I don’t know, obviously. But it’s made me think about this sort of decline, and how it is very much not limited to this one author.
Another series that I loved to pieces at first, then got deeply saddened as it went on, is Stephen King’s Dark Tower sequence. The first three books are some of the best horror/sf I’ve ever read. The long-delayed fourth novel barely fits in the sequence at all–it’s mostly an extended flashback–and the fifth through seventh novels rush through a bunch of important plot points and resolve the story in what may be the most unsatisfying ending I’ve ever experienced1. It’s so bad that I strongly recommend people simply stop reading after the third book, because everything after it is fundamentally not worth the time.
Now, I think that some of Stephen King’s best works are his earliest; The Stand is one of my favorite novels of all time. But he’s managed to write interesting, vital stuff much later in his career too. I actually reviewed the Mr. Mercedes books last year on this blog, and while they were hardly his best, they were perfectly enjoyable tales. The same for The Outsider. So: is it something about long series, specifically, that causes this problem?
I could give many more genre examples. Dune. Harry Potter. The Wheel of Time, although most of my knowledge of that series’ decline is second-hand. As much as I love the Culture series, there’s no question in my mind that its best books were early in its run, although the dip in quality across the series as a whole is much more shallow than the list above.
Counter-examples are hard to come by, even with series that were written in rapid succession, rather than dragged out over decades. I’ve heard very good things about N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, and all three of the books won the Hugo Award (with the last also snagging the Nebula), so I should probably add those to my reading queue tout suite. And I wouldn’t say that Charles Stross’ Laundry series has gotten better as it’s gone, but I would say that it hasn’t gotten worse either; they’ve been impressively consistent throughout. I’d be curious if any readers can suggest other series that actually get better all the way to the end, because I’m mostly coming up blank.
This ties into the theme I wrote about last week: endings are indeed hard. But it’s not just that. Maybe it’s simply authorial fatigue of writing in the same setting, over and over again? Maybe it’s the writing equivalent of the sophomore slump, where most of the great ideas get shoved into the early books, leaving only dregs for the later stuff? I’m not sure, and the fact that we read series because we want more, more, more makes that decline only that much more bitter.
Anyway, this kinda-sorta review mostly-really rant is already way too long, so I guess I’ll finish it with this: stop reading The Dark Tower after The Waste Land. Stop reading Dune after, well, Dune, although you can read Dune Messiah if you absolutely must. And if you read McDevitt’s Academy novels at all, you should probably stop after Chindi. Don’t let the long fall of the series bring you down.