Over the last few days I consumed David Farland’s engaging Nightingale, a YA tale of the SFF persuasion. When it comes to leisure reading, I’m much more likely to pick up SFF if it’s a YA novel because I like to read what my kids like to read. To be completely forthcoming, I probably wouldn’t have purchased my Kindle copy of Nightingale were it not for the recent Facebook campaign to promote the book. I knew I’d enjoy Dave’s book because he’s a wonderful storyteller, even if weird stuff happens in his books. Like suction cups appearing on the fingtertips of the protagonist. Most of the time, I just can’t make the leap SFF writers hope I can make, but every Farland (or Wolverton) SFF novel that I’ve read has made me a believer. Heck, when I hit the 70% mark in my read-thru of Nightingale, I texted a friend who loves SFF and told her not to miss this one. I was completely taken in.
And then the ending hit. Or rather, the non-ending. Okay, I admit I didn’t love the wind-up of his historical fiction, In the Company of Angels, but for an entirely different reason. I simply didn’t agree with where he chose to end that one. The “problem” I have with Nightingale’s ending isn’t so much a problem with the ending as with the trend it successfully follows. The truth is, Dave ended Nightingale with the skill and craftsmanship a great writer should. I just don’t like the trend toward serials that has taken over YA fiction. My complaint, then, is not about Nightingale, which achieves its aims with great success, but with the current love affair YA publishers are having with serial fiction.
I grew up reading books in series. The Nancy Drew series, the Black Stallion series, and others like that. But these days, the publishing world has a penchant for books that aren’t simply series books, but serial. A series, in my vernacular, is a succession of books that have something in common (a character as in Nancy Drew, or a concept, as in Goosebumps) but which stand independent of one another. Serial books, however, build upon one another and usually cannot successfully be understood out of order without time wasted in backstory. The problem I have with serials is that the individual books don’t resolve the primary story conflict, or exist only to set up the next one. So when I finish a serial novel, I have no sense of, well, closure. Instead of that feeling of satisfaction, I feel let down, disappointed and annoyed that I’ll have to slap down more money to reach that point of satisfaction. As much as I enjoyed Nightingale, I won’t be buying the other books in the series unless, when he’s older, my youngest reads it and requests to read more, which is likely. At that point, I will buy (and read) the other books.
The truth is, I didn’t realize Nightingale was the first in a serial when I began reading. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have started it. That said, it succeeds in the way serial books must, especially the first in the run. Dave crafted great characters I felt that I knew, or wanted to get to know better, and created compelling problems for them to overcome. In a serial, though, those problems aren’t fully vanquished until the last book and sometimes then, the ending is so unsatisfactory (Can you say Twilight?) that I’ve been known to throw a book across the room and curse the writer and publisher for robbing me of my time, money, and emotional investment.
I realize serials are popular because publishers want them; they make money if they hook a reader and can get him/her to come back for a second or third or twenty-third buy. But there is a risk too. Yesterday my twenty-something son bemoaned the Dark Towers books by Stephen King, saying the first were wonderful and then something happened: the books got, in his words, sucky. I haven’t read the Dark Towers books, though I love Stephen King and in spite of my son’s urging me to get started on them. Usually if a kid of mine asks me to read something, I do. But I don’t trust serials, even if the author is the great Stephen King. Based on what my son was telling me, I probably made a good decision not to invest my time or my emotions in it. I don’t want to risk losing even a small portion of my love for Mr. King.
I love reading a novel to its completion and feeling complete. I crave the old-fashioned rise and fall of a great story, the arc that begins at the front cover and ends in the back. I’ve finished a few serials, but mostly I walk away, especially if the serial lasts more than three novels. I loved reading the Fablehaven series with my youngest, but neither one of us could endure to the end; we quit part way through the fourth book. The Guardians of Gahoul fell apart, but of course, not until after I’d shelled out the money for books that were never read. I still say Stephanie Meyers owes me a refund. Harry Potter? It was a keeper for my older kids, but the younger one? My son and his friends have no interest in reading them, though I keep suggesting it. He tells me some of the girls read it. I remember celebrating Potter because it brought so many boys to fiction. I’m sure plenty of boys are still reading Potter, but my son, who is not a reluctant reader, sees seven books, some over 700 pages, and thinks nothing but “Pass.”
My eleven year old is presently reading Ender’s Game, but when his big brother told him about Ender’s Shadow, his eyes glazed just a little. I had to assure him the novels read well independent of one another and that he wouldn’t need to read Ender’s Shadow to fully enjoy Ender’s story. Maybe he has picked up some of my exhaustion over serial books. Maybe he’s come to a similar feeling on his own. I can’t say. But I can’t help but hope that the serial YA book is a publishing bubble that will burst. I’m not sure it isn’t pushing weary young readers (and their parents) away from reading (and spending their money) on novels. Give me the old fashioned story arc found in the historic Nancy Drew series any day.
But if you aren’t like me, if you don’t mind the open-endedness of serial novels, pick-up Nightingale. In all of this, I don’t want to slight Dave. Nightingale is no run-of-the-mill YA SFF novel. It’s full of masterful characterization and his descriptions are crisp and fresh. The weirdness in the novel is delightfully believable. I was mesmerized and read late into the night–night after night. Just be prepared to read on. And on. And on. Three more books are planned for the series.