Sunday, June 2, 2013

Whither the Stand-Alone Fantasy Novel?

Fantasy is a genre that lends itself to sweeping sagas that extend beyond the confines of a single book. A lot of work goes into creating the mainstays of fantasy: a separate world or universe, an internally-consistent magic system, a pantheon of gods and a history. Most of the fantasy writers I've met personally enjoy this aspect of their work, and it's not uncommon for aspiring writers to get so caught up in world building that they "forget" to actually write their stories.

The trilogy is a staple in second world fantasy, and there are many reasons for this besides the success of Lord of the Rings. At the most basic level, stories often have clearly demarcated beginnings, middles and endings, and so breaking a long story into three makes sense.

Series are also increasingly popular. It's not unusual for a writer to keep writing stories about his or her characters. Some of the early classics of fantasy, such as the Conan books, come to mind.

Overall, this is just fine with me. When I fall in love with a world, universe or character, I want to keep revisiting them, and of course seeing them continue to evolve and change is a lot of fun. One small peeve I and some others sometimes have is the fact that second world fantasy settings are often stuck indefinitely in a sort of nebulous medieval era, but the concept of worlds evolving and changing is something I've seen other writers address recently.

But what if a story is complete in of itself and doesn't need to be revisited? What if the author doesn't want to disrupt a protagonist's happily ever after? What if the writer prefers to move on to a new world, setting or magic system? Does the current market actually force authors to keep writing about the same worlds and characters, even if they become old or stale?

There does seem to be a general shortage of fantasy, particularly in recent years, that is both completely stand alone as a tale and the only novel about a particular world or characters. Often, singletons represent early novels by authors, or novels by authors whose careers never took off. This is a shame, because sometimes it's fun to explore a world or setting without necessarily committing to them, even as a reader.

Here are a list of some stand alone fantasy books I've enjoyed.

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs. Better known for her contemporary fantasy (Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega novels), this author has also published some second world fantasy novels.

The Wizard's Shadow by Susan Dexter. This tale of posthumous revenge combines elements of romance and humor. It's not clear if this book is set in the same world as her Warhorse of Esdragon books or one that is similar, but there is no overlap between the stories and characters.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. This was his debut novel, and it took place in a different world than his later works. Sanderson is very good at coming up with interesting and unusual magic systems, so he is an example of an author who might be hampered if he set all his novels in the same "universe."

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is possibly the master of modern stand-alone fantasy novels. This particular title is on my short list of all time favorites.

Watership Down. Many don't think of this when they think of fantasy, since Richard Adams's work is marketed to the "mainstream" fiction market. But this tale about heroic rabbits is a classic, and aside from the intelligent animals aspect, it contained elements of true prophecy and the supernatural.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This retelling of the Arthur legend was unusual for its time, as it focused on the points of view and perspectives of the female characters, most notably Morgan La Fey. I believe she did eventually write another novel about Avalon that was set in the same "universe," but this book stood alone for many years and did not need a sequel or prequel.

Animist by Eve Forward. This book could have led to sequels, but it appears to be the last novel this writer has published. It's a shame, because the magic system and world she introduced in this story were intriguing, and her writing was a pleasure to read. Her only other novel was called Villains by Necessity.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman. This book dates back to an era where the "sequelitis" craze had not taken off yet. Just as well, because why spoil Buttercup and Wesley's happily ever after by continuing to toss villains at them?

The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle. Likewise for this book. One wonders if, were it written in the modern market, whether there would be an extended array of unicorn adventures, or whether Schmendrick's heroic transformation would continue in future volumes.

Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambley. This is set in the same world as her Silicon Mage series, but it involves characters that don't appear elsewhere, and the story is completely separate. It is often cited as an example of a fantasy style called mannerpunk/fantasy of manners.

Anyone else have any candidates?


  1. Some good points. As you say, there are good reasons for the trilogy to be popular, and the format actually goes back as far as classical Greek drama, 2,500 years ago. I love a good series, but you're right that some books, or even some short stories, need to be one off.

    Another aspect of this is books that should have been one-offs but weren't. A classic example of this is Gordon R. Dickson's novel The Dragon and the George from the 70s - a brilliant novel that's both funny and exciting, and has a definite beginning, middle and end. Later, however, he wrote a sequel called The Dragon Knight, which I found dreary and very forced. He'd have done much better, in my opinion, leaving the original to stand alone.

  2. Neverwhere is kind of an oddball since it was originally a TV series. Really good book, though. I can't think of any other case of a novelization overshadowing the TV series or movie it was based on.

    I think there is a natural urge to reuse a setting that you've crafted. I imagine historical fiction writers tend to write more than one novel in a particular time period after doing the research to become familiar with it.

  3. I'm wondering if it doesn't have something to do with the way we are supposed to conform to type, to be a brand. If you're Mrs Green Goblin in the Kingdom of the Trolls, then you have to keep producing Green Goblin stories. It's also that quite legitimately once you get immersed in a fantasy world, you see more possibilities for stories set in the same world. Since part of the originality of your story is the setting, you're already half-way to repeating the success of your first book.

  4. I think the concept of branding is definitely there. It can take a long time to build up a fan base, and publishers are understandably reluctant to invest time and energy in a new writer if they are jumping all over the place. I imagine there's a lot of pressure (re options, contracts and so on) to commit to multiple stories involving a character or universe in the hopes that it will build up recognition and readers.

    And @Nyki's comment: I remember the Dragon and the George, and yeah, I never felt a burning desire to read the sequel when it came out. The first story seemed complete. Sometimes I think the desire to keep writing, to keep messing with your characters, can be to their detriment.

    Aside from the whole thing re getting stale and repetitive, the need to keep raising the bar may eventually lead to the earlier stories becoming sort of pointless. The end of the Hitchhiker's guide series comes to mind. It was almost like Adams was saying, "You made me keep writing sequels, so look what I had to do to my characters and universe!"

    Another example would be the Alien movies. The second one was, in my opinion, the best. The subsequent sequels made it so I don't enjoy re-watching the first two movies anymore, because the stakes and characters I'd so invested in were for naught as it turned out.

  5. I actually remember reading and enjoying Villains By Necessity, that other Eve Forward novel you mention ... but I am strapped for examples of this.

    Even Barbara Hambly's "Stranger At The Wedding" is, I think, in the same setting as some of her other books, even though as far as I know, it has no other connection.

    I've got to admit, while most of my works end with a, "Yes, but ..." that would probably invite a sequel, the idea of writing book after book in the same world (never mind with the same characters) gives me hives.

  6. Ooh, I forgot stranger at the wedding. Yeah, I think it is in the same world as her Silicon Mage books, as the same "rules" about magic seem to exist. But it is stand alone, at least, and the characters don't appear in her other novels. Kind of a shame, really. I rather liked them.