The Dilemma of Reviewing Books in a Series

book stack Three years ago I was very vocal when another reviewer here at AAR reviewed a highly anticipated book without having read the previous books, stating how can a reviewer judge a book if they don’t know the characters’ history and conflicts. I still think it is important and my preferred way of reading a book, being able to start a series with the very first book is becoming more and more difficult. While I really want to break out a little from my preferred genres of women’s fiction, contemporary, and chick lit to read more science fiction and fantasy – genres that incorporate a lot of worldbuilding – I am stymied because so many of the interesting-sounding books I find end up being mid-series books. Is it unreasonable to expect a series book to stand on its own? I feel ambivalent about that. I don’t think I should have to read an author’s whole backlist to enjoy a book, but I have also seen the amount of anticipation that certain authors build over five or six books. Is there really a right answer? I asked fellow reviewers Maggie and Pat to share their opinions as we discuss this debatable topic.

Maggie: I don’t know what to answer. On the one hand, a book should absolutely stand on its own. On the other, it has been a genre standard since Tolkien that sci-fi/fantasy books not stand alone. When reviewing I handle it very simply: If it is a sci-fi/paranormal/fantasy romance I normally don’t review it unless I am familiar with the series or am willing to read the previous books. In fairness, some stories are just best told this way. Certainly, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Twilight make better reading for having been told in the format they were told in.

Pat: I think every book should work as a stand-alone whether it’s in a series or not. I used to follow the Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse, and Bridgerton series. (Not all vampires, obviously.) But the time between “installments” caused me to lose a lot of continuity. I guess if read only the series, then I probably wouldn’t have had that problem. Since I read 5-10 books or more a month, the series books kept getting lost in the shuffle. As I read the latest book, I had to remember the key players and the standing situation. I finally gave up and decided no more series. Now I read only the stand-alone series (oxymoron?) like Robyn Carr’s Virgin River that don’t rely on what happened previous books to make sense of the book I’m currently reading.

Leigh: One good thing about contemporary books is that the books seem more apt to read as a stand- alone. Still, I really prefer starting at the beginning. . Recently I finished a women’s fiction book, second in a series, although in my defense I didn’t know that it was part of a series, and thought to myself, “I might have enjoyed this more if I had read the first book,” which doesn’t seem quite fair to the author.

Maggie: With contemp single titles I expect the book to stand alone and it normally does. If I find myself absolutely floundering, I will read the book immediately before the one I am reviewing. For example, I agreed to review Brenda Novak’s In Seconds and couldn’t make heads or tales of what was happening. I got the previous book Inside for my Kindle, read it and it made a world of difference. Suddenly, I understood everything that was going on. And yes, that knowledge turned what could have been a bad book into a very readable one. But do reviewers owe that to the author? I don’t know.

Pat: I think the Brenda Novak example is sad. If you recommend this book to me, I will be very disappointed if I must read earlier books to understand what is happening. Maybe Novak is trying to create a clique of readers. In that case, I really think books should be marked, “Read only if you’ve read XXXX” so that those trying a new author or one they have heard about will not waste their time. And that’s what the bottom line is: If I read a book in a series and can’t “understand” what’s going on in it, then I’m wasting my time, time I could be using reading something much, much better.

Leigh: Maggie, I have never read a previous book just to understand a review book. For the most part I have been able to understand the plot, but find that I am missing some of the nuances or relationship building between the characters – which does make a difference to me. Pat, as of right now the Virgin River series is the longest series that I have read. Since I have read every book, it is difficult to view the books as just stand-alone books. I do think that relationship in the books have developed over time –but not enough to seriously impact the storyline, if someone wants to read a book out of order. Even in contemporary books, continuity can be a problem for me. Now it seems like every previous character has a role to play and the cast just keeps getting larger. Instead of needing a village to raise a child it almost like you have to village to write a book. Honestly I would prefer the author spend time on a new story arc, rather than rehashing previous incidents. But without doing this, new readers are unable to understand the characters’ history.

Pat: Don’t authors want to grow their fan base? If so, why would they limit it only to those who have read their books from the first one? Perhaps some do this, but it seems counterproductive. Therefore, it’s to their best interest to make every book in a series accessible. I read and review books late in an unfamiliar series for another venue which my editor assigns me. She doesn’t have any problem with sending me books like this since her viewpoint as mine is that the book should be able to stand by itself and not be dependent on other books for a reader’s enjoyment.

Now it is time for everyone else to jump in. Do you have to start a series with the very first book or do you read books out of order? Is there one genre that is more dependent on having read the previous books? Do you feel that the reviewer should be current with the story arc or do you expect books to stand on their own?

-  Leigh Davis with Maggie Boyd and Pat Henshaw

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22 Responses to “The Dilemma of Reviewing Books in a Series”

  1. Katja says:

    Do you have to start a series with the very first book or do you read books out of order?
    Well, if I know something is part of a series I’ll probably try and find the first book and read in order. Then again, if I find out something is part of a series, I’m far less likely to buy the book in the first place. I don’t like to wait for the end of a series and I don’t really like to have to read first books in order to fully understand the current.

    Is there one genre that is more dependent on having read the previous books? I’d say fantasy and science fiction because of the world building.

    Do you feel that the reviewer should be current with the story arc or do you expect books to stand on their own?
    I would love books to stand on their own (see above), so if a reviewer is not current with the story arc and clearly states that in the review, I’m very o.k. with that. Chances are, if I’m already vested in a series, I’ll read a current book no matter what. I might check out a review, but it’s not going to influence my reading decision. So it’s when I’m not into a series that the review is important and then it helps a lot to know, whether the book can stand on its own. So actually, I’d prefer my reviewers to not be up to date with the story arc (if that makes sense)

  2. Anne says:

    Do you have to start a series with the very first book or do you read books out of order? Ideally, I would start a series on the first book, to get the whole world-building part of it. However, it varies greatly from author to author whether it is strictly necessary to read it in order or not.

    For example, I read the third Stephanie Plum book before I’d read the first two ones, and since Evanovich does a great job at catching the reader up, it really did not matter. Similarly, the characters in the Bridgerton series were so well-developed (for me) that even though I read the second book before the first one, I had no problems understanding what went on. Though the characters from the first one were also present in the second one, the hero/heroine from the first one… well, you didn’t need to have read their story to understand the second book’s plot and storyline.

    On the other hand, there are books where you clearly need to have read the previous books to understand the characters and you get the feeling that you’re missing character development from before as you’re reading.

    An example of this for me would be The Black Dagger Brotherhood series. J. R. Ward has created a world, but also characters that flow with development from book 1 to the last ones now – and number 11 due in March next year is to be about characters that have popped in and out of the series since the middle of it. Their love-story have seen its ups and downs before they even get their own book, and it would be interesting to see if someone who hasn’t read the whole series before that will have the same impressions that readers who have followed the series from book 1 has had.

    Is there one genre that is more dependent on having read the previous books?
    Not really. I do think that there is a difference if they’re writing about the same characters in one series, (Dallas & Roarke, Stephanie Plum, Lord of the Rings, etc.) than if they’re switching between couples from book to book. (Susan Mallery’s series, Jill Shalvis’ series, Nora Roberts’ trilogies)

    Ultimately, I think a new reader who picks up a book in the middle of a series should have the “Baby-sitters’ Club summary” in the beginning in some way to catch up, but perhaps done a bit more elegantly.

    Do you feel that the reviewer should be current with the story arc or do you expect books to stand on their own?

    I do think that the reviewer should have an understanding of the current story arc, but a reviewer is a reader who happen to tell others of what they’ve read – so if they don’t happen to have the same overview that a long-term reader of the series would have, it would absolutely be fair to review it like that. But I think that in those cases it should be acknowledged in the review.

  3. Tee says:

    The short answer to your question is “no.” I’ve read many books out of order and, for the most part, worked out well. It’s true that in some cases, if I would have read the previous books, some things would have made more sense, but it was usually small stuff. The mind has a way of glossing over so that the present story appears to be seamless.

    In fact, because I rely on the library, some books in series may arrive totally out of order. It’s not bothered me in the past and doesn’t now because authors do tend to write books that can stand alone, in spite of past history. I have discovered many new authors by reading their latest, only to find that this was the third in a series. It happens.

  4. farmwifetwo says:

    I’ve read many a series starting from the middle and have never gone back to the beginning to start over. I don’t see the point if the author has done their job and allowed the book to stand on it’s own and give just enough info to the back story. These are usually books set in the same place, but different characters.

    Ex. using hqn’s – Rhonda Nelson’s Ranger Security – can be read out of order. Rachel Lee’s Conard County – ditto. Both have interested me enough to go back and read the earlier books but neither I have read in order.

    Series’ like Virgin River and Nalini Singh’s psy/changelings unfortunately cannot be read out of order. The author relies too heavily on previous books for the story arcs. Truthfully, they should separate them into 3 book “arcs” at most and allow new readers to catch up. One day they will simply sputter to an end. JD Robb’s… I’d probably recommend the first 3 and after that I don’t think you really need to read them in order. Yes, it’s obvious things have changed with the characters but I’m not convinced it matters in the end. I know many people want to call them “romance” but truthfully, IMO they are a mystery series and each mystery stands alone.

    I think there are too many, too long, series’ out there in every genre. It makes it frustrating when you are looking for something new to read and you don’t wish to slog through an entire series to finally get to the “point” or as authors call it the end of the “arc”.

    • Tee says:

      farmwifetwo: JD Robb’s… I’d probably recommend the first 3 and after that I don’t think you really need to read them in order.

      Thanks for this little tidbit. I’ve wanted to go back and begin the Death books (started the first one eons ago, but never finished it), and now I am overwhelmed by the number of books in the series. Good to know about the first three. I can mentally manage that and then continue on in no specific order.

      • farmwifetwo says:

        Tee:
        Thanks for this little tidbit. I’ve wanted to go back and begin the Death books (started the first one eons ago, but never finished it), and now I am overwhelmed by the number of books in the series. Good to know about the first three. I can mentally manage that and then continue on in no specific order.

        Just remember it’s around one couple and their circle of co-workers/friends. Therefore, things change and by skipping books you will have missed those changes. BUT, each mystery stands alone. It’s rare anymore that I’m so invested in a series that I can’t start it in the middle and “go with the flow” from that point on. If you aren’t one of those people… there’s 30+ books to read and 3yrs or so of book timeline.

        • Tee says:

          farmwifetwo: If you aren’t one of those people… there’s 30+ books to read and 3yrs or so of book timeline.

          Thanks, again. Not sure whether you made my day or not with the #30+, and I think it’ll probably take me 3 years to go through them, so the timeline just may catch up. :)

          • farmwifetwo says:

            Tee:
            Thanks, again. Not sure whether you made my day or not with the #30+, and I think it’ll probably take me 3 years to go through them, so the timeline just may catch up.

            Think of it this way, you’ll always know there is something to read when you don’t know what to pick up next. Being Nora, you know how she writes, so there’s no surprises when you do pick up the next. Like most series the “grittier” books are at the start, the quicker reading books are later. But I find that is the difference btwn books written in the 90′s and books written after about 2005. IMO books have been “dumbed down” and in a lot of series – like SJ Rozan’s first books, and the one’s written after her hiatus – it’s really obvious to the reader.

  5. Dabney says:

    Do you have to start a series with the very first book or do you read books out of order? If I pick up a book, read it, love it, and it’s not the first book in the series, I will go and begin the series from book one. Whether or not a book out of series sync makes sense really depends on the series and how you feel about spoilers.

    Do you feel that the reviewer should be current with the story arc or do you expect books to stand on their own? No, a reviewer does not need to be current with the story but she shouldn’t judge it poorly if she doesn’t understand it because she lacks context. I’ve reviewed many a book in series I’ve not read all and felt I’ve reviewed those books fairly. A poorly written book is a poorly written book. That said, there are series that it’s almost impossible to make sense of the plot if you’ve not read all the books in order. But, they are not the norm. Most authors do a reasonable sum-up job so that a reviewer and readers can get the jist of the context of a particular story.

  6. i wrote one series, the Richard and Rose series, that is much better read from the start. I did try to make every book a standalone, but the series concerns the developing relationship between one couple, and the same people feature in every book. Their relationship isn’t a static one, nor is their character development. The main character in particular, Rose, grows and develops through the whole series.

    It’s really hard to do it, and writing the last book, where I wanted to draw all the remaining threads together, was killer. I wouldn’t willingly do it again.

    But I had to do that one. It’s an example of heart ruling head, because obviously, sales will diminish over the series as it’s running. Actually, now it’s all out there, a lot of people are buying them all, so perhaps some readers hold back until the ending.

    All my other series, Department 57, STORM, Secrets, the new Nightstar series etc etc can be read in any order. Most of them are stories about different people in the same universe, so while it’s nice to read them in order, there’s no compulsion to do so, and there are only peripheral benefits to doing it that way. So you can pick up the latest one, and if you like it, go back and get the others.

    So there are series and series. “Hub” is where there’s a central premise or world and different stories are set around it. “Line” or “serial” is where the series should or must be read in order.

    and yes, I do try to make it clear on my website and elsewhere, and on the books page I have a printable list of each series and the books in it, in order, for people who prefer to do things that way. As a reader, I wish more writers would do that!

    • Tee says:

      Lynne Connolly: i wrote one series, the Richard and Rose series, that is much better read from the start. I did try to make every book a standalone, but the series concerns the developing relationship between one couple, and the same people feature in every book. Their relationship isn’t a static one, nor is their character development. The main character in particular, Rose, grows and develops through the whole series.

      Oops, already taking back a bit of what I said earlier. There are a couple of series I’ve read/reading where it’s best to read from the beginning. One of them is Karin Slaughter and her developing relationships. It’s better to get the feel of them from the start, although I began reading her in the middle of her first series. I did go back, though.

      One can still get the idea of the present story, but it does help at times to follow a couple and their relationship’s evolvement. But would I say it was necessary—no, I don’t think so, just sweeter.

    • Katja says:

      Lynne Connolly: So there are series and series. “Hub” is where there’s a central premise or world and different stories are set around it. “Line” or “serial” is where the series should or must be read in order. and yes, I do try to make it clear on my website and elsewhere, and on the books page I have a printable list of each series and the books in it, in order, for people who prefer to do things that way. As a reader, I wish more writers would do that!

      Amen to that! And I like the definitions you give. So I suppose, reviewers don’t need to know anything about other books in the same universe, but if it’s a serial series, then the yprobably shpuld have some backgrpund knowlegde and I’d probably read either all or none of these books.

      And yes, I am certainly one of those reader who may hold out for the whole series and only then buy the books. Especially if there are long waits or cliff hangers involved ;-)

  7. LouiseAAR says:

    I prefer reading the first in a series and if I care enough about the book, I will go back and read the early ones in a series. Usually I don’t like it if I don’t understand the side interactions with secondary characters. A big plus to Larissa Ione. I just read her Lords of Deliverance series and didn’t realize it was a spin off of her Demonica series when I started. Though it was clear that there were characters that I may have missed out on their stories, I never FELT like I was missing things. She crafted the books well that way. When I finally did read the Demonica series, then I realized how much I missed…but I never felt that way while reading and that is how it should be!

  8. Katja says:

    Oops! Sorry about the typos. But I don’t seem to be able to fix them.

  9. Robin says:

    Some book series get excessively cumbersome which makes starting from the beginning a hardship. In Death, Argeneau vampires and Anita Blake spring to mind–just for a start. In general I like to read books in order–usually because the early books spend time on setting the stage and introducing characters. However, with long running series, I don’t want the author to waste pages recapping previous events for the sake of new readers–that’s my selfish side. So I don’t care if the books can stand alone, from the perspective. Right now I’m stymied because I want to read the newest Julie Garwood, “An Ideal Man” but it has been so long since I read the last book in the ‘series’, I can’t remember all the various couples and characters. They are supposed to stand alone, I guess, but when they are interrelated it does make the book better if you can remember back story. Same goes with Susan Elizabeth Phillips “Simply Irresistible”. I want to go back and re-read but I just don’t have time. This might be my particular quirky problem though…

  10. Lori says:

    I’m a little ambivalent. I started the Psy/Changeling series with Kiss of Snow and loved it. I was inspired to go to read the first book in the series and was not as thrilled. (But I loved Play of Passion and Caressed by Ice.) So Kiss of Snow worked okay as a stand-alone for me, even though it references past events. In fact, it worked better at drawing me into the series than the first book would have.

    Likewise, I started the Guild Hunter series with Archangel’s Blade and loved it. It gave me the incentive to read the rest of the GH series. I realize that there is stuff in Archangel’s Blade that I did not appreciate, not having read the previous books first. However, again, it still worked well as a stand-alone.

    On the other hand, once I got to the third GH book (Archangel’s Consort), I was sick of reading recaps of Elena’s childhood, haunted past, whatever. Someone new to the series at that point would have welcomed the rehashing, but I was tired of it.

    I guess what I’m really saying is that I appreciate when a writer can make a series book work well as a stand-alone, while still giving just enough background to entice the reader to read the earlier books in the series, yet not giving so much that faithful followers’ eyes are glazing over…

  11. Leigh says:

    Lori and Robin,

    Decades ago, when authors first referenced previous characters I was ecstatic. Now it seems like every character must continue to show up all the books. Now I can keep three or four stories straight in mind even if they are not memorable but after that I think why are these people cluttering up this book with pages dedicated to recapping their past difficulties and now how happy they are now. If I have read the story, then I know that information, and if I haven’t then their role in the current one should be significant- not just a “bro, you going to lose this girl if you don’t straighten out your act.”
    I want more from female friendships too then oh, tell me about the great sex, or let go shopping for shoes or go to a spa.

    And for many series books, that is the role that the secondary characters play. More or less a placeholder until their book. And once their books is finished then they go back to the placeholder role.

    Lynne, count me in as really liking your definitions too.

  12. Cindy says:

    I’m absolutely nutty about reading books in their series-order. If I start a book and “smell a series” I generally will go back and find and read all previous books – even if I didn’t really like the book. Which is ridiculous! I just can’t help myself.

  13. Tracie says:

    I’m extremely anal and cannot read a series out of order. It really ticks me off when I pick up a book only to find out it is book x in a series.

    I’m finding that I’m growing tired of series. I’ll read a blurb about a book that sounds interesting, but I won’t read it because it is book 6 in the series. For me that means that I have to read 5 books just to get to that one book. I also find that if I read too many books by the same author in a row I get burnt out.

  14. Brenda says:

    Years ago my mom gave me a bag of books as a care package. In that bag were Suzanne Brockmann’s “The Reluctant Hero” (book 2 in the Troubleshooters series) and J.D. Robb’s “Conspiracy in Death” (book 8 in the In Death series). I had no idea either were part of a series and I decided what to read based on the back blurb. I opted to read “The Reluctant Hero” and loved it. I put “Conspiracy in Death” on a TBR pile and forgot about it.

    Years later I started the In Death series and when I got to “Conspiracy” I recognized the cover as something I already had in my pile. When I finished the book I was glad I had waited to read it. That book has a powerful impact that is only fully realized if you’ve come to know Eve over the course of the previous seven books.

    The obvious difference between the two is their placement in the series, but moreso I see the difference as being plot driven vs. character driven. The In Death series is best when it centers on Eve’s growth as a human being rather than solving a mystery. If they were just “Mystery of the Week” books then I don’t think the order would matter.

  15. PatW says:

    Just wanted to make a comment about the Psy-Changling series – I have read them in order but because I’ve waited for each to be published. That said, I have favorites that I think could work as standalones for the main romances.

    I just recently re-read the entire series in order and I was very pleasantly surprised to discover a lot of little tidbits about the secondary characters and see “hooks” set in earlier books that came to fruition in later ones. I was very favorably impressed with how the author was tying the series world building together! These are not things I noticed when I first read the books, nor do I think they are necessary if one comes in the middle or skips, but they do add something to the experience when the books are read in order.

    • Leigh says:

      PatW: Just wanted to make a comment about the Psy-Changling series – I have read them in order but because I’ve waited for each to be published. That said, I have favorites that I think could work as standalones for the main romances. I just recently re-read the entire series in order and I was very pleasantly surprised to discover a lot of little tidbits about the secondary characters and see “hooks” set in earlier books that came to fruition in later ones. I was very favorably impressed with how the author was tying the series world building together! These are not things I noticed when I first read the books, nor do I think they are necessary if one comes in the middle or skips, but they do add something to the experience when the books are read in order.

      Pat, I don’t think you can notice these things – the little hints, unless you read them back to back, or re-read them before the new release.