So, I recently finished reading through the Hollows series by Kim Harrison again (seven books and three of the short stories) in preparation for number eight’s upcoming release as an ebook. It was the first time I’ve reread them, and thus the first time I’ve read the series straight through, one right after the other. It was great! What a roller coaster ride.
But. When I finished I had a serious case of the post-good-book-blues. Know what I mean? You have that high from a great reading experience, and then you come down, knowing that whatever you read next probably won’t measure up. The Book Blahs. Nothing sounds right, yet you can’t stand to not be reading a book. On rare occasions I’ve had a string of three or four really good books in a row. But that doesn’t happen very often.
I tried starting three different books. (One of the joys of the Kindle, I had over 100 to choose from with all the freebies and cheapies I’ve acquired.) All of them fell flat and I quit them about 20-30% in. Some of it was the fault of the books for sure, but some of it was due to the book blahs. Chances are good I won’t start reading them again in the future, as I rarely ever go back to a book that I started and didn’t finish, regardless of the reason for not finishing.
I paged through my Kindle menu looking for the next victim when I realized I was in a Starfarers mood. The Starfarers Quartet is a science fiction series written by Vonda N. McIntyre in the late ’80’s and early 90’s. At the end of last year she made them available as ebooks and I’d bought the set, but hadn’t been in the right mood to read them yet.
Within the first few pages I was absorbed. It was a perfect fit and I slid easily into the story. How much of that was due to good writing and how much due to me having previously read the books at about the time they were published, I’m not sure. Even though I remembered very few details I was still familiar with the setting.
Thinking about that I realized that science fiction and fantasy readers face an issue not usually present in other genres. No matter what type of story it is, from the Vatta space opera series by Elizabeth Moon to the Markhat fantasy mysteries by Frank Tuttle, the reader has to learn about the world setting in order to become fully immersed.
Some authors make this a much easier process than others. But even for the same author it can vary from book to book or series to series. There is an initial adjustment period which can make the story difficult to follow at first. The reader has to learn anything from the level of tech present, to what the political powers are, to what magic and creatures exist. And they have to learn how all this interrelates.
In some books this adjustment to the fantastic world is a relatively painless process. Such as in Starfarers or Dead Witch Walking. In some books it is difficult, arduous, and confusing. Some so much so that the reader never gets past it and never gets into the book. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is one such book for me. People have raved about what a great book it is. But to me the beginning was slow, dry, and uninteresting. I gave up and will likely never give it a try again.
The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff is a book that got off to a very confusing start. As a reader I had no clue what was going on and it was frustrating to feel like instead of getting into the story I was constantly playing catch-up to figure out who the people were and what the world rules were. Yet sticking with it and continuing to read was amply rewarded. Soon the pieces fit and the world began to make sense. Since I was already a Huff fan there was a trust established between us as author and reader that it would get better, which helped encourage me to continue.
And in the case of The Enchantment Emporium I believe the difficult beginning actually enhanced the book, as odd as that might seem. I didn’t think so at the time, but looking back on it I can see that it helped keep the family of witches feeling truly alien. Even though I liked, cared about, and empathized with several of the characters, there was always an underlying sense of unease. That was a good thing, and I believe that much of that sense of disquiet was created by the difficult start.
So why do science fiction and fantasy fans put up with the extra effort needed in order to be able to enjoy a book? Maybe this is one of the reasons these genres turn so many people off? Some readers just can’t take trolls or superluminal space travel seriously. They need to be grounded in reality. But maybe some just can’t deal with, or at least don’t have the patience for, that initial period of confusion or adjustment.
For me, I think my lifelong love affair with science fiction and fantasy is as simple as being in love with make-believe. As a child much of my play with friends was centered around make-believe, and I never really grew out of needing that in my life. As I got older I could no longer run around back yards, sometimes half-naked, being a jungle boy, one of Robin Hood’s merry band, or an Indian on the warpath. Books with fantastic worlds create that back yard of the imagination and allow a mental freedom not experienced in other ways as an adult.