Why are epic fantasy book series so damn long?


Tell me if you’ve heard this one: there’s an author of a successful fantasy book series — we’ll call him “Jim R.R. Marsden” — who hasn’t released a new volume in nearly 10 years. The book series is very popular and the author has proven he’s capable of putting out good work, even if the previous entry in the series was criticized for having a slow pace. And yet, there’s just nothing coming out, and fans are worried that when we finally do get a book, it’ll be more of the bridge-building material from the last entry, rather than something that really pushes the story forward.

I am talking, of course, about Patrick Rothfuss and his Kingkiller Chronicle series; The Wise Man’s Fear came out in 2011, advanced the plot but just a little, and we’ve heard barely a whisper about the third and reportedly final entry in the series — The Doors of Stone — since.

Okay, joke over: I was actually thinking about George R.R. Martin and his nine-year failure to release The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. But the fact that the wait for that book matches up so neatly with the wait for Rothfuss’ next book should tell you something about fantasy authors. And it’s not just these two who have problems wrapping up their series: Robert Jordan famously spent 15 years writing his Wheel of Time books — and putting them out at a fairly brisk clip, to be fair to him — before dying, which necessitated author Brandon Sanderson coming in and finishing the series with three final books. This is an issue that seems to plague a lot of fantasy authors: they get caught in the weeds, the stories slow to a crawl, and the fans that don’t lose interest grow frustrated.

So why does this happen? What is it about fantasy series that makes them so hard for authors to wrap up? With your permission, I’d like to go on an undisciplined tear through speculation and conjecture.

"Word Count of popular Fantasy and Science Fiction Series from Fantasy"

One obvious idea is that publishers are leaning on authors to stretch their stories out. I could see this in the case of The Wheel of Time in particular, where books came out pretty regularly between The Eye of the World in 1990 and Knife of Dreams in 2005, the last book Jordan wrote.

But that doesn’t explain, say, Martin or Ruthfuss. Forget having lots of books on the market; surely their publishers would like any book out there at all, but that’s a wish those authors have not fulfilled for a decade now. I think it more likely that these guys just get swept away with their own visions and find themselves unable to stop adding detail. Think about Fire & Blood, Martin’s book of Targaryen history assembled from notes he wrote when contributing to The World of Ice and Fire. And that book is the first of two volumes! Martin is so interested in this world that even his passing observations are of a publishable length.

And then listen to how Rothfuss talked about his series at the Emerald City Comic Con: “I am an author who has tricked you into reading a trilogy that is a million-word prologue.” Rothfuss considers his epic, winding, 13-years-and-counting-in-the-making story a prologue to…what, exactly? More books we have to wait 10 years to read?

I may be reading too much into Rothfuss’ casual comment, but the instinct to slow down and smell the roses is very real among these guys; all of them have gotten criticized for focusing on world-building at the expense of forward momentum. For Rothfuss, that came after the release of The Wise Man’s Fear in 2011. For Martin, it came after both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. And a lot of The Wheel of Time books get blasted for this, to the point where Rafe Judkins — the guy behind the upcoming Amazon adaptation — made a joke of it on Twitter:

And the fans, notably, agreed with him, so well understood is it that these middle books are meandering and don’t add much to the overall experience. I’m happy to hear that they’ll be condensed down for TV, but why are they there in the first place?

And I think this expansive instinct makes sense for fantasy authors. After all, they’re not writing about discrete events in human history with a set beginning, middle and end — they’re inventing worlds out of whole cloth, and then delighting to play in them. There’s something very childlike about imagining a whole new world, and a child who’s letting their imagination run away with them may not stop playing unless someone steps in and makes them.

In the publishing context, that person is usually the editor. But if you’re editing George R.R. Martin’s latest book, and you tell him you think it would be better if he cut a third of it, is your word really going to matter? Once a series is successful, the incentive for the publisher is to put a lot of it out there so people have more reason to buy. They may even want to split the books up. Personally, I think Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons — books four and five in Martin’s series — should have been cut down to size and released as one volume, but that would mean fewer books, and that would mean less money. Basically, I very much doubt that editors are really pushing successful fantasy authors to cut big parts of their work, and if they are, their voices are drowned out by others.

Outlander Season 5 Key Art and Marketing Shoot – Sep 17-21 2019

I also think the wait for these kinds of epic fantasy novels can feel more protracted because, from the beginning, there’s an endpoint in mind. Eventually, the White Walkers have to breach the Wall. Kvothe has to confront his parents’ killers, and the Dark One has to be defeated. This is in contrast to a series like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which is very character-driven and could theoretically continue for as long as Gabaldon has ideas for what those characters should do next. It’s hard to become impatient to “get to the end” with a series like that, because the end isn’t specified.

…at least so far as I know. I’ll be honest: I haven’t read a ton of Outlander, but that’s the impression I get. Don’t you judge me.

Image: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring/New Line Cinema

And it doesn’t have to be like this. The most influential fantasy book of all time, The Lord of the Rings, is a tight three volumes…although it’s true that J.R.R. Tolkien had so many ideas about the world ungirding his story that he filled up many extraneous appendices and books to the point where his Legendarium has a fandom all its own.

Actually, yeah, I think Tolkien fits into this group of “fantasy authors who can’t stop adding detail,” with the crucial difference that most of that detail was reserved for secondary publications while his base story was pretty straightforward. I wish Martin, Rothfuss, and their contemporaries were a little more thoughtful of keeping on that path. Until they and their colleagues have an epiphany, we wait.