Among my least favorite trends in contemporary pop culture–I have several–is the serialization of everything. This thought was inspired by The Hanging Tree, the most recent of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, the better of the two novel series by former Doctor Who writers about London magic police. Peter Grant is an officer and apprentice wizard in the Folly, a department dealing with magical crimes. At first Peter and his old-fashioned but open-minded wizardly mentor are the whole staff; the series hook is that Peter is almost by himself figuring out how modern fantasy police ought to work.
Sometimes all you need to make an adventure compelling is a strong voice. Peter is a distinct, likable first person narrator: he’s amused more than he’s disgusted and unlike most contemporary heroes he actually seems to like people. The narration doesn’t just report action as though novelizing a TV series–Peter’s point of view is apparent in every description, and he offers frequent asides on police procedure and magic to explain what he’s doing and why. I have a hard time finding light SF that’s both intelligent and genuinely good-natured; Aaronovitch’s books fit the bill.
The Hanging Tree’s voice is as likable as the earlier volumes… but what struck me was its weird structure. Here’s the plot promised by the blurb: at a party of wealthy and privileged teenagers one kid drops dead of a drug overdose. A guest’s mother asks Peter to keep her daughter out of trouble. Inasmuch as the mother is not only Peter’s girlfriend’s aunt but also a powerful river goddess, he has some incentive to cooperate. This is not a bad premise. Magic is privilege; wizards are powerful and, lacking oversight, often aren’t held to account for their actions, much as in reality the very wealthy often aren’t. At the intersection of money, privilege, impulsive teenage recklessness, and literally reality-warping power is a novel’s worth of theme to dig into. On top of that, the choice between bending the rules or pissing off a goddess is an interesting dilemma.
The Hanging Tree, though, gradually becomes a different story. As you reach the last quarter of the book you realize the drug overdose was a red herring, Peter’s professional ethics won’t have consequences in his personal life, and the imperiled god-offspring has dropped out of the novel. Her mother sticks around, but doesn’t seem to belong anymore: she’s just visiting from the first unfinished story. The new The Hanging Tree is about small-time crooks stealing magical artifacts and, in a lovely bit of bathos, selling them on eBay.
Now, this is also a potentially great story, the urban fantasy equivalent of a Donald Westlake caper or a Coen brothers comedy. But The Hanging Tree doesn’t finish this story either! The eBay plot becomes instantly irrelevant as soon as it leads Peter to the artifacts’ owner: the Faceless Man. Which will mean nothing to you unless you’ve read other books in the series.
The Faceless Man is a wizardly crime lord who’s been lurking far in the background of Peter’s investigations without being actually immediately relevant to the resolution of any of them. The climax of The Hanging Tree is the moment we discover, after seven volumes of buildup, the Faceless Man is… a character just introduced in this book! And not even one of the important ones! To be fair, using the climax of a novel to unmask your mysterious multi-book villain is a no-win situation. If the villain is a character we thought we’d gotten to know, it’s a cheap O. Henry twist. If the villain is some guy we never saw before, it’s meaningless. And, honestly, these books never convinced me I should care whether Peter identified or caught the Faceless Man at all: see again, lurking far in the background and not actually immediately relevant.
Which makes me wonder why this big reveal didn’t come at the beginning of a book: get the underwhelming part out of the way first and you have an entire novel to explore the consequences. (It’s surprising how often the most interesting parts of a story happen after it ends.) And there would have been plenty to explore–behind the Faceless Man are hints of personality and theme. He has a library full of J. R. R. Tolkien and Alan Garner and other writers at the intersection of epic fantasy and British folk horror, and in a previous book he left a magic booby-trap inscribed with Elven runes. He’s a toxic nerd. From what little we see of him, he’s also a rich xenophobe, an England-for-the-English type. I know Aaronovitch probably came up with this character years ago, but this all feels very relevant.
Series were not always like this. My shelves are full of series in which books build on each other and characters evolve over time, but individual volumes work by themselves–Steven Brust’s Taltos series and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are examples, as are any mystery series in which the characters develop. The exceptions are often single stories split for convenience, like The Lord of the Rings. One reason for the difference might be availability: maybe pre-Amazon, authors were more likely to assume some readers wouldn’t be able to get their hands on the whole series? I would guess that another may be the influence of other media on contemporary written SF–especially television.
Over the last couple of decades TV storytelling has shifted. The overarching story dominates to the point that individual TV episodes often work more like chapters in a novel than stories in themselves. (Streaming services now release entire seasons at once in the assumption the audience will watch 12 hours in one go!) As these series go on it gets harder for any one episode to get a complete story out from under the ever-accumulating baggage.
TV series can be renewed for years if they make money, or cancelled on short notice. This encourages arc plots busy enough to drag out interminably with twists, counter-twists, unexpected betrayals, and the revelation of increasingly convoluted background mythology… but simple enough to wrap up on short notice in a jury-rigged series finale. Basically, stories with more room than actual content; lots of ostensible action but little real movement in the underlying plot, character, or thematic arcs. The fantasy genre is still home to an improbable number of three-volume novels; now genre television is reinventing the penny dreadful.
It’s this style of storytelling The Hanging Tree reminds me of. The Faceless Man story arc played out past its natural length. Now The Hanging Tree brings it to a climax so fast it interrupts itself. Weirdly structured novels are not a problem for me. In fact, it’s often a selling point–I like novels that meander, take detours, eschew traditional plot, and just generally don’t go where I expect. It has to be a good weird structure, though, and this time it wasn’t: The Hanging Tree crams three stories together so tightly none have room to dig into their themes. This is the point where the gravitational pull of the arc so deforms the individual installment it’s no longer coherent or satisfying in and of itself.
Still current, but it started in the 1980s. ↩
Twice. No, three times–I haven’t even mentioned the mother/daughter wizards looking for a Very Important Manuscript, who are major characters for a while but eventually, anticlimactically, just pick up the manuscript and walk offstage in what’s almost an aside. They’re not part of this novel; they’re being set up to be important in some other novel. ↩