I love a good book series: when you’ve got a story that pans out across several books, you get so much more space to spread out in. Worlds are bigger and clearer; characters have wider story arcs, so we get to see more of them and how they work, and the resolution to storylines are more important because we, the readers, are that much more invested in them. If you imagine a book like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, standalone novels can seem like the fleeting glimpses into passing rooms, like the Fudge Mountain and the Oompa-Loompa village. On the other hand, serialised novels are more like the rooms we get to spend more time in, like the Inventing Room – a place we can get familiar with, that we’ll remember more clearly and for longer after we’ve left. With this in mind, I’d like to let you know a few of my favourite series and trilogies, ones that I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone. Fair warning: there’s a definite bias towards fantasy novels in this list, but I think there’ll be something for everyone here regardless. All images are of the first titles in each series, so you know where to start.
We’ll start with an obvious one, shall we? The infamous boy wizard and his battle with the dark wizard, Voldemort, is a story pretty much everyone is at least vaguely familiar with - but if you haven’t read the books, I really urge you to. The first couple do read like the age group they’re written for, but don’t be put off: it gets a lot darker, a lot more complex and a lot more adult as the series goes on, and before long you’ll be marvelling at how intricately-woven the story is. Rowling drops hints about characters and gives clues about important events sometimes several books ahead, which makes you appreciate just how much work and planning went into this series. It’s funny, heart-warming, frustrating and tear-jerking, but most of all Hogwarts is the best, most richly-imagined world I've ever visited.
I wrote about this trilogy recently so I won’t go into too much detail (read the full post instead for the full recommendation, though there are spoilers in it), but this is one of the most important series of my life, and I’m not exaggerating. The third and final book, The Amber Spyglass, is the first book I remember truly, absolutely loving and, even if I don’t read it as often as I used to, that hasn’t changed. This is still a dangerously captivating series, with a fascinating cast of characters, several different worlds to explore and an awe-inspiring plot in which serious questions are asked on the natures of religion, politics, love, duty and fate.
Peter Grant is your average bobbie-on-the-beat in London: living in station accommodation with his fellow graduate coppers, trying to impress the guv'nors and dealing with run-of-the-mill crimes in the city centre. Until one night, standing guard over a murder scene, a witness approaches him with some information about the case. This isn’t your normal witness though: he’s a ghost, dead over a hundred years. At first Peter doubts his discovery, until he gets word that there’s a peculiar arm of the Metropolitan Police dedicated to dealing in cases with paranormal circumstances - previously a one-man department but now, with Peter established as being sensitive to the paranormal world, it becomes two. He moves into The Folly on Russell Square (his new base) with his new boss, the enigmatic Nightingale, to begin his training as a wizard-cop. This is a crime series with a magic twist, a larger storyline tying all the books together, and a decent dash of humour and pop-culture. One of my favourite aspects is that a lot of the series is set around Soho and Camden, which is near where I work, adding an extra element of possibility for me – more than once I’ve walked around Russell Square trying to work out which building is The Folly.
The TV show based on these books is called – as you undoubtedly already know - Game of Thrones, after the first book in the series. But it’s actually really important to remember that this epic saga is called A Song of Ice and Fire, because we’re almost certainly getting a major clue about the ending of the series in that title. It’s as gruesome and ugly as the show has led you to expect; the cast is enormous (over a thousand named characters!) and the world is even bigger. It’s passed off as a fantasy series, but has some of its roots in the power-battle between Houses York and Lancaster, otherwise dubbed the War of the Roses, so you should expect a healthy dollop of politics – far more than you’ll get dragons and magic, anyway. It’s a definite investment series: the shortest book so far clocks in at 776 pages (not including the huge ‘Who’s Who’ appendix that appears in every book), but I promise you, it’s worthwhile.
I love Margaret Atwood’s work. Specifically, I love her speculative fiction and you don’t get much more speculative than this series, which covers the world just before and after an apocalypse called The Waterless Flood, when swathes of humanity are wiped out by a man-made plague. The scary parts of this series, however, are not in the apocalypse itself: it’s in the eerily familiar world the story is set in, where huge Corporations control every aspect of life, where if you live outside a Compound you basically don’t exist, where hardened criminals are sentenced to ‘Painball’ (essentially paintball but with real guns and no rules) instead of prison. Atwood has an uncanny knack of creating worlds we recognise twisted into darker versions of themselves, and they don’t get much creepier than the Maddaddam books.
Imagine if Harry Potter had the option to go to university, then afterwards spent a gap year in Narnia, and you’ve basically got the first book of The Magicians trilogy. Our anti-hero, Quentin Coldwater, is a disillusioned, socially-inept high school graduate who finds himself testing for Brakebills Academy, a college he never applied for, or indeed heard of – a secret school for magicians. As his academic career continues down this unexpected path, he discovers that the fantasy world of his favourite childhood books, Fillory, is in fact a real, tangible place. But, in the same way that Brakebills is darker and more menacing than Hogwarts, so Fillory is not as pastoral or perfect as the books written about them, or Narnia. Quentin’s not the nicest guy – he’s selfish and impetuous with it, which makes him a weirdly relatable character, and the arrogant way in which he accepts his magical skills is a nice contrast to the usual ‘oh-my-goodness-you’ve-picked-little-old-me?’ schtick we usually get in world-discovering novels. I’ll admit the similarities between Brakebills and Hogwarts (and Fillory and Narnia) was something that grated on me a little – even though it’s supposed to be a massive in-joke – though on the whole this is a dark, entertaining, violent series, and one that you can enjoy even if you haven’t read Narnia or Harry Potter.
These are two separate trilogies, but feature the same protagonists, so I’m lumping them together. The stories focus around Fitz, the bastard son of the erstwhile King-in-Waiting for the throne of the Six Duchies. Not formally recognised as a member of the royal family, he is nevertheless kept on and trained by the current King to become an assassin for the family, working with Chade, another assassin. The first trilogy follows Fitz’s attempts to find his way in a world of royalty where he is not royal, avoid his uncle, Prince Regal’s, vicious attempts to discredit him, and suppress his ability to communicate telepathically with animals, which is feared and reviled by many in the kingdom. There’s a lot here to recommend the story, much like His Dark Materials: questions about love, loyalty, shame, politics, fear, friendship and duty, plus the added allure of the mysterious, androgynous Fool, an ally of Fitz’s who proves to be far more than their name suggests. This is a commitment akin to A Song of Ice and Fire, though: these six books total over 4,000 pages, and Hobb has recently started a third trilogy set in the same world. The woman is a machine.
Caelena Sardothien is 17, beautiful and the deadliest assassin around – or, at least she was, until she was betrayed, arrested and sentenced to a life of hard labour in salt mines. She’s near breaking point when the Crown Prince, Dorian, turns up to recruit her as his champion for his tyrannical father’s tournament where, if she wins, she'll be pardoned for her previous crimes, granted relative freedom and employed as the King's personal assassin. Caelena must fight it out with thieves, rogue soldiers and murderers for this dubious honour – she has some beef with the King – and the stakes are raised even higher when other champions start to get killed off in grisly ways. This isn’t even the full story: the tournament is just the beginning of Caelena’s journey as she grows to accept who she really is and her place in the world. Caelena is a flighty upstart with a healthy appetite for food, fashion and books, but we’re left in no doubt over just how lethal her skills are and what she is capable of. The first book is probably the weakest of the series so far and that’s saying something, considering it’s nigh unputdownable, so if you like your heroines with a dark side then Caelena’s the girl for you.