This post bounces off the edits on War Master's Gate (book 9) that I'm currently going through.
When you get this late in a series, the amount of baggage you're inevitably trawling with you becomes quite considerable, despite my best efforts to kill everyone off on a regular basis. Regular readers will have noticed that the amount of stuff shoved into the front of the books has been steadily increasing as the series goes on, to wit:
- a map
- more maps
- a brief synopsis/story so far
- a list of key characters (to compliment the more complete list that has been at the back since book 2) — this new for Air War.
- and now, in book 9, we'll have some quick character sketches of the main protagonists, as a welcome alternative to the synopsis (1).
There is a lot of huffpuffery about this sort of thing sometimes. There are people who thing that a map is a descent into the worst recesses of geekery, and it's true that there is a certain type of fantasy work where the map is less a map as much as a pictographical contents page, where every location (with its neatly delineated culture and geography) is ticked off sequentially until the Land of Evil, where the plot shudders to its deflated dénouement (2). The same people who look askance at maps positively have the screaming habdabs about lists of characters, and it's as though a synopsis is somehow making up for a fundamental failure of writing — darling, it should all be clear. Well get eight books into your series and see how streamlined you keep it. Yes, anyway…
My defence, on behalf of the epic fantasist with a multi-volume story to tell, is that these are not crutches for an overburdened narrative, they are tools for the reader. If you, the reader, have just put down The Air War and picked up War Master's Gate the next moment, then you won't need any of that stuff. You have my permission to ignore it and speed on to the first chapter. On the other hand, if you bought Air War when civilized people did, and haven't dawdled overmuch over it, then you're likely to be the best part of a year out of the loop before you pick up the next volume. Whilst I honestly have no real hope that someone could pick up War Master's Gate and get anything out of it without reading the earlier volumes, even a regular reader with the whole series under his/her belt is likely to find that some smaller recurring characters, places or plot developments might have slipped the mind in the intervening time. For you, we have all that crap at the front. Lord knows I need it, when I take up the latest volume of some large series I'm following. The epic fantasy is rich and complex by its very nature, with a large cast and a scale of action all its own. The map is not a shopping list (3) but it is often a welcome reminder of where all these places actually are in relation to one another.
However: that's my take. I'd be interest in any comments, either for or against.
(1) I hate writing synopses. I hate writing that stuff on the back cover, too. Of all the things I have the joyous opportunity to write, those things are chores without redemption. The character sketches, suggested by the Tor editors, were far more interesting.
(2) Diane Wynne-Jones puts it all rather better in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland of course.
(3) q.v. the map of the Spiderlands in Sea Watch where we visit almost none of the places on it.