I have been talking this week about the value of standalone fantasy, and composing a list of my favourite single volume fantasy novels, just to prove that yes they exist, and yes there are good ones. But what came up most commonly in the discussion surrounding those posts is how many standalone fantasy novels actually are less standalone than they appear – once you start reading the other works in that author’s backlist, you may discover that you have in fact been subject to Stealth Worldbuilding.
This isn’t just the province of fantasy, of course. One of my favourite things about Mary Wesley novels was how often one of the sweet young men in the story would turn out to be one of the many nephews of Calypso from The Camomile Lawn. I have been informed that my new favourite YA author Sarah Dessen does much the same thing, which is hugely exciting.
There are many fantasy authors I can think of who did this – creating fantasy epics one book at a time. Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli books followed characters down a family lineage, each volume having a different first person POV. Terry Pratchett, after writing a direct sequel to his first Discworld novel, went on to build up his world with over 30 individual books, which allowed him to explore just about every nook and cranny of his fantasy world. Protagonists of one book become local colour & scenery in another – and his penchant for sequels mean there are several mini-arcs within the huge run of books, but you can pick and choose which order to read them in. I read them based on how much I thought I would like them! These days many of his “franchise arcs” have run out of juice, and it’s the more standaloney standalones which get better critical response, though Granny Weatherwax and the witch culture have been thoroughly rehabilitated through the marvellous YA Tiffany Aching books.
There’s something very appealing about the form of stealth worldbuilding that can occur in a series of linked standalones. Accessibility is at a premium, with none of those “Book 7 of the Grandiddiad” labels to scare off new readers. The backlist can work in all directions. But at the same time, there is a pleasure in continuity, in development and consequence for characters as well as a world. As a reader, there’s a deep fannish satisfaction that comes from even small hints of what happened to beloved characters, years down the line. I remember watching Robotech the Next Generation, desperate for any hints as to what had happened to the protagonists of the former series – nibbling on the few bones available.
The stealth worldbuilding in Discworld has now built up into such vast proportions that one can play a computer game that takes you from place to place, and so many of them are familiar! Even better, there’s always an unexplored corner to learn about. The most recent book, Unseen Academicals, revealed that there was this whole subculture that had been going on in Ankh-Morpork all along – the unfolding of which didn’t seem remotely artificial to me, as this is exactly what happened when I discovered the Premier League.
A throwaway line in one book can become the major plotline of the next… or ten books later.
There are of course standalone series which follow the same protagonist through a series of “standalone” novels. This is particularly popular these day with urban fantasy, and it’s not coincidental that this is also a traditional format for crime fiction. Character development if you read them in the right order, but the ability to experience the beginning, middle and end of a plot in one volume.