Larissa Ione's epic Demonica series. Lisa Kleypas's delightful Hathaways. Meljean Brook's swashbuckling Iron Seas series. These series that pull from every genre imaginable have one very glaring thing in common: frustrating, forgettable firsts. There is a frequent phenomenon in romance where truly great series have stumbling beginnings, first books that for a variety of reasons just don't work. And the real problem is if we stop reading before we get to the good stuff because of a first book that didn't impress.
With paranormal and steampunk series, the epidemic of lackluster first books lies in the fact that there is so much initial world-building to be done. Authors have to impart an incredible amount of information as an introduction to all the first-timers entering these new worlds, so the reason this happens isn't far-fetched, but it doesn't help the digestion to be any smoother. Books like The Iron Duke are so bogged down with exposition, we feel as though we need an accompanying encyclopedia to get through it.
Brook builds such a fascinating, unique world that every adventure lover should be on board with, but this is a tough book to get through, for the simple fact that there is so much info, from everything to the history of the Horde to the many nanotechnologies and devices in this alternative Victorian sci-fi mishmash. The novellas in this series —“Here There Be Monsters” and “The Blushing Bounder,” for instance—are almost more enjoyable because they're shorter and sweeter, getting to the heart of romance with the world slightly in the background but still coming out for those interesting peeks, and striking a more favorable balance. This is a series not to be missed, but only after slogging our way through the first book.
Then there are the series that are so great as they get underway that their first books just can't live up to the impact the series make once they really hit their strides. Pleasure Unbound introduces a trio of Seminus demon brothers and more creatively, Underworld General Hospital, and begins one of my favorite series ever. There's a sexy demon doctor hero and a badass demon-slayer heroine to provide lots of conflict and heat. But this book just doesn't reach the height of the rest of the series. Pleasure Unbound is a little slower to get started and doesn't have the imagination that shines in the latter books. Desire Unchained, Passion Unleashed, and Sin Undone in particular are so larger than life that the first book just seems tame in comparison.
But this issue doesn't discriminate solely against paranormals; it is just as likely in historicals. In Lisa Kleypas's beloved Hathaways series, we meet a family of siblings so quirky and aloof that this not only defines them, but endears them.
The historical details are interesting and spot-on, the dialogue is trademark Kleypas, and the romance is passionate and well-developed. So it's a shame that its first book, Mine 'Til Midnight, is such a disappointment, especially since it finally tells the story of fan favorite Cam Rohan, and a gypsy hero to boot. Cam is as rough-around-the-edges as ever, in a way that makes all of us swoon, but unfortunately, his heroine Amelia isn't a match for him in wit or charm. She's a bit matronly in contrast to his youth and vitality, and the combination doesn't work well. And the whimsical hint of magic here isn't inspiring so much as strange. The spark found in books to come in this series—Seduce Me at Sunrise and Married by Morning—just isn't here.
There's also a trend in erotic romance to begin a popular series with a menage relationship in the first book, with latter books featuring the more traditional set-up. As someone who almost strictly avoids permanent menages in her romance, this is off-putting. Lauren Dane is a fan of this in Undercover, Laid Bare, and Tart, from her Federation Chronicles, Brown Siblings, and Delicious series, respectively. And in both her Rough Riders and Blacktop Cowboys western series, Lorelei James begins both first books—Long Hard Ride and Corralled, respectively—with menages. Though neither of James's stories end in a permanent menage, in some ways it's more frustrating that it takes away from the development between the ultimate hero and heroine for so much of the story. And for readers who steer clear of menage, are we supposed to skip first books by authors we love because we hate the set-up? More often than not, this causes these series to go to the bottom of the “to be read” pile.
First books are tricky business. Whether it's trying to build a world or break the mold, time and time again the first stories stumble, arguably as often as last books fizzle out. It's especially disappointing in otherwise great series. It's far too common a problem, but the fact remains, if we stick it out, good things come to those who wait.
Tiffany Tyer is a writer and editor who loves reading and analyzing all things romance. She also works as a vocalist, a tutor, and a non-profit ministry assistant, and she loves it that way. Her book reviews can be found at Happy Endings Reviews, a blog she co-founded.