Mar 16 2013 10:00am

If at First You Don’t Succeed—Series That Improve After the First Book

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook 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.

Pleasure Unbound by Larissa IoneThen 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.

Mine 'Til Midnight by Lisa KleypasThe 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.

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1. pamelia
Whoa, there! I thought "The Iron Duke" and "Mine Until Midnight" were the best of both those series. I was rather disappointed with the follow ups in both series and felt they lacked the same spark (with the exception of Kleypas's "Tempt Me at Twilight" which I enjoyed immensely.)
OTOH I think the first Kate Daniels book by Ilona Andrews and the first Harry Dresden book by Jim Butcher fit this whole paradigm very well.
2. carmenlire
Mine Till Midnight was a great book! I love Cam and Amelia together. However, for the BDB I read Dark Lover because I heard so much buzz about the series, but that book was dredfully dull I thought. I had thought I would never read another in the series, but about 6 months later I bought Lover Eternal and finally got why these books were so popular.
3. KateRothwell
Kim Harrison's witch series seems to grow more interesting and layered as Rachel becomes more mature. They were always fun though.
4. StephB
Isn't it interesting how subjective this is? I'm totally in agreement with Pamelia and Carmen - I loooooved The Iron Duke (much more than the second book in the series, which means I haven't read the third book yet), and although I thought the whole Hathaways series was great, Mine Till Midnight was one of my very favorites. I love seeing a respectable, responsible woman get swept off her feet! :)
Lege Artis
5. LegeArtis
Kate Daniels series... Even Ilona said on their blog that Magic Bites is only book they would rewrite again if they could...
Kit Colbana series by J.C. Daniels (aka Shiloh Walker)- I think first book in series- Blade Song-was good, but second one blew me completely away....
Fever series by KMM- Darkfever is not up to quality of other books in series imo...
Maiden Lane series by Elizabeth Hoyt- this series is just getting better and better....
Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat- Ok, this is trilogy but Vol. 2 is absolutely perfect read...
Megan Frampton
6. MFrampton
I agree w/@Pamelia that the first Dresden book was only okay, whereas the rest of the series--OMGAWESOME.
7. ChelseaMueller
While I agree there are definitely first books in series that get lost a bit in the worldbuilding, I wouldn't label The Iron Duke or Pleasure Unbound as those.

As a matter of fact, The Iron Duke was one of my favorite reads the year it was released. I did enjoy Heart of Steel, the second book, more, but in a different way. (I actually don't enjoy the novellas all that much, because I miss the depth that comes with her longer form Iron Seas works.)

If I were going to call out a series that had a good first book but a kapow awesome second book, I'd look to the Fever series. Darkfever was good, but it was when I went ahead and tried Bloodfever that I found myself sucked into everything about the world and the characters. It was when the dynamic between Mac and Barrons took off and I couldn't wait for more of their banter. You needed Darkfever as a setup, but that series exploded with the second book.
8. KateRothwell
I've tried and tried and tried, but just can't get into the Dresden books. I've heard two read by James Marsden and read one. I'll read them but I'm still not an addict.

The only time I've felt like a reading failure is when I failed to glom onto the Dorothy Dunnett series. I'd heard so much enthusiasm for about the series from people who don't usually go mooshy for books.
9. Mippy Carlson
I, too, thoroughly enjoyed The Iron Duke and Mine Till Midnight. In fact, I think I enjoyed Iron Duke more than the 2nd book. I'd also agree with those that said the first Dresden book by Jim Butcher was probably my least favorite of the series. I think that had to do, in part, with getting to know the characters. The more I read of Harry Dresden and crew, the more I love them. Actually, I think when I follow UF series, it makes them more enjoyable to read once I get to know the characters. They sort of become like extended family who I get to check in with periodically.
Megan Frampton
10. MFrampton
Yeah, I have to agree that Pleasure Unbound is really good, and not the worst of the series (I don't know I'd pick a 'worst,' since I think the books are consistently good).
But @KateRothwell, I can't believe you didn't get into Dresden! It seems like it has some of the stuff you like about other series. And I have many of the Dunnetts, and have never read--too intimidated by the raves, and the "You just have to get through the first 100 pps." talk.
11. sarahf84
I also have to disagree about The Iron Duke. It is by far my favorite book in that series. I would say that rather than the first book being lackluster, many series only improve over time.
Tiffany Tyer
12. TiffanyTyer
And this is the great mystery of romance: Readers prefer and enjoy different things, which also explains how it is such a widely varied genre with something for everyone. These are my examples. It's interesting that we all have our favorites and least favorites.

@StephB, sometimes I love the set-up of the responsible woman finally finding her own love too, for example in the first Maiden Lane book, Wicked Intentions, by Elizabeth Hoyt. I also loved the first Lisa Kleypas Wallflower book, Secrets of a Summer Night, and many readers didn't like it nearly as much as the latter books in the series.

@sarahf84, that's sort of the overall thesis: These are fantastic series that just didn't grab me with the first book. It seems we can all relate to the concept, even if the particular series this applies to differs for each of us.

Thanks for the discussion, all!
Robbie Thornton
14. Button
I'm totally with you as far as Pleasure Unbound. I bought the first two books in the Demonica series because it really looked like a series I could sink my teeth into. I read PU and while it wasn't "horrible", it didn't exactly make me raring to go and read more. I think it was a couple of months before I read Desire Unchained and for me, that's where the series caught my undivided attention.

Christine Warren's The Other's series was the same. I found "One Bite with a Stranger" a bit flat, but absolutely love Big Bad Wolf.

In Christine Feehan's Dark series, I found "Dark Prince" to be a bit annoying, with all the macho posturing, but after getting "aquainted" with the Carpathian males, I settled into really enjoying the rest of the series.

It's been so long since I read the Hathaways, I can't really give an opinion on the first book, but I can't remember disliking it.

I've just finished "Firelight" by Kristen Callahan, and I must say I really thought the book a bit clunky due to the world building. She kept so many things a mystery for so long that I was having trouble following it. But I hear it's a great series, so I will read the next book, but again, I'm not in a real hurry to do so, even though I know that many paranormal series have the tendency to get better as they go along.

Thanks for the discussion.

Great article. Thanks!
15. bri_in_nj
RE: the Iron Seas. While I've liked all of them, I thought Heart of Steel was very different and not as 'up there' for me. However, the third, Riveted, had me from the beginning and I couldn't put it down.
16. Katie T.
I agree that the Merridew series got better after the first book. Unlike other series, it's so nice to go back and visit the other characters and peek into their happily-ever-afters. Maiden Lane, however, nope nope nope nope. Big nope.. It should have stopped at book 2 or 3. By now every single f-ing gentleman in the Ton has been the Ghost of St. Giles. It needs to stop like NOW. The latest book was all sorts of bad.
17. Alessandra
What? You didnt immediately love Tayla and Eidolon's story? Thats a travesty. I lovedddd pleasure unbound. It's my favourite of the entire series. For a first book dud that then developed into a great series, I'd suggest, Ares' story in the Lords of Deliverance series. Whos's with me?
Tiffany Tyer
18. TiffanyTyer
@Katie T., it's so interesting. I'm still enjoying Maiden Lane. One of readers' favorites, Silence's book Scandalous Desires, though, I didn't love as much as I'd hoped I would from how it was set up in the previous book.

@Alessandra, now on Ione's Lords of Deliverance I am with you. The first book was not good for me, but in Demonica, Wraith's and Sin's, and even Shade's, books just blew the series out of the water. Pleasure Unbound was just too safe and predictable.
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