There is a right way and a wrong way to read a book series. The right way involves starting at the beginning and working through the books chronologically. This is best done when the reader still remembers all of the important plot points.
But I’ve never done things the right way.
I used to have this terrible habit of starting a book series somewhere in the middle. I never did this on purpose. In fact, the pattern cropped up as a result of laziness and impatience. In a time before ebooks, starting a series at the beginning could be difficult. Sometimes the library wouldn’t have the first book. Sometimes a bookstore would run out of stock. Sure, I could have put my name on a waiting list or gone to other shops, but 10 to 13 year old me didn’t want to do that. Instead, I made do with whatever book I could find. That practice had some…interesting results.
The Subtle Knife, Book 2 of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
It all began with The Subtle Knife. I’m not sure that I even realized that the book was actually the second one in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I simply picked it up from my teacher’s shelf one day, and that was that. The book works remarkably well as a starting point. Protagonist Will Parry didn’t know about the events of the first book, and neither did I. We learned together.
There was an unfortunate side effect of starting with The Subtle Knife though. I’ve never been able to convince myself that The Golden Compass, the first book in the series, was strictly necessary.
Reading The Queen of Attolia, book 2 of Megan Whale Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, first was also the result of strange library shelves. I couldn’t find the first book anywhere, and I liked the Queen’s green dress on the second book’s cover. I was hardly going to pass it up. Unfortunately the novel doesn’t begin on the brightest note. Even though it painted the Queen as a rather horrible person, I felt protective of her. I also lacked any concept of who the various characters were or why I should care about them.
But I really did like the Queen’s dress.
Obsidian Butterfly, Book 9 of Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton
I have no excuse for somehow starting in the middle of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. An entire set of the series was sitting on the shelf in the bookstore. In spite of books 1 through 8 being available, I decided that book 9 was the right book for me. Through sheer, dumb luck, that turned out to be a good choice. Obsidian Butterfly features very few of the series’ recurring characters, and it takes place in a different location than usual. As a result, I didn’t have to catch up with 8 books worth of information.
Sadly, the book was also deceptive. Reading Obsidian Butterfly, I had no idea that the book belonged to an erotic series. The book contained violence and some strange sexual politics, sure, but it didn’t spend a lot of time on sex.
As a result, I was…surprised when I read a few of the other Anita Blake books.
Starting with Lirael, the second book in Garth Nix’s fabulous The Old Kingdom series, suited me just fine. As the title indicates, the protagonist is a woman named Lirael rather than Sabriel, the main character of the first book in the series. Like Will from The Subtle Knife, Lirael doesn’t know much about the events from the previous books. She and I started out the story equally confused.
Overall, beginning in the middle of various series has worked out. Other than a few momentary points of disorientation I understood the novels.
It has been a long time since I’ve read a series in this haphazard way. I blame technology for that. I no longer have to scour physical bookshelves to find books. Now I can simply order an ebook with a single click and have access to it immediately. As a result, I have fewer opportunities to make my old mistakes. Still, I somewhat miss my former way of finding books. Reading a series out of order was always an exciting puzzle. I had to work a little harder than usual to make sense of a fictional world.
And there is a part of me that, secretly, thinks everyone should do it at least once.