Knee-Deep in Backstory: Jumping Into an Established Series

Festive in Death

A few weeks ago, I read a book—Shelly Laurenston’s Bite Me—which, unbeknownst to me, was the ninth in a long-running series. I’d picked it up because the first two lines of the tease (“Livy Kowalski has no time for idiots. When you shapeshift into a honey badger, getting through life’s irritants is a finely honed skill”) grabbed me by the nose and yanked. I mean—honey badgers? That sounded like the kind of bananapants good time I needed after a glut of new-adult titles that were heavy on the cutting and eating disorders and sexual assaults and dead parents.

And then I started Bite Me, and was utterly lost before I even finished the author’s note—which was apologizing for the fact that the cover shows a Siberian tiger, when her hero is in fact a shapeshifter who’s a cross between a tiger and a grizzly bear (because the Kensington art department can only accomplish so many miracles in a month, I guess). I’m not a huge paranormal reader, so I was unprepared for a world of people who can literally turn into animals—like, there’s a dude chowing down on a handful of bamboo on page 10 because he’s a panda shifter. But I was hooked on Laurenston’s quicksand writing style, so I went back to the beginning and binged on the entire series. (I may, at one point, have actually growled at someone on the subway who stepped on my foot while I was reading Bear Meets Girl.)

This got me to thinking about the cost of entry for some of our favorite multibook series. Is it possible to jump right into the middle of a series and expect to understand anything? Or do you have to spend a month and a half doing homework before you can enjoy the newest JD Robb?

Author: Shelly Laurenston
Series: Pride Series

Here’s your primer on the Pride Series: there are people who live among us who can shape-shift into lions, tigers, and bears. (And wolves, hyenas, and honey badgers—not to mention the hybrids. Yep: ligers.) They have their own restaurants, their own pro sports teams, their own law enforcement agencies, their own complicated social structures—the wolves and other canine shifters live in packs, the lions in female-led prides, and the honey badgers are lunatic criminals, mostly. And they tend to have a lot of really hot sex (thankfully while in their human forms). These books are utterly engrossing once you suspend your disbelief, and funny as hell—every time one of the male lions started shrieking about his glorious, beautiful hair I burst out laughing.
Need to read from the beginning? It helps to start with the novella that kicks everything off, the first half of The Mane Event. Even there, Laurenston doesn’t devote a lot of words to world-building; her only concession to readers who might be feeling a bit lost is making the heroine of the first story a non-shapeshifting human, so the lion she falls in love with has to explain this whole by-the-way-sweetheart-I’m-a-lion thing. There is an ongoing mystery running through the series, but it’s fairly easy to catch on. The only drawback to jumping in midstream is the mind-boggling number of names and relationships Laurenston crams in—there aren’t a whole lot of only children in the shapeshifter world, and it can be tough to keep track of all the wolf cousins and jackal siblings.

Author: Jill Shalvis
Animal Magnetism
Shalvis’s latest series revolves around a veterinary clinic in a remote town in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. Like all Shalvis heroes, the dudes are great big burly manly men, and in this series they do things like heal wounded puppies. These books are catnip if you like any of the following: mountains, animals, emotionally fragile bad-boy heroes who are allergic to shirts. The fifth book, Then Came You, is out July 1 and it is smokin’ hot.
Need to read from the beginning? No. You’ll miss some nuances, but you’ll understand everything. The Sunshine, Idaho, world is less densely knit than in Shalvis’s long-running Lucky Harbor series (and has a lot less adorable-small-town quirkiness than that series, which I appreciate). The earlier books are all delightful, but I highly recommend the fourth, Rumor Has It, for the sensitively drawn hero, a soldier who comes home with PTSD.

Author: J.D. Robb
In Death
The futuristic crime series Nora Roberts has been writing under an alias for the past nineteen years is up to forty-nine stories, including novellas, with Festive in Death out in September. The series begins in 2058, with New York cop Eve Dallas investigating a mysterious, drop-dead sexy billionaire, Roarke, who might be a misogynistic serial killer. (Two-decade-old spoiler alert: if he were a misogynistic serial killer, there wouldn’t be forty-nine books.) Both Eve and Roarke are damaged characters who slowly find healing with each other, and as the series matures, the rather antisocial Eve’s very limited world expands to include a husband, a partner (the beat-cop kind), a whole host of colorful friends, and a very fat, surly cat.
Need to read from the beginning? Yeah, this is the series with the steepest buy-in. You at least need to read the first three books, Naked in Death, Glory in Death, and Immortal in Death, which set up Eve and Roarke’s relationship and lay the groundwork for the sprawling epic that follows. From there if you want highlights, you can skip to the emotionally wrenching Judgment in Death, then the truly terrifying Visions in Death. The events of 2005’s Origin in Death have been a recurring theme in many of the recent books as well.

Author: Jeaniene Frost
Series: Night Huntress

In Halfway to the Grave, Cat Crawfield is a college student who hunts vampires in her spare time, hoping one of them will turn out to be the vampire who raped her mother, resulting in half-vampire Cat’s conception. And then she meets Bones, a two-hundred-something-year-old undead bounty hunter who’s a bit more of a challenge than the saps she usually stakes. There are six more books after that one—the series wrapped up earlier this year with Up From the Grave—in which Cat and Bones meet a voodoo queen, drink a lot (a lot) of blood, and screw each other dimwitted, all while fighting Teh Evil. I just love this series (which has also spawned four spinoff novels set in the same world) because it makes paranormal craziness feel like it has real-world consequences.
Need to read from the beginning? Yes. There’s a Rubicon in book four that won’t make any sense if you haven’t read the earlier books. Plus, some characters in later books become, uh…ghosts. So you’ll want continuity there.

What series have you jumped into recently?

  • Heather Santiago

    I just started the Outlander series and I’m hooked!

  • Nancy Knepel

    Jumping into the middle of an established series? Never EVER EVER. Always a quick search on whether a (new-to-me) book is part of a series. Not fair to the character, the author, to me, to readers of any review I’d write. I would never start a book in the middle, just as I’d never start a series any where other than the first book. Can you tell you found my hot button? I’m really relaxed about everything except series. I put all my anal retentive energy there. Happy reading (in order, of course!).

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