K is for a Kingdom of Keys

I’ve been known to be a creature of habit; a little routined, a tad rehearsed, a titch regulated. Whether it’s going through a familiar sequence at my desk each morning, re-packing my handbag each night, or falling for the same type of unattainable bloke again and again, I can sometimes tick along like a well-wound clock. And not always on purpose.

Exactly one year, to the day, before I started writing this particular blog post on Lord Sunday, the seventh and final book in Garth Nix’s ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ series, I posted on book six, Superior Saturday. This was completely unintentional—I had no Keys to the Kingdom September plan—but it has made me think about some of my reading and book-procuring habits (and my occasional yearning to perform tasks in counts of 10 – yep, true).

Could there be certain things about certain times of year, or certain situations, which lend themselves to particular reading choices? I don’t mean that you read a particular author every August because that’s when the publisher always releases their books; I mean something to do with a mood or feeling that inclines you towards a particular genre in particular moments or at particular times. Take the seasons, for example. Like food and beer, I believe I may read heavier in winter and lighter in summer. There’s something about warm days, bright light and constant social distractions which turn me off an 800-page allegory, or a squintily peered at classic. In summer I am not naturally inclined towards a long-haul read, social-realism or something which required an index; but in winter you can load me up with a literary doorstop, a bleak account of modern life or even the odd footnote, and I’m much more inclined to immerse myself. Pop me over to a tropical island for a week and I’ll take some kind of borderline chick lit. Take me to the northern hemisphere for 8 weeks of winter and I’ll seriously consider that Beckett biography I still haven’t got around to reading. I can’t read anything too thought-necessary on planes, but I can on trains. When I’m reading a book which is a sharer between family and friends, I always want to be the last to read it. Some new books I just have to read next; while others I almost enjoy prolonging their life in the pile, awaiting the pleasure that is to come.

Lord Sunday has waited some time. When you’ve enjoyed a series, the last book is bittersweet. You experience the satisfaction of conclusion with the sadness of discontinuation. It feels like you’ve been waiting so long for this moment, but now that it’s here you don’t want it to end, you don’t want to know, you can’t let go.

Arthur Penhaligon has almost finished his journey in the House. He has one more key-holder to beat, one more part of the Will to secure, and then he can stop the awful spread of nothing, restore the house to its former glory, save his friends and family back on Earth, and go back to being a normal boy (well, as much as his exposure to other worldly power will let him). Up in Lord Sunday’s Incomparable Garden all hell is breaking loose, and all Arthur wants to do is finish up and head home. It’s not much for a nice boy to ask for but like many souls before him, Arthur must first complete his destiny.

Garth Nix should be congratulated for a very thorough tying up of storylines, character arcs and loose ends. It is more than clear in his seventh and final novel that this series was well-planned and not just a good idea which got ‘stretched out’. I have no questions. I feel no wanting.  Whether this is completely ideal I am yet to decide. I do feel a little like it’s all been tidied up, boxed and slipped under the bed, but then if something was left hanging, surely I would have been annoyed at this. Surely?

I don’t want to give away plots but will say the story’s conclusion was unexpected; I hadn’t thought that was where we were all heading. I’d had inklings of certain spanners and twists but not the ultimate one which revealed itself. I think it was a brave ending, particularly for a children’s book. Mr Nix could have gone down the road of least resistance and given us an all-conquering, life-goes-back-to-being-normal-and-awesome finish, but he didn’t. Not that it was ‘bad’. Just not easy. In fact, I found the last few chapters to be both thoroughly sad and wonderful at the same time, and found myself wishing in a way that the whole series had bent to this tone and perspective more. This last comment suggests that I found something lacking in the writing elsewhere but that’s not really so. I did seem to lose some enthusiasm for the series in the last couple of books as the story wasn’t quite taking me to the adventurous place the first books did. It doesn’t mean I didn’t like them, just that they didn’t ‘give’ me as much as I hoped. I think this may also have something to do with these books being pitched – correctly – at the storyline level of the kids who are supposed to be reading them. I am not, after all, eleven. But if these last few chapters are a sign of the usual maturity and wonder of Nix’s writing then I’m keen for more. Perhaps I’ll even make reading his stories a habit.

Book 19: Superior Saturday by Garth Nix

superiorLike a bower bird to blue milk-bottle tops, put some sparkle on a book cover and you’ll hear me exclaim ‘Ooh, shiny!’ from across the room. Mind you, with the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ series, ‘Ooh, Garth Nix’ would also have been heard, but the metallic-y covers sealed the deal.

Superior Saturday is the sixth book in the series, which started with Mister Monday and is due to end with the next book after this one, being, obviously, Sunday…. um, something. Lord! Lord Sunday. The books follow Arthur Penhaligon on his quests through a fantastical realm called The House, to reunite ‘the Will’ of its creator-being (known as the Architect), which is a group of enchanted words scattered amongst the Architect’s greedy, selfish, evil heirs – yep, seven of them called Monday, Tuesday etc. Each of these scary buggers also have a key which gives them most of their power. Arthur has been named the rightful true heir and must collect the keys, the Will, try to save his family and friends at home from the dangers befalling the Earth once the two worlds start to mingle and try not be turned into a denizen – a non-human resident of The House world – as he uses more and more of the keys’ powers to get him through. Big call for a young lad, non?

There’s a pretty big ‘to be continued’ at the end of this instalment, so let’s hope the Sunday comes along quickly!

I’m a loyal person but sticking with a series can be hard. It’s so much commitment on a reader’s part, and you never know how reciprocal the relationship is going to be. The author might take a really long time between books; they might not indicate how many books are involved in a series so that you have no end to aim for; the quality might drop as their super idea for the first two books peters out; for god’s sake they might DIE on you before they can tell you what happened to their hero after you last left him hanging from a vine on the edge of the cliff with the cantankerous centipedes of the evil cookie lord squirming below him. Then the publishers get the dead author’s son or ‘long-time collaborator’ to finish the series and you’re stuffed, ain’t ya?

Series have perks as well. You get to revisit with favourite characters, plots can be more twisty and lengthy as they meander through several novels, there’s a lot more room for change and surprise, etc. etc. It’s the waiting that hurts most.

If you’re writing a series and the readers aren’t crying out for the next book, then you’re doing something wrong.  And if your readers are crying out for the next instalment then you can’t delay them too long. I’m not sure what a suitable time is… Twelve months would be ideal but as a writer you’d have to be a fair way ahead of the publication schedule to keep up with that. Two years max? Otherwise your readers are going to either lose interest or hunt you down and tie you to your desk until you finish the damn thing, and that just makes things unpleasant for everyone. I’m currently waiting for the third and final book in a series and the author’s blog doesn’t even mention when to expect it… very frustrating! By the time the third ones comes around I will probably have forgotten all the important points – possibly my failing (see a future post for Year of the Flood … I forgot that Oryx from Oryx and Crake existed… well, who Oryx was exactly. I know, slap me.) but I’m sure I’m not the only one who suffers in this way.

But I find there is a happy middle ground and that’s the recurring character. You don’t necessarily have had to have read the books in a certain order or have read the other books as the stories tend to stand alone. But if you have read the other books then the reading experience is so much more rewarding as lots of strings from previous books will slink in and make connections, creating depth and colour, as well as an attachment to the world the stories are set in. Crime novels (in all their forms) are full of recurring characters we attach ourselves to. I also remember reading a lot of books as a child/teen that featured the same characters but weren’t necessarily a series. I find with the recurring characters books that I don’t finish them and then think ‘When’s the next one coming?’ like I do with  a series. There isn’t a countdown or a hunt to get some small schmackeral of a hint of when the new book will be out. I want to read another one, and I assume there will be another one in a suitable amount of time (whatever we work out that is). And when the next Lincoln Rhyme, Tony Hill, Salvo Montalbano book comes out, I’m delighted and thrilled. Unlike when the next book in a long-awaited series comes out and I’m slightly harried, nervous and bordering on disenchanted.

It’s all about expectations, isn’t it.