“Love, he thought as he held her to his heart, was an agony beyond compare.”
Archangel’s Kiss by Nalini Singh
There are two series I follow and cannot get enough of that focus on one couple in subsequent books. Rather than having related protagonists in each book, these series follow the same protagonists. Many of you are huge fans of J.D. Robb’s in Death series, which follwos Eve and Roarke. My two are Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Miller’s Kill series, which features Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne, and Nalini Singh’s Archangel series, with Raphael and Elena. While thinking about my enjoyment of these two sets of books, I had to ask myself (Random musing time! Unanswered questions ahoy!) why is it that these books hold my attention while I lose patience with other series that feature collections of couples who interrelate to one another in various connections? Why is the continually evolving series about the same two people satisfying in the individual books, even when there’s no happy ending overall (yet)? When is Eve going to have a baby? (I’m kidding!)
I think the key is what Julia Spencer-Fleming called “Happy For Five Minutes Until The Next Crisis Hits.” That happiness interspersed with moments of chaos and conflict seems like real life to me – perhaps that’s part of the allure. Or perhaps that happy ending studded with conflict in each installment is in itself hopeful and inspiring: that even the happy ever after takes work and commitment to endure.
I’m fascinated by how that enduring happy-for-now again and again is constructed. While I’m going to try to examine these two series without spoilers, please be aware that at times it may be unavoidable.
First: vulnerability. There’s always an element that undermines the solidification of their relationship. One slip or one wrong moment and it’s over, not because of inherent weakness in either party but because they struggle to maintain equilibrium in their commitment to each other amid huge and tempestuous imbalances and not insignificant antagonists.
Elena is vulnerable because she can be killed. Raphael is vulnerable because Elena is his weakness, and politically and immortally he shouldn’t have one if he wants his rule over New York to remain unquestioned by other aspiring angels. Clare is vulnerable because she’s both emotionally troubled at times, and because she’s the spiritual leader of her community – she’s a priest. And her relationship with Russ is at times highly… unappealing to her superiors and to her congregants. Russ is equally vulnerable because he represents the law, and yet he may be breaking several moral codes that are both legally and spiritually unbending in the values of those around him. Both Clare and Russ represent law and code of conduct, and yet their own conduct is questionable, even though they’re acting on the best of intentions.
Second: each book reaches a resolution of the conflict at hand, but they never full triumph. Perhaps there’s a cliffhanger (Ms. Spencer-Fleming, I am looking at you, ma’am) or there’s a metaphoric and literal rebirth at the end that sets up the next book (Ms. Singh, same goes). The vulnerability of the happy-ever-after is restored and emphasized at the end of every book because of the larger questions that surround the survival of the protagonists. They might solve the matter at hand and figure out who did what to whom and why, but there’s never a final scene to the protagonist’s relationship because things are always changing.
For example, Raphael has powers that are evolving, weaknesses that are revealed because of his connection to Elena. Yet that tie to her creates a strength and balance that he’s never had before. His relationship both undermines and fortifies.
Elena has become more powerful but is also among the weakest – she’s moved from being one of the streongest among the mortals, a big badass fish in a mortal pond, to a new and therefore weaker creature in a vast sea she’s not familiar with. Yet her lack of power creates a different sport of advantage: she fights with weapons that her combatants aren’t expecting, using techniques that they can’t predict, because on a basic level she thinks in a way that is foreign to them. She understands their ways a little more in each chapter, but few of her antagonists see her as an adversary worth knowing.
Clare and Russ find momentary happiness but nothing is ever fully smoothed out: she’s still younger. He’s still the chief of police, and she is often in his way. The town’s opinion of them does influence their lives. She’s always going to be younger than he is, his cultural perspective is always going to be markedly different from hers. Theirs is a relationship marked by dichotomy of multiple origins, and their attempts to navigate that based on the conviction that the joy of being together is worth the pain of getting there makes for powerful narrative.
This is a happy ending in reality: there’s never an “Ok, we’re all done now and can wallow in the warm mud of happiness without any effort on our parts.” Happy endings in the real world don’t reach an endpoint like that because all relationships take work. That may be the biggest draw for me: there’s another crisis, but even with multiple doses of WTFNOWWHAT?! the pair are still together. For both couples, Elena and Raphael, Russ and Clare, the new relationship and the troubles that it brings, particularly between people of such enormous differences, creates an ongoing tension that isn’t resolved easily – and keeps me as the reader interested. There’s no “end,” which can be exhausting (for both the reader and the writer, I imagine!) but there’s a perpetual “ever after,” and in the hands of a skilled writer, that hook is a hard one to shake.
What series that feature the same protagonists do you follow? Are there major differences that cause continual tension between them? What keeps you hooked?