Ongoing Series and Happy Ever After

“Love, he thought as he held her to his heart, was an agony beyond compare.”
-Raphael
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?

Categorized:

Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Kim says:

    Perhaps the appeal of one couple making it keeps readers going in their own one-couple relationship.  As a military spouse, I have friends (and adventures) from various bases around the world.  But the one constant is the love, affection, and security I enjoy with my military hero.  Granted, we have chaos and conflct, but in the end, we have each other.

    Sarah wrote about “Random musing time! Unanswered questions ahoy!”  I am curious as to when you sleep!  I read your blog @ 12 am in Hawaii (5 am on the East Coast) I am pleasantly surprised to find a new post in the wee hours of the monring.  How fun to be one of the first responder today!

  2. 2
    JenD says:

    I tend to view it as it is the happily ever after. The only difference is I get to read it instead of have it spin off the end page into eternity. I get to enjoy the HEA and watch it bloom through seasons like my daffodils.

    As long as I enjoy the writing and the characters stay true- I’m down for the ride.

  3. 3
    Mama Nice says:

    Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, of course. Talk about “happy for now” and OMGWTFNowWhat! in a story!
    But I love Jamie and Claire…and Bree and Roger.
    Thanks for the random musing – similar wonderings had rumbled around in my brain too at one point, and you summed it up nicely.

  4. 4
    Ros says:

    My favourite series focusing on one couple must be Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane books.  I know that they are usually shelved under detective fiction, but as she points out in the foreward to Busman’s Honeymoon, to the couple involved the murder is an intrusion on their romance, rather than the other way round.  The development of the characters and their relationship from its incredibly rocky start in Strong Poison, through growing understanding in Have His Carcase, the cat-on-hot-coals courtship of Gaudy Night, and finally the happy-ever-after that they manage to work out in Busman’s Honeymoon are all so perfectly paced and beautifully described. Layer upon layer is revealed of these complex characters and their hard-won happiness.  Just a joy to read.

  5. 5
    joanneL says:

    Eve and Roarke—30 books plus novellas—and I still like them as characters.  (and oh, the happy dancing that went on when I saw Nora/J.D. Robb say she hoped there would be thirty more books. Me too.)

    That’s the key for me; do I like the characters, do I care what happens to them next and are they ‘growing’ but staying true to the core of who they were when I first met them?

    Raphael and Elena are interesting. I care about them and I love the world the author has created for them. 

    I didn’t continue on with Gabaldon’s Jamie and Claire. I didn’t like Claire and I thought Jamie deserved more. Personal preference for sure, but key to why I follow one series and not another.

    Dunno, actually. Some work, some not so much.

  6. 6
    Kathy says:

    You know how sometimes, you read a great book, and say to yourself, “Wow.  That was great.  I wish it would never end.”  That’s how I felt after reading Outlander, many moons ago. 

    Today, after umpteen books, that take forever to write, so long, in fact, that I forget what happened in the last book—I wish it would end.  I mean, really.  Write some new characters!

  7. 7

    Oh, I love this idea.

    I don’t want to sound happy-ending adverse, but sometimes I dread the HEA when I’m really enjoying a book. I know I’m supposed to get that puffy-pink-cloud satisfaction as forever is promised and all adversity is thwarted, but more often than not, HEAs leave me flat. I’m not in it [“it” being the relationship’s bumpy and passionate ride] for the white satin bow neatly tying up the saga at the end. I want the drama and the messiness and gray moment after gray moment (within reason) and a chance to both detest and root for each character in turn, with a peak of temporary romantic bliss here and there. Whenever I reach an HEA I’m not ready for, I long for the conflict to come back and rile the hero and heroine up again. Conflict is vibrant, and HEA can sometimes leave me mourning. I think, “So now what? They just give each other candlelit foot rubs of the rest of their lives? They are going to be so bored, given that courtship.”

    What does that say about me? Would I rather stay hot and bothered than reach a literary climax? I guess. But by and large, romance can keep its HEAs.

  8. 8

    Just reading the words “Happy For Five Minutes Until The Next Crisis Hits” is giving me an itchy, crawling, restless feeling inside.  If the h/h’s HEA isn’t chained and padlocked at the end of a book, I feel dismayed and trapped.  Maybe it’s an issue of author trust—I’m afraid a perfectly good series will jump the shark midstream, as such series have been known to do, and leave me eternally dissatisfied. I will never start another series with ongoing characters until it’s complete, HEA forever and ever, amen, and the majority of readers are sighing with pleasure over the ultimate conclusion.

  9. 9
    Becca says:

    I won’t read books that end on hooks for the next book – just won’t – until the series is ended, and I can read them all at once. Just like I won’t read serials as they come out, but need to read the whole book all at once.

    That said, I like series that show one couple growing together and having their relationship deepening as their understanding of each other increases. To me, the best In Deaths have had a sub-theme of Eve and Roarke running across some fundamental difference in world view, and finding ways to overcome it. (I really, really loved Divided in Death for that reason). 

    Like Robin said above, “happy for five minutes until the next crisis hits” bothers me unless I’m absolutely sure that the couple’s intrinsic relationship is strong enough to survive the crisis. I like making a commitment not just to individual characters but to the relationship as well – Sookie Stackhouse lost me when the relationship with Bill soured.

    I have my own 25-year relationship that’s gone through some pretty rocky crises, but the core relationship was never in doubt, and was what allowed us to weather the crises and come out triumphant. So I look for that in my series, too.

  10. 10
    Terry Odell says:

    In Romance, I’m definitely an Eve & Roarke fan. I didn’t know romances weren’t supposed to continue with the same protagonists when I wrote the sequel to my first romantic suspense.

    Mostly I’m a mystery series follower, since the ongoing relationships there don’t have to follow the same “rules” as they would in a romance. I read both Kellermans, Sandford’s “Prey” series, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, J.A. Jance and many others and enjoy following the ongoing relationships as much as I enjoy watching them solve the crimes. I think strong characters with many layers keep readers coming back.

  11. 11
    Laurel says:

    I love the Mary Russell books by Laurie King for this reason. The relationship is barely hinted at in the first book, which is all mystery, sparks in book two, and even though they get married the relationship still changes and requires work. They get bored, each worries that the other might be restless without some external challenge. Each recognizes that they have a difficult relationship. It doesn’t stagnate.

  12. 12
    Laurel says:

    I’ve never read a Nora Roberts/ JD Robb book. Should I start with the In Death series?

  13. 13
    heather says:

    Patricia Briggs’ two paranormal series: Mercy and (especially) Alpha and Omega books.  Also Kelley Armstrong’s Elena and Clay books are awesome.

    I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to paranormals, because there are quite a few of them where the series is focused on a single pair and it’s very satisfying to see them resolve further issues.

    The problem with one book and out is that it doesn’t seem that realistic (at least to me).  You have two fairly screwed up people, they fall in love, they resolve differences, then HEA.  But in real life we know that while, yes, the love of a good person may help us resolve issues and give us a reason to work to improve ourselves, it’s not a panacea and that continuing hard work is needed.  (I find it very strange that I just wrote that I read paranormals because they are the most realistic.)

    Even those paranormals that focus on a single pair with each book in the series generally keep bringing back the old couples and showing how they have evolved and adapted.  The last JR Ward was as much about Wrath and Elizabeth as Rehv and Ehlana.  And Singh’s other series (with the Changelings) do a very good job of bringing back previous couples, addressing the current couple, and setting up couples for the future.  (I can’t *wait* to read Hawke’s book.)

    @ Laurel: All the Eve/Roarke books are titled (Something) in Death.  The first one is Naked in Death.  While I’m sure you could probably dive in the middle and find them good, starting from the beginning was *very* satisfying, because NR doesn’t just unfold Eve and Roarke’s story, but all the stories of the supporting characters thru the series.

  14. 14
    Lynette says:

    Laurel
    Most def read JD Robb. Even if you don’t like her Nora Roberts books (I’ve only read a couple that I liked) you’ll love the In Death series. Naked in Death is the first one.

    Prepare to get hooked!

  15. 15
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I can get into the ongoing romantic plot/subplot-type stories if they evolve in a mature and organic way and don’t just throw one crisis after another at the couple for the purpose of creating ohmygodangst!!! (few devices turn me off faster than blatantly artificial conflict, especially in the form of the Love Triangle, which is why I think I soured rather quickly on the Sookie Stackhouse books, mentioned above.)

    My personal favorites in this area are Falco and Helena in the ongoing mystery series by author Lindsey Davis.  She took the hardboiled PI cliche, moved it to Imperial Rome, and then gave the PI a huge extended family, a girlfriend turned eventual wife and partner, a couple of cute kids, and makes it all work.  Another favorite is the Fools’ Guild series of mysteries by Alan Gordon which started basically as Shakespeare fanfic (the first is a staight-ahead sequel to Twelfth Night) and have evolved in very interesting directions since.

  16. 16
    scribblingirl says:

    @Laurel,

    On what Lynette said, yes, you will definitely get hooked on it..After reading Naked in Death, I went back and got the next 6, found the following 5 in used book stores, went back to the original book store and got the other 14…I don’t have the last five as of yet but it is an honest to goodness addiction..you’ll love it!

  17. 17
    Laura (in PA) says:

    I’m in love with the Julia Spencer-Fleming books, thanks, I believe, to you, SB Sarah. I believe I first heard about them here, and tried them out, and fell totally ass over teakettle. In addition to everything you’ve noted above, I grew up in the general vicinity of the books’ setting, and love how the climate there is also a character in the book.

    As Terry Odell said above, I read a lot of mystery series for the same reason – because you often not only get the mystery and it’s own version of HEA (solving it), but the chance to follow characters and their relationships, whether professional (such as between detectives and partners) or personal, or both. That’s what I love about the Eve and Roarke books too – not only their relationship and its development, but Eve’s relationships with other characters (Feeney, Peabody, Mira, Nadine, Mavis) and their relationships with each other. The crimes and how they’re solved are just the icing on the cake for me.

  18. 18
    Polly says:

    I love the two Briggs series, and so far, I’m really liking the Singh Raphael and Elena books. On the other hand, we’re only at book two, and I want many more, but my inner pessimist is afraid that the magic and sparkle will wear off soon (actually, what my inner pessimist says is, “and the third book can still stink.”). I like books where we can see actual change over time for one couple. That said, I don’t have the patience for the Robb In Death books. I read five or six of them, and I got bored. Not enough change over time, or maybe just not enough time—the whole series of thirty some books only covers a few years, tops, right? Anyway, whatever it was, it didn’t work for me.

    I like series in general, but most authors have a hard time following a relationship over several books, not just a character. I’m still a Sookie fan, but those books are about her, and her development, not about her relationship with anyone in particular.

  19. 19

    As Terry and Laura in PA said! The characters make it for me—and the actual construction of the tale. Reading certain authors is like getting tutoring in the difficult and intricate craft of CREATING characters that could be living in one of those interesting houses you drive past. Crais knocks my socks off with the humor and the plotting, Robb gets me with the gritty future NY and the whole cast. In the end, however, it is the AUTHOR who is more important to me than the ongoing (or not) characters.

  20. 20
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I forgot to mention that occasional SBTB contributor PN Elrod does an excellent job with the ongoing romantic subplot in her Vampire Files series.  Jack and Bobbi are a good example of a couple whose continuing relationship has managed to stay on track and evolve despite the kinds of external forces that would likely derail many couples.

  21. 21
    Laurel says:

    Yay! Thanks, y’all! *grins*

  22. 22
    Susan says:

    But isn’t HEA part of what defines a romance as a romance (as opposed to, say, a book about a relationship with lots of lovin’).  Clare and Russ (LOVE) are mysteries, so even though they are one of my favorite couples in recent literature (CAN’T WAIT UNTIL APRIL), my expectations were different because these books are not romance novels.  I’ve never read Nalini Singh (a situation that will soon be rectified…), but I have read other paranormal romance series that ended without the happy little wrap-up – and I’m all, what??  I don’t know about anyone else, but the reason I read romance is for the HEA.  I mean, for more than that – for the road to HEA, at least – but if I pick up a book that is marketed as romance and it ends with romantic ambiguity, I get all mad and stuff.  OK, not mad, but a little miffed.  Mildly miffed.

    Anyhoo.  My 2 cents, for what it’s worth.  2 cents, perhaps?

  23. 23

    I am a complete cliffhanger junkie, it’s true. My most enduring literary crush is Chas. Dickens, who wrote his novels as magazine serials, thereby inventing the OMG whuts going to happen NEXT? chapter ending. (Or in contemporary terms, “D—n me, Edith, where is the new edition of Bentley’s Miscellany?”) You either love it or you hate it. Be forewarned.

    I notice all the series mentioned here (I second Elizabeth Wadsworth’s recommendation of Lindsey Davis’s books) are NOT Romance. I’ve said elsewhere that being free of the genre expectation of HEA creates a completely different experience for both the author and the reader. When you take that safety net away, there’s a dramatic tension that can’t—that shouldn’t—exist in Romance. Maybe that’s the secret to continually interesting couples. A very wise editor once told me the most memorable characters are created by authors who aren’t afraid to let bad things happen to them.

  24. 24
    Karen H says:

    The only series I follow that has the same hero and heroine is J. D. Robb’s In Death books.  I like mysteries and police procedurals (I’ve watched CSI forever) and I like the futuristic aspects.  I don’t consider them straight romance, however.  Plus Roarke is totally yummy and Eve is a great character also!

    Except for them, however, I want a straight HEA in my romances.  I like series with new couples that allow the previous couples to jump in for a paragraph or two, but I don’t want to see 5 minutes of happiness followed by 5 months of grief, even if it’s realistic.  If I want realism, I’ll read the newspaper.

  25. 25
    Faye says:

    Oh Laurel, amen on the Mary Russell series! One of my all time favorites.
    I’m not sure if this counts, but the Kushiel books by Jaqueline Carey are at the top of my list for carrying a relationship through (and for worldbuilding, and for intensity, and for character development, and storytelling, and sex, and, and, and…..)
    And I have to admit, I remain a fan of Jamie and Claire, although I haven’t read the newest.

  26. 26
    Terri says:

    Used to love Dennis Lehane’s Patrick and Angie detective series. Wish he’d write a few more, but I guess he’s done with them.

    Really loved Roxanne St. Claire’s Bullet Catcher series (even though the main duo is different in each, the old pairs put in appearances)—so much that I went through the whole backlist in record time.  Looks like those are done now, too.

    Sigh.

  27. 27
    Cyranetta says:

    I just started the Spencer-Fleming series and am already eager to catch up, and I have followed the “in Death” J.D. Robb series with great fidelity.

    I haven’t really managed to dive into the various supernatural series, mainly because there seem to be so many of them these days, and I am reluctant to spend a lot of time on figuring out which new authors might be appealing since I’m having a hard enough time finding the time to keep up with authors I already enjoy (which tend to be authors who blend history, mystery and romance)!

    One series in early stages( 3 and counting) I very much enjoy is the Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn. Other authors of series I follow are C. A. Belmond, Lauren Willig, Elena Santangelo, and Tasha Alexander.

    It really is a remarkable balance to strike, isn’t it? Maintaining a believable through-line for a couple (or couples) at the same time as the author challenges them with circumstance or a clash of values. Of course television series that try to achieve the same kind of balance exemplify how hard it can be to get it right.

  28. 28
    Fiamme says:

    Ilona Andrews’ “Magic Strikes” series … the Laurie R. King Mary Russell books, and also the lesbian couple she writes for her contemporary detective series. Barbara Hambly’s Sunwolf and Hawk, with all their issues.

    And while it’s not “romantic” (sadly) … Kim Harrison’s series has me hooked on what goes on with Ivy and Rachel.  They are so very loving, even if not in love. The one story I read from Ivy’s perspective I hated though … I like her mysterious, tortured, and viewed from outside (not inside!).

    I think that I’m usually kept interested by the fact that the romance is not actually at the forefront of the story. There’s all this other stuff going on, and somewhere, between the cracks, love starts to seep in but nobody stops the world long enough for them to get secure and settled. Happy for five minutes, then it’s “WTF! CRISIS again!”.

    Also, they never have to fall back on The Big Misunderstanding to provide drama. Also … for all of these series (and more) the writers know when it’s realistic to highlight romance/relationships, and when people need to just get on with the world-saving.

  29. 29

    Terri—Lehane is writing a sequel to GONE, BABY, GONE as of this October. I am HUGELY excited about this. Patrick and Angie FTW. Or For The Angst, as the case may be.

  30. 30
    Kristina says:

    See I think I might be the exact opposite.  I get impatient sometimes with on going series that dont have a clear HEA.  I dont real life.  I want the fantasy.  HEA and move on.  :0)  BUT!!  I do always have a fascination with margin characters and LOVE when a series develops (intentionally or not) the circles around and focuses on the background characters with just enough of the older characters in the background for me to follow their relationships.  BDB for example or Nalini Singhes (sp?  sorry about that) Psy series.

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