I like series and I tend to start with the very first one and track them as they develop. To observe how plots and characters develop of course, but equally the writer and the craft itself. Whether a book is honest to its own self-contained purpose while forming another link in a chain. To see how authors deal with more of the same, more of the different. To notice when they find their first wobbly feet, when they get into the stride, when they are most earnest, most practised, most formulaic, most true, most insightful.
I discovered Elizabeth Peters a couple of years ago. On our trip to Kodi, Sudha kept brandishing this paperback about - interesting cover and an even more intriguing title, Crocodile on the Sandbank. Quick scan of the blurb, and words leaped out: 1884, Egypt, tombs, archeologists, mystery. It sounded like fun.
Amelia Peabody, single and wealthy, travels to Egypt to see if it can offer her adventure. It does, of course, in the form of missing mummies and dastardly villains. It also offers her two enduring loves - archaeology and Radcliffe Emerson, 'the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age.' That sets the tone for the series - they marry, have a son (whom they call Ramses) and return each year to Egypt to excavate sites and have thrilling encounters with arch enemy Sethos and other assorted bad men. There have been 17 books so far, I think.
Peters doesn't 'write' very well but she scores with characterisation, at least her primary characters. Brisk and managing, impetuous and brave, and with a robust sexual appetite, Amelia was amusing to begin with. But the books stayed superficial and a little into the series, I was quite ready to let go. Except they deepened.
Ramses grew up, and gently nudged his parents aside as he took centrestage. The precocious, verbose kid grows into a rather sexy young man, secretly and desperately in love with his adopted sister, Nefret. He has all the usual heroic attributes - intelligence, courage and oodles of sex appeal. He's taciturn, inscrutable, scrupulously polite, and astonishingly respectful of his overbearing parents. But Ramses is a vulnerable hero - a young man with very many fears, someone striving very hard to do the right thing.
He Shall Thunder in the Sky is set in troubled times, the beginning of WW I. The formula remains the same but the backdrop informs the narrative. Racism gets a look in, as do the sordidness of prostitution, and the senselessness of war.
Publicly reviled for not enlisting, Ramses is in fact a spy, albeit a reluctant one. Disguised as an Egyptian leader, he is shot one day and drags himself home in a near-faint. Amelia Peabody, who has hitherto treated her son with a mixture of exasperation and somewhat detached affection, learns what it means to her to have him at death's door.
Ramses's eyes opened. "I still hate this bloody war, you know," he said indistinctly.
"Then why are you doing this?"
His head moved restlessly on the pillow. "It isn't always easy to distinguish right from wrong, is it? More often the choice is between better and worse… and sometimes the line between them is as thin as a hair. One must make a choice, though. One can't wash one's hands and let others take the risks… including the risk of being wrong. There's always better… and worse… I'm not making much sense, am I?"
"It makes excellent sense to me," I said gently.
Including the risk of being wrong! I loved Ramses, and I suspect it was because I took the books at face value and he came up to surprise and move me. If you read these books and find you're beginning to like Ramses, don't start on Seeing a Large Cat without lining up The Falcon at the Portal, He Shall Thunder in the Sky and The Lord of the Silent. That way torture lies.