Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Spotlight On Serial Box

Serial fiction held a special fascination for me when I was a kid. The characters in the children's novels I gulped down were always hankering after the latest installment of their favourite serials, delivered to them via newspapers or magazines, but my own early-90s childhood offered nothing comparable. All my prose fiction came to me in book-length form.

Of course, serials did exist back then. Magazines like F&SF and ASIMOV'S published them every now and again, and general authors Steven King and Jackie Collins released thin paperbacks that were designed to form one novel when you read 'em all together. These stories weren't accessible to someone like me, though, and they remained out of my reach until ebooks came along and changed the literary landscape.

And until publishers began releasing them on the regular, to my unending delight.

Last fall I started following TREMONTAINE, a serial rooted in Ellen Kushner’s popular Riverside setting. It introduced me to Serial Box, a publisher that aims to provide an HBO-style experience for readers. All their serials are structured like TV shows in print form (or on audio), with seasons that stretch for anywhere from thirteen to sixteen episodes released weekly. Each episode is around fifty pages, making it easy to finish in an hour or less depending on your reading speed or to listen to inside of two hours if you take the audio route.

The episodes are available on all major ebook retailers, and the first episode of each season is always free on their website so you can see how you like the story before you commit. I found TREMONTAINE very much to my taste, as expected, and promptly subscribed through the Serial Box app because it gave me the best value for money. Each S1 episode was $1.59 USD, which included both the audio edition and the DRM-free ebook in whatever format I desired. I listened to the whole season because short audios work well with my schedule.

I had so much fun with it. As with any TV show, there were weeks when I crammed the new episode into my eardrums as quickly as I could and weeks where I fell behind and had myself a mini marathon of two or three episodes. Even when I faced delays, I delighted in the opportunity to check in with a beloved setting and new-to-me characters who soon became beloved in their own right, and the format let me wallow in the story without committing myself to anything novel-length.

That’s the best thing about serials, really. You can kick back and enjoy a chunkster-length story in easy increments, week by week, instead of throwing yourself into something massive right off the bat.

The worst thing about serials is, of course, that sometimes you get so involved with the story that you don’t want to wait. Which is where full-season omnibi come in handy.

Serial Box recently released their first three serials--TREMONTAINE, BOOKBURNERS, and THE WITCH WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD--in omnibus editions, available in one volume at most ebook retailers and two volumes on Amazon. (Saga Press will release print editions in January.) They kindly gave me review copies of BOOKBURNERS and THE WITCH WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to spotlight all three of these initial offerings so y’all know what might spark your interest.

Tremontaine banner. The silhouette of a woman with a small sword stuck through her bun sits in a roundel surrounded by vines upon which other sword-wielding characters sit. A ship and a cat also appear. To the left of the image is the series title.
Written by Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and Paul Witcover
Serial Box | Amazon | Kobo

TREMONTAINE is set in the same world as Ellen Kushner’s wonderful Riverside books (SWORDSPOINT, THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD, and THE FALL OF THE KINGS [co-written with Delia Sherman]), somewhat more than fifteen years before SWORDSPOINT begins. It sprawls in glorious fashion as it follows a large, predominantly queer cast of merchants, nobles, scholars, and lowlifes through a period of upheaval involving lost fortunes, dark secrets, academic frustration, and the chocolate trade.

There’s plenty of scheming on both the political and the personal level, a great deal of scholarship, lots of exciting math, sexy times for them what wants ‘em, and heaps of delicious foodstuffs like tamales and chocolate (two of my faves). I finished each episode longing for more, and as things heated up I began to make gif faces at regular intervals.

When I realized what was going on with Diane I was like

A gif of Selena Gomez clasping her hands in front of her as her mouth forms an O of surprise.

And when it was confirmed, I was like

A gif of Supergirl getting really excited about ice cream.

I got super into it, is what I’m saying.

While you don’t have to be familiar with Riverside to enjoy TREMONTAINE, there are plenty of little bonuses for return visitors. I myself geeked out a teensy bit (okay, a lotsy bit) over Vincent Applethorpe.

Bookburners banner. The title appears in white against a red field. To its left is a stylized illustration of a woman brandishing a gun as she emerges from a door in a round object.
Written by Max Gladstone, Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, and Brian Frances Slattery
Serial Box | Amazon | Kobo

BOOKBURNERS introduces readers (and/or listeners) to the Vatican’s crack anti-magic squad. Detective Sal Brooks is thrust into a world of demons and dark magic when her brother opens the wrong book and ends up in thrall to a dark entity. As part of Team Three, she finds and contains dangerous magical texts and artifacts, hopefully before the demons in them rise up and destroy humanity.

I fell in instalove with this series and promptly talked it up to every UF or horror fan of my acquaintance as I worked my way through its sixteen episodes. (It’s a long ‘un with a couple of interwoven arcs). Despite the provocative title, BOOKBURNERS presents a complex look at how people might interact with magic that has high destructive potential. Some of them want to wipe it away completely, while others view it as a tool that’s only dangerous in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to wield it. There’s a lot of tension between these two viewpoints, with the members of Team Three often caught on different sides of the conflict.

The series is also just plain cool. Team Three travels all over the world and deals with a wide variety of people, from small town kids to demonic billionaires. The magical landscape becomes a little clearer with each episode, even as the writers introduce more fascinating questions about how this all works. And the stakes remain high, both on an apocalyptic scale and for each team member personally.

I finished the season finale just in time to start S2 along with the rest of the world. I’ve been writing about it every Sunday on Murchie Plus Books.

Banner for The Witch Who Came In From the Cold. The title appears on the left, stenciled in grey against a beige background. Beside it, the image of a white woman's face is superimposed over the blue outline of a white man.
The Witch Who Came In From the Cold
Written by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, Michael Swanwick
Serial Box | Amazon | Kobo

THE WITCH WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD transports readers to Prague in 1970. Tanya is a KGB operative and an agent of the Ice, a sorcerers’ consortium intent on preserving the world from destruction. Gabe is a CIA operative who ran afoul of the Ice’s counterpart, the Flame, and now has a troublesome elemental lodged in his head.

This one’s for all the fantasy fans who also love spy thrillers. There’s tons of tradecraft herein. Spells and charms abound. Ley lines make peoples’ lives easier, or complicate everything. Y’all know the golem makes an appearance. And through it all, the spies jockey for position, develop new contacts, and search for the sort of secrets that could tip the Cold War in one direction or the other. Big fan of practical magic that I am, my very favourite bits involved Tanya and Gabe using magic to enhance their tradecraft and make their non-magical jobs easier.

The writers are also interested in the tension between opposing forces plotted along four axes. Across one axis, we’ve got the Russians and the Americans; along another, the Ice and the Flame. Some characters belong to more than one camp, and there’s considerable interplay between their various duties as, say, CIA agents and Ice allies, or Russian spies and acolytes of the Flame. It’s fascinating stuff, and it gives the reader plenty of layers to uncover.

I’ll look forward to S2, coming in 2017. This season delivers a lot of satisfying action, but there’s still a bargeload of unanswered questions and hints of more complications to come.

That covers the three Serial Box titles available in extended form, but it's not all they've done. I’m currently in love with WHITEHALL, an historical serial that’s seven episodes into its thirteen-episode run, and the second season of BOOKBURNERS has given me tons to chew on. I'm also very much looking forward to REMADE, their first YA offering, set to debut in September.

TL;DR: I highly recommend you check Serial Box out. As I said, all their season premieres are free on their website or in their app, so you can poke around and see which ones you click with. Then you can grab yourself an omnibus and wallow, one episode at a time.

1 comment:

  1. What I have read so far has been fun. I just need more hours in the day...