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Marissa Lingen

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Whitehall, from Serial Box [Jul. 30th, 2016|12:53 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Serial Box

Each episode of this serial has its specific authors listed, but there are thirteen episodes, and I don’t think you care who wrote episode one and who wrote episode seven, so the six contributing hands are Liz Duffy Adams, Mary Robinette Kowal, Madeleine Robins, Barbara Samuel, Delia Sherman, and Sarah Smith.

For those unfamiliar with Serial Box, their very conscious model is a TV season, only with written fiction. You can subscribe to get the serial every week when the new episode comes out, catching up with a “season pass” if you find a serial you like that’s already out. You can also buy on an episode by episode basis, and all the serials have their “pilots” available to read for free.

For many people, the serialization is part of the fun, and reading a sample will help you decide what you like. For people like me…not so much. Right up front: I fundamentally dislike serialization. I am a really fast reader, and I never got into watching TV on a weekly basis before DVDs and Netflix were widely available, so I’m not at all accustomed to the idea of having to wait for the end of the story. For me, this is not a feature. But! There is a solution to all this, and I’m doing it with Chaz Brenchley’s Crater School serial, which is subscribe to support the project and let it pile up in my Kindle until there’s enough to make a satisfying amount of story. So when the publicist for this project asked if I wanted to review it and told me the pitch and who was writing for it, I said absolutely…if I could have the whole thing. If it had a definite ending. It does and I could! So here we are.

Whitehall is the story of the early days of Catherine of Braganza’s marriage to Charles II of England. I basically always want another historical novel that’s reasonably well-researched and grounded in its period, and the Restoration is a period I know enough about to be annoying, so I was on board in an “I will catch the two nits that got through your meticulous editing process” way. (But the fact that this book did not make me run screaming in the first episode is a very good sign, because I am easily to send screaming about this period.) Catherine herself is a major point of view character, but so is the king’s acknowledged mistress, one of the queen’s serving girls, the king himself, and a few others as the story demands. Whitehall traces Catherine from her earliest alienation from the English court as a new, foreign, Catholic princess to finding her place as a beloved and acclaimed queen.

Unlike some collaborative works, each writer writes all the characters–you can’t break it down and say, “Oh, Jenny is written by Delia” or “Barbara writes the stuff with Rochester,” even if you could recognize writing style. Instead there is continuity of characters for each episode. Further, I felt that there was some effort to create a consistency of voice throughout the project, as one would see in a TV show. This has its good and its bad points. The good: Whitehall read a lot more like a novel in parts than like a series of short stories written by various people around a common topic, each with a slightly different idea of what James II would have been like in the time before his reign, etc. The bad: if you are craving a Delia Sherman novelette, a Mary Robinette Kowal novelette, etc., this will probably not scratch that itch, as the voice is a lot more averaged-out, with a lot of the quirky individuality of prose and characterization lost. This happens at least a little bit in any collaboration process, the more so with each additional collaborator, but when you have collaborators who have vivid voices you love to read, having a smoothly written group voice can be a bit more of a letdown if you’re not expecting it.

I found that there was not a lot of the kind of reminder you would find if the writers did not trust the readers–at least not the obtrusive kind. So if you’re like me and want to read your serials all piled up into one longish novel, this will not be a repetitive novel that cycles back to “remember who Lady Buckingham is? she’s the one who…” over and over again. I think that the presence of a “who’s who in Whitehall” webpage link and other links to keep you grounded will help those who are reading on a more weekly basis if they get lost in the English court. I felt that there was also enough incluing of why these people are important to the plot and why they should have some of the political/emotional triggers they have so that if you don’t have a solid grounding in Restoration history, it should not be confusing to you–while still not going into pages of backstory that would bore the fetchingly fitted trousers off those of us who already know that Catherine of Braganza wore them.

So if you’re interested in historical drama, especially in serial format, Whitehall scratches that itch, and you can give the pilot a try without committing to more. If you’re like me and a pilot will frustrate you, I can promise that there’s a whole story coming in all the pieces if you’re just a tiny bit patient.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


From: swan_tower
2016-07-30 06:43 pm (UTC)
I'm curious: in situations where you can mainline the whole thing at once (thus avoiding the problem of waiting and having only unsatisfyingly small chunks of story at a time), do you like the structural effects of serialized storytelling?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-30 06:48 pm (UTC)
Not actively.

Having interesting things happen regularly is good for most stories, but having a specific beat pattern is a neutral for me in most cases, sometimes mildly annoying. The thing that's majorly annoying is when your serialized thing feels the need to constantly say "Bob--who as you remember was the Lord of the King's Socks and also the guy who was a jerk about the currant scones--" on the assumption that the reader has gone weeks or months between episodes and does not know who Bob is. If the episodes are novel-length or more, okay...ish. I am pretty skeptical of claims that the old days featured taut prose because the books were so short, because I have read all ten Amber books in a row, and OH LORDY were they repetitive and full of flab because of feeling the need to catch everybody up EVERY SINGLE TIME. So while they are short, they are short but padded. Lots of wasted space. And the episodes there are short novel length.

That's why I noted that the serialization effects didn't do too badly in that regard here.
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From: swan_tower
2016-07-31 10:30 am (UTC)
I feel like modern serialization does a lot less of the recapping thing, because so many people consume the whole work in one go. (Which reaches its apotheosis with Netflix releasing whole seasons at once, rather than doling them out an episode at a time.)

What I like about serialized stuff is the way individual segments can function as commentary on one another: episode 10 inverts episode 6, or episode 14 answers a thematic question posed back in episode 3. Which of course is a thing you can also do in non-serialized works -- but I think it functions differently when it's episodes instead of chapters, because of the way in which an episode is both a self-contained thing and a piece of a larger work.

I've been thinking about this a bunch lately because wrapping up the Memoirs gave me lots of opportunity to reflect on how I was doing that with volumes of the series; something like a TV show or a Serial Box project lets you play the same structural game on a more rapid cycle.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-31 01:21 pm (UTC)
I think that the more successful an episode is at being self-contained, the better that works for me...but probably the worse it works at being part of a novel per se. If there was a project on Serial Box or similar that read more like a series of linked short stories--which is also a thing TV series can do--that would be extremely convenient for finding that kind of commentary all in one place. Even if you get your linked short stories published by all the same magazine or book anthology--which is a dicey proposition at best, depending on how many of them there are--getting them meaningfully "all in the same place" is not a thing that magazines or anthologies are really set up to do.
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From: swan_tower
2016-08-01 08:31 am (UTC)
Hmmm -- I suppose I don't think of what Serial Box produces as "novels," in much the same way that I don't think of TV shows as movies. In the case of Serial Box, the scale is closer (most seasons of a TV show obviously run massively longer than most films), but I tend to assume that what they're producing is neither a novel broken into pieces, nor a set of linked stories (each of which could stand on their own), but something more like a dollhouse-sized novel series, midway on the episodic-versus-continuous scale.

But admittedly that's an impression based on not having read very much Serial Box stuff. So for all I know, they do read more like novels in pieces, and in that regard they would annoy me a little. If I'm consuming serialized media, I like it to inhabit that middle ground, because that's where I hit the sweet spot of structural interest.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2016-08-01 03:09 am (UTC)
That might be part of why I have problems with Amber. I've read the first series at least twice (it may be more), but every time I read it, the first novel is sharp, the second one is lower-res, and after that everything is a blur and I can't remember what happened even while I'm reading the later volumes. My favorite Zelazny is Lord of Light, which is one long (by the standards of the day) volume.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-07-30 07:32 pm (UTC)
I've been enjoying it, though some episodes are better than others. This last one I really liked for its subtlety of characterization; two episodes ago the characters seemed flat, the voice more modern. But overall? Two thumbs up.
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