tl;dr: If you're going to have a cliff-hanger, for the love of all that's holy, indicate that somehow before people pick up your book. And make it in character. Or I will be KrankyKiwi.
I like standalone novels very much, some of my all-time favourite books are standalone. In a few cases, as much as I wished the author would return to the world, the story was so complete it would have to be simply another story from the same universe. Even then, it’s often a little disappointing when they do. Joe Haldeman for instance did it, but got skewered. Or Stephen Boyett who returned after 25 years to the world of Ariel, with the novel Elegy Beach. It’s a good book, and both work quite well as standalones, but it could never quite live up to the wonder that was reading Ariel the first time as a teenager. (If you haven’t read it, and you like fantasy at all, you should--It’s got a badass potty mouthed unicorn and his boy on a quest to defeat an evil wizard in a
I also like series very much, and I expect that there will be cliff-hangers in the intermediate books, but there is a difference between a series and a serial. A book marketed as part of a series still has to have some internal resolution and be able to stand at least partly on its own as a complete story, as well as contributing to the over-arching series arc. A serial on the other hand, you know what you’re getting, that it is only part of the story, one act so to speak rather than a complete episode. It’s one thing for a series book to end with a threat of looming darkness, a feeling of “something wicked this way comes”, but don’t stop in the middle of an action set piece!
But one thing I really can't stand is unexpected cliff-hangers, where the author is playing bait and switch.
There’s a book on my kindle right now that was a freebie I downloaded some time ago, and forgot why. So naturally I looked it up on Amazon again, only to find a review complaining that it ends on a cliff-hanger, without warning. Not only is there no warning this is a cliff-hanger, there’s no indication on the book cover, in the book, in the blurb, or in the Amazon description that this is Part One of anything. Nor is there any mention of when (or even if) the next part might be coming along. I can see why that reviewer was miffed, I would have been too, and as of right now, I have no interest in reading the book.
And that’d be ok, if I didn’t come across the author of that very book, complaining on a forum thread elsewhere that he had got a “bad” review. Because as we all now know, three stars on Amazon is bad. Frankly he’s lucky I didn’t read it first, I’d have one starred it for that. Moreover he’s completely missing the point: The complaint isn’t that there is a cliff-hanger, it’s that he played bait-and-switch and didn’t warn anyone it was coming. So now he’s whining that readers are complaining about his cliff-hanger but reading up other authors series like a storm. I guess special-snowflake-author-school doesn’t have a “reading for comprehension” class.
Almost worse, is on the final book of a series, adding a cliff-hanger to kick off a spin off - I have not forgiven the Hendee's for that in the Child of a Dead God series, despite overall liking that series.
And finally, if you must have a cliff-hanger at the end of your first book, then it has to make sense. It took me a little while to figure out exactly what my problem was with the Elle Casey book I read the other day. I thought it was mostly that the essential conflict specific to that book was resolved, but the introduction of the overarching conflict arc for the series was very late – in the last two chapters of the book. And that is a problem, there could have been a little more foreshadowing earlier, but I’ve realised it’s not the real problem. And that is, the conflict introduced quite literally on the final page, is far out of character.
Ms Casey wrote a decent book, I certainly enjoyed reading it. Central to the story is the non-romantic close friendship between the two main characters, Jayne and Tony. They are tight, to the point he can quite literally read her mind, and they depend on each other from the beginning of the story to the end, through difficult home lives, a typically horrible experience of school for anyone who is an outsider, through running away from home, and finally through their trip through the forest during the “experiment” they get hooked up on. They are very important to each other, and they truly care about each other a lot. And actually, it was really nice to read about a boy-girl friendship this deep that was completely platonic.
So there we are, on the last page, and these two fairly ordinary teenagers have discovered that the fae are real, and been offered more or less superpowers and a life of excitement or the alternative of returning to their normal life but with their memory wiped. And out of the blue, in almost the last paragraph, Tony says no and the book ends. This is so ridiculously out of character! Knowing already that Jayne said yes, and that with his memory wiped they would have to part, Tony would not do this without talking it through with her first – they talked through everything else that happened, so why make this monster decision unilaterally? Tony also knows Jayne loves him to pieces, and that by saying no, he’s put her in a horrible position. Her home life is horrific, so her alternatives are returning to the homeless squat they were staying in and give up her chance for a fantastic life, or give him up because his memory will be wiped and she will be off saving the world.
It's not just a cliff-hanger, it's an out of character one, because there is no way this character we have gotten to know quite well, would have just said no without carefully considering the consequences, and it just rings so false it derails the story. Like a deus ex “oh crap I need a hook for the next book” desperation move on the part of the author, and frankly, like a manipulation of the reader. There was plenty of hook to continue reading – finding out about the kid’s new powers, finding out more about the fae world that was introduced just a chapter earlier, finding out why Jayne is so particularly special and different.
In the end, I think this actually would have been a better book, (and I as a reader more inclined to pick up the next one) if it had ended with the kids relaxing after their forest ordeal taking a little time to come to terms with the very fact the fae existed, and ended there, about a half a chapter sooner than it did.