Episodic novels (or fix ups) have a bad reputation these days, and I don’t think that’s entirely undeserved. For instance, I find the individual “weapon shop” stories of A.E. Van Vogt sort of intriguing, the way Van Vogt can be intriguing before he lets you know what he’s really driving at (usually something like Tyrants Are Nice People, Really). But The Weapon Shops of Isher, based on the same stories, is a chunk of dreck by comparison, and its sequel is even worse.
Van Vogt was always mutilating his best short stories by trying to make them part of something bigger: consider the sad fate of “Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet”, welded into the bulk of an ungainly construction dubbed The Voyage of the Space Beagle. (Although that’s an awesomely tone-deaf title. One envisions an indefinite series of sequels: Bride of the Space Beagle, Son of the Space Beagle, Revenge of the Space Beagle, etc., all featuring the further adventures of the star-spanning canine suggested by the original title.)
In a somewhat different case, the Conan stories were adapted and reordered, long after Robert E. Howard’s death, as a series of episodic novels covering a long arc of the hero’s career. REH’s tales were pasted together with inferior pastiches by various hands and speculations about what happened in the gaps of Conan’s reported career. This was probably a good thing at the time: these Lancer editions (later reprinted by Ace) put REH’s work at last in the hands of a wider audience. But, as has often been observed, it’s impossible to read these volumes without a sense that REH’s imitators are painfully inferior to the original. REH’s stories have since been republished, with restored texts and in their original order of publication, and it’s a rare REH fan that doesn’t think this is a good thing.
Similarly, Michael Moorcock refashioned his own Elric stories into booklength narratives, and these were the versions in which most readers encountered the White Wolf. But I, frankly, wasn’t crazy about the effect. The earlier Elric stories had a different flavor than the later stories, and I found the passage from one to the other and back somewhat jarring. The Elric stories are receiving the full Conan treatment these days, a new edition collecting the stories in their original order of publication, and are being greeted by loud cheers, at least from me.
It’s easy to see why an episodic novel might not work. The narrative rhythms of an effective short story are wholly different from those of a novel. Suppose we have a series about the Star Smasher. In the first story, the Star Smasher confronts the ultimate challenge of his career when he faces the searing radium-stars of the Nebular Ninja. In the second story, the Star Smasher confronts the ultimate challenge of his career in the savage star-claws of the Galactic Leopard. In the third story, to introduce some sadly needed variety, we send the Star Smasher on vacation, where he discovers the nefarious plots of the Cruel Concierge of Cassiopeia K. In the fourth story we reveal that the Star Smasher is the secret identity of Glurk Franduel, a minor character who has appeared in the series before. The fifth story is a plotless postmodern meditation on suffering and secrecy where Glurk Franduel and his Star Smasher persona argue at length and with many gratuitious high-cultural allusions in an obvious and somewhat futile attempt to snag a literary award. There is no sixth story because the magazine folded or the editor regained his sanity.
In novelizing the series, we have certain problems. For one thing, there are two ultimate challenges, and we’ll want to fix that, or people will think we don’t know what “ultimate” means. We also have some sort of internal crisis of the main character, and we have learned (i.e. invented) various things in the later stories which would have been relevant in the earlier stories. We could weave all these things into a new narrative–begin with the Nebular Ninja, put the vacation stuff and the existential crisis in the middle, end with the Galactic Leopard. But to do that we will have to change the original stories significantly, possibly alienating some of our core audience. (Call this the Van Vogt method.) Or we could just pretend that the individual stories are chapters and paste on some “interludes” to make them stick together. The book won’t really be a novel, just a collection of stories passing as a novel because people don’t buy collections of stories. (Henry Kuttner’s Mutant is a somewhat elderly example; Bujold’s Borders of Infinity or Stross’ Accelerando are more recent ones.)
Or: we could just refrain. That’s at least a viable approach nowadays. Matt Hughes’ short stories of Henghis Hapthorn appeared serially in F&SF, but when they were published in book form it was as a collection. We could just call it Star Smasher Stories! and get started on the booklength sequel, The Star Smasher vs. the Space Beagle!. If the stories really chart the zig-zag pattern I laid out above, that might be the best solution.
But episodic novels work sometimes. Cabell’s The Silver Stallion, Fritz Leiber’s Swords and Deviltry and The Swords of Lankhmar, and Jack Vance’s Cugel books are all successful episodic novels, where the existence of an over-arching serial plot heightens the impact of the individual episodes. The effect is different than a volume of good stories or a good novel, but (when successful) is equally pleasing.
Also, this is a very traditional form in sf/f generally and sword-and-sorcery in particular. For some, that may not matter at all. The past is dead. The future is now. The reason to jump off the cliff is that no one has done it yet. But, personally, when it comes to cliff-jumping, I am not that innovative. I like to look down and see a deep, soft carpet of my predeceased predecessors before I leap.
I think one of the biggest reasons to write an episodic sword-and-sorcery novel is the nature of the genre itself. Most would agree that S&S stories tend to have a narrower scope than stories of high fantasy. An episodic novel allows the storyteller the opportunity to spin a novel-length story without introducing Evil Dark Lords of Evil, Chosen Ones Who Will Lead Us to the Path of the One True Kingdom Wisdom, and the other threadbare archetypes that like to infest the wide open spaces of a narrative with 100K words (or more). The individual episodes keep the issues personal, where S&S likes them, while their cumulative effect (if the stories work together, rather than against each other) can add up to something like-yet-unlike a novel’s impact.