Being a latecomer to an expansive fantasy world is often daunting and sometimes requires an unfortunate amount of trial and error to figure out where to begin. So, although authors may not have planned for their projects to end up quite so large it is still essential that their fantasy epics exist with some kind of structure to make them intelligible to readers arriving a little late to the party. The Forgotten Realms, particularly the extremely popular entries by RA Salvatore is a demonstration of the chaos that results when series organization becomes overly complex. On the other hand, the much less well-known Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell has a more accessible organization scheme. These of course are incredibly different series but ultimately their creators were facing the same problems about how to organize new additions to a series that was now more about a shared world than it was shared characters.
Although RA Salvatore is not the original creator of the Forgotten Realms he is probably the most well known author associated with the world. With his Icewind Dale Trilogy he introduced the soon to be famous character of Drizzt Do’Urden who would bring on the first of the numbering debates when his backstory was given its own trilogy after Salvatore finished writing the Icewind Dale Trilogy. The questions becomes whether new readers should start with the prequals and move through the series in the narrative order or to follow the order in which the books have been published. Clearly you can read the Icewind Dale Trilogy without having read the Dark Elf Trilogy that holds Drizzt’s back story because those books didn’t exist when the Icewind Dale books first appeared. However, in the minds of some fans the optimal reading experience starts with the first story in the narrative.
The Edge Chronicles, created by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, is a much more cohesive collection of books and because it targets a young audience has had to take into consideration the problems of unclear reading order. Like the Forgotten Realms books there are prequals, sequels and side stories that take place under the umbrella series label of the Edge Chronicles. Stewart and Riddell have made a choice to keep each series contained so that readers can start with any trilogy and not feel like they are missing out on some secret the narrator expects them to know. This is reflected in the way the series are titled, with the name of the main character and then numbering within that series. Some of the success of this system comes down the intended audience, the world of the Edge is much less complex than the Forgotten Realms and it is much easier for the authors to create reading experiences that are less reliant upon reading order.
All of the above discussion assumes that new readers are going to do some level of research to figure out where they are supposed to start which in and of itself is not guaranteed. The Forgotten Realms is a hardcore enough fantasy series that most readers coming it are probably familiar with the challenges of navigating fantasy books and would be more conscientious when picking up a book but the Edge Chronicles targets children who are most definitely not going to be frequenting forums to find out about reading order. So much of the challenge of conveying the complexities of books series falls on the design of the books themselves. The Edge Chronicles have the book number and the sub series listed on the spine. There is no attempt being made to convey larger series order and for children who are probably not thinking about the way the world of the Edge Chronicles is constructed this is probably the best solution. The book design of the Forgotten Realms is much less simple however, possibly because the books have been published over such a long range of time. I own a copy several of the books including a single volume edition of the Icewind Dale Trilogy from 1999 which just labels itself part of the Forgotten Realms series and a 2018 copy of Timeless which has “A Drizzt Novel” as its only series descriptor. The chronology of this series is already convoluted, and the book design does very little to assist new readers.
Expansive worlds are characteristic of many fantasy series and are at the heart of many fan’s enjoyment of the genre. But there is often no easy way to access these books, the Forgotten Realms is a sprawling series with no clear start or end for new fans. Less complex series, targeting a younger audience, have dealt with some of these challenges through an understanding of their audience and the result, even for an adult reader, is much less frustrating. There is no way to go back and change old editions of a series like the Forgotten Realms but having more cohesion across new novels and editions would be worth considering. The first book a reader tries in a series of fantasy epics is their gateway to that world, and it is in the best interest of both the author and the publisher to make sure that reader doesn’t feel like that door is locked.