The first thought that entered my head when I read that Julian Fellowes was to release a serial novel was: Coffey on the Mile.
I spent a lot of time in the summer of 1996 heading in and out of bookshops on the Charing Cross road desperate to buy the latest installment of Stephen King's death row serial novel The Green Mile - later a film starring Tom Hanks. Coffey on the Mile was the last of the six monthly volumes published.
I loved the idea of the serial novel then - and The Green Mile was brilliantly executed by Stephen King - and so I was excited by Fellowes venture into the medium with Belgravia, which in weekly electronic installments vows to take readers 'behind the closed doors of London’s grandest houses (where) scandal and intrigue reign'.
The first free chapter was released on April 14 through the dedicated website and app in both text and audio, which are available simultaneously. As of April 21st the subsequent chapters will be available to buy for 1.49 (GBP) each or 9.98 for the nine.
Fellowes name and the association with Downton Abbey should guarantee attention. The opening chapter doesn't give a lot away, introducing some characters and a tone of social tension that will be familiar to Downton devotees. Chapter One is set in Brussels on the eve of the battle of Waterloo - that's 1815 for those not following the Napoleonic Wars from home. It largely takes place during the famous ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond at which Wellington, trying to impress friends and enemies with his sang-froid, is said to have distributed battle plans while the party went on. It was a lively, enticing and promising beginning and certainly more than sufficient to make me pay up for the next chapter.
Besides the draw of Fellowes, whose writing credits include an Oscar for the brillant Gosford Park, there are two elements that appeal to me here.
The first is the serialisation itself. I can't explain exactly why I like the idea so much, but I do. Should Fellowes have simply published a novel, I'd have bought it eventually in all likelihood, perhaps for the beach in July. The serialisation I signed up for immediately, however. It might just be the novelty (this is only the second serial novel I've read). It might be the nostalgia, harking back to the teenage days I bought comics monthly (mostly Batman) or consumed television in this way. In this age of live pause, box sets, Netflix and binge-watching the serial is not quite what it was. In the 1980s when you watched Corrie or Eastenders you did so at the same time as 16 million others. (There are exceptions of course - Game of Thrones is a shared experience still when you watch with your peers or risk death-by-social-media-spoiler). Whatever it is, I like it.
Second, the prospect of having audio and text for each chapter is wonderful, and I applaud publisher Orion for taking this route. It solves a real problem for me. I listen to a lot of audio books usually while running or driving, probably as many books as I read. So I usually have two books on the go, and there are times when it would be brilliant to switch back and forth between the two, but with having bought only one copy. (This need has been particularly acute this last week as I have been reading and listeining to two Edinburgh-based crime novels, with similarities in the plot, and it's often taken me a little while to realise which was which). So with Belgravia, I can listen in the car on the way to work and pick up the story later in text when I get home.
The PR patter for Belgravia promises an experience that 'marries cutting edge technology with the age-old art of story telling'. It hasn't quite managed that yet. At first download the app kept freezing and it took me a while to finally make it through to the text. The page turning is not as responsive as on my Kindle paper white. And with the app downloaded on multiple devices (iPads and iPhone) I don't seem to be able to find a way to log into my account without a new registration. That's something I'm hoping will be resolved tomorrow with the first paid chapter.
Overall though, I'm still excited and looking forward to getting stuck into the story.