I love trilogies, stories so big they need three novels to complete. Which is the big difference between a series and a trilogy- the story ends. Or, at least, ends one thing to start another. A series goes on and on, usually centered around a couple of characters. And while some series start out as trilogies and can be safely so regarded until the fourth or so book shows up, I make the distinction thusly: the story ends with the third book. That particular story, anyway. Thus:
10. The Tripods trilogy, by John Christopher. The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, The Pool of Fire. I read this when I was a kid because, well, it’s a kid’s story. Intrepid Will Parker and his friends defy their Capping Ceremony, mandatory at age 13, and escape to the White Mountains, ahead of the alien Tripods. Sort of pre-Hunger Games, but with aliens.
9. The Arthurian Saga, by Mary Stewart. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment. I have mentioned The Crystal Cave at other locations, but the entire trilogy is a masterpiece. The story of Arthur as told through Merlin’s eyes, this is the best modernization of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that I’ve seen. I think this was the base for that extraordinary Excalibur movie, but don’t quote me. And, yes, Stewart has written a few other novels on the theme, making this more series than trilogy, but the original three are complete in themselves.
8. The Crossroads Trilogy, by Kate Elliott. Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, Traitor’s Gate. I’ve mentioned this trilogy in other locations because it remains one of my favorites. In the world of the Hundreds, the Guardian gods have withdrawn, leaving the eagle-riding reeves as the only authority as an unknown, murderous horde begins its march through the lands. The bride-to be, Mai, remains one of my favorite literary characters
7. The Karla Trilogy, by John le Carre. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People. Yes, the character George Smiley makes this more series than anything except these three books are considered a separate story and you do not need to read any of the other Smiley books to understand it, although you should. George Smiley in battle with his main KGB nemesis, Karla, and it took three dedicated books to resolve it.
6. The Maddaddam Trilogy, by Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake; The Year of the Flood; MaddAddam. Yes, it’s Atwood, and everybody’s all agog with The Handmaid’s Tale, but this is superior. In the wake of a pandemic, environmental disaster, and mad scientist bioengineering, Toby, one of the last humans, must convey an oral history of the world to the Crakers, human offshoots that are taking our place.
5. The Imperial Radch Trilogy, by Ann Leckie. Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy. This has gone on to be a series, but the first three books stand alone. Breq, now a common soldier who was once the starship Justice of Toren, seeks revenge against the Lord of the Radch, who betrayed her. A soldier who was once a starship: mindblowing.
4. The Riverworld Trilogy, by Philip Jose Farmer. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, The Fabulous Riverboat, The Dark Design. Yes, I know, I know, this is no longer a trilogy but a series but, as far as I am concerned, it stopped with the third book, in which it feels very much like Farmer had grown tired of the story and simply wished to dispense with it. Despite that, this remains among my favorites. All of humanity wakes up one day alongside a world-girdling river and must figure out why. They woke up, I mean, not why the river girdles the world.
3. The Inheritance Trilogy, by NK Jemisin. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; The Broken Kingdoms; The Kingdom of Gods. Stunning. Just stunning. A world where the gods are slaves.
2. The Inhibitor Trilogy, by Alastair Reynolds. Revelation Space; Redemption Ark; Absolution Gap. About page 75, you’ll be going, “WTF?” But, stick with it, because this is another mind-blowing saga. Dan Sylveste teams up with the cyborg crew of the starship Nostalgia for Infinity to discover what happened to the Amarantin civilization. Before it happens again.
1. The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson. Quicksilver; The Confusion; The System of the World. What an epic, jaw-dropping story. From the Stuart Restoration through 1714 London, Daniel Waterhouse pursues the rational in a world transforming from the superstitious to the scientific. Everyone is in this story, from Isaac Newton to Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, as well as the seemingly immortal Enoch Root. And let’s not forget Half-Cocked Jack, who manages to save the world from time to time without realizing it.
There you go. Odd that most of these trilogies are speculative fiction. I’m guessing that’s due to all the time necessary to world-build before you can get into the story itself, which tends to make the first book of a trilogy somewhat pedestrian. But stay with it; you’ll be rewarded.