I read these novels in the omnibus edition which arranges them according to story time. I don’t usually read books outside of publication order, so doing it here was eye opening.
The novels in the series, listed in publication order are Patternmaster(1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984).
Patternmaster offers a very simple plot: boy arrives at a bad place at the wrong time but escapes, runs toward safety, but is caught and must fight to survive. That’s it, that’s all. Yet the seed of each of the other novels is present.
Mind of My Mind explains the origins of “the pattern” introduced in the first novel, identifying it as the product of a centuries long breeding program by a dangerous and seemingly immortal being named Doro. The novel also introduces Doro’s counterpart, a mysterious black woman who cares for young telepaths in a community she has built and maintains in a black neighborhood in a late 20th century city.
Wild Seed tells the story of this same woman, beginning with her early life in Africa centuries before during the first years of the European slave trade. Immortal like Doro but gifted with powers very different from his—she’s a shapeshifter and healer—she finds his breeding of telepaths that he then feeds upon cruel and inhuman. The two are at odds for centuries before he relents and agrees to limits she establishes on his behavior. (Wild Seed was written one year after Butler completed the research for and published Kindred. It shows and the novel is richer for it.)
Clays’ Ark reconnects the now elaborate history of the Patternists back to the post-apocalyptic future of the first novel. This novel tells of a world torn apart by climate change and explains how an alien infection that transforms a farm community into something strange and bestial escapes into the population at large.
Of course, the order I’ve described the books is not the order I read them in. In the omnibus, I’ve read the third book first (Wild Seed), then the second (Mind of My Mind), then the fourth (Clay’s Ark) and only then, at the very end, the first novel that launched the series (Patternmaster). Which means that until I was nearly done, I was reading prequels, which made for a strange experience. The books work in story order, but I see in retrospect that moments of excitement and suspense in the first books I read were only partially visible to me because I didn’t have the ironic positioning created by knowledge of what was coming in the last book I’d read.
This didn’t ruin anything. In fact, it made the final two books a fairly disorienting set of surprises. I had no idea I was headed to a vision of the future that would remind me of, in different ways, both Fury Road and The Dragonriders of Pern. And I really liked these books. But wow, order matters.