I had ordered Wild Seed when I discovered that it was a) part of a series, and b) the entire series was contained in one volume, Seed to Harvest. It wasn't until I completely read the entire volume, that I looked at the copyright page to see when the novels were published. As it turns out, they were published in a completely different order than they were presented in this collection. Whoever published it decided to go with chronological order rather than publishing date. I was fine with it, although it definitely gave me a different connection to the characters than I would have had otherwise. If I'd read Patternmaster first, I wouldn't have been wondering how the characters from Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind would have reacted to the eventual fate of their descendants and people. I think it would have made sense to put Clay's Ark at the end of the volume though, even if it took place third chronologically - when I started reading it, I was trying to find the connection, only being able to remember a character named Clay from Mind of My Mind (and he does figure in a little bit). Clay's Ark explains the origin of the enemy species in Patternmaster, so personally I would have preferred receiving the back story later instead of before, knowing it was a back story and relevant. Also, apparently, there was a fifth novel in the series but Octavia Butler decided she disliked it and wouldn't allow it to be reprinted.
Wild Seed sets up the characters Doro and Anyanwu. He is an entity that has survived for several thousand years by jumping from body to body, and in the process killing the bodies he uses. In his thousands of years of existence, he has decided to start a breeding program of sorts, taking people with dispositions to telepathy and other special talents, guarding over them and trying to create a certain type of person. Anyanwu, probably the descendant from a lost branch of one of his tribes, is a shape shifter and healer, and basically immortal. Over the novel, they develop a long but strained relationship, sometimes being close friends, other times being enemies. Butler uses her novels to explore ideas of gender, sexuality and race, and it is very obvious in these two characters. While Doro chooses male bodies most of the novel, and Anyanwu remains in the female form during the narrative, they both possess the ability to go back and forth, and talk about times when they have. As a shape shifter, Anyanwu can be black, white, male, female as she chooses, though in her natural shape, she is a young black woman. Doro can use whatever body he wants. I liked this novel best of the series, partially because it had the whole historic angle going as well, beginning in 1690.
Mind of My Minds takes place in something resembling the present day, and is about Mary. She is basically the end product Doro had in mind when he started his little science project, but when he gets this far, he begins wondering whether it was a good idea or not, and sees her as a threat to his power. Anyanwu, now Emma, does not have much of a part in the novel - she helps with Mary's upbringing but the two women do not get along (which is unfortunate because I liked her in Wild Seed), and the novel is mostly about Mary and the creation of the Pattern that binds all those with telepathic ability together.
Clay's Ark takes place in the 21st century, and as mentioned earlier, at first seems rather unrelated to the rest of the novels. It explains the back story about where the Clayarks from Patternmaster came from, and tells the story of a small farming community in the middle of nowhere in the United States. The rest of the States apparently has turned into a very bad and unsafe place to be with a few nice areas (the suburbs, basically), and is overrun by lawless gangs. The small community is protected from that, but they represent a different kind of danger and are the carriers of an alien virus/invasion.
The concluding, or beginning whichever way you take it, novel Patternmaster centers on Teray, one of the sons of the current Patternmaster. It is far into the distant future, and the world has basically been divided in two - the part controlled by the Patternists and the Clayark's land (normal humans, or mutes, are now simply servants for the members of the Pattern, or the telepaths). There is an ongoing battle between Patternists and Clayarks, but the novel is mainly concerned with the struggle Teray faces simply to be independent, and his attempt to be free of his brother who sees him as a rival to the Pattern.
Overall, it wasn't a bad series but I've seen suggested that Butler's later work is much better. Is it just me, or does it seem like when it comes to science fiction there are two very popular visions of the future? One is the spaceships and super technology, and the other sees humans almost going back to feudal society with some special abilities. Patternmaster was definitely one of the later. Butler's look at race was perhaps most obvious in Wild Seed, and by obvious I simply mean, she actually talks about it in terms of black/white. As in many other SF novels, the treatment of different or alien species takes the place of actual race as defined in current society. For example, instead of being about skin, the Patternists are the "master race" who basically enslave humans without certain abilities.