Anatomy of Sequels - A Reviewer's Perspective

Hello Patrons and general audience members! Welcome to another essay by Robin on Reviews That Burn, this time on the anatomy of sequels, and part of my process for reviewing them. [Audio version available here]

Sometime in the first year of my review blog, I developed a checklist which I use when reviewing sequels. It helps me qualitatively describe how they are composed, and how they interact with the surrounding books in their respective series. More recently, I added a much shorter checklist for describing the first book in a series.

That shorter list is as follows:
  • Does it resolve a major plot point?
  • Does it leave something for later books?

When reviewing a sequel there are several things that go into assessing it, and I ignore any items from my checklist which don't end up being relevant or interesting to that particular book. But, the full list for sequels is as follows: 

  • Does it wrap up something left hanging?
  • Is there a new storyline which wasn't present in previous books?
  • Was a major thing both introduced and resolved?
  • Is this the last book in the series? 
    • If no, does it leave something for later? 
    • If yes, does it wrap up hanging plot threads from previous books?
  • Did the voice of the main character(s) change from previous book(s)?

Now for more detail on the questions for the first book in a series.

Does it resolve a major plot point?

The question of resolution is a first-book specific version of the question of whether there's a major thing both introduced and resolved. Since it's the first book, it has to be introduced here, so the only question is whether it's also resolved. It's pretty rare for the first book in a series to not resolve anything, so rare that I don't have any examples to hand where the answer was no. I generally use this as more of an opportunity to discuss which major thing was resolved, in as low-spoiler of a way as possible.

Does it leave something for later books?

As to whether something in the first book is left for later books, this is the kind of thing where usually the answer is yes if it was intended to begin a series, and usually the answer is no if it was intended to be a stand-alone that later received sequels.

Now that the first book assessment is handled, on to the sequel check.

Does it wrap up something left hanging?

Whether or not an author knew that a particular book was going to get sequels, it's almost impossible to wrap up every single thing a reader might want to know about from a previous book, especially for anything that ends up getting a sequel. A book that addressed everything so completely probably isn't going to have a follow up and doesn't need one. Once I'm in a position of reviewing a sequel, this means there ought to have been something the sequel can address. 

There can be great sequels that aren't particularly addressing anything from the previous book, often because they're only loosely connected in the sense that they share a world but very few characters or important settings. In this category I would place books like DEFEKT by Nino Cipri, which boldly answers the question "what was Derek doing when he didn't show up to work while FINNA was happening?" While this technically answers a thing that was left unanswered in FINNA, I must confess that when reading FINNA, I wasn't particularly bothered by the question of where otherwise unseen employee Derek was when all this was happening, because he wasn't already an important character for me. While both are centered around fictional technically-not-Ikea store LitenVärld, the main characters in FINNA very quickly leave the store for interdimensional travel, while Derek spends DEFEKT in the store almost the whole time. I would also place OCEAN'S ECHO by Everina Maxwell in this category of shares-a-universe style of sequels, because while it does contribute to the overall worldbuilding begun by WINTER'S ORBIT, none of the characters appear in both books (unless I missed a name which appears so briefly that they're more of an easter egg than a notable character). These two books are on different planets, to the extent that OCEAN'S ECHO takes place planetside at all (which is minimal). I'd also place THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN followed with JUNIPER & THORN, both by Ava Reid, in this category as well, as they share a world but might even take place in different countries within that world.

The next most connected style of largely disconnected sequel are those which can function as a stand-alone book, but which share just enough characters and references to a previous story that someone who read the earlier material can gain insight into what happened to beloved (or hated) characters from the earlier work, but a new reader could understand 95% of what's going on even without that knowledge. Key to this type, for me, is that someone who reads both/all of the books will know what is missing, but someone who jumps in with the later works won't feel like anything has been left out or insufficiently explained. Often, one of the joys of this kind of story is getting unexpected closure from things that didn't particularly feel left open from the earlier work(s), but that information is granted in the midst of the newer story. Almost anything by Nicole Kornher-Stace seems to fit in this category, and I say this particularly as someone who read FIREBREAK before finding out about ARCHIVIST WASP and LATCHKEY. One of my favorites of this type is THE WICKER KING and THE WEIGHT OF THE STARS by K. Ancrum. The main characters in THE WICKER KING turn out to be the parents of one of the secondary characters from THE WEIGHT OF THE STARS, allowing for what is either a deeply meaningful moment of getting to find out how these kids I got to know so well turned out as adults... or it's just an opportunity to see a thriving polycule of adults who are raising one of the characters together, which is still very cool. 

Is there a new storyline which wasn't present in previous books?

The question of whether there is a new storyline in a sequel which wasn't present before can be a surprisingly elusive one to answer, and one whose importance depends a great deal on how many books are in the series. I'll discuss this separately as it relates to duologies, trilogies, and longer series.

There are a few ways to handle duology finales as they relate to unique storylines. Some duologies very clearly are laid out as parts one and two of a story, where the first book feels incomplete at the end because it is, the conclusion is in another volume. I rarely enjoy this kind of story, personally, as it can so easily go badly (or if the first volume does poorly, the conclusion may never be published, frustrating the writer and readers alike). I much prefer the kind where there's a distinct story arc with its own conclusion in the first book, leaving room for a new (often more dire) set of stakes in the second book which are based on the earlier change in status quo. A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN with A PSALM OF STORMS AND SILENCE by Roseanne A. Brown is one example of this. The ending of A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN is full of peril and several very important status changes for the main characters, providing both a dramatic ending to that book's competition storyline and setting the stakes for the different pace of A PSALM OF STORMS AND SILENCE which has much more fleeing, ancient powers, and throne reclamation attempts than the first book. A much bleaker example is found in QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED and KING OF THE RISING by Kacen Callender, where there's a different main character for both books, and both of the endings are personally terrible for their respective main characters. The stories are deeply connected, but it is possible to understand most of what's happening in the second book without having read the first one (partly due to the switch in perspective). 

Finally, there are duologies which are only duologies in the loosest sense, where they're a duology because there are currently two books in the same world and no more have been currently announced. I'd put FINNA and DEFEKT, WINTER'S ORBIT and OCEAN'S ECHO, and THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN and JUNIPER & THORN in this category. These are all examples where this loose connection is done very well, and doesn't detract from the reading experience at all. It's completely possible to read all of these in any order, and understand each of them both separately and together. To them I'd add HAMMERS ON BONE and A SONG FOR QUIET by Cassandra Khaw, which share a world and a type of horror but which can be read however one wishes, either, neither, or both. These all have completely new storylines because they could just as easily be understood as a series (Khaw), as companion novels (Maxwell), or with no reference at all to how connected they are (Reid). 

For trilogies, the presence or absence of a new storyline which wasn't present previously becomes much more important for enjoyment of the series as a whole and the individual books which comprise it. This is especially significant for the middle book of any trilogy. I first started paying attention to series structure and composition of sequels when I was disappointed by the middle book in a trilogy I otherwise love, the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant. My understanding is that FEED was originally written as a stand-alone book, which puts BLACKOUT, as its sequel, in the position of trying to generate both its own story and the momentum needed for DEADLINE to be such a great finale to the trilogy. Trying to put into words the way I felt like BLACKOUT could have been better than it is, without actually thinking it's bad, as such, led me to frame my whole sequel check, with particular care as to whether each new book gets its own storyline which wasn't present before. BLACKOUT is, in many ways, the first half of DEADLINE. This means it is essential to overall enjoyment of the trilogy, as it bridges the first and third books and establishes many of the setups which make DEADLINE such a fantastic conclusion, but almost none of what I love about the trilogy actually happens in that middle book. This can make it feel more like a stand-alone book which leads into a duology, rather than a complete trilogy where each book has its own important story.

It's also possible to take this need for a new storyline too far, as happens in the middle volume of Holly Black's Modern Faerie Tales trilogy. TITHE (book one) and IRONSIDE (book three) feel far more connected, with the main characters from TITHE playing important roles in IRONSIDE. VALIANT (book two), despite having its own plot and new main characters, fits in a strange place where not enough of the worldbuilding is explained for it to fully make sense without TITHE, but its plot is completely superfluous to IRONSIDE, making for a completely skippable middle book of the trilogy. To me, cases like this drive home how much my checklist is just a way of describing books, not a prescriptive checklist that must be met in order for a book to be good. Even though I wish BLACKOUT had more of its own storyline, I'd read it any day over VALIANT, even though VALIANT has its own conclusion and self-contained plot.

To me, a quartet is the point at which a series is long enough to handle one book that doesn't fully have its own storyline without the whole thing dragging, but not so long as to handle it happening more than once. This can most easily happen when a quartet was supposed to be a trilogy but one of the books was so long it had to be split, which results in an effect similar to when a stand-alone book is expanded into a trilogy. It can be hard for a reader to know why one of the volumes feels so unable to stand on its own, which is why I don't assess books based on the reason the series ended up in a particular configuration, even if I find it personally interesting. 

The Uglies Trilogy Quartet by Scott Westerfeld is a strange example of the final book in the series getting its own plot, so much so that I originally read UGLIES, PRETTIES, and SPECIALS as a trilogy, then was greatly surprised when EXTRAS was released and the whole thing was rebranded as a quartet. This doesn't have to go poorly, necessarily, but I find EXTRAS to be the weakest book in the quartet because UGLIES, PRETTIES, and SPECIALS were such a strong trilogy that adding a book set several years later, in a different part of the world, and with a totally new main character made it feel completely superfluous to the story that the original trilogy was telling. I think that titling it EXTRAS didn't help matters, but I don't know how much Scott Westerfeld had control over that decision. One case where a new book added to a trilogy went particularly well is in the Newsflesh books, where there's a companion novel, FEEDBACK, which has roughly the same timeline as FEED, but is following the bloggers for the Democratic presidential candidate whereas the bloggers in FEED were documenting the Republican candidate. Part of why FEEDBACK works so well is that its storyline is just as self-contained as FEED. FEED mentioned incidentally how things turned out for the Democratic candidate, and FEEDBACK does the same for the Republican candidate and the bloggers, leaving room for both to have equally and minorly provided spoilers for the other. This reciprocity truly allows FEEDBACK to be read in any relation to FEED (though I do think it makes the most sense to read it after all of the original trilogy). 

Once a series has more than four books, it can generally handle more than one instance where a pair of books have an intertwined story such that some volumes don't get their own beginning, middle, and end, though still this should be an infrequent occurrence. One good way to tell how many times this is happening is how many cliffhangers are present in the series. Ending every book with a cliffhanger doesn't have to be bad, but it's a style which attracts a certain kind of reader and I'm not that reader. I don't tend to read series which feel like they're stringing me along to get me to read one more book. 

Was a major thing both introduced and resolved? 

Whether something major is both introduced and resolved isn't quite the same as whether the book has its own storyline. A storyline could be something incredibly minor, though self contained, or something large that plays out over multiple books. Instead, this particular criterion is about whether there's something important that gets a specific resolution within the same volume where it's introduced. There can still be important things which don't appear in earlier books and reach a new status quo or complete resolution, even if the main plot is continued in the next book and the storyline feels unresolved overall. 

Is this the last book in the series? If no, does it leave something for later? If yes, does it wrap up hanging plot threads from previous books? 

If something is intended to be the final book in the series, it's reasonable to expect that anything major should be wrapped up or reach some kind of conclusion. If it's not the finale, then it's nice when there's some hint of what future books could address. Whether or not that thing is actually handled in the next book isn't strictly important, as long as there's at least a general sense that there is more to do in that world or more for the characters to figure out going forward. For shorter series, this generally will be handled in the next book, or else things can start to feel off. This is part of why I dislike VALIANT, as discussed earlier. In addition to having worldbuilding which doesn't feel complete unto itself and a storyline which is so self-contained that it doesn't seem to need TITHE, VALIANT doesn't feel like it leaves anything for IRONSIDE to pick up. This lack is compounded by the reality that IRONSIDE, in turn, doesn't need VALIANT and does fine without it. 

It seems self explanatory that the final book in a series should, you know, finish the series, but things don't always work out that way. That sad reality makes this part of the sequel check necessary even though it's often superfluous. Most books which were intended to be the finales of their respective series pass this check easily.

Did the voice of the main character(s) change from previous book(s)?

This is a way of assessing consistency of characterization and writing across a series. There are times when changes are abrupt on purpose, and ones where gradual change occurs across the series, where no one book has an obviously different narrative voice than the one before, but over time the main characters feel very different from when the series began. 

One thing this also works to assess is whether main characters who are supposed to be different people actually end up sounding different, or if the author's unchanging voice comes through so strongly that even vastly different characters sound the same. This went particularly badly for a pair of books which are aren't supposed to be related in-universe at all: THE MARTIAN and ARTEMIS by Andy Weir. I read THE MARTIAN, and I enjoyed it at the time. The protagonist is a white man who seems to be allo/cis/het, and that matched the characterization quite well. Then I read ARTEMIS and was very startled to learn that the main character was supposedly a non-white, non-practicing Muslim woman who grew up on the moon. The narrative voice was so similar to the male protagonist in THE MARTIAN that it was jarring to learn who this new narrator supposedly was. There's no one way to write a woman, or a non-practicing Muslim. The one thing I can say is that if a culturally Muslim woman sounds just like a white, American, man from another book, then there isn't enough of a distinction between the narrative voices in those two books. 

Sometimes, an abrupt shift in nominally the same protagonist is done on purpose for excellent plot reasons, such as in the original Uglies trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. Tally has her mind messed with at the end of UGLIES and PRETTIES, meaning that she is functionally a different person in each of the three books. This is conveyed in how she speaks and thinks, in everything from her vocabulary to what she spends her time thinking about. It's a wonderful example of how to convey a character's mental transformation without breaking continuity in the storyline or treating any iteration as less valid or important than any other. This is also done well at several points in the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire, particularly but not only in SLEEP NO MORE and THE INNOCENT SLEEP. I've written at length about how Toby/October's characterization is changed in these books from how she was immediately before in the finale of BE THE SERPENT. The most salient point here is that the way she thinks and reacts to so many things are changed in fundamental ways, and all without disrupting the overall tone established by the series so far. This is compounded by the handling of Tybalt's perspective in THE INNOCENT SLEEP, which is the first time he's been the perspective character of a main series book, though he has narrated many short stories in other parts of the series timeline. He doesn't sound like October, and he's not supposed to.

What does all of this mean for sequels?

I use my sequel checklist as a way of qualitatively describing different aspects of a book, as a jumping-off point for more detailed discussion. Because of dysgraphia, it helps me to have a template which I can fill in, and as time goes on I've been able to keep the core of this list without having it always read as a literal checklist in the actual reviews. There isn't any one way to write a sequel, and I've enjoyed books which fit a variety of permutations within this basic framework. It is meant as a way for me to put words to my general feeling of whether or not I like a book, to give detail and a specific direction for my descriptions of my reactions. If I'm dissatisfied with a book, it helps enormously to be able to tie that to whether a book felt pointless because it didn't get its own storyline, or just felt like part one of a whole which I had no interest in continuing to read. If I like a book, then it helps me be specific about what I liked and how the specific story fits into a larger continuity. A book isn't good just because all the answers are one way, or bad because they're another, but if you broadly agree with how I approach evaluating sequels, you may like how I handle reviews generally.

Works Cited

Ancrum, K. The Weight of the Stars. Imprint, 2019.

---. The Wicker King. Imprint, 2017.

Black, Holly. Ironside: A Modern Faerie Tale. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020.

---. Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020.

---. Valiant: A Modern Faerie Tale. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020.

Brown, Roseanne A. A Psalm of Storms and Silence. HarperCollins, 2021.

---. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. HarperCollins, 2020.

Callender, Kacen. King of the Rising. Hachette UK, 2020.

---. Queen of the Conquered. Hachette UK, 2019.

Cipri, Nino. Defekt. Tordotcom, 2021.

---. Finna. Tordotcom, 2020.

Grant, Mira. Blackout. Orbit, 2012.

---. Deadline. Orbit, 2011.

---. Feed. Orbit, 2010.

---. Feedback. Orbit, 2016.

Khaw, Cassandra. A Song for Quiet., 2017.

---. Hammers on Bone., 2016.

Maxwell, Everina. Ocean’s Echo. Hachette UK, 2022.

---. Winter’s Orbit. Tor Books, 2021.

McGuire, Seanan. Be the Serpent. Astra Publishing House, 2022.

---. Sleep No More. Astra Publishing House, 2023.

---. The Innocent Sleep. Astra Publishing House, 2023.

Reid, Ava. Juniper and Thorn. Random House, 2022.

---. The Wolf and the Woodsman: A Novel. HarperCollins, 2021.

Weir, Andy. Artemis: A Novel. Ballantine Books, 2017.

---. The Martian: A Novel. Ballantine Books, 2014.

Westerfeld, Scott. Extras. Simon and Schuster, 2007.

---. Pretties. Simon and Schuster, 2008.

---. Specials. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

---. Uglies. Simon and Schuster, 2011.


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