Spoiler warning: Some Shadow and Bone and/or Grisha trilogy spoilers; Catching Fire spoilers.
So earlier this week, I finished reading Aerie. It’s not your typical second book in a YA series, because your typical YA series these days is a trilogy, and signs are pointing to Magonia being a duology with maybe a spin-off story.
But in another way, it is your typical second book in a YA series, because it doesn’t live up to the potential of the first.
This isn’t always the case, obviously. Here’s an easy exception: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. The original is great but the sequel is the fan favourite, and from any perspective, it’s a worthy entry in the trilogy.
But that exception (and others) aside, I’ve found the second book syndrome to be a real issue in most of the YA trilogies I’ve read this year (at least, in the cases where I went on to read the sequel). Here are a few examples: Hollow City, Linger, Glass Sword, The Elite, Siege and Storm, Half Wild, and City of Ashes. (Also the Magonia duology, since it did inspire this post.) I’ll run these down quickly.
…an okay book, but it more or less acts as a bridge between the premise set up in the first novel (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) and direct conflict with the villains. I enjoyed this series generally—personally, I feel like the spooky, atmospheric potential of the first part of the first book crashed and burned into a series of expository scenes, but at least the world this trilogy builds is pretty imaginative—but the second book kind of spins through my head in a vague series of images, other than the climactic reveal. The action in Library of Souls is much more meaningful and memorable because of its higher stakes, although honestly, this trilogy is one of those written-into-a-corner cases where the initial mystery is more intriguing than solving any of it.
…lacks focus and grounding compared to Shiver. Shiver is a relatively simple story of love racing against time, loss of identity, and perhaps death. And it presents Grace’s human life and Sam’s human identity as important and worth valuing even as they struggle with supernatural concerns. (I thought it was exceptional, for the record.) Linger is a mess of different stories, some more interesting than others, and none really resolved within this book (Sam’s identity crisis, Grace’s illness, Cole in general, Isabel’s pain). And in Linger, all of the protagonists are largely disconnected with their human/ordinary lives, with Grace’s amounting to more of an obstacle than anything. Forever pulls this trilogy back together decently, but I still feel as if the grounding aspects of the story were largely abandoned.
Okay, let’s rewind. So Red Queen is not a profound example of a first novel. It’s action-packed and entertaining enough, but it’s also a relentless parade of YA tropes. Corrupt dystopian society with a huge rich-poor divide, love triangle (star?), female protagonist who has no idea how special she is, and so on. It is pretty expected and at times ridiculous, but also full of fights and pizzazz. So I wasn’t expecting the world out of Glass Sword, but I did expect it to be at least a bit fun. But it dragged with angst at almost every turn and I barely remember what even happened. I am unlikely to finish reading this trilogy.
I have a whole post about The Selection trilogy and diminishing returns.
Siege and Storm
I can’t really talk about this series without spoilers for at least Shadow and Bone, so be warned. In the first book, it’s revealed that the Darkling—one of the protagonist’s love interests—is actually a villain who did some pretty awful shit. Okay. So the next book can go one of two ways, right? Either there’s an explanation, or man, screw that guy, let’s focus on love interest #2 and kicking ass. Only…not really? The Darkling is the most interesting character this trilogy has up its sleeve, since Alina really lacks self-esteem and Mal is the most insecure boyfriend of all time. (Their relationship is a hot mess of dragging-on angst.) So you might feel refreshed when the humour-slinging, flirtatious privateer is introduced, but we all know that since he’s not a book-one character, he doesn’t have much of a chance in this love star. Sigh. And that’d be fine if Alina had set her sights solely on the chosen one stuff she has to do, but she’s super busy angsting her way between the men in her life (one of whom just becomes more and more irredeemably evil, and her attraction to him would be a lot more interesting if I believed Alina to be capable of flipping sides), not believing in herself, and having no real world-saving plans of her own other than the ones she gets swept into, which she usually isn’t about. Sigh. Also, Grisha society and its interactions with regular society and the politics of the realm are probably the most interesting thing(s) about these books, and that’s pretty much abandoned for the span of Siege and Storm. Triple sigh. I was so here for this trilogy initially, but I struggled to finish it.
Legit thought that the author loosely planned the first book and pantsed the rest from there. Not to judge pantsers (I am one), but revising. Continuity. Explicable motivations. All necessary things someone dropped the ball on there.
City of Ashes
I have a whole post about this trilogy and its resemblance to a trash can rolling off a cliff, in which I allude to the need for this post. All things come full circle when you are spinning in garbage, am I right? (Sorry, Shadowhunter fans.)
Finally. As you might recall, though I noted some flaws and dangling plot threads, I enjoyed Magonia. The world was imaginative, the narrators have strong voices, the fantasy is well-grounded in reality with family members worth reading about, etc. Aerie struggled with something possibly unique: it tried to cram two books of material into one book.
I’m not sure if the author felt sick of trilogies herself, or didn’t want to write a bridge book between the premise and the final confrontation (because often those in-betweens feel like filler), or didn’t feel she had enough material, or just wanted it all over with. But Aerie felt rushed, and not just because I would have expected a trilogy. After the book takes off, events are one after another to the point where very little carries emotional resonance because it happens so quickly, and the mindsets of various key characters have to be assumed rather than explained. The villain got some power through…means? People are supporting her…because reasons? Her sidekick is motivated by…I don’t really know? The sky society has…what opinions about this? Explanations are loosely alluded to here, and I don’t need them all spelled out, but there are plenty of characters who should be asking “why” and they don’t. Also, other mythical things are revealed to be real with no real follow-up or specifications, the sky city is glimpsed but no time is spent there (it is one of the most interesting possible things ugh), and plenty of characters just don’t (or barely) interact who really should.
This is unfortunate because, as much as I’m sure a second book might have been very hard to write (see above), I think this author and this series deserved one. I think that, given two books, we could’ve taken breaths between events to give them weight, gotten some backstory, developed characters and relationships more, done some worldbuilding, and ultimately still had a satisfying plot layout. I think the protagonists (Aza and Jason) needed to learn the lessons they learned in this book to make it to the end, so I don’t think that the rising action in here would’ve felt unsatisfying as a second book, ultimately. (And I really think delving more into sky society and relationships other than Aza and Jason’s would’ve done this whole series a lot of good.)
Alas, we get what we get, and it doesn’t feel like it lives up to the potential of what was there, much like in the rest of these second book syndrome cases.
I can’t say I know exactly why the second book syndrome happens. The sophomore slump book does have some common indicators: It can feel like filler. Plot points and character beats might repeat themselves. Lots of new characters/plots might be introduced, making it more of a set-up for the ending than a story in itself. Most of the book might be spent running from or seeking something that’ll have to be dealt with in the final book. It might rely heavily on a love triangle, spending a lot of time with flip-flopping feelings.
But here’s the thing: Catching Fire has a lot of those symptoms. (By the way: spoilers for this book follow.) There’s another Hunger Games, with all it entails. New characters important to this and the following book appear. Katniss has to deal with her feelings for both Peeta and Gale.
But Catching Fire, while containing all of those things, also contains a beginning, middle, and end of its own. The beginning picks up from a state fundamentally changed by the end of the first book, and the end is definitely not conclusive and will fundamentally affect the opening of the next book, so it’s not as if the book is independent. But each sequel picks up the dangling threads from the last in terms of both plot and character, has to deal with them, and then leaves the characters and the world in a new state. Maybe it’s that simple: maybe the key to a successful second book is moving forward. (And giving your protagonist really compelling reasons not to confront the villain right away.) Or maybe it’s that complicated: how do you move forward without reaching the ultimate end?
I can’t say I’ve figured that one out myself, but since I’m an editor and I hope to get back into writing, I sure would like to. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading and hopefully find more exceptional second books. Comment down below if you think of any, and I’ll see you Monday for more Weekly Reads!