(Minor spoilers for CATCHING FIRE)
The Second Book Syndrome happens when a middle book in a trilogy sags and drags.
Sometimes when I read trilogies, the second book is more of a holding place, a continuation that can’t stand on its own. And too often second books don’t measure up to the first book. Middle books can be like the light fluffy middle in an Oreo; delicious but not solid enough to stand alone.
But CATCHING FIRE surprised me and worked in a completely unexpected way. While waiting for this book to come out, I anticipated Katniss would be on the run, maybe hiding out in different districts. And it did start in a way that may me think my guess was on-target. But when I reached Part 2 and found out that there would be another competition, I was astonished.
At first I thought, “Not again! This can’t work.” But the tension kept growing with unexpected story twists and the new competition setting was unique. The setting for the new competition raised the stakes plus added science fiction elements (so if this fantasy or science fiction? Interesting question there). New plot twists appeared making this middle book unique and interesting enough to be a stand-alone book. CATCHING FIRE gave a solid delicious middle to this trilogy.
But that doesn’t happen in many trilogies. I’ll name one, but only because I can honestly say that I LOVED Catherine Fisher’s INCARCERON and SAPPHIQUE. Those books worked well together and each was fascinating and exciting. She was smart to keep it to 2 books which worked perfectly. So I decided to try another series of hers and read THE NAMED. I loved THE NAMED. It set up a fascinating world with some mythology based fantasy mixed with time travel. The characters were sympathetic and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next. But for me (and others may have a different opinion) the second book fell flat. It just felt like one drama to the next, with danger dumped on so much the original fun of the series seemed lost. I need to connect with my characters and feel their successes, but I lost interest since they were in constant peril with little hope. And often second books will use this device — making drama so intense and terrible, without giving success and lighter moments. Each book needs to have a good mix of despair and hope, without waiting until the final book in the trilogy for success and triumph.
Other common problems with middle books fall into the categories of could be called “IT REALLY SHOULD BE ONE BOOK” or “SAME STORY, NEW DRAMA.”
Without naming a popular trilogy that completely failed in my opinion with the sequels, what failed was that the drama in the first book built on strong characters who survived a disaster. The 2nd book continued the same event but with new characters. Then the 3rd book brought characters from the first 2 books together — and it fell flat with plot and characters, like a wrong turn on a familiar road. The author lost the momentum and I was very disappointed since I really admire this author.
A series that does a good job with additional books is UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld where the same character takes on a new challenge and changes in huge ways in each book. Each was a complete book on its own although it continued a larger story arc.
Can you think of trilogies/short series that had middle books which failed? Or some that totally worked for you? I’d love to hear your opinions!