Are Middle Books Like Middle Children? A few thoughts on sequels and the like.


So I finished the second instalment of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy a couple of days ago. Royal Assassin was a quite enjoyable read, but interestingly, only furthered my awareness of the subtle, furtive, yet ever-increasing links between this series and the works of the infamous Patrick Rothfuss. (And yes, when I say infamous, I do mean it strictly as did the Three Amigos) So while their writing styles are vastly different, despite both being creative and compelling, their story-telling style is actually quite similar.

How, you ask? Well, I don’t want to spoil either of them for any of you who haven’t read any of either, so I’ll be as bracingly sparing as I am capable. Both series are essentially a first-hand account of a man’s life and story, an orphan boy with enormous potential in a medieval otherworld, wrought with hardships and cruelty and intermittent kindness. The first book in each series covers travels and learnings up until the age of fifteen and both end in some important mission in which they, the book’s protagonist, almost die amid turmoil and strife but bring forth an amazing display of the magic within, thus saving the day.

In the respective sequels, relationships bloom. Both love interests, introduced in first book, become deeply more significant, and both protagonists lose their virginity. (Although in Rothfuss’s case, the ensuing sexual relationship is not with said love interest but a legendary forest-dwelling muse-nymph) Both relationships end in severe heartache with little to no apparent hope of a rekindling. But yet, the reader will of course hope, just as we’ve been taught to by every romantic-comedy ever, (and just as we haven’t by Shakespeare) that in our third act, the pairs will be reunited and able to have a happy life together.

Our protagonists continue to protag, meandering through another year, year and a half, of their lives, growing, travelling, learning, fighting, politicking, poisoning, magicking, etcetera. Our villain, who was just really unlikeable in the first book, now becomes utterly evil in the reader’s eyes and threatens our protagonist’s life in ever more real and frightening ways. Both sequels have been especially brutal on the protagonist and they’ve aged much despite the fact that they both end the book at about sixteen or seventeen years of age.

In a broader sense, this brutality is part of what makes these sequels a fitting second act. They, like Sanderson’s Well of Ascension, leave much of the whole world in shambles and commotion, with maybe just a glimmer of hope, so that the resolution and conclusion of a third, redeeming act is desperately needed. From a story-arc perspective, this is the low point at the end of the Act Two where our protagonist hits bottom and then goes only upward to infinity and beyond, and thence saves the day.

While this precept, of sequels ending much as they began with the characters, and often storyworld, being a little older, wiser and worse for wear, is a common and effective one, I have to say that while proven, I don’t think it’s my preferred method. The force that pushes me to read on and finish the series is a need for all of the pain of all the detritus and all the effluvium to be over and resolved as happily or peacefully as possible. It is the need for the mammoth sigh, the relaxing relief, the break, the rest, the plunge into pillows and breathe because it’s over.

What I think Brandon Sanderson has done absolutely brilliantly in Words of Radiance and Firefight, (and yes, even to some extent in Well of Ascension) is end each of these sequels with both an OH-NO-THERE’S-THIS-HUMONGOUS-NEW-PROBLEM-THAT-WILL-BE-THE-END-OF-US-ALL and an OH-MY-WONDERFUL-GOODNESS-THAT-SUPER-AWESOME-THING-JUST-HAPPENED-AND-THERE-IS-HOPE-AND-IT’S-THE-MOST-AWESOMELY-AMAZING-HOPE-EVER!

This effect leaves me more desperate for a further instalment than any other, and I’m pretty thoroughly decided that it is what I need to apply to my own writing and series planning, because if you can do that to every book, save the finale, of your series, that is a sure plan for success. Sanderson did it with Mistborn, and if he can do the same thing over ten books in Stormlight, I think this could be without a doubt the greatest series of books to ever be. No understatement.

So in conclusion, back to Royal Assassin, I give it three and a half wolves out of five. It was good and the tragedy kept me turning pages, but I think in light of Sanderson and Rothfuss, I just expect more in a sequel, and not that it isn’t wonderful and befitting of the world and characters and so forth, I just think there’s that much more potential, and I think awesomeness ought to drive a story just as much as tension. Super excited for the third though, it has a dragon on the cover, I think it might be an Elderling.


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