Doing Sequels Right: a review of mr. monster by dan wells

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So if any of you read my blog post from six or seven weeks ago on Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, you’ll know that I shared a few thoughts on sequels.

Well, having just finished the second book in Wells’ John Cleaver series, today’s blog is both a review of said book, Mr. Monster, and an elaboration on my previous thoughts about sequels.

Now, one formal series formatting distinction that we need to make clear right from the get-go is that Royal Assassin is the middle book of a trilogy and functions as such, whereas Mr. Monster is the second book in a series of at least five. (I don’t actually know how many he’s planning but four have as yet been released) A second book in a longer series has an entirely different function than the second book in a trilogy because they make up very different parts of the macro-plot.

Now, Royal Assassin followed a somewhat typical second-act format in that it basically ended where things really can not possibly get any worse for our protagonist without him actually being dead and we have but the slimmest dim glimmer of hope, with the whole third book slowly putting all the pieces back together for us.

In The Well Of Ascension, the middle book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, the ending leaves us with much greater worldwide calamity, but new awesomeness for the winning side too, so that level of hope you’re left with as a reader is the type that drives you await the final installment with feelings of oh-yeah-I-can’t-wait-for-the-awesomeness-to-come. And he did it again EVEN better in Firefight, the second book of the Steelheart trilogy, released earlier this year.

What I think was less effective for me personally in Royal Assassin, was that Hobb left the protagonist with nowhere to go but up, several other key characters all escaped off, hopefully still alive but uncertain, and everything looking like it certainly wasn’t going to be better anytime soon. There was a promise to the readers missing, one of this-is-going-to-awesome-and-worth-waiting/sticking-around-for.

But enough about trilogies.

This second John Cleaver book functions more, in conjunction with the first, as a pilot episode in a television show would, or the first movie in a trilogy. (So much for enough about trilogies.) Like Sanderson’s Words Of Radiance, this second book puts the hero in his hotseat and really defines what the whole series is going to be about.

For example, in Friends, Rachel runs out on her wedding and comes back into the lives of Monica, her best friend in high school, and Ross, Monica’s recently divorced, geeky older brother who always had a crush on her, and consequently, into the lives of their close friends, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey. She decides to stay there, get a job and discover independence in the city. Together they’re a somewhat misfit bunch, but bound by their friendships. You know from the end of episode one, that it’s going to be a story about the goings on in the lives of this wacky group of friends and, ultimately, Ross and Rachel getting together.

Similarly, The Matrix is about Neo, a dispossessed computer programmer, venturing out of the world he knows into somewhere new. There he discovers he’s been living inside a computer program his whole life, learns to mentally hack said program, and then turns out to be the one foretold who can hack the program better than anybody else ever and therefore, within him lies salvation for the rest of the human race.

Now, in each of these examples, two important things have occurred. Firstly, the status quo has been upset or otherwise altered and the protagonist now finds themself in a situation they’ve never been in before. Secondly, the type of story this will be and the protagonist’s role within that story are established, and we as the audience are given hope.

The amazing thing about what both Sanderson does with Stormlight and Wells does with John Cleaver, is that the first two books in each series function exactly as one of the two important things I mentioned earlier. Book One introduces you to the setting and main characters and alters the status quo, and in some way, the protagonist accomplishes something that reinforces to the reader that they are the hero but are in many ways still mostly reactive. Book Two in each case is a continuation on the events of the first, but, spurred on through newer self-defining challenges, our protagonist becomes proactive instead of merely reactive to specific things, they accept and welcome their role as hero, and the whole tone of the macro-plot is set up.

These two books essentially serve as a giant, overarching first act. Whereas with the Harry Potter series, J K Rowling establishes it all in the first book. While that makes for an awesome first book, well, let’s just say there’s a good reason as to why the Chamber Of Secrets is everybody’s least favourite book. Somehow Sanderson and Wells have unlocked the secret to awesome sequels and I for one have been paying attention so that I might better employ their techniques in my own writing, treating the first two books in a series as two halves of a bigger more awesome story.

And that is, I think, really how you need to approach this book, as a “part II” of the first. Approach the gap between them as an intermission at the theatre. If you go into the series that way, reading them back to back, I think that it’s far less likely expections will be violated in the first book, because the twist will occur (seemingly) twice as soon, and you’ll be less likely to get incorrect ideas about the story and where it’s going.

As for other things about the book, I’ve tried very hard to limit my comments to very general things that (hopefully) won’t spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t read it. I did love where this book steered the series. I think in a couple of ways it wasn’t quite as good as the first book, but in other ways it was better, and the characterisation is of course, really well done. A few parts made me laugh out loud which is always great, and I found it a fast-paced, surprising and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Like the first book, I’m going to give Mr. Monster four marshmallows out of five, but as a series, based on what I’ve read so far, I’m giving it four and a half marshmallows because together they’re better than either book on it’s own.

So let me know, what series have you read that you thought was better as a whole story than any of the individual books on its own?

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