This post by Angie at Angieville caught my eye.
I know that second books are frequently considered not as good as the first in the series. Angie provides a set of exceptions. Of the ones I’m familiar with, I agree most fervently with The Queen of Attolia, which to me seemed like a pretty huge step up from the first book — which I liked, but didn’t think was all that and a bag of chips.
Not sure I agree about Speaker for the Dead. I liked it very much but it’s hard to match Ender’s Game.
Other sequels that match or outdo the first book: The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper! The first book was quite forgettable compared to the actual The Dark is Rising, which was the second book.
Of EON / EONA, I thought the second book was much better, but I admit it is really all one story.
I don’t think Ilona Andrews hit their stride till the third Kate Daniels book, but Angie was restricting herself to second books only, so I guess that doesn’t count.
Okay, one more, though: I will say, my opinions about my own books are highly changeable, but I do think the second Griffin Mage book is my favorite.
Update: Good comments below, and wait, there was a sequel to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase? I had no idea.
But after spending a few minutes perusing my library, I do have a couple more contenders for Sequel Beats First Book:
I preferred Sharon Shinn’s Truth-Teller’s Tale to the first book in this loosely-linked trilogy, which starts with Safe-Keeper’s Secret. It doesn’t hurt that a pair of twins are at the center of the second book, since I’m a twin, but in fact I just prefer it in general — though I really enjoyed the whole trilogy.
Moving to Big SF Epics, I strongly preferred KSR’s Green Mars to the first book, Red Mars. One reason: I disliked most of the pov characters in the first book, but liked most of the pov characters in the second book. Naturally that made a big difference. Also: a revolution against tyranny that succeeds is just a lot more appealing to read about than the same kind of thing that fails. Also: for me, a partially terraformed Mars is more fun to read about than the initial settlement.
Usually I like the initial development of the world and the characters, but in Varley’s Titan, Wizard, Demon trilogy, I preferred the second (and third) books to the first. Maybe that’s just me. I will say that I have re-read this series several times, whereas KSR does not write books I revisit often.
Okay! As far as sequels that beat their first books, I’m out.