Second books in trilogies: The Good Ones

The other day, Alison noted in the comments to the Worldcon post that the second book of Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series is just as good as the first. Second books in trilogies can be so tiresome, but I thought the Last Graduate was equally engaging.

I haven’t tried the Scholomance series yet, but I have to admit it does sound like fun. I don’t mind the idea of a high body count as long as the tone of the story is light. Yaron commented the death and violence and gore and violence are much more… cartoonish? in this series, and that is the tone I mean. Anyway, the first book is only $2.99, and I picked it up. I kind of forgot that it’ll probably turn up in the Hugo voter’s packet or I would have waited, but as I say, it was inexpensive, so whatever.

But this did make me think of a perennial topic — second books that are as good as the first.

It’s a cliché that second books — second books in particular, not just sequels in general — are often weak. There are lots of reasons for that, although the one that gets cited the most is: The author had all the time in the world to polish the first book, but then suddenly there’s a contract with a deadline and the second book has to be written in a hurry. That certainly makes sense, particularly if the author wasn’t thinking about sequels until the contract asked for one.

In addition, the first book in a trilogy always has the pleasure of getting to know the characters and the world, while the third always has the ultimate climax. The second book is … well, it’s in the middle.

However, there are also quite a few counter examples. I’m sure I’ve done posts on this before, but probably not for a while, and I know I’ve read more books since then, so let’s try it again. I do want to try to stick specifically to second books of trilogies. What are some trilogies, trilogies specifically, where the second book is as good as, or even better than, the first book of the series? I have some contenders and I’m sure you all will think of others.

In no particular order:

1. Catching Fire in the Hunger Games trilogy. I started off by thinking, Oh, this again? and not feeling like the story was doing anything new. Then it did something new, as we pull back from Katniss’ individual story to the broader story that surrounds her. I wound up liking this book a lot. I’d set The Hunger Games and Catching Fire as about equal, while I had some problems with the ending of the trilogy and therefore tend to put Mockingjay down several rungs from the first two books of this trilogy.

Days of Blood and Starlight in Lani Taylor’s Smoke and Bone trilogy. This is one of the very (very) few high-angst YA fantasy trilogies that really works for me. That’s because Taylor is just such a great writer. In this case, the second book is independent enough to make a satisfying second book, even though its also inextricably a part of the overall story.

What is it with publishers redesigning books so that the covers are much worse than they used to be? Honestly, what is WITH these new covers? Let me just pause for a moment. Pick a cover:

Okay, which is your least favorite? For me, it’s the blue one in the middle of the series. Guess which one is the current cover? Yep, that’s the one. I think I like the last two the best, but I live every single cover here better than the blue one in the middle.

But FINE, moving on.

2. The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan is my next pick. Every book in this trilogy is excellent. The second might actually be my favorite, sometimes, in some ways, but it’s hard to choose. Sure, I don’t like certain details, but hello, it’s a whole trilogy, of course I dislike certain elements. Each book in the trilogy emphasizes a different pov protagonist, though there’s one overall plot. That’s a somewhat unusual structure. All the different points of view work about equally well for me, which is even more unusual. This is an intense story, rather dark — okay, quite dark in places — but overall this is a positive story. Obviously. You know me well enough to know I wouldn’t enjoy anything in the region of grimdark. Here are my more extensive comments about this series.

3. Like a River Glorious by Rae Carson. Here are my comments on the first two books of the trilogy, before the third was released. I don’t know that I ever commented on the third once it was out, but it was also really good. This is just a wonderful trilogy, with a strong through-line. Although readers might feel some section sags, I did not, and I think that feeling is more likely in the first book than the second. There’s a long slice-of-life journey west through the Great Plains — I guess I should say, this is a historical fantasy trilogy set during the Gold Rush, very heavy on the history and light on the fantasy. While sometimes a long journey can bore me, in this case, I enjoyed it and felt no need to skim ahead to the arrival in California

4. Two-Bit Heroes, the second book of Doris Egan’s (Jane Emerson’s) Ivory trilogy. Which, I’m sorry to say, do not appear to be available in ebook format, which is a crying shame. I loved these books when they were first published and I still love them, and I’m not sure whether the first or second book is my favorite. I’m still mad that Egan did not go on with this series. This was before an author could easily move into self-publishing, which is a real shame. The three mass-market paperbacks look like the more cost-effective option if you pick them up used: that would be Gate of Ivory, Two-Bit Heroes, and Guilt-Edged Ivory. Honestly, even if you never read paper editions of anything, these are well worth picking up your reading glasses.

5. Gemina, the second book of the Illuminae files by Kaufman and Kristoff. It’s hard to think of a more fun trilogy out there. Really delightful, exciting, a bit over the top … okay, thoroughly over the top. But so much fun! I’m sure by the end, readers are very sure that no matter what SEEMS to be happening, everything will turn out well. And it does, no matter what violence Kaufman and Kristoff have to do to their world to make sure of it.

For this trilogy, I have to suggest that the print version is the way to go simply because of all the weird print effects.

6. Ancillary Sword. I know some people found Ancillary Sword disappointing after Ancillary Justice. I didn’t have that reaction at all. It’s a story that happens in a smaller scale, that’s true. I liked that feature of the story. I liked and admired almost everything about this trilogy, but for me, the second book was better than the first. The central problem Breq needed to deal with in the second (and third) books appealed to me more than the central problem of the first book; and some of my favorite characters didn’t appear till the second book, and really, overall, the second books is right up there for me.

7. Paladin of Souls in the Five Gods world. If you take the three novels as a trilogy, with the Penric novellas treated as associated content, then I think the first book is the best, the second is almost as good, and the third is much less good. I know a lot of readers put the second book at the top for this trilogy and I get that, though for me it’s impossible to beat Caz in The Curse of Chalion. But I think most people agree that Paladin is right up there in quality.

I’m now going to cheat:

8. The Land of Burning Sands

And, take a look, the whole trilogy is listed for $1.99 at the moment. Hatchette does that periodically. So seriously, this is the time to click through and buy this trilogy. And when you do, I will just say up front, the second book is my personal favorite. It’s not even close. I had the worst time coming up with a plot and a protagonist for this book — everything that occurred to me was YA — so I finally said, “Fine, you know what, the protagonist is a 42-year-old man” and went on from there. THAT broke it out of YA mode in a hurry, after which, as I say, it turned into one of my favorites. I really like Gereint … and Beguchrin … and Tehre … and here we are, with a story I truly enjoyed writing and still enjoy years afterward.

9. Tarashana

The main trilogy is Tuyo – Tarashana – Tasmakat. Everything else is offset from that trilogy. That makes Tarashana the second book of a trilogy.

I do not, of course, expect every single reader to agree, but I think Tarashana is just about as good as Tuyo. Sure, you only get the big reveal once. Nevertheless.

The cover for Suelen is in progress, by the way. I’ve seen two drafts. Hopefully I’ll be showing the final version to you by the end of the week. I’ll put Suelen up for preorder as soon as the cover’s ready. I’m going to schedule it for release about June 25th, I expect.

But! That turns out to be nine second books! Leaving:

10. Your Suggestion Here

What’s another second book of a trilogy that stands out for you? Something that’s close to as good as, maybe even better than, the first book? I’m sure there must be plenty of other trilogies where the quality doesn’t drop off dramatically in the second book.

Please Feel Free to Share:


13 thoughts on “Second books in trilogies: The Good Ones”

  1. I really like second books that show us an expanding world, especially when the first book has a tight focus; take what we loved and show us MORE of it, or show us how it’s different than we expected, or build out a larger cast, etc. (TARASHANA, for instance, does exactly this.) A couple more books I think do that particularly well are Martha Wells’ THE SERPENT SEA and AJ Demas’ SAFFRON ALLEY. Tamsyn Muir’s HARROW THE NINTH does this in a spectacularly weird way, and I hated it on the first reading and absolutely loved it on the second.

    I need to reread the Ivory books. (I have the omnibus edition, but would love love ebooks. Doris Egan is on Twitter; I wonder if she has the rights…?) And I may be one of the very few people who like THE HALLOWED HUNT just as much as the other Five Gods books, though I do think PALADIN is the best.

  2. I will have to reread it, but I thought the second book lagged towards the end, with the, um, graduation rehearsals.

  3. I will have to think about this more carefully. But off the top of my head, how about the 2nd book in the Riddlemaster series by McKillip? Must reread to see if that’s the case. Also, please do let us know what you thought of the Hugo noms that you ended up reading!

  4. Perhaps you can make a distinction between those trilogies where the characters or challenges are completely different and those trilogies where the same characters have been left on a cliff in book one and struggle in book two only to triumph in book three. I love most of the books I’ve read in the first category (Tarashana, the Land of the Burning Sands, the Tremontane novels) but have a harder time with the second category. In those, perhaps only The Two Towers and The Wandering Fire stand out to me.

  5. When I first read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, I thought the second book was an order of magnitude better than the first. (But apparently there was a gap of several years between the two and perhaps Cooper grew as a writer in the interval.)

    I’m not sure I’d consider The Two Towers to be a second book. Tolkien originally wrote LOTR as one whole story and had to chop it up to please his publisher.

    I have to disagree on Catching Fire. I liked the first half of it as well as THG, maybe better. But once they’re in the arena it seemed like all they did was sit around having meals, with brief horrifying intervals of violence.

    Honestly, while I’m in curmudgeon mood (bad backs = cranky authors), I thought The Last Graduate dragged a bit in parts. Still a good book and I’m eagerly waiting for the third helping of the trilogy.

  6. I did like Paladin of Souls, but I agree with you. Neither of the other books is as good as The Curse of Chalion – for me, specifically because neither of them feature Caz except peripherally.
    Personally I like the book that comes after Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth as well or better; it’s called The Silver Branch and is one of the only books I have ever cried over.

  7. I enjoyed the second book in The Raven Cycle a lot, because of those broadened horizons Mary Beth mentioned.

    There were some rocky bits in book 2 for Elfhome, but balanced by similar expansion. I’m a little disappointed with the later installments though – waiting to see if the last book manages to save it, since Harbinger seems to be just the 1st 1/2 of a book.

  8. I thought the second Rook and Rose book was just as good as the first, although (as you mentioned!) it does ratchet up the tension. I’m a big fan of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut trilogy, and while the first one is always going to be my favorite, I think the second one is almost on the same level. I do wish publishing was friendlier to duologies, though – a lot of series could be improved by condensing three books into two.


  9. Hmm. There are series that improve, but the only one where I remember the second being better than the first was The Price of Peace was better than The First Casualty

    Different characters, stand-alone plots.

  10. On these covers, while I agree with you aesthetically, in general I tend to value covers that give a sense of the book’s genre, and sometimes even general style/feel. Quite a lot of covers to manage to do this to some extent (and thankfully most of the ones that don’t, do that by not giving enough info, rather than giving a very wrong impression, which does happen but is rare).
    This is because generally, for most books, there can be quite a while between the time that I get them (so know what’s there) and transfer them to the Kindle, and the time I actually get to read them (so if not a known sequel I really have little to go on besides the cover to pick a book that will also fit my mood at the moment).
    And for this, the first cover, and to a lesser extent the second, are the worse of the bunch. With the last three, including this toxic blue one, I at least get some relevant sense.

    I didn’t particularly like The Demon’s Lexicon, though it might have been a misfortune of timing rather than a fault of the book. I got to it not too long after reading the first few books in Rob Thurman’s Cal Leandros series, and the moment I started it, it just kept strongly reminding me of it (despite the significant differences). Which does work to turn what I’m pretty sure was supposed to be a surprise twist into something I just kept waiting for since chapter1 or 2. (Twists that surprise the characters and not the reader are perfectly fine. Twists that feel like they were supposed to surprise the reader, but fail miserably, aren’t). It’s really not rehashing a common plot that has been done hundreds of times already, but it mostly felt to me like that while I was reading it…

    For trilogies where book 2 at least kept up the quality of book 1, and which weren’t already mentioned here previous, hmmm:

    Alliance by S. K. Dunstall, in the Linesman trilogy. It expands the scope from the first book, getting the protagonist more involved, and more noticed, and showing us more of the world that the first book. But it’s a very smooth continuation of the original book, and keeps up about everything. Weird modes of FTL travels based on found ancient tech that aren’t properly understood are a bit common, but this is a very unique take a I think, with the engines being based on “lines” that have different responsibilities, are the oddball protagonist who gets a lot more out of them by interacting with them and singing to them instead of just assuming it’s a simple machine. Add some pretty decent, if less unique, political conflicts and crime/economics, and it’s a very solid space opera.

    The Flux by Ferrett Steinmetz, in the ‘Mancer trilogy. It’s almost a standard urban fantasy series, except that the magical powers that people have are unique, depending on their passions, and badly understood since after some past calamities they are heavily and aggressively repressed. The protagonist stars off hating magic users, after a past incident that badly hurt his daughter. But everything is more complex, and in trying to help her, and figure out the truth of some cases he encounters, he discovers his own magic, as a Bureaucromancer. The second book expands the scope noticeably, from the more personal story of discovery to joining the fight against the government oppression. It keeps the quality, and keeps showing more interesting things about the world and the characters. The third book I think does drop somewhat in quality, going too hard in what it shows from the other side and how the large conflict is, sort of, resolved, but still good.

    Blue Angel by Phil Williams, in the Ordshaw trilogy. Very British, small town with big government conspiracy, hidden fae city, and weird monsters in the sewers and old subway tunnels. And a hapless gambler and cheat who finds herself involved in all of this against her will. It’s fun and interesting. Book one is pretty good, but serves more as introduction and setup to where the more “important” things start to happen on the second book.

    The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso, the Swords and Fire trilogy. Another case where the first book, while certainly having a good plot of its own, also to a large extent serves to set the world and introduce the players for the following books. The magic system is interesting but maybe not too unique, except for how it’s handled by the geographical distribution of different talents and the politics and policies of dealing with it in different places. While there’s certainly a lot of the adventuring and S&S, plus plenty of personal dramas, a large part of the books deals with the various local politics and the morality of them. All of the books keep up the same general quality, just move things around together with the growth of the main character(s).

  11. Thanks, Yaron — all your suggestions are new to me, which is great!

    I know what you mean; I had that same confusion between the Ivory trilogy and another series. I read them one right after the other, and certain elements were similar, and the second really suffered in comparison with the Ivory series. I think that was not a fault in the second series, but I’ve never gone back to it.

    I almost never remember anything much about the books I downloaded a year or more ago, but I’ve gotten into the habit of clicking “about this book” when picking one to read, which means the cover is not as important to me as it used to be.

    It took me a moment to find First Casualty and The Price of Peace: Here is a link to that series page for anyone who is interested.

    Amara, I agree that it would be good to have duologies as acceptable as a series length as trilogies. And I really enjoyed the first book of the Rook and Rose series! I want to read the second! I just can’t right now. I need a less stressful period in my life before I pick that one up.

    Okay, now, let me see —

    Yes, I agree! The ending of the Raven Boys quadrilogy struck me as weakish in a couple of ways, but the second book was definitely not a letdown from the first. Same for The Fionavar trilogy.

    And I loved, loved, loved the second book of the Riddlemaster series. At the time the shift in pov was jarring, but I got into Raederle’s story very quickly. I read The Eagle of the Ninth, didn’t really get into it, but it gets mentioned so often that I know I need to read it again — and the next book along, apparently! And yes, I loved Saffron Alley. Hard to beat One Night in Boukos, though.

  12. I’m with Alison. So many new-to-me recs. I think I have Egan’s Ivory, and it sounds perfect right now.

    The Land of Burning Sands is an awesome book, let alone for the second one in a series. I love that you decided on a middle-aged protagonist, and the engineering parts were so fun. Plus, great family dynamics with Tehre!

    To add another one to this list, Garth Nix’s Lirael stands up well after Sabriel. At least for me, I know I’ve reread Lirael the most often of that trilogy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top