We can all agree that Second Book Syndrome is a real thing – a series explodes onto the scene with a fabulous first installment, maybe races to the top of the NYT bestseller list, cheers cheers applause applause, only to have book 2 not quite hit the mark. But before we beat that dead horse into further submission, rest assured that this week’s Top Five Wednesday is exactly the opposite. This week, we’re toasting middle of the series books that topped out the bell curve on quality. Here’s to second (first?) place!
- Fire | #2 of the Graceling Realms | Kristin Cashore
Sometimes I wonder if Fire was even written by the same author as Graceling, because I have never witnessed such a dramatic turnaround in quality between two books. Graceling was a two-time DNF for me before I finally slogged through the whole audiobook, and it remains the only book that I would tell someone to just google a detailed synopsis of so they can move on to book 2. Fire is approximately 8 bazillion times better. It has all of the complex personal, political and ethical plot threads that I felt Graceling lacked, and I like its unique setting better than that of Graceling or Bitterblue, which bookend the series in the same part of Cashore’s world. For a full rundown of my thoughts on the trilogy (with spoiler warnings where applicable), hop over here.
- Shadow Puppets | #3 of the Shadow series | Orson Scott Card
This is actually book 3 of 5, and unlike the Graceling Realms series, I would officially endorse them all. What I like about Shadow Puppets is that we finally start to see Bean come into his own as an adult. He’s largely been Baby Bean through Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon, holding his own as a clinically cold analytical child soldier. In Shadow Puppets, he’s forced to do some adulting (i.e. will he have babies?!?!) that in turn has him grappling with the dangerous truth of his genetics and a ghost from his past. And by “ghost,” I mean a very much alive insane genius murdering psychopath. Plus, my favorite moment from the whole series is in this book. The first time I read it I was like…
It’s cold and brutal and calculating and yet it will make you fist pump to the skies because it 10000% needed to happen.
- Rogue | #2 of the Talon Saga | Julie Kagawa
On the whole, this series about dragons hiding in plain sight is fun but ever so slightly silly, with scads of overwrought dramatics and world domination plots. I’ve read 3 of the 4 currently published books, and I appreciate how #2 takes the beach read feel of the first (as in, most of it literally happens on a beach) and kicks things into adventure mode. It was also the first time I realized Kagawa was going to add first person POVs beyond the two that narrated book 1, and book 3 kicks in a 4th POV. This was a fabulous surprise, since it adds a lot of character depth, but doesn’t slam you with it all at once.
- Days of Blood & Starlight | #2 of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy | Laini Taylor
Speaking of books with overwrought dramatics…this series takes the relational chaos of Romeo and Juliet and smashes it together with a good vs evil plot that encompasses humans, angels, demons AND multiple worlds, with a whole lot of sassy dialogue to boot. I like book 2 the best because it lays off the will they/won’t they star-crossed lover angst that overwhelms book 1 and 3. It also introduces a lot more depth on the angel and demon cultures, which I found to be far more entertaining than watching one or two supernaturals among a human population. Also, the Karou/Thiago interactions here were probably my favorite exchanges to read in the entire series, because I am a sucker for a smooth villain with a cunning power play.
- Invasion of the Tearling | #2 of the Tearling trilogy | Erika Johansen
This book plays tug of war in my mind between “best of the trilogy” and “most acid triptastic of the trilogy.” And while it probably leans more toward the latter, there are a few things that make it stand out from its bookend tomes. First, it takes the standard “naive girl becomes queen in a fantasy realm” setup and injects some bananapants genre mixing. Queen Kelsea begins to have visions of a dystopian right-wing authoritarian America, which has a then-unexplained connection to her more fantastical world. It ultimately adds a lot to the story, but the first few times you encounter it can be like…
This book also introduces a physically and emotionally volatile portion of Kelsea’s character arc. She was never some delicate blossom of a girl, and quite frankly, she’s not even very nice in this book. She goes to a deeply dark place*, which sets her up to make some key decisions about who she wants to be in the finale.
*Invasion of the Tearling is basically the Dark Knight of its trilogy.