“A secret is a strange thing.”First line in The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
You might have heard the term Middle Book Syndrome before as it is a quite common “disease” that befalls (mostly) the second book in a trilogy. In some cases, it’s also referred to as Second Book Syndrome, which goes to clarify that it also concerns series longer than 3 books.
So what is Middle Book Syndrome? Middle Book Syndrome is when the second book in a series doesn’t live up to the quality of its predecessor. It can be so for various different reasons. Often, the second book will include a lot of set-up for the third book, especially if it’s a trilogy. The second book then fails to have its own set-up and conclusion, but will instead give you a cliffhanger ending, because now we’re finally ready for the third book! The second book will drag and you’re left with that feeling of just waiting for the next book.
You can also run into second books that go in a totally different direction compared to the first book. It will explore a different plot that might only loosely be connected to the plot of the first (and future third) book. This thing about a different plot can be really effective though if the author manages to create interesting ties to the existing plot of the first book. Then the second book becomes a layer instead of a break.
Now I want to give some examples of books I think suffer from Middle Book Syndrome. I’ve tried very hard to keep it spoiler-free and only talk about the books in broad terms. However, if you’re someone who doesn’t want to know anything at all about these books, proceed with caution.
City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare – Book 2 in The Mortal Instruments
I don’t know how many of you remember that The Mortal Instruments was only meant to be a trilogy. Odd to think about because we now have a gazillion books in that universe.
City of Ashes however was not the best follow-up to City of Bones. The storyline went in a weird direction, and the things that needed resolving from the end of book one were dragged on into book 3. Very little in this book actually made a difference to what happened in book 3.
A Gathring of Shadows by V. E. Schwab – Book 2 in Shades of Magic
The case of Middle Book Syndrome isn’t too bad with this one but I still wanted to include it.
The first book can actually work as a standalone which is great but not very good for the second book here. It kind of has to build up the story again and therefore has a very slow beginning.
Then we have the big event that takes place in this book… I still don’t know why we needed that. I don’t think it had a major influence on the overall plot.
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin – Book 2 in The Broken Earth
I will admit that this series in general wasn’t my favorite but I still enjoyed books 1 and 3 a lot more than The Obelisk Gate.
We follow two different storylines but it seemed like only one of them absolutely needed to be there. The other one was just a lot of info-dumping because we needed to know these things for the third book. On top of that, the interesting storyline also dragged a bit and could have been wrapped up faster in my opinion.
Now I don’t want this post to come off all negative so I also want to give you some examples where the author truly nailed the second book. For some reason, the second book in a series is often my favorite one which seems weird even to me. That means I have a lot of examples for this but I’ll try to contain myself.
Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman – Book 2 in Arc of a Scythe
Will there ever be a better sequel than Thunderhead? I highly doubt it.
This book portrays such an intelligent way of adding another layer to your story. Shusterman expands his world greatly in this one all while keeping the plot from the first book. It raises the stakes and introduces new characters that fit seamlessly with everything else in the book. Such a thing could easily come off as a divergence from “the important stuff”, but no. Shusterman is an expert at connecting everything.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden – Book 2 in Winternight Trilogy
The Girl in the Tower is a great example of the story going in a completely different direction compared to the first book. I think it works because the trilogy, in general, is very character-driven and a lot of the main character’s development happens in this book. The most important part of a character-driven novel in my book and so it doesn’t become boring. And yes, the plot takes a turn but it still manages to connect books 1 and 3 in a mind-blowing way.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins – Book 2 in The Hunger Games
Catching Fire did what I least expected of it, which was to do The Hunger Games once more. A competition with a lot of traditions could easily have given us a lot of repeat-scenes. Did that happen? Not at all. All the traditions were given a twist and the entire mood of the book was even more gloomy than in book 1.
It still works as a set-up for book 3, especially with that cliffhanger (!!), but that is not at all obvious when you’re reading it the first time. In that sense, it works so well on its own.
Honestly, I just wanted to talk about some sequels and this is what came out of it. I recently began to notice how my favorite books in trilogies tend to be the second ones. I figured that was kind of weird and wanted to explore this Middle Book Syndrome and why it didn’t apply to those books.
Now I of course want to know about some books you think suffer from Middle Book Syndrome. OR maybe you’re like me and love so many second books in series. Let me know about those too. Have a great day!
6 thoughts on “An Exploration of Middle Book Syndrome”
Great blog post!!! Middle book syndrome is one of the reasons I am not a big fan of trilogies. I much prefer duologies…. well technically I much prefer standalones but if I have to read a sequel then I hope it is a duology lol!!
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Thank you! I’m very much a reader of series but I can still relate to your opinion. Duologies have a much higher success rate than trilogies in general I think. AND they’re easy to finish 😀
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I tend to love middle books because we usually get less plot and more character development 😂 But I understand why lots of people wouldn’t be content with that!
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Yes, I think that’s the appeal of middle books for me too, especially when the author hits that right balance with a focus on the characters without dismissing the plot completely. I don’t understand what’s not to like about that 😄
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