I’ve talked a lot about my favorite reading challenge, r/Fantasy Book Bingo, and how spreading out your reading among so many authors leaves you dangling off a lot of cliffs. So this year, I decided to complete a themed card with all sequels to see who’s kidding who.
As with my previous card, I’ve ranked the books on the card in order of how much I enjoyed them. But again, I remind you that this is all in good fun and that these ratings may change slightly if you’d asked me on a different day. Instead of the section on cliffhangers, I’ve included a brief note on the size of the commitment–how much reading it takes to get to the book I’ve used, whether they can be read as standalones, etc.
And I want to especially emphasize with this card that, because these are all sequels, even the books at the very bottom may carry my strong recommendation for the series. Just because a later book didn’t necessarily work for me doesn’t mean that I don’t highly recommend reading a previous book or two. And again, I’ve noted cases where previous books can be read as standalones.
One thing that immediately jumps out at me is the shrinking of the middle. In my hard mode card, I had *nine* books rated 15/20. In this card, that number is just five, and it drops to three if you remove the nonfiction and the short story collection. It seems that when I get farther into a series, I’m generally either very impressed, or I’m disappointed at a sequel that doesn’t stand up to the previous work’s quality.
Another thing I’d like to note that may not be immediately obvious is that this card represents an argument for giving series second chances in certain circumstances. I had five books on this card rated at least two points higher than the first book in the series, including a three-star book whose sequel jumped to four and a trio of four-stars with sequels that landed among my very favorites. On the other side of the coin, it’s an argument for knowing when to stop as well. I also had five books rated at least two points lower than the first book. In three of these cases, the opening book is readable as a standalone, and I’ve made this recommendation when appropriate.
This was a longer preamble than usual. So let’s take a closer look at my card! I don’t always review mid-series books, but if I have a full series review or a review for the book in question, it’ll be linked in the title. On occasion, I’ll also add a link for the series-opener.
1. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.
Categories: First Contact (hard), Forest Setting, Chapter Titles
Mini-Review: I put this one off more than a decade for various reasons, and I’m glad I finally pulled it off the shelf. Speaker for the Dead is stunning work that entirely changes subgenres from its predecessor, telling an astoundingly empathetic tale of contact with an alien culture, with remarkable nuance in its exploration of both colonialism and paternalism.
How Big is the Commitment? There are a whole bunch of novels in this series, but there’s no reason one has to keep reading after the first two. Speaker for the Dead assumes familiarity with how Ender’s Game ended, but they’re very different stories, and the sequel can be read as a standalone if you don’t mind the spoiler. But they’re both fantastic, so barring hard subgenre mismatch or extratextual commitments to avoiding the author, my recommendation is to read both.
2. The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein.
Categories: Comfort Read, X of Y, Found Family, Genre Mashup.
Mini-Review: The Steerswoman Series has hit the point where I’m so attached to the characters that I’m almost certain to love any story that gives me more time with them, but The Language of Power has more of Rowan discovering new things using her delightful analytical mindset, plus reunions of characters that had been sidelined for a while and a quicker pace than its predecessor.
How Big is the Commitment? You need to read the four books in order. Fortunately, they’re all quite good, with the third and the fourth stepping up the quality to great. And each has an ending that yields some sense of accomplishment, so there are places to stop if you don’t want to commit to an entire series. The overarching plot will theoretically be resolved in the final two books, but progress has been slow since the 2004 release of book four. We wait in hope.
3. The Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft.
Categories: Genre Guide, Published in 2021, Found Family (hard), Cat Squasher, X of Y.
Mini-Review: Bancroft pulls a series of adventures together without compromising a bit on the weirdness and wonder of the Tower of Babel. The prose is excellent, as is the ensemble cast, the themes get much deeper as the series progresses, and I appreciate the willingness to leave some threads loose—a neater ending would’ve done a disservice to the series. There is a bit of structural awkwardness, but it wasn’t enough to prevent me from loving this book.
How Big is the Commitment? Again, this is a fourth book, and they need to be read in order. But the first feels more like an adventure fantasy (with admittedly better-than-standard prose) in a bizarre and wondrous setting, so there is an off-ramp if needed before the overarching series plot comes into focus.
4. King’s Shield by Sherwood Smith.
Categories: Genre Guide, Book Club, Cat Squasher, Found Family (hard).
Mini-Review: Inda is another series where you get so attached to the characters that every new book is like reconnecting with old friends, and while King’s Shield doesn’t lack for tragedy, it also has some of the most uplifting character moments of the series so far. There’s war, there’s death, there’s lots of strategizing, and there are some incredibly lovable characters in the middle of it all.
How Big is the Commitment? It’s a four-book series, and they need to be read in order. But the first three are all excellent (the fourth remains on my TBR). The sheer number of families and names provides a bit of a barrier of entry, but veteran readers of political fantasy should be able to get past it with minimal difficulty. I will warn that the first two volumes feel like two halves of one book, and so the series-opener does not close with a satisfying stopping point.
5. The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal.
Categories: First-Person, Book Club (hard), Found Family (hard), Mystery Plot (hard).
Mini-Review: An alt history space race now has an espionage plot. The Relentless Moon delivers the competent women fighting for their place is in the space program that we’d seen in The Calculating Stars, but it shifts to a new perspective character that’s more politically savvy and honestly more relatable. Add a plot that’s hard to put down and some excellent depiction of mental health struggles, and The Relentless Moon exceeds even its Hugo-winning predecessor.
How Big is the Commitment? This refers to events in The Calculating Stars, but both books are ultimately prequels to “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and I believe were written to stand on their own. I read this without having read The Fated Sky, and while you’d miss some context if you hadn’t read The Calculating Stars, I think it would still make an enjoyable read in isolation.
6. Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll.
Categories: Comfort Read, Chapter Titles.
Mini-Review: This is the first of two books that I read over a decade ago, loved, and reread this year with my five year-old. That makes it a little bit difficult to rate, but there are so many moments in this story that had me tickled. If you enjoy nonsense and language jokes—starting with “Jabberwocky” and continuing apace—it’s truly a must-read.
How Big is the Commitment? Assumes familiarity with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but could be read as a standalone easily enough. While its predecessor has many iconic characters—the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, etc.—it’s much more heavily reliant on pop culture references that are more than a century out of date, whereas the nonsense and linguistic humor of Through the Looking-Glass have more staying power.
7. A Chorus Rises by Bethany C. Morrow.
Categories: Revenge (hard), First-Person, Published in 2021.
Mini-Review: A Chorus Rises a short but very good character study of a somewhat unsympathetic social media influencer who served as an antagonist in the previous book. It takes its time bringing her to terms with her membership in a privileged class while simultaneously being part of another group that suffers discrimination, before introducing a more defined plot that delivers a satisfying conclusion without requiring her to unrealistically amend every single one of her flaws.
How Big is the Commitment? This follows shortly after the events of A Song Below Water, so while it features a new main character and a distinct plot, it helps to at least be familiar with the general plot points of its predecessor. And the first book is a fairly short and entertaining read, even if some structural flaws hold it back from the level of the sequel.
8. Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis.
Categories: Comfort Read, Chapter Titles (hard).
Mini-Review: It’s so hard to evaluate a book with so much nostalgia, but I still enjoyed this quite a bit on my third read. Lewis is an excellent storyteller, and while the main plot might not be quite as memorable as the first, there are a few flourishes that are very nicely done, particularly regarding conquest and the lines one shouldn’t cross to regain freedom.
How Big is the Commitment? Each of the seven books has a relatively self-contained plot, but Prince Caspian assumes familiarity with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it’s honestly hard to imagine it hitting for a reader who didn’t care for its predecessor.
9. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang.
Categories: Revenge (hard), Asian Setting (hard), Genre Guide (hard), Cat Squasher, Found Family (hard).
Mini-Review: The Dragon Republic is a bit more bloated than The Poppy War, with some of the first half feeling like perfunctory setup to the real story, but the ending hits hard, and the lead’s grappling with a hostile world that makes every decision seem the wrong one remains excellent.
How Big is the Commitment? It’s a trilogy and the books have to be read in order. Each has a climax satisfying enough to serve as a stopping point, should one be desired, but there are major consequences that won’t be resolved until (presumably) the third book.
10. The Sharing Knife: Passage by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Categories: Backlist, Comfort Read, Genre Mashup, Mystery Plot (hard).
Mini-Review: I find myself loving pretty much everything that Lois McMaster Bujold writes, and this fantasy romance on an analogue of frontier America is no exception. Passage spends more time digging into the magic system than on the romance, which is well-established from the first two books, but there’s an intriguing mystery plot that’s material for plenty of story.
How Big is the Commitment? There are four books that should be read in order, but they each have fairly distinct plots with satisfying conclusions. I think it’d be harder to stop after the first than after the second or third, but there aren’t any true cliffhangers here.
11. The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik.
Categories: Found Family (hard), Published in 2021, First-Person, Witches (hard).
Mini-Review: If you liked A Deadly Education, get ready for more of the same, but with expanded scope. El is still prickly and delivers a meandering first-person narration with plenty of rabbit trails and infodumps, but we begin to understand more of why the world is as it is and get to see El interacting with a broader group of secondary characters. And the action scenes hit just as hard as before.
How Big is the Commitment? I believe this is planned as a trilogy, with books to be read sequentially. And while the first two books have their own plots with satisfying conclusions, Novik pulls no punches with the sequel hooks—if you’re enjoying this series, it’s going to be tough waiting between books.
12. The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg.
Categories: Debut (hard), New-to-You Author, First-Person (hard), Found Family (hard), Trans/NB Character (hard).
Mini-Review: A beautifully-written tale of a pair of older protagonists on journeys of self-discovery. The overarching plot is nothing special, but the way each character must reckon with both their external antagonists and the way their upbringings have shaped them makes for a pair of excellent character arcs.
How Big is the Commitment? Look, it was very hard to find a debut for a sequel themed card. This takes place in Lemberg’s Birdverse, but you don’t have to have read other Birdverse stories to read The Four Profound Weaves.
13. Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone.
Categories: New-to-You Author, Found Family (hard), Mystery Plot (hard).
Mini-Review: For whatever reason, I really struggle with god-heavy fantasy, and the divine parallels to real-world financial systems can get a hair on the wonky side, but Full Fathom Five has an intriguing mystery and solid characters. And I was perhaps most impressed by the prose, which keeps an impeccable balance between the colloquial urban fantasy voice and the pseudo-formal epic fantasy voice.
How Big is the Commitment? There are six books in the series, but you don’t have to read them in publication order. In order to fit the square, I skipped the first published title—Three Parts Dead—in favor of Full Fathom Five, and my reading experience did not suffer noticeably.
14. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo.
Categories: Witches (hard), Revenge (hard), Found Family (hard)
Mini-Review: We close a YA heist duology with a whole lot of heisting. There are schemes atop schemes atop schemes—sometimes a bit too much, in my opinion—along with some excellent character backstory that in my view is really what makes the duology so good.
How Big is the Commitment? It’s two books, you have to read them in order, and the first one ends on a cliffhanger. You can skip the other Grishaverse stuff if you want.
15. Stories of the Raksura, Vols 1 and 2 by Martha Wells.
Categories: Short Stories (hard), Found Family (hard), X of Y, Backlist.
Mini-Review: Raksuran court politics are fascinating, and Moon is a wonderfully drawn outsider character. But when the Raksura are all pulling together, they tend to be a hair overpowered. As such, I liked the prequels more than the sequels, with “The Tale of Indigo and Cloud” (essentially a Raksuran fantasy of manners) and “The Dead City” (a novella starring Moon before the events of the main series) the real standouts for me. The collections as a whole were more of a mixed bag—not a bad mix, but there are a few stories of the solid-but-forgettable variety—but I recommend the Stories of the Raksura to any fan of the series on the strength of those two entries.
Cliff Severity: It’s a mix of prequel and sequel, but it’s meant to be read after book three of the series, and even “The Tale of Indigo and Cloud” is set in a frame story that takes place between books three and four of the main series. That said, this isn’t a series much harmed by spoilers, so reading them at another time isn’t necessarily a disaster. And each of the first three books has a satisfying ending, so there are stopping points if needed.
16. Feast of Laughter, Vol 3 by Ktistec Press.
Categories: SFF-Related Nonfiction (hard), Short Stories.
Mini-Review: This is a book about the works of R.A. Lafferty that is very much for the already initiated. I found some of the essays fascinating, and the one about how Lafferty’s mythopoetic voice felt like an oral storyteller trying to make it in a world of hard science and hard magic was a particular favorite that may have some general interest, but essays analyzing an author’s work are generally best if you care about the author. That said, the ebook is free and does include one of Lafferty’s personal favorite short stories that is not in print elsewhere, so it’s still worth a download for that alone. And seeing Harlan Ellison gush about Lafferty was honestly a whole lot of fun.
How Big is the Commitment? I used volume three because I’m committed to the bit, but you can read the Feast of Laughter publications in any order.
17. Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee.
Categories: Revenge (hard), Trans/NB Character (hard), Backlist.
Mini-Review: While it mercifully backs off the technobabble, Raven Stratagem follows Ninefox Gambit in showing off the lead’s cleverness mostly by keeping the reader in the dark about the available options. That said, there’s solid character work—even if we get precious little perspective from the central character—and a really thoughtful take on revolution that make this one worth the read.
How Big is the Commitment? It’s a trilogy, but the first book has a somewhat satisfying ending followed by a sequel hook, and the second book has a satisfying ending with an even smaller sequel hook.
18. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Categories: X of Y, Chapter Titles.
Mini-Review: I’ve never totally connected with Le Guin’s writing style, and she’s committed to the detached, mythic voice in the Earthsea series. That said, The Tombs of Atuan brings in enough of the lead character’s inner turmoil to really drive the conflict, and it doesn’t settle for too neat an ending, which I greatly appreciated. It is a slow build, but it’s also short, so if little happens in the first 40%, that’s still not even 20,000 words.
How Big is the Commitment? You could honestly read this as a standalone, though it does reference events in A Wizard of Earthsea, and there are more books in the series.
19. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer.
Categories: Mystery Plot (hard).
Mini-Review: VanderMeer goes back to the well after the stunning Weird sci-fi/horror Annihilation, with a second Weird sci-fi/horror set in the mysterious government organization set to investigate the mysterious Area X. It does add about 60% more length, which serves to slow down the story and prevent the atmosphere from building quite as effectively as in the first book, but it’s still beautifully creepy.
How Big is the Commitment? Don’t really expect resolution from anything in this series, which consists of three released books and a fourth on the way. But you can stop after any of them. I would recommend starting with Annihilation though, both for story reasons and because it’s the best hook.
20. Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Categories: First Contact (hard), Cat Squasher, X of Y.
Mini-Review: Children of Time tells the story of a non-human species slowly evolving to intelligence and planetary dominance and the inevitable conflict when they come across a generation ship of human colonizers. And Children of Ruin tries to go back to the well, but the non-human species in the sequel are a bit more alien, and so they’re given much less relative page time, to the story’s detriment. The human characters are fine, but not enough to carry 600 pages of book—it’s the non-human perspectives that make this series special.
How Big is the Commitment? Children of Time should be read first—and I highly recommend doing so, as it is excellent and a significant step above the sequel—and you can stop there if you wish. If you do continue to Children of Ruin, you can either stop there or continue to a third book planned for 2023.
21. Cazadora by Romina Garber.
Categories: Latinx Author (hard), Found Family (hard), Revenge (hard), Published in 2021, First-Person (hard).
Mini-Review: Cazadora picks up midway through the action that occurs in the aftermath of Lobizona, and the mad dash from magical locale to magical locale prevents the story from really settling in and developing the emotional stakes for a long time. Once it does, it has a lot to say about fighting back against an oppressive culture, and it nails the emotional beats, but the story isn’t quite as focused as its predecessor.
How Big is the Commitment? I have no idea how many books are planned for this series arc. Garber stops each book after a satisfying emotional climax, but she leaves plenty of questions to be addressed in the future, so whether they’re good stopping points depends to some extent on the reader. Personally, I could read on, but I also could’ve stopped after the excellent series-opener.
22. From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court by Benedict Patrick.
Categories: Forest Setting, Self-Published, Chapter Titles.
Mini-Review: The main plot can feel a hair repetitive, but the creepy forest scenes are well done, and the myths interspersed throughout the narrative are excellent. I would’ve liked this book more if it were shorter, but it’s a smooth read that represents a step forward over They Mostly Come Out at Night.
How Big is the Commitment? From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court references events from They Mostly Come Out at Night, but it explains all the background you need. And there are other stories in the Yarnsworld universe that are totally distinct from either, so you can dip in and out at will. The best that I’ve read so far is the novelette “And They Were Never Heard From Again,” but I’ve also heard great things about Where the Waters Turn Black.
23. Grim Solace by Ben Galley.
Categories: Backlist, Self-Published, First-Person, Chapter Titles.
Mini-Review: To me, Grim Solace felt like a lot of action pieces to move the plot along after the opener teased revolution with a snarky antihero in the lead. I did enjoy the secondary perspective character more in the second book, and we begin to really see how her story intersects the main story, but there’s a bit of middle book syndrome here.
How Big is the Commitment? It’s a trilogy with no satisfying endings until the end.
24. Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire.
Categories: Chapter Titles, Trans/NB Character (hard), Book Club (hard).
Mini-Review: Sadly, I had to pick my least favorite Wayward Children novella because it was the one that was part of the Hugo Readalong. It has way too large a cast and too many plot threads for the novella length, and while the prose is up to McGuire’s standard, it’s a little too unfocused to really nail any one element.
How Big is the Commitment? The Wayward Children series is an odd one, because it dips back and forth between prequel and sequel. You have to read the first and second books before reading this one, but you could honestly stop with either if you wanted to, or continue on to prequels starring side characters. Personally, my favorite that I’ve read is Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which absolutely nails the dark fairy tale voice. So I’d recommend reading that and not necessarily continuing to Come Tumbling Down.
25. The Invasion by Peadar Ó Guilín.
Categories: Gothic Fantasy (hard), Chapter Titles, Revenge (hard).
Mini-Review: Horror sequels are hard. You have to raise the tension somehow, and usually that’s by multiplying the monsters and trading creepiness for action scenes. That’s just what The Invasion does, and while it does offer a reasonably satisfying ending to the duology, it just doesn’t manage to maintain the creeping dread of its predecessor. Had I not been hard up for Gothic fantasy sequels, I would’ve stopped at one.
How Big is the Commitment? The first book is a terrifying YA fantasy/horror survival game mixed with a boarding school drama. It leaves some loose ends, but it’s satisfying on your own. You can continue to the second if you want, but you don’t have to.