Sequels are thorny award contenders because they are usually part of larger story arcs, and not meant to stand alone. Many award committees have no problem with this; Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, Susan Cooper’s The Grey King, Richard Reeve’s A Darkling Plain, and Lloyd Alexander’s The High King are all award winning sequels. And now, God bless him, Jonathan Hunt has taken this issue on in his excellent Horn Book article, “Epic Fantasy Meets Sequel Prejudice.” I’m very grateful to him for doing so because he is causing me to rethink how I look at these books.
Last year I thought a sequel needed to stand alone to be an award winner. In the case of The King of Attolia I argued that it did, that author Megan Whalen Turner’s style was one of intentional holding-back of information, of crafty misdirections, changing points of view, and other wily techniques designed to keep the reader guessing right up to the end. At least one of my friends who had not read the previous books agreed, but many others did not. While my friend and I relished Turner’s twists and turners, others were simply puzzled and it was impossible to convince them that reading the previous books wasn’t necessary.
But now I’m rethinking the need for a book to stand alone, say Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Jonathan writes of another finale in a series, Richard Reeve’s award-winning A Darkling Plain:
While A Darkling Plain has its own narrative arc, it certainly makes no pretense of being a stand-alone title. There is not much to help the reader recapitulate the previous action of the sequence, let alone sort through the novel’s multitude of characters, settings, and political alliances. It took me about fifty pages to acclimate myself to the novel (though, in fact, that is often true even when I have followed a series from the beginning, especially if a few years have elapsed between each entry’s publication). I found coping strategies to process chunks of incomplete information. If, for example, I did not understand the distinction between the various political factions, I could still use context clues to sort them into good guys and bad guys. If I did not know the exact details of Hester’s betrayal, I could still infer the generalities, and I could empathize with the characters’ resultant emotions. Again, I felt that I could evaluate the literary merit of this novel without having all the puzzle pieces.
While I found Jonathan’s description of how he read this book fascinating my experience in similar situations has been different. I can get frustrated while reading those first fifty pages, finding it challenging to become engaged in the story itself while also sorting out what happened before, orienting myself in a previously-established setting, and getting to know the characters. During those first fifty (or hundred or more) pages I sometimes feel irritated, grumbling to myself that all this stuff is getting in the way of my connecting to the story. Most of all I feel that it is keeping me from connecting to the characters especially when they are coping emotionally with events and circumstances from the previous book . It is for this reason I think I probably do need to read the previous books to properly evaluate sequels, to be fair to those under consideration for this year’s Newbery. If they don’t need to stand alone then I don’t need to read them alone, do I?
So what about you? What are your thoughts on this interesting dilemma?