Stuck in the middle with you…
We’ve all seen it happen. In the first book or movie of a series, we fall in love with the characters and their world. We’re so invested in whether Harry escapes Voldemort or Luke beats Darth Vader or [insert name of any superhero of the Marvel Universe] triumphs over [insert name of any archenemy of the Marvel Universe], that we can’t wait for the next book/film. Only… then it comes out and sometimes it’s just Havanah Nights making a doomed-before-it-started attempt to follow Dirty Dancing. It’s like waiting in line for takeout from that Thai place everyone is talking about, and when you get home it tastes like pierce-the-film chow mein.
They call it “Middle Book Syndrome”—the part of a book or film series whose purpose is to connect the characters we’ve fallen in love with in the first book with the climactic battles and triumphs of the final book. Sometimes it completely lives up to or even transcends its origins, such as Godfather II, Bourne Supremacy, or The Empire Strikes Back. Other times…
When my children were young, one of the books we read together was Dodie Smith’s enchanting The 101 Dalmations. I never knew there was more to the series, but was delighted one day to find The Starlight Barking at the library. I brought it home and we started to read it. That’s when I realized that somebody had been doing some truly spectacular drugs.After similar disappointments with series ranging from Little Women to at least half of the series books sent to me for review, I’ve come up with my own checklist.
How Not to Middle Book. A Checklist
Does the middle book involve the following:
- Stagnation? (Is Middle Book’s only purpose in life to bridge the cute meet of First Book with Last Book’s Happily-Ever-After?)
- Love Suckage? (Whether it’s a triangle, breakup, or just being paranoid about breaking up, is Middle Book basically Not Safe For Lovers?)
- Been There Done That? (Is Middle Book a not-so-thinly-veiled repeat of First Book?) [cough, cough, Catching Fire, Book II of Hunger Games, anyone?]
- Starting from scratch? (Does the author introduce a new cast, change the world, and pretty much ignores the events of First Book?)
- Cliffhanger?(Go directly to book hell.)
Of course, many of the truly great series have broken most if not all of these rules. In Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back, the Luke/Leia/Han love triangle is broken when Han is encased in carbonite, followed by a cliffhanger.
So why do we like sequels?
Sometimes, we’re infatuated with a book’s characters and become emotionally invested in their world. If you approach book series like relationships, then the first book is the cute meet, the middle book(s) are falling in love and the first big fight, and the last book is settling in for a long-haul relationship. And if a series is a relationship, then the end of that series is like losing a partner after a long and satisfying love affair. Intellectually, you know that someday you’ll find another series to love. But meanwhile, your life is empty, the long cold nights stretch out ahead of you, while your To-Be-Read pile and your Kindle try to seduce you with empty promises of future book-lovers that are “just as good”.
So what makes a good sequel?
I’m so glad you (rhetorically) asked, because I just happen to have a little checklist for that one too.
A good middle series book should include the following:
- Both the Black Moment when all goes to crap AND the turning point for the series overall.
- Both its own self-contained story arc AND the setup for the final confrontation
- Characters who grow and develop within this book AND also have arcs that span all the books
- Villain/conflicts who suffer interim defeats in this book AND are still out there building to that climactic final book’s conclusion.
Why go into all this now?
Well, it’s because of Between Heaven and Hell, the middle book of Astrid V Tallaksen’s Freefall series.
Being a fallen angel used to be easy. A quiet life with the people she loves is all Sara ever asked for. Unfortunately, the apocalypse didn’t get the message. After nearly losing everything, she’s managed to put her life back together and start living what she hoped was happily ever after with her small family. Now she wants nothing more than to hide away and pretend the end of the world is a distant rumor. Her life has already been torn apart once. Doesn’t she deserve a break? The apocalypse finds its way back to her doorstep when a letter arrives. Is it a friendly warning, a dire threat, or a simple reminder that she can’t run away from what’s to come? Sara refuses to take heed and pays dearly for her avoidance. With her family in danger and the preservation of free will hanging in the balance, she finds herself with no other choice. Sara must follow the path forged for her, a path that may take away everything she holds dear and leave her in pieces at the end. She’s caught between Heaven and Hell, and the last person she’d ever have considered trusting might just be her greatest ally.
- Book Title: Between Heaven and Hell (Freefall Book 2)
- Author: Astrid V. Tallaksen
- Genre: Urban fantasy
- Length: 252 pages
- Release Date: March 23, 2015
Contact and Buy Links
My Review: 4 out of 5 stars for Astrid V. Tallaksen’s Between Heaven and Hell
I wanted to review this book, but—as with my review here of her excellent Book 1, At Death’s Door—there’s the spoiler problem. It was hard enough to review the rollercoaster ride that was Book 1 without revealing mission-critical spoilers or indulging in a post-reading Sherlockian reveal. But (since you absolutely need to read that before jumping into Book 2), it’s really impossible for me to talk about either one without spilling important spoiler beans. Still, as I said before…
I’m a professional. I have a university degree in literature, buckets of experience, the gall to make up words like sherlockian, boundless optimism… and no earthly clue how to do it. That, however, has never stopped me before. So what I’m going to do is replace everything I shouldn’t tell you with the letters SA (Spoiler Alert**). (**No, don’t bother clicking on the SA. You think this is some kind of techie online gaming system where you can click on the acronym and see what it’s hiding? Oh, please. Remember the part where I have a literature degree?).[Does a few stretches and breathing exercises. Right. Here goes.]
After Sara Stone figures out that her lover Daniel is her SA, all she wants is to live happily-ever-after with with him and with their son Danny. But, as the first line of the book tells us, “Happily ever after is a lie.” Although Sara realizes she is SA herself—in fact the SAiest of all SAs—and that Danny just might be the most SA of all, she refuses to give up her peaceful life, even when the one-word message comes. RUN! But her hesitation almost costs them everything. With nothing left to lose, she tries to suspend her suspicion of the SA who saved Daniel once before, even if it means again becoming the SA she had put behind her so long ago. But when the cost of that decision is everything she’s ever loved, she finds that the only source of help and comfort is the SA himself—the greatest enemy the human world has ever known.
Okay, that isn’t working.
So how about this? Going down my checklist for what makes a good series middle book, I see that in Between Heaven and Hell Sara does indeed face the Black Moment, that point where all hope for her old life is gone, and where she’s lost everything she once loved. Despite her (reacquired) abilities, her opponents are both more powerful and less vulnerable. The story arc for this middle book, while appropriately apocalyptic, is also complete. The world built in Book 1 is dismantled, cracked apart and left waiting to be transformed as Sara herself becomes a combination of her regained abilities and her lost world.
I’m not a fan of love triangles, and this book skirts that. At least, I found it hard to imagine that after a relationship that spanned most of human history—and only days into her new reality—Sara is already considering what is at least a friends-with-benefits relationship. But Between Heaven and Hell avoids the temptation of a cliffhanger ending, wrapping up the storyline to date and setting the pieces in motion for the next book.
I would say that this is a remarkably successful series middle book. I’d give Between Heaven and Hell and enthusiastic four out of five stars, and can’t wait for the next book.
**I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
Sneak preview cover reveal!
And while we’re on the subject, here’s a sneak preview of that next book! Check out the drop-dead gorgeous cover reveal and blurb for Astrid V. Tallaksen’s upcoming release, “World on Fire”!
After her son is taken from her by The Host, and she loses the love of her life, Sara is trying to sort out what little she has left. Heaven thinks she’s dead for the moment, but as soon as they discover she’s alive, they’ll be coming for her. With Lu, a Prince of Hell by her side, Hell has temporarily marked her name off their hit list. Should they find out she’s a champion for humans, the demons won’t think fondly of her. If only those were her only problems. The world is getting bad, and fast.
Sara has to reach her son or he’ll destroy the earth by bringing about the Apocalypse. The problem is, Danny’s no longer Danny. Brainwashed by Heaven, he believes he has to atone for his existence as the child of an angel and a demon. To bring a halt to the end of the world, Sara is gathering an army. One by one the pieces fall into place as a ragtag band of rebels comes together under the Angel of Death’s guidance. She has to stop Heaven from eradicating the human race, and Hell from enslaving it. The fight for free will has never been so dire. The world is on fire, and only Sara can save it.
Author Astrid V. Tallaksen grew up with a heart for stories of creatures and places outside of this world. Her love of reading quickly became a love of writing. She spent several years creating content and helping writers to improve their craft on the online world of Althanas, a creative writing workshop in the guise of a roleplaying forum. A self-avowed nerd, Astrid loves science fiction, comic books, and eighties fantasy movies in the vein of The Princess Bride and Labyrinth. Her geekiness extends to annual volunteer work at the massive sci-fi convention known as Dragon*con every year in Atlanta, Georgia. In the odd times that she’s not immersed in geekdom or writing, Astrid loves to sing karaoke, crochet, and spend time with her family and pets.