How Not to Middle Book. (A Checklist)
We’ve all suffered through it. A new book/film/author comes out and you don’t even hesitate. You know this writer/director/series, and it’s just got to be good. Except…
- You buy the new J.K. Rowlings book and it’s The Casual Vacancy—”Minus the magic, though, good and evil are depressingly human, and while the characters are all well drawn and believable, they aren’t much fun.”(Publishers Weekly).
- You rent a new Star Wars film and it’s “The Phantom Menace“—”Star Wars is one of the most successful and popular film franchises on the face of the planet, but it only took one babbling alien named Jar-Jar Binks to bring it to its knees.” (XFINITY Entertainment Staff).
- Or you pony up for date night at your local multiplex, and are subjected to Batman vs Superman—“It should really be called Batman and Superman v the Audience.” (Pete Howell, Toronto Star).
Odds are the middle book/movie involves one or more of 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.
But—let’s face it—we love those 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”.
Why go into all this now?
Well, it’s because of The Black Orchid, Book 2 of Celine Jeanjean’s The Viper and the Urchin series. It’s out now, and it could be a master lesson in how to sequel.
The Black Orchid: A Novel of Steampunk Adventure (The Viper and the Urchin Book 2) by Celine Jeanjean
A couple of months after Rory and Longinus saved the Old Girl, they’re trying to settle into the honest life of being in her employ. Unfortunately, Rory is bored with nothing to steal, and Longinus finds living in Cruikshank’s workshop insufferable, what with the sub-par coffee and lack of suitable clothing.
When an old friend of Rory’s is found exsanguinated, Rory and Longinus fear that Myran has returned. To make matters more delicate, an important diplomat is visiting Damsport, and her death would make the city vulnerable to attack from Airnia, so the Old Girl tasks Rory and Longinus with uncovering and stopping whatever is going on.
As they investigate, clues lead them to the Black Orchid, a new brothel in town where the clientele has a tendency to vanish. But when the diplomat’s bodyguard is found dead outside the Black Orchid, Rory and Longinus find themselves framed as the masterminds behind the whole operation. To clear their names and save the city, they’ll have to solve the mystery of the Black Orchid before Myran catches up to them.
As I read The Black Orchid, Book 2 of Celine Jeanjean’s The Viper and the Urchin Series, I was thinking again about those three sliding variants of character development—competence, proactivity, and sympathy. In my review of her first book, The Bloodless Assassin (formerly titled The Viper and the Urchin), I talked about how those markers moved over the course of the book.
It was fascinating to see how they move again in the sequel. The motivating premise of the first book was, as its new title correctly proclaims, the anomaly of a master assassin who is reduced to physical incapacity by the sight of blood. But in this new book, would that be enough to continue moving the action forward? Not a problem! Working brilliantly within a mix of my favorite genres (steampunk/sword & sorcery fantasy), author Celine Jeanjean continues to move those sliders as both urchin Rory and assassin Longinus develop their relationship with each other and with others.
As The Black Orchid opens—to their mutual shock and not a little embarrassment— both Rory and Longinus find themselves in the position of being honestly employed in the service of Damsport’s ruler, the Old Girl. It’s devastating to both.
Longinus—”Damsport’s most elegant assassin”, clotheshorse, and bad poet—is used to stalking his contracted victims to the accompaniment of an internal monologue extolling his brilliant (and brilliantly accessorized) successes. But with legal employment, he’s reduced to stalking incoming shipments to discover the reasons for the shortage of luxury goods such as his trademark black silk (so essential to the Viper’s image you know…). And the elegant lines he formerly composed in praise of his prowess as an assassin are now replaced with love poems sent (anonymously, of course) to the Lady Martha, daughter of the Old Girl. While our sympathy for this new Longinus might be high, his rapidly diminishing competence and proactivity make him seem like an over-age and slightly whiny Harry Potter.
Well-dressed and no longer a scrawny, smelly urchin, gainful employment and regular meals have hit Rory hard as well. For the first time, her life plan of becoming a master swordswoman is tainted by the realization that “the Scarred Woman” she wanted to emulate for years is actively determined to destroy both Longinus personally and her city of Damsport. But Rory slowly realizes that if she’s no longer an urchin—the one thing she was supremely competent at—then she has no idea who or what she is. Like Longinus, the Rory we meet at the beginning of The Black Orchid is hitting the trifecta of low sympathy, competence, and proactivity.
And the relationship between Rory and Longinus—the one area that could move those sliders up as they reinforce each other’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses—is crumbling under the weight of respectability.
Luckily for Rory and Longinus, the one person whose sliders are at 100% for competency and proactivity, and near-zero for sympathy—Longinus lifelong enemy and sister Myran—is subtly orchestrating a series of events designed to destroy them. With their enemies a step ahead at every turn, Rory and Longinus both have to step out of their comfortably respectable new life, become proactive, and resurrect the competencies of their old lives to survive.
One of the things I love about Celine Jeanjean’s writing is all the stuff she does NOT say. In keeping faith with Rory and Longinus as narrators, she keeps explanations to a minimum and pays readers the compliment of assuming we’ll get relationships and motivations from actions, instead of from paragraphs of exposition. Instead of congratulating Damsport on having people of color—and especially women—be strong, clever, and brave, the author lets the unfolding story speak for itself. The love of a woman’s life? It can be another woman, one of a different race at that, and that relationship can be publicly acknowledged. The strongest person in town? Again, that can be a woman. The villain? Ditto.
In a particular level of genius, Celine Jeanjean lets us into Rory and Longinus heads, uses their point of view to narrate actions, and lets readers put together the clues that the bemused characters still haven’t understood. In addition, The Black Orchid meets all my remaining criteria for a successful mid-series book:
- Both the Black Moment when all goes to crap AND the turning point for the series overall. I don’t want to risk spoilers, but there is a moment when all truly seems lost, and when Rory and Longinus’ relationship is severed. Coming off that moment is, I believe, the real turning point for the series as a whole.
- Both its own self-contained story arc AND the setup for the final confrontation. Yes, the story arc is nicely wrapped up within this book, and the villains dealt with. But Rory and Longinus’ nemesis, the Scarred Woman/Myran, is still out there plotting. The young noble Rafe is still interested Rory, as he told her in Book 1. “I could be your sidekick, you know. Or your love interest. There’s always a sidekick and a love interest in stories.”
- Characters who grow and develop within this book AND also have arcs that span all the books. Rory and Longinus meet this requirement individually, but even more in the form of their evolving and developing relationship.
- Villain/conflicts who suffer interim defeats in this book AND are still out there building to that climactic final book’s conclusion. And that brings us back to where we came in, with Longinus’ lifelong enemy/sister Myran pulling the strings that set the plot arcs dancing
Five stars? When a book has everything I like—diverse, well-developed and evolving characters, a steampunk setting, and entertaining dialog, what’s not to love?
I reviewed The Black Orchid: A Novel of Steampunk Adventure (The Viper and the Urchin Book 2) by Celine Jeanjean for Rosie’s Book Review Team.
*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.*
- Book Title: The Black Orchid: A Novel of Steampunk Adventure (The Viper and the Urchin Book 2)
- Author: Celine Jeanjean
- Genre: Steampunk/Fantasy
- Publisher: Enoki Press (April 9, 2016)
- Length: 298 pages
- Release Date: July 27, 2015