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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.

I couldn't make this up. The puppies from the first book are grown and wake up to find all humans are asleep. And that they are now telepathic. And can fly. They travel to London, where a space alien dog addresses them from the top of Nelson's Column, telling them that he's been sent to save them from impending nuclear war. [Still not making this up...] The dogs decide they'll take their chances with humans instead.

[I couldn’t make this up.] The puppies from the first book are grown and wake up to find all humans are asleep. And that they are now telepathic. And can fly. They travel to London, where a space alien dog addresses them from the top of Nelson’s Column, telling them that he’s been sent to save them from impending nuclear war. [Still not making this up…] The dogs decide they’ll take their chances with humans instead, while all the strays fly themselves back to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. [see what I mean about the drug problem?]

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:

  1. Stagnation? (Is Middle Book’s only purpose in life to bridge the cute meet of First Book with Last Book’s Happily-Ever-After?)
  2. Love Suckage? (Whether it’s a triangle, breakup, or just being paranoid about breaking up, is Middle Book basically Not Safe For Lovers?)
  3. 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?]
  4. Starting from scratch? (Does the author introduce a new cast, change the world, and pretty much ignores the events of First Book?)
  5. 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.

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.

What if the sequel comes first?

I have read the later books in Sofia Grey’s Out of Time series [see my review here] as post-WWIII time travellers go back to document their past. So I realize the challenge that author Grey took on in writing a “sequel” that goes back to the beginning. Please see my review below of Marc’s Conflict.

 


Blurb 


Marc has been accepted as a ghardian, one of the elite soldiers who protect the timelines of the future. He’s eager to prove himself and experience combat on his first training op to Ancient Europe: joining the conflict and fighting alongside the Gauls against the Roman invaders.

A true ghardian puts his emotions aside, and functions purely on logic, but that lesson is easy to forget in the heat of battle, especially when Marc’s closest friend is in danger.

 

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My Review: 4 out of 5 stars for Sofia Grey’s Marc’s Conflict

Reviewing books in a series can be a tricky thing. If the author is sophisticated, the story arc of each individual book is wrapped up, while the background arc develops characters and overall plots across each volume. So what happens if the “sequel” comes at the beginning? In the case of the latest book of the revamped (and re-numbered) Out of Time series, author Sofia Grey has two things going for her. First, it’s a time travel series, so characters (and readers) are already used to a more fluid approach to time sequencing. Second, it’s Sofia Grey—a master of the art of writing series.

Romance author Sofia Grey spends her days managing projects in the corporate world and her nights hanging out with wolf shifters and alpha males. She devours pretty much anything in the fiction line, but she prefers her romances to be hot, and her heroes to have hidden depths. When writing, she enjoys peeling back the layers to expose her characters’ flaws and always makes them work hard for their happy endings. She says,
“Music is interwoven so tightly into my writing that I can’t untangle the two. Either I’m listening to a playlist on my iPod, have music seeping from my laptop speakers, or there’s a song playing in my head – sometimes on auto-repeat.
Check out my image collections on Pinterest and my music playlists on Spotify.”

Those who are lucky enough to have read later volumes in this series have already met Marc Gallagher, the perfect example of a ghardian—serious, powerful, and committed to a coldly-logical approach to his role of protecting the timeline. In the other books, Marc is the voice of reason, pointing out how urgent it is that the timeline be protected.

In Marc’s Conflict, we meet Marc as a cocky young candidate training to become a ghardian, a member of the elite time-traveling corps dedicated to safeguarding both history and the future by preventing rogue tampering with the time line. Emotion and especially love are suspect in a world that blames them for the devastating worldwide conflict that nearly destroyed everything.

But when his best friend Felix falls in love, Marc has to decide between his loyalty to his training and to his friend. Those loyalties are tested when both young ghardians are sent on a training mission in which they will be expected to fight the Roman army. Marc’s excitement at finally getting the chance to use his training quickly turns to horror when he experiences the realities of war and death. His grim promise to make sure his friend survives is directly pitted against orders from his commander, his own battle instincts, and his friend’s determination to face danger.

This is a short book, and clearly not a romance. We’re looking at Marc from our deck chairs on the Titanic, knowing the trials ahead for him and for his friends. But he wouldn’t be a Sofia Grey character without serious flaws and challenges. So the Marc we meet, far from being the “perfect” ghardian of future books, is a young man just coming to terms with his own flaws. We get to see his character develop from a young ghardian unaware of his own shortcomings and fears until he’s tested and falls short, both as a friend and as a ghardian.

Author Sofia Grey does her usual professional and brilliant job of wrapping up this story arc while setting things up for the stories that follow. At the end of the day, though, I felt like something was missing. At the edges, we saw Felix falling into a forbidden relationship that tests both himself and his relationship to best friend Marc. I think it would have been interesting to see a lot more about those conflicts, and their potential for destroying friendships, careers, and the very timelines the two young men were sworn to defend.

Also, I wish there had been more explanation of the decision to send the young ghardians into the battle with the Romans—a perplexing development that would seem to violate every rule they were sworn to protect. In this series, Sofia Grey takes a very soft approach to the science behind the time travel, but even so this would seem to be an extreme step.

Having said that, though, there is plenty of excitement and action. Sofia Grey’s research into the historical setting and descriptions of the fighting and destruction are absolutely riveting. And the flaws and cracks in perfect-Marc’s character are clearly setting him up for a fall. (Maybe in the upcoming Juliet’s Soldier, due out in August?] I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this fast-paced little book, especially as an introduction to the series that follows.

**I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.** 


 

Excerpt– Marc’s Conflict

 

“How are you?” asked Marc.

Felix gazed at him, his eyes troubled and his brow furrowed. “I keep thinking of the tribesmen we found. That could be us, Marc. If we arrived sooner and camped by the portal, they could be our bodies. We’ll be lucky to get back.”

“We make our own luck. We’ve trained and prepared for this, and if we stay focused, we’ll make it.”

“Don’t tell me you weren’t affected by what we jumped into.”

“I wanted to throw up. Believe me, I was affected.” Just thinking about it made Marc’s mouth go dry. “But we have each other’s backs. Right?”

“You make it sound easy,” Felix said, his voice a harsh whisper. “I know it’s not. I saw the statistics Naomi told me about. Why do they spend so long training ghardians, if they throw them into situations where they’re expected to fail?”

Marc had no answer for that, but he had to snap Felix out of this mood. His fears would overtake him. “You can’t stop thinking about Naomi. Am I right?”

Felix shrugged, the armor making a dull clinking noise.

“If you need something to focus on, think about her. About going home and seeing her again. Finding out why she was so angry with you. Maybe she was scared?”

“She said…” He trailed off, and a new look flashed across his face. “Gods. Maybe you’re right. She said she didn’t want that to happen to me.” Felix scrubbed both hands across his face. “How could I be so blind? I thought I’d lost favor with her, but it’s the opposite. She’s worried I’m not going to make it back.” A smile broke out on his face. “Thank you, Marc.”

Marc lifted his hand, and they bumped fists, and then Marc snaked across the ground to his previous position. In the minute or so he’d been talking with Felix, the Gauls had crept forward. At the bottom of the hill, Marc spotted movement. He narrowed his eyes to sharpen his vision, and saw a small group of warriors astride horses. The larger beasts held two men each. This was a tactic the Historians had long speculated over, and now there was proof the Gauls used it.

What a shame Lila wasn’t here to see it. And how did she sneak into his thoughts? Marc shook his head, as though he could displace her physically, and watched as the troops prepared for attack.

Sunrise had to be twenty minutes away, but the faint, pre-dawn light was perfect for the element of surprise. How would the Gauls do it? A single, focused attack, or multiple points at once? His tiredness forgotten, Marc gazed at the two-man horses. If he were strategizing this attack, he’d use them first.

An unearthly shriek filled the air. Marc’s heart stuttered, before he remembered it was the Gaul’s battle horn, the Carnyx. The wait was over.

Horses burst forward, the riders yelling and waving swords, and they plunged into the river. It was shallow, and with a flurry of water splashing around them, they charged at the Roman camp, hooves drumming on the earth. Marc imagined he could feel the vibrations from where he lay.

The Romans erupted from their camp in a tight battle formation, as two more groups of Gauls appeared, one on each side of the Romans.

The two fighting styles were distinct. The Romans held close together, shields out front in a defensive line and short swords stabbing, while the Gauls slashed wildly. When the horses reached the camp, the riders attacked.

Marc felt strangely disembodied. This could be another training simulation, for all that he was involved. He and the other ghardians were so far from the battle, observing was all they could do. He felt a pang of disappointment. All the preparation was so they could watch?

More Gauls poured into the valley and splashed through the river, but the Roman cohort held together. Despite the noises, there was little damage. The Gauls couldn’t penetrate the Roman shields. It was fascinating. Did they have another plan, besides head-on attack?

When Captain Greene asked for Marc’s assessment the day before, he estimated four hundred soldiers, but the group fighting down there was half that size.

It felt like ice dripping down his neck. Where were the other two hundred Romans?

 

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