Are you familiar with Middle Book Syndrome*? Have no fear, I shall explain! A book suffers from MBS when it acts purely as a bridge between the first and the last installment; when the main point of the book is to allow the author to line things up for the big finale, while most everything else in the book is filler; when many of the elements of the first book are recycled while the characters tread water until it’s time for the final challenge.
An example of a middle book that doesn’t do this: Beth Revis’ A Million Suns. It picks up a few months after Across the Universe ends, but due to character growth, plot developments and a whole set of new challenges, it reads like a completely fresh, original story while still being part of a larger whole. I’d actually argue that it was stronger than its predecessor. (I am SO looking forward to reading Shades of Earth.)
Meanwhile, a prime example of MBS? Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire. I’ll wait a moment while all of the Hunger Games megafans finish throwing tomatoes. Done? Okay, hear me out: It’s pretty much the same book as The Hunger Games. Hugely entertaining and fast-paced? Totally. But a rehash of the original? Yep. With little-to-no real growth or movement forward other than to get everyone in place for the Grand Finale? YES.
Which brings me to Kate Brian’s Shadowlands. Which, I should add, is a book I’d been looking forward to for ages, based entirely on how much I liked the cover art**. Reading it turned out to be a much more...frustrating endeavor than I’d expected, and it occurred to me, upon finishing it, that there is something infinitely worse than MBS: First Book Syndrome.
The first book in a series has a lot to do: It needs to introduce the major characters and the world, lay out the overarching themes and conflicts, explain the mechanics of any SF/F elements, and get the reader hooked enough that s/he’ll want to read the next one. All that in addition to telling a story. A book that suffers from FBS is a lot like a mediocre television pilot—it provides the set-up for the upcoming series...and that’s pretty much it. Which is what Shadowlands does: The entirety of the book—all 326 pages of it—could easily be boiled down to less than 100 pages while still including all relevant information, character development, plotting and atmosphere.
BUT. As long as readers don’t ask too many of the “wrong” questions***, I have no doubt that Shadowlands will find its audience: Brian’s prose is smooth and easy-going, the pacing is quick and the story is engaging. Heck, despite my issues, I read the whole thing in one sitting! And it does have a great cover, which is always a help.
*As opposed to Second Book Syndrome, which refers to a hugely successful debut author’s sophomore title.
**Okay, and also on my semi-secret love of the Private series.
***Something I am prone to. Like: SINCE WHEN DO PEOPLE GET PUT INTO WITNESS PROTECTION WITHOUT A HANDLER? WITHOUT A HANDLER, AS IN, SHOVING A FAMILY INTO A CAR AND SAYING, “HERE, GUYS, JUST FOLLOW THE GPS, YOU’LL BE TOTALLY FINE.” Ag. I don’t think so.