Features | Written by Matthew Ward 14/11/2020

The Second Book Problem

Matthew Ward is a fantasy author who impressed pretty much everyone with his debut fantasy novel, Legacy of Ash. With the sequel, Legacy of Steel out now, we asked Matthew to write a piece about the difficult second novel, which we are delighted to share.

Rightly or wrongly, middle books in trilogies have a reputation for being detours on the way to the finale. Once a trilogy is done and dusted, it’s easy to look at the story as a whole and break it down into ‘exciting start’, ‘rousing finish’ and the ‘bit in the middle’. It’s an old idea. It’s also not entirely without merit.

Patient Zero for this, as in so much of Fantasy, is probably The Lord of the Rings. The Two Towers, while containing memorable stuff, never really feels like its own book. The fact that Minas Morgul, Cirith Ungol and Barad-dûr all have worthy claim to being the second of the titular towers (the first is clearly Saruman’s Orthanc) gives some idea of the structural issues. Fair enough, given that The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be a single volume. But a trilogy is how it’s most commonly sold, and The Two Towers is forever to be known as the ‘bit in the middle’.

That said, when we’re talking about middle books, human nature skews things a little. Psychologically – he said, with all the authority of a man without any qualifications or background in the field – I suspect we’re instinctively drawn to beginnings and endings.

For all the talk of the journey being the important bit, we love promise and payoff more. If we love something enough to dissect its component parts, it’s because the start of the tale enraptured us and its conclusion rewarded our dedication. The ‘bit in the middle’ often does a lot of heavy lifting, but it’s never quite going to outshine its bookends.
(Yes, yes, yes. Empire Strikes Back. But let’s just accept it’s forever going to be the exception that proves the rule.)

Start at The Beginning, Unless You Can’t
This was all very much in my mind going into the writing of Legacy of Steel – the middle book in the Legacy Trilogy (and yes, the third book, Legacy of Light, is now also complete). However, the curse of being ‘the bit in the middle’ wasn’t the only issue I wanted to tackle. In fact, it wasn’t even the main thing I wanted to tackle.

You see, when I was finally stretching my literary legs as a teenager, my main resources were the local library and W H Smiths – neither of them allies to reading a series in order. The library, in particular, seemed drawn to carrying only the middle book of a trilogy (maybe book three as well, for quadrilogies). Sure, you could try to order books in at either venue, but that meant wrestling with an archive of microfiches, putting in a request and waiting to see whether the book was available at all. (For anyone under the age of forty reading this, a microfiche is essentially a sheet of film containing miniaturised photographs you can read with a bright light, a magnifying lens and, before long, a splitting headache. It’s the same principle as behind microdots in a certain era of spy thrillers, only much less sexy.)

Eventually I learned that anything labelled with a 6-8 week availability in W H Smiths was essentially a lie, and the library was no better. No surprise that I seem to remember reading plenty of series from the middle outwards. (I think I started reading Shannara with The Elf Queen of Shannara.) Not something I’d recommend.

A Pact with Past Me
The internet has largely done away with the mercurial and deceitful horror of microfiche catalogues, and a quick Google can get you caught up to speed with the plot of even the densest series. However, the memories (the scars?) linger. From the very start of writing Legacy of Steel, I had my younger self in my mind’s eye. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t need Book One to fall in love with Book Two? Happily, the solution to this and the ‘bit in the middle’ problem was pretty much the same: make Legacy of Steel stand by itself.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that this is some magical revelation. It’s been done plenty of times before … but it is something that’s easy to overlook when you’re slaving over a hot keyboard. Point of fact, it’s something that I was tempted to overlook through talk of recap pages and ‘the story so far’ content at the beginning of the book. But my younger self wouldn’t have read those (to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘Concerning Hobbits’ at the start of The Lord of the Rings) so I didn’t want to rely on them.

What does that mean in practical terms?

Containment Protocols
Well, first and foremost, it means that Legacy of Steel’s core narrative is its own. No setting up of grand plotlines to be resolved only in Legacy of Light. No story threads that come out of nowhere from Legacy of Ash, pop their heads up for a couple of chapters, and then vanish again, their importance reserved for Book Three. Plot lines and cliff-hangers that do arise out of Legacy of Ash are reintroduced early on, getting readers up to speed in plenty of time for the denouement … but they’re always impactful and relevant to Legacy of Steel’s story.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Well, it was. But the joy of a character-led story is that those characters can do a lot of the heavy lifting, if you let ‘em. And the characters are the story of Legacy of Steel, just as they were Legacy of Ash before them.

Luckily, I realised that very early, and was able to focus on ensuring each of the protagonists and their core supporting casts had arcs that begin, develop and conclude within Legacy of Steel, while building towards larger arcs across the trilogy.

Every character gets re-established as if we’re meeting them for the first time, offering a refresher not just on them, but on their place in the world. That, in turn, leads to the characters’ ongoing stories rising organically out of Legacy of Ash’s events, strengthening the bridge between the two books for those reading them in sequence, if they’ve been lucky enough to escape the time-distorting library loan paradox.

This meant making a few changes along the way. I practically cut one new character from Legacy of Steel altogether. Another had their ultimate fate pulled forward from Legacy of Light because I realised just in time that I otherwise risked undermining the satisfaction I was trying to build. I turned up the fires under other bits and bobs of drama that I’d originally intended to leave bubbling through Legacy of Steel’s conclusion, which had the happy side-effect of accentuating the crisis points. Am I happy with the result? I really am.

Standalone & Saga
Legacy of Steel is its own story while still being (an important) part of its trilogy. I’m not saying I want you to read it as a standalone. Skip over Legacy of Ash, and you will miss out on character beats, story points and the like. But the important thing is that having read Legacy of Ash enhances Legacy of Steel, rather than not having read it detracting from your experience. Promise and payoff all in the same book. Everything ‘past me’ would have wanted from a second volume, and hopefully enough to spare Legacy of Steel the curse of being the ‘bit in the middle’. And it’s all down to W H Smiths and their tantalising lies about 6-8 week availability. So … thanks, I guess?

Cat-servant and owner of more musical instruments than he can actually play (and considerably more than he can play well), MATTHEW WARD is also the author of LEGACY OF ASH, architect of COLDHARBOUR, and Creative Consultant on VERMINTIDE 2. He’s afflicted with an obsession for old places – castles, historic cities and the London Underground chief amongst them – and should probably cultivate more interests to help expand out his author biography.

After a decade serving as a principal architect for Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 properties, Matthew embarked on an adventure to tell stories set in worlds of his own design. He lives near Nottingham with his extremely patient wife – as well as a pride of attention-seeking cats – and writes to entertain anyone who feels there’s not enough magic in the world.

Legacy of Steel is out now and can be pre-ordered here.