a god in ruins expectations

What Do You Expect from a Companion Novel or Sequel?

a god in ruins expectations

I recently finished up Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which is being billed as a companion to her wildly successful novel Life After Life. I won’t be reviewing it here, since many of my thoughts are too tangled in spoilers, but I’ll be discussing my mixed feelings with The Socratic Salon early next month. I mostly read stand-alone novels, so I’m hoping to get some collective insight into what you all expect when you pick up a companion piece or sequel. Part of me wonders if my expectations were just off base with this one.

  • For me, the ideal companion piece sheds new light on some aspect of the original work for those who read it, but also succeeds as a stand-alone novel for those who haven’t. I feel like this is extremely hard to do. Am I wrong?
  • When it comes to sequels (or books in a series), I need to feel like I get a complete story arc rather than just a piece in the overall puzzle of the series. I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but finishing a book that doesn’t feel like it had it’s own plot is a huge bummer.

So, what are your expectations when you pick up a companion novel or sequel?


  • Karen

    I do t read many sequels or companions either but completely agree with yiur comment that each book has to feel it is a complete entity. If it ended for example in a way that you’d have to read the next one to find out what happened then I’d feel I was being exploited just to sell me Another book

    • It seems to be the new way of doing things, doesn’t it? I usually don’t mind it if I already know there will be another, as long as I feel like there’s a complete storyline in each book.

  • I’m maybe a bit more forgiving. I completely agree is that the ideal is a book that sheds new light on the original work but also works as a standalone, but if I have enjoyed the other book(s) recently and have them fresh enough in my memory, I don’t mind having them fit together as a puzzle. However — and this is the case with Life After Life — if it’s been a while since I read the first book, I’m going to be frustrated when I don’t get the parts that depend on my minutely remembering it. It would be interesting to think of a list of companion books that succeed on their own.

    • Totally agree on the part about having to remember. With a companion, if there’s too much like that, it’s definitely going to be a tough read for someone who didn’t read the other novel. And with sequels, you almost feel like you have to go back and re-read first.

  • Kay

    I do read a lot of series book – mysteries mostly. And, because I do that, I suspect that I am much more forgiving of the things you mentioned. I like series books. I also like starting at the beginning and being able to see the long-ranged story arcs, as well as the character development. Big cliffhangers are OK for me in something like a trilogy, but if I’m reading an ongoing series, I do like to have some things wrapped up. I love getting to know characters and seeing how they change and I’ve found that this is a big part of why I like series so much. Years ago, I used to read those long saga books, family sagas mostly. I liked the way the story went on and on. That type book seems to have mostly gone by the wayside. Now, they would just chop it up into a trilogy. LOL

    I’m not sure I answered your question. OK, for me, in a companion or sequel, I like to see character development, some progress in long-range story arcs (if they exist), a little bit of a reminder of what has happened before (but don’t beat it to death), and enough of a teaser of something coming to make me want to revisit the characters.

  • I read mostly standalone books as well, but I’m in the middle of one series (Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning series) right now that’s had me thinking about this topic. I agree, sequels are really hard to get right. I don’t feel like they necessarily have to work as standalone books (but, maybe companion books – v. sequels – should?). But, I want them to give you enough of what made you like the first book while still taking the story in a fresh direction.

    The Bone Tree (book #2 of Natchez Burning series) took the story in a fresh direction for sure, but overkilled with the “more of the same” piece…resulting in a book that could have been a couple hundred pages shorter.

    Beneath the Bonfire (Nickolas Butler’s new short story collection) was not a sequel or companion to Shotgun Lovesongs, but it kind of felt like a really great one. Same feeling and setting as S.L. and some overlapping themes, but different characters and story arcs.

    • Yikes, such a bummer about The Bone Tree!
      I think you’re right about the distinction between companion and sequel…there really does need to be something that sets the companion apart from the original work so that it can stand by itself.

  • The best books are those that can stand alone while being part of a series, but it often takes some background at the beginning of the story, or as characters are introduced, to help the reader along, making the book even longer. I think the trend of a cliffhanger is new and we see it when there is already a contract for the next book. I don’t like it and think it’s a scam on the readers.

    • You’re so right about the cliffhangers, or even just major ambiguity – sometimes you don’t even know if there will be a sequel but there’s plenty of room *just in case*.

  • Wesley

    I just finished A God in Ruins and I’m very excited to discuss with all of you. Im kind of mixed feelings about it too but I think a lot of them come from my feelings of if I was a parent I’d be kind of a failure like Viola. But I don’t know. Anyway, I liked that God in Ruins was more of a companion, but it could be a stand alone just fine too.

    • For about 90% of the book I thought it could definitely stand alone (almost so much that I was missing the insight into Life After Life), but the end…I just feel like you really miss out on everything if you haven’t read LAL, so can it really stand alone if you’re not getting the whole experience? Like I said, mixed feelings!

  • You’re exactly right — companion books need to be able to stand alone. I don’t want to pick up a book that’s not marketed as part of a series only to find that I really was supposed to read some other book first in order to “get” the whole story. Sequels should be clearly designated as such!

    • It’s funny, because A God in Ruins was picked for NPR’s book club this month and the whole time they introduced it on the radio they NEVER mentioned Life After Life. It seems like in the book world that connection is all we hear!

  • I don’t usually read series, but I have read some and I feel l like it’s understood that one must read the preceding books prior to jumping in later in the series; however, I think the important distinction is that the author/publisher/whoever markets the books as a series. I would be really frustrated to start reading a book, find out it is a “companion” or sequel to another book (due to references, etc.), and not have read the first one. This is not fair! Truth in advertising, anyone? :) That might be a little extreme, but you know what I’m saying.

    • I think the advertising piece is important, too…and it almost seems like the connections are marketed different to different audiences. I mentioned in a comment below that NPR’s book club picked A God in Ruins for this month, but never mentioned that it was a companion piece (at least in the part I heard on the radio) – that’s something I would want to know!

  • Ti Reed

    In answer to your question, I expect them to be good! LOL. I was sooooo disappointed with The Rosie Effect. Made me not want to read companion/sequels anymore.

  • Very interesting questions, Shannon. I come at this from the viewpoint of someone with horrible memory problems. That being said, I read lots of series books. Despite my memory issues, I’m also weirdly savant about knowing if I have read something previously (has to do with word patterns), so I am grateful for an author who can provide just enough back story without seeming repetitive. Most I read do it quite well. Cronin’s trilogy kills me, because not only are they loooong, but they have a huge time gap between pub dates. So much to remember over a huge time gap. I enjoyed The Twelve, but probably not as much as I would have had I read it just after The Passage. That being said, I felt it did a good job of adding story to The Twelve. I’m not a huge fan of cliffhangers of the major story arc, especially if pub date of the next installment is more than a year away, but I don’t mind being left hanging on minor character or plot points. And I do expect that any book I read stands on its own.

    • Ugh, I’m SO with you on The Passage Trilogy. I struggled so hard with remembering the first book while reading The Twelve (and I had done a serious Wikipedia page study)…I really feel like I’ll have to re-read it before picking up the final book. It’s still going to be another year!

      • I may skip the third for just that reason. I don’t have the time or inclination to try to go back and “re-learn” the first two. You were smart to study up for The Twelve, I think my enjoyment suffered for not doing something like that. But seriously, it shouldn’t take so much damn effort. Another year?! That’s insane.

  • I think the main reason I was excited for A God in Ruins was because I love Kate Atkinson in general: I just wanted to read another hopefully great book by her, not necessarily that I needed the story from Life After Life continued or expanded. I’m in the middle of it now – I’ve gotten more engrossed in the story than I was in the first 100 pages, but still curious about where it’s going to go.

    I think sequels are usually better when they are planned – when an author is intentionally writing a series. I absolutely love the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. He takes several years to come out with each one (writing a ton of other stuff in the meantime), so I usually have forgotten so many key details by the time I read each new one. Luckily, he does a fantastic job of including just enough background to help you remember the things you need to know, without totally bogging down the story.

    I had very mixed feelings about The Rosie Effect – but it did have the potential to be so much better than it was, had he not made Rosie turn into the most horrible wife ever.

    I’m pretty sure The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is the only companion novel I’ve read (A God In Ruins will bring the count to 2). I enjoyed it, and it would stand on its own, but I don’t think it would be nearly as enjoyable – I think my affection for it depended a lot on liking Harold Fry already.

    A last thought: I hated The Magicians by Lev Grossman, but heard WONDERFUL things about the last book in the trilogy. That really strikes my curiosity: would I like the last one too? Is it worth re-reading the first one and then reading the second to get to a good third? I think probably not, but I’m not sure if the 3rd one stands on its own or not. And do I even care that much in the first place? :D

    • A God in Ruins was a slow start for me, too…and honestly, stayed fairly slow through most of the book. The end is a stunner, though, so it’s worth hanging on to.

      And I definitely agree about series being planned. I really hate the ambiguous-maybe-they’ll-be-a-sequel-cliffhanger ending.

  • >>For me, the ideal companion piece sheds new light on some aspect of the original work for those who read it.

    Oh, huh, I hadn’t framed it to myself this way. I wanted the companion novel to shed light on Teddy, for sure — and it did — but I wasn’t looking for it to say anything new about Life after Life. How could it, anyway? when it wasn’t even necessarily in the same version of the world. And I think that is the main thing I want in a companion novel, to see different sides of the same characters. Diana Wynne Jones excels at this, which is but one of many many reasons why I love her.

    • Just getting new insight into Teddy was good for me, since I think I would see A Little Life differently if I were to go back and read it again.

  • I think series/sequel wise it would mainly be crime fiction so expect the characters to develop but I also want a good story. I think the books need to stand alone though for new readers or those that dip in and out.

  • I want to know when Cronin is going to publish the final novel in ‘The Passage’ trilogy! ;)

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  • I think, sequel wise, I prepare myself for possible disappointment – as I worry it’ll not be as good as it’s previous incarnations. (J.K. Rowling being the exception). It’s probably a silly way to think, but I find my lowered expectations help me put less pressure on a book to be epic.

  • I don’t ever read short companion pieces, because I don’t feel like there’s going to be enough story there to be worth spending money on them and my library rarely has them. For a longer companion piece, I would still hesitate to pick it up without having read the book it was a companion to because I know I won’t get as much out of that way.

  • I need them to be complete stories in and of themselves, not just leftovers from the previous book. In the same vein, I want the first book in a series to be a complete book and not just half done so there can be a sequel.

  • I guess I read mostly stand-alone novels. But if I do read a sequel kind of thing … I want it to live up to the original, which is hard to do. I want Harper Lee’s new book to be good if not as good as her first. All it has to be is good, and I think I will be happy.