Writing is hard. As a writer myself, I can tell you it is easy for life to get in between me and the blank page. Cleaning my apartment, for example, or my cat being particularly cute. For bestselling and breakout writers, the pressure to follow up on their hit is probably a whole new dimension of intense. This is especially true if the next book they are writing is a sequel to the book that made them famous.
Sometimes, writers are able to power through, releasing sequels that meet these lofty expectations. Authors like Stieg Larsson, Chinua Achebe, and JK Rowling have achieved this more than once. Others fall flat. Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay comes to mind. And Rowling again with the utterly unnecessary (in my opinion) Cursed Child.
Sometimes the wait between book one and book two becomes a seemingly endless chasm of pressure and expectation that leads to years and decades slipping past while fans of books and series wait not-so-patiently for conclusion (*cough* George RR Martin). Other times a sequel is so long in coming that it comes as a surprise, one we read with one eye for fear it has lost the momentum and magic that made it special (Did we really need a sequel to Dumb and Dumber?)
So let’s explore some of these sequels, the ones we forgot we were waiting for. Let’s explore how they stacked up to the originals and see if indeed they were better late than never.
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is the 2015 sequel to her seminal work To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1960. Though the second book came out 55 years after the first, Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, and explores a darker side of do-gooder Atticus Finch.
While the novel sold well, many readers lamented the segregationist turn Finch took, saying it was a betrayal of the character they so loved. In actuality, Lee wrote the draft for Watchman before she started Mockingbird. This was at the request of her editor, who wanted 26 year old protagonist Scout’s story as a child. This revision led to To Kill a Mockingbird and its subsequent smash hit, read in classrooms across America.
In a way, Watchman would have been a risky move no matter what, after Mockingbird became the cultural icon it eventually became. Reviews were always going to be mixed, comparisons were always going to be made. Removing Atticus Finch from his role as America’s Moral Barometer was a statement about the complexity of humanity, but it came, potentially, at the cost of his legacy.
Better late? Better never? I’ll leave that up to you.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. The book was a scintillating, scathing critique of gender roles set in a dystopian Republic of Gilead. In Gilead, commanders, a ruling class of powerful men, force a lower class of women to serve as handmaids to bear and raise their children. The book has had a lasting impact on society and its message about the way powerful men try to control women’s bodies is relevant even today. Perhaps more so than ever.
Perhaps because of this, Atwood released her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale in 2019. The Testaments takes place 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. Into an uncertain future delves Offred, hero and protagonist of Handmaid. She is replaced as narrator in The Testaments first by Aunt Lydia, one of Handmaid’s antagonists. The perspective shifts between Lydia and two other women, Agnes Jemima and Nicole.
Critics widely praised The Testaments as a worthy and necessary sequel. The book won the Man Booker prize in 2019, sharing the honor with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo.
In this case, The Testaments was most certainly better late than never.
Closing Time by Joseph Heller
Heller’s Catch-22 was such a smash hit when he released it in 1961 that its title became an essential piece of the American lexicon. Ask anyone, even people who haven’t read the book (which is a crying shame in my opinion), and they’ll be able to tell you exactly what catch-22 means.
When it came out, critics praised Catch-22 for its hilarious and biting commentary on the futility of war, experienced through the eyes of young bomber pilot Yossarian and his buddies who face death on a regular, terrifying basis. Each flyer wants to go home, but before they can, the brass continually raises the mission count. Yossarian argues he’s unfit to fly because he’s crazy, but the very knowledge of this fact proves his sanity. And viola, Catch-22 is born.
The book wasn’t without its share of criticism though, and cities around the US and the world have banned Catch-22 for its language and antiwar and anticapitalist themes.
Whether that affected Joseph Heller’s motivation to finish the sequel is unclear. But, we do know that Closing Time, Heller’s study of the life of his airmen after the war, finally saw the light of day 33 years later, in 1994.. The novel is set in the 90’s in New York City, and once again Heller probes the reality of death through his darkly comedic lens, only this time, death from disease and old age instead of death in battle.
Reviews for Closing Time were mixed. Generally Closing Time is considered by most to be lacking the sharp wit and lightness in the face of horror that so defined the first novel. It is for that reason, I think Closing Time would probably have been better off never than late.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Let’s face it, Stephen King is a beast. At the time of writing, the man has published 63 novels. He’s published two novels in 2022 alone and it’s only August.
So it’s hard to say why he waited until 2013 to follow up his 1977 classic The Shining with its sequel Doctor Sleep. Doctor Sleep picks up right where The Shining left off, with Danny and his mother Wendy earning a well-deserved settlement from the owners of the Overlook Hotel.
The book follows Danny into adulthood where he is contacted by a young girl who seems to share his telepathic powers and all the baggage and horror those powers bring.
Doctor Sleep won the Bram Stoker award in 2013 for best sci-fi novel, and reception to the book has been incredibly positive. While I wouldn’t count it amont King’s best work, I would argue Doctor Sleep is assuredly better late than never.
Tell us what you think. What sequels do you think were better late than never? If you enjoy geeking out over books as much as we do, join our mailing list so you can keep up with our latest articles and our musings on all things book-related.