Threequels. Not the groundbreaking first, not the stake-raising second, but the one that goes big or goes … elsewhere.
Return of the Jedi is equal parts ham-fisted plot cleanup and high emotional moments. Henry V is high-stakes action and excitement that nonetheless manages to create a closing arc for a complex character, even if it eschews the comic complexity of Henry IV parts I & II. Then there’s Die Hard with a Vengeance. And Terminator 3. And Alien 3. And … Okay, threequels are usually terrible. But here’s a list of threequels that rule their particular series.
Since the third child usually gets hand-me-downs, each book gets its very own special new present.
(Aside: this was not easy! I adore Octavia Butler, but her strongest series novels are definitely the tour-de-force Wild Seed, sitting at Patternmaster #1, and the intensity of Adulthood Rites, Xenogenesis #2, far outdoes the sedate pace of Imago. Naomi Novik’s best Temeraire book was the fourth, and both Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragons and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain have stellar second books and slumpy third books. So don’t be hating because I picked some really well-known books. It just might be that it’s hard to do a good threequel.)
Spoiler warning for the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire and The Expanse, Mockingjay, and a few older books as well!
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
When I first read the series, young’ns, there were only three, and if George had been consumed by a dragon in 2001, he would have gone out on a high note.
It’s not just the Red Wedding although ouch, that still hurts. All the highlights were in this particular book. Tyrion’s betrayal of his family! The Hound’s duel with Beric Dondarrion! Jamie, Brienne and the bear! Jamie’s hand! Jon versus Ygritte! Dracarys! And most of all, with Martin running at maximum Martin, the duel between the Mountain and the Viper. Anywhere else in fantasy, especially in the early 2000s, you wouldn’t find such shades of gray, such reversals and heartbreak, and especially not a fist-pumping duel that ended with the “good guy” getting his head smashed in for his arrogance.
It’s also no surprise to me that George originally planned the series in 5-year-gaps—an idea he abandoned in order to write A Feast For Crows—and that this novel was supposed to climax the first arc before the gap set in. Nearly every character reaches a breaking point and is transformed into someone new. Each character, even the walk-ons like the Viper, is undone by their flaws. Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Arya and Sansa, all carrying the story, are undone and remade.
Well done, A Storm of Swords. You shine like Valyrian steel, so you get a new sword that you don’t have to share with your brother. We were gonna get you a new puppy, but he’s dead and his head is sewed to your brother’s corpse.
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
There’s a lot of coronations, goodbyes, and fanboying about caves and trees, yes. But, for all that Aragorn and Gandalf spend a good twenty pages chatting in snow, The Return of the King is the book that contains all Tolkien’s greatest moments. It’s got his sharpest critique of industrialism in the Scouring of the Shire, his most profound musings on hope in the Houses of Healing, and the heart-wrenching despair in the wasteland of Mordor.
Plus the Crowning Moments of Awesome just keep coming. Sam carries Frodo up the mountain. Pippin leaps into the fire to save Aragorn. Gandalf faces the Witch-King at the gate of Minas Tirith. Aragorn summons the Dead to the Stone of Erech. Eowyn slays the Witch-King (an especially crowning moment of awesome after two books in which women are rare as Balrogs or dragons).
In the end, Frodo’s permanent wound is a reminder that home never waits for us the same way—at least, not until we reach a “far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Well done, Return of the King. You get your very own tree. Yes, a tree, because you third kids like some odd things sometimes, but we sure love ya.
Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey
Everyone agrees that The Expanse is great, and everyone also has very different opinions about which is the best book. And I have to agree this was a tough choice—for one, Gate doesn’t feature a viewpoint for Detective Miller, one of the best characters in the first book, although he features in the story as the alien surrogate. Nor does Chrisjen Avasarala figure in, with her Sol-system-spanning politics and entertainingly foul mouth.
But this book, designed to serve as a finale if Corey’s remaining story was not picked up, shows the heart of The Expanse. Humanity is ready to move on, in theory having outgrown a few planets and asteroids, and the ring gate is the key. But humanity is not ready to move on in spirit. A brutal, short-sighted force seizes control of the ship at the heart of the ring gate, and Clarissa Mao’s quest for vengeance almost ends interstellar exploration before it starts.
Anna Volovodov, a preacher, reaches out to Clarissa, and who becomes the voice of calm during the uprising. The books never comment on whether there is a divine force in the universe, other than extra-dimensional threats. Anna’s character, though, and all of Abaddon’s Gate, show that faith and hope are as real in space as are avarice, vengeance and despair.
Well done, Abaddon’s Gate. You get a brand-new David Bowie CD, to take into the farthest reaches of space. No, it’s not weird that I’m giving you a CD in 2018. It’s not used. It’s new, I promise. Fresh from the factory that definitely still makes CDs.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My wife and I have a running argument about Mockingjay: I think it’s the best novel in the trilogy, and she thinks it’s the worst. The ending changes Katniss permanently, removing her core tie to humanity (trying to avoid spoilers here, though you’ve probably all read it). For my wife, that was like telling the audience that everything meaningful was over.
For me … I like that sort of thing. And had (spoiler!) lived, I doubt that the books would feel so relevant.
The Hunger Games is by far the best Exploding YA Fad Book of the 21st century, and the one that will probably get taught in high school lit classes. Mockingjay proves it. When the brave resistance sees themselves in the actions of the Capitol, and when Katniss must question whether Coin has simply become another Snow, Collins manages to make the audience ask all the questions of 21st-century America. It’s all well and good to honor the troops and thank soldiers for their service, but when we continue to support and engage in eternal, unwinnable wars, do we perpetuate our own Hunger Games? And when we accept a culture of school shootings? When we say “freedom” as if it means something to people halfway around the globe getting hit by drones?
Collins’ answer is as brutal as it is resonant:
“I think that Peeta was onto something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.”
This book leaves us with a broken hero who has no ship to take her to a far green shore.
Well done, Mockingjay. You get your own pre-made dress for Katniss! She won’t have to wear the communal wedding dress after all—wait, isn’t Katniss like, seventeen? Why is she so worried about marriage anyway?
The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
I love The Tombs of Atuan, as do many lapsed church kids, but I have to honestly admit that The Farthest Shore is the strongest of Le Guin’s early Earthsea books, and the one that best gives the essence of Earthsea. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read past Farthest Shore, so Tehanu might change my mind.)
Ged confronts his dark shadow-self in Wizard, in Tombs Arha must confront the darkness of denial and brainwashing. In Shore, the darkness is everywhere, and when it takes hold of Arren, he runs through a brutal gamut of emotions as he tries to reconcile Ged’s own human frailty with the every-darkening world. When Sopli leaps overboard to his death, and the boat drifts in horrid ennui, the book takes on a somber and scary quality that wasn’t there in the first two books. It’s not quite the fun, magical place, but it returns to the themes in Wizard and Tombs. Le Guin’s evil never comes from a Dark Lord, but always our own fear and despair, amplified and twisted by human creation, and Ged and Arren must cling to hope to get through death itself.
I may just prefer this one because of the title itself. What is the farthest shore but the other side of our own despair?
Well done, Farthest Shore. I got you a special night light to drive away the darkness, and to keep your brother awake.
Spencer Ellsworth is the author of the Starfire Trilogy, and his very own threequel, Memory’s Blade, is out as of February 27, resolving a trilogy of galactic genocide, sun-sized spiders, and a longtime craving for a tomato. His short fiction has also appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and here on Tor.com. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, works at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation, and blogs and newsletters through his website.