Kiersten White’s Now I Rise is an example of a sequel that wouldn’t work on its own, but as part of a series, makes for a strong second installment.
In the first book, And I Darken, we watched Lada and Radu, the point-of-view characters, navigate a challenging childhood in the 15th-century Ottoman Empire. Early on, they’re sold to the sultan by their father, the brutal king of Wallachia (part of historical Romania). Lada coped by training to be a warrior, Radu by learning to be a skilled politician. They also both befriended—and fell in love with—Mehmed, the heir to the Ottoman throne. This all happened largely in the same place (and plotline); even when they weren’t working together, which was often, Lada and Radu were rarely far from each other.
But in Now I Rise, Lada sets off to take the Wallachian throne for herself, while Radu stays with Mehmed, now the sultan, and helps him besiege Constantinople. The siblings send letters back and forth and think about each other often, but they never meet. Nor do their actions much affect the other.
If I hadn’t read And I Darken, this structure probably would have frustrated me. But because the earlier book did such excellent character development, I was fine with the parallel storylines. I already knew who Lada and Radu were, and wanted to see who they became.
It also helped that White provides thematic unity: Lada and Radu continue to struggle with their identities and the tension between desire and duty. Specifically, Lada wishes she were a man, Radu is ashamed of being gay, and both make sacrifices to pursue a greater goal. They respond to their dilemmas differently, but this common problem keeps their adventures from feeling too tangential.
My only real criticism is that things seemed a bit easy for Lada. While Radu is going through hell in Constantinople, his sister knocks off opposing Wallachian nobles left and right. I’m fine with her eventually succeeding, but her “rise” isn’t as satisfying as it could be, because it’s basically a straight line to the top.
I’m sure things will get hard for her again in Book Three, though, and I can’t wait to see how. White is crafting an epic historical fiction series. Don’t miss it.