A short preface. Finishing the Raven Cycle crushed me. I tried for about two days to get myself to read the next book on my reading shelf, and just could not bring myself to even open it to the first page. I didn’t think a reading slump was an actual, real thing but apparently it is because I tumbled right on into it.
So I did what I always do in times of sadness and uncertainty. I picked up one of Kristin Cashore’s books. To be fair, I am due for a reread before the release of Winterkeep in January, but I honestly wasn’t even thinking about any of that when I grabbed Fire.
The prequel debate is something of a tricky one. By definition, they are published after at least one book was published, but take place before the events of the already published works. If you’re coming into a series late, how do you determine, then, at what point you should read it? You have two choices as a reader: you can read it chronologically, or you can read it in the order that is published. You can, of course, also opt not to read it at all, but this little thought experiment is going to operate under the assumption that that will not be the case.
Why is it even a big deal?
In the long run, I suppose, it’s not, but the success of a series requires establishing a connection with its reader. The order in which a reader reads the various novels, even if they are more episodic in nature, can affect their relationship with the series as a whole.
It boils down to flow of information. Every page of a book reveals more information to the reader. Sometimes that information helps flesh out the characters, sometimes it builds up the world, and these pieces of information are just as important as information pertaining to movement of the plot.
Furthermore, an author must usually try to anticipate what the reader knows or assumes at any given moment. That’s ultimately going to affect how the reader responds to any new information they’re given.
How it can affect reading: an example
I honestly think the series that has had the loudest debate about this comes from the Wheel of Time. The prequel, called New Spring, was published in 2004. The publication order places that between Crossroads of Twilight (WoT #10; 2003) and Knife of Dreams (WoT #11; 2005). But, chronologically speaking, New Spring takes place about fifteen to twenty years before Eye of the World (WoT #1; 1990).
Prequels often take one of two routes: either they are about the protagonist of the main series (as was the case of Assassin’s Blade and Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas), or they are about a completely different character at a time usually prior to the protagonist’s birth (as was the case of WoT, and in a similar vein, the Graceling Realm series). New Spring takes place almost two decades prior and involves several characters that will make an appearance (or, had made an appearance, I guess, depending on the order you read the books) at some point in the main series.
To speak in broad, non-spoiler strokes: In the case of Wheel of Time, New Spring touches briefly on a major historical event that will be referenced many times throughout the series. It offers a Foretelling that will kick the events of the plot into motion. And, it describes the inner workings of an otherwise unknowable White Tower. Essentially, by reading New Spring first, it will demystify several key characters in Eye of the World. For much of the book, and even in books after, the protagonists hesitate to trust those key characters. Publication readers will step into Eye of the World armed with as little knowledge as the protagonists, and can enjoy following along with the protagonists as they learn more and more about the world and the larger forces at play.
Arguing for Chronology
Up until this point, I have discussed how reading them out of publication order can affect the author’s intended flow of information. But that’s not the only side to the argument. Let me first address the most obvious and the least important argument for reading chronologically. It’s easy to know, chronologically speaking, that the prequel takes place before the main series. That’s why it’s clearly labeled a prequel. The publication order is not so obvious at first glance. I’ve never seen a prequel include a description where it said, “published between Book X and Book Y!” And while it’s often easy enough to Google the information, that’s just an extra step in the process.
But, it’s more than that. Prequels are quite often published at some point mid series publication. The Graceling Realm series’ publication order was Graceling/Fire/Bitterblue. I already mentioned Wheel of Time. Assassin’s Blade was published between Crown of Midnight (ToG #2) and Heir of Fire (ToG #3). To follow the publication order would mean stepping outside of the main narrative in the middle of the story to read the prequel. That can be just as frustrating and jarring as a misplaced, overly-long flashback scene in a novel; except it’s almost worse, because it’s a novel-length flashback scene.
One could argue waiting to read the prequel until you’ve read the whole series, but that risks walking into subsequent books without the information the author expects the reader to have from the prequels. Fire is one such example; although its characters and events play only a small role in Bitterblue, the reader would be incredibly confused if they read Fire last. The same case could be made for New Spring. In most cases, it seems better to assume if you’re going to read a prequel, reading it last will add little benefit to the overall reading experience.
Because prequels most often take place several years before the start of the main plot, they rarely have any major plot spoilers. Character information can be another matter entirely, and I suppose that if you’re a reader that loves character-driven books, disrupting the flow of character information may feel a little too much like an actual plot spoiler. Perhaps the same may be said of setting-lovers, but I doubt it’d be to the same capacity. But that’s the interesting thing about character development; just because they are one way in the prequel does not necessarily mean they’re another way in the main series.
Take the Graceling Realm, for example. It has, in its own way, an overarching villain, a man whose presence ties together the three books focused on three separate protagonists. Graceling sets up that villain in a mysterious light, questioning the nature and extent of the villain’s questionable motives. Fire understands that character from the beginning. To read the prequel first is to step into Graceling knowing the name and the nature of that character before the protagonists do. But even so, the motives are unclear. Thirty years have passed, give or take. There’s a lot left to be discovered about the villain and what they have done with that time. That kind of investigation on the reader’s part is no less entertaining or interesting. In the case of Graceling, it can even make it more chilling, knowing what the villain is capable of from Fire before the reader even meets them in Graceling. The same could be said of the likes of New Spring and other prequels, especially those that intentionally take place many, many years before the events of the main plot begin.
Conclusion: There’s a reason no one can agree.
That’s because there is no right or wrong answer. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual reader to consider how they feel about the possibility of different types of spoilers. Some people find that they care very much about spoilers; or, in other words, they care about following the author’s intended flow of information. For others, like me, who habitually find themselves flipping to the end pages even before they hit the midpoint of a book, it might not feel like such a big deal to learn something about a character or the setting just a little too early.
It may, too, depend on the book itself. Not all books stir the same amount of excitement in their readers. Raven Cycle doesn’t have a prequel, but if it did, that might’ve been one of the few series I might’ve taken care to read in publication order. It was certainly one of the only books I’ve ever read, I think, where I did not let myself read the last page early.
I should mention that I loved The Graceling Realm series and the WoT series from the beginning, and the reason I didn’t take such care with them was because, in both cases, the prequels were already published when the series came across my radar, before the series was even finished, so, in true Katie form, I read the prequels first as a matter of principle. I continue to do so even now, out of habit. But I digress.
When it comes to deciding at what point you should read the prequel, it is definitely worth considering both your stance on spoilers as a whole as well as your regard toward the series as a whole. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the effort figuring out the publication dates of all the books, especially when it comes to longer series, especially considering the likelihood of major spoilers are incredibly small and considering reading in the publication order will take you, the reader, out of the main narrative for the length of that book. If potential spoilers don’t bother you at all, you may find you’re better suited to chronological reading in any case. Otherwise, you may just want to read in publication order, or perhaps even save the prequel for the very last.
But I’m curious: where do you fall in this debate?