On August 4th, 2020, I flocked to Barnes & Noble with the masses to pick up Midnight Sun, the long-awaited companion novel to Twilight. I hadn’t read the series in ages, but the nostalgia of my Twilight-obsessed preteen years made this book release an auto-buy. I promptly devoured the 700+ page read and unabashedly enjoyed every minute of it.
Despite flying off the shelves as an instant best-seller, Midnight Sun received some less than ideal critical reviews. Take this piece from The Guardian, for instance, which deemed the lengthy new release as “toothless tedium” that “does not amplify the original novel.”
In stark opposition to the array of platform critics, the reader reviews were significantly positive. Both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, a quick look at the review section tells a very different story than the disparaging tone of most book critics. Out of over 80,000 reviews on Amazon, Midnight Sun amassed an average rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars. Clearly, Meyer’s companion novel scored major points amongst the Twilight fandom. All of which leads me to this discussion of companion novels and the variances of their success or failure.
Companion Novels v. Sequels
First and foremost, we must distinguish what makes a companion novel unique from other sequential installments in a novel series, as it pertains to the general challenge it poses to authors.
Whereas a sequel traditionally progresses a story, moving forward in the timeline of a series, companion novels revisit existing material in a new light. Usually, this is done by switching the narrator. Such is the case in Midnight Sun, where instead of being told from Bella’s POV, it’s from Edward’s. In Stephanie Meyer’s case, the intrigue of revisiting Twilight from Edward’s perspective rests significantly on the fact that he can read other people’s minds (save for Bella).
Giving readers a first-person insight into how Edward’s unique talent works was one preliminary factor that made a retelling of Twilight feel somewhat fresh and new. This is super important for a companion novel, given that they ask readers, in essence, to read the same story over again. Thus, there needs to be something innovative or worthwhile to keep readers hooked a second time around. In other words, a companion novel’s challenge is to avoid coming across as half-heartedly repurposed material.
For The Franchise
Though the challenge of the companion novel is to innovate an existing story while following the same timeline, there are many instances when a franchise’s success spurs the repurposing of a novel series – despite it being far from necessary in the eyes of critics.
One such example of a franchise taking full advantage of an existing readership to churn out companion novels is E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. In 2015, the author released the first companion work, Grey, written from Christian’s POV. This first expansion of the series was, by and large, to meet fanbase demands. Unsurprisingly, the fanbase responded with an impressive release week, selling over 1 million copies.
Comparable to the Midnight Sun situation, Grey had stellar fan turnout and engagement but lackluster critical reception. The main complaint? Being too similar to the original book. Thus, it appears that when it comes to catering to a popular series’ fandom, companion novels are generally welcomed with open arms (even if they are a bit repetitive). In general, any expansion of the author’s fictional world and characters means more content for fans, which fuels a happy bookish media cycle!
Additionally, another avenue for companion pieces that is more carefully catered to fans is to do a companion volume. For example, Veronica Roth expanded her famous Divergent series with Four, a collection of short stories told from Tobias’ POV.
This approach to writing new material in companion to a popular franchise was a general hit with fans. Notably, it was marketed to appeal to those principally familiar with the movie adaptation, which hit theaters the very same year. Thus, Veronica Roth’s companion volume approach did well to both round out her YA novels while keeping in tune with the growing franchise.
Outside of fanbase demands fueling a companion novel craze, there are also instances where an old story is uniquely repurposed in a way that expands the literary discussion of a work. One such example that always stuck out to me was John Gardner’s Grendel, which is a reimagined companion work for Beowulf – an anonymously authored epic poem estimated to have been composed between 700-750 AD.
Beowulf is a staple literary work that most English majors have to trek through once or twice. (I grew quite sick of revisiting it after three times!) It wasn’t until I took a horror fiction/ monsters in literature elective that I encountered the highly enjoyable and impactful retelling of the ancient work: Grendel.
John Gardner’s 1971 release brings us into the head of the voiceless villain found in the original epic – a monster whose inner turmoil is deeply philosophical. This innovative companion novel to what’s largely known as the oldest piece of English literature shows a different motive than that of franchise-building. Expressly, it looks to reinvent an established classic in an all-encompassing, thought-provoking manner. In other words, Gardner’s work testifies to the use of the companion novel as a creative exercise that, in turn, deepens audience discussion and perception of the original work in tandem.
Ideally, companion novels will live up to fan expectations while also challenging or expanding their perception of a series. This guideline played out for recent companion works like Midnight Sun, which sought to pair well with its predecessor without resembling it too much. The challenge of creating just enough story overlap without being repetitive (so as not to bore readers) is a challenge indeed.
For major pop-culture franchises, the world of companion novels is always a strategic way to turn an even greater profit from a loyal fanbase. And for the most part, this system benefits fans and authors alike. However, as we’ve seen, a companion novel is always subject to some quick and heavy-handed criticism. Perhaps this is because, with companion novels, there are no true first impressions. Readers will always turn to page one with an existing idea of the story and characters. Thus, the world of companion novels remains a tricky but popular endeavor for expanding bestselling sagas. And in the case of Midnight Sun, I’m certainly not complaining!
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