It’s fairly common nowadays, particularly in the young adult genre, for authors to release additional novellas and short stories to supplement a series. Sometimes they do this to offer a different perspective on certain events, to provide backstory or to more deeply explore a secondary character. Sometimes these stories just offer a fun opportunity to see characters we know and love in new situations.
I’ve read my fair share of companion novellas over the years, but more and more I’m finding my will to buy and read them decreasing. Whether it’s due to fatigue, concern for my bank balance, or the simple unwillingness to dig out my Kindle and charge it, I am no longer drawn by the shining promise of bonus content as I once was – even when it comes to some of my favourite series.
After looking back on the novellas I’ve read or chosen to skip over in past years, I’ve split them into three general categories. In doing so I think I’ve begun to understand why I’ve lost interest in this kind of content.
Novellas and short stories that add to the series without being necessary to your understanding of it
In my humble opinion, companion novellas should not be necessary to your understanding of a series. I think it’s great, however, when they add something new to your experience of a series, or change your perspective on it in some way. An example of a series with some bonus content that does this that really well, in my opinion, is The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken.
The Darkest Minds is an adventure sci-fi series set in a dystopian world. Our experience of this world is pretty limited, however, as the books are written entirely from the first-person perspective of our protagonist. The novellas for this series helpfully offer us an opportunity to see what is going on outside of our protagonist’s immediate experiences so we can develop a broader and more complex vision of this world. You don’t have to read these stories to understand the series, but having read them will enrich your experience.
These stories are also great. They stand really well on their own. Though I dearly love the characters of The Darkest Minds, I didn’t mind that the three main novellas associated with this series revolved around new characters. I was invested enough in these new characters’ stories that the cameos made by the main cast were only added bonuses. This, I think, is bonus content at its best – for the reader who wants it, it offers something new, but for those not interested, it can be passed over.
Nonetheless, though I flew through these novellas a few years ago, nowadays I’m less willing to read content that promises to do the same thing for other series.
Take the Grishaverse, for example. I only got into the Grishaverse in the last year or so, and though I love Leigh Bardugo’s world and many of her characters are very close to my heart, it has never occurred to me to read any of the short stories associated with these series. Though I have heard great things about stories like The Tailor and The Demon in the Wood, I have never felt compelled to read them.
At the peak of my Grisha-fever I briefly considered buying The Language of Thorns, but even then I was reluctant. In this case I would put my hesitation down to fatigue. I’d simply read too many such collections that had left me feeling underwhelmed or dissatisfied in some way.
For my own part, I think I’ve been guilty of going into these collections expecting too much, or simply looking for the wrong thing. When you’re excited about a series and want to know what’s coming next, it can be frustrating to feel you’re being taken on a detour, so frustrating you fail to recognise the independent value of that detour. For better or for worse, I decided to save my money on The Language of Thorns – at least until someone convinces me otherwise.
Novellas and short stories that are necessary to your understanding of a series
My sister only recently got into reading and into YA specifically, and one of her favourite series has been Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. After enjoying the first two books, however, she was almost put off the series entirely by the short story collection The Assassin’s Blade.
I read the Throne of Glass books a long time ago, so my memories of it are a little foggy. I do remember that, unlike my sister, I tried to avoid reading the short story collection, and only came back to it when I realised it was going to be necessary to my understanding and enjoyment of the rest of the series. The stories featured in The Assassin’s Blade introduce several characters who go on to be very important in the main series. Speaking as someone who tried to read Empire of Storms without having read The Assassin’s Blade, I can confirm that a lot will go over your head if you try and skip over it.
I think it’s fun when series make references or give nods to extra novellas and stories. It gives the dedicated reader a chance to feel like an insider. I don’t think, however, that major plot points should hinge on events and characters only introduced in extra material. This excludes and is likely to put off more casual readers. Even for a fan, it can feel frustrating to have to step out of the chronology of the series to go back and learn some backstory.
Novellas and short stories that are ‘just for fun’
I’m going to stretch my definition of YA in this category to discuss some middle grade fiction. Another series that has some great bonus content, in my opinion, is the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy – and it has a lot of it. The Skulduggery Pleasant books take up a significant amount of space on my bookshelves and I don’t even think I’ve read all the short stories. Fortunately, I don’t feel I have to.
The Skulduggery Pleasant books are a mix of mystery, adventure and magic. The short stories are essentially extra adventures – they feature the same characters in situations similar to those we come across in the main books, only these ones are new and unconnected to any larger plot. A committed reader who wants to see more of what they find in the books can enjoy them, and a casual reader can skip over them.
Not every author accomplishes the ‘extra adventure’ style of novella quite so well, however. Earlier of this year I was decidedly underwhelmed by the Lockwood and Co. short story, The Dagger in the Desk. Much like in the Skulduggery Pleasant short stories, in this short we see the characters we know working on an operation similar to those we see them undertake in the main series. The only difference, however, is that this case seems solved frustratingly easily. I understand that there’s less space for conflict in a short story, but I would still hope for a little sense of excitement. This, to me, seemed like a novella written for the sake of a novella. I believe it was written for World Book Day, which is great, but I just wish Jonathan Stroud had done more with it. Derek Landy, for example, did a great job with his Skulduggery Pleasant World Book Day short, The End of the World. You don’t need a high word count to write a good, satisfying story with a couple of twists and close calls. If the case is cracked so quickly, you have to question whether it was worth writing about in the first place.
In conclusion, I don’t have a single clear reason as to why I’ve gotten tired of novellas and bonus content. As I get older I think I’m just more particular with what I spend my time and money on, and historically these kinds of stories haven’t brought me as much satisfaction as reading full-length novels. I’ve also grown particularly tired of content that seems to be released for the sake of extra content. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between stories that have been written for the reader to enjoy and stories that have been written for the reader to spend money on – so I’ve opted for avoiding all of it.
I’m curious to know how others feel about this, though. Do you still like reading companion novellas? Let me know if you have any you think might change my mind – or any you think I should avoid.