Even after I had read them I started out with a plan to review these books individually. However, the more I thought about it the more aware I became that although published as two separate stories in the Millennium series they are in reality two volumes of a single, more lengthy story. So I am reviewing them on that basis.
I would strongly discourage any reader from reading them out of order as there so much inter-dependency in the two volumes. Indeed The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest immediately follows on from the closing paragraphs of The Girl who Played With Fire. In fact I would strongly suggest that any reader should first read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (our review|) before either of these, there is so much context in the first story without which a reader will struggle to make proper sense of the subsequent events.
The two books provide the background that explains Lisbeth Salander's complete distrust of authority and her social and emotional attitudes and behaviour. The two books cover different aspects of that background and her response to it, again with the unasked for support of the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.
The first volume, The Girl who Played With Fire, is the more traditional thriller story with the build-up and most of the action, there is plenty of it, all of which comes to a head in the closing pages. The second volume, The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest, picks up from the last paragraph and majors on the causes and consequences of that previous action, the investigations that follow and the subsequent court case. The result of the two volumes is a completed story that stands on its own but benefits from the reader having knowledge of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
As before the characters are well defined, including the new ones, and the narrative is led by the actions of Mikael Blomkvist. The partnership between him and Lisbeth Salander is perhaps not as close but as before each is reliant on the other to a greater or lesser extent. Even if they, especially Lisbeth, are reluctant to acknowledge the fact or to accept that new people are both needed and can be trusted.
The whole story build on the issues of abuse, misuse of authority and some authorities' inability to accept that people do not operate with the accepted societal norms while still being functioning individuals and no threat to good order. As before these two volumes can be read on several levels and may well, should, challenge the reader to think differently about what is acceptable in a complex modern society. Different people have different needs and different ways of seeing society while still being able to work within it, if allowed to do so. Stieg Larsson covers complex psychological and societal issues in some depth while never letting them get in the way of the storytelling, indeed he makes them an essential part of the story's context.
All that said the whole Millennium series makes for ripping good yarns that bowl along at a good pace even through the more descriptive and explanatory passages; I was never tempted to skip them as they were essential to take the story forward. Stieg Larsson is a wonderful storyteller and uses language well, and it is helped by a good translation.
Unfortunately Stieg Larsson died shortly after turning these three novels over to his publishers and never saw the success they achieved. He had started to write the fourth but never completed it, the fourth book in the series will be the subject of a future article here on M-dash Miscellany Magazine.