Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Alternate Endings

I am a plot junkie. I readily admit it. That is why I go for genre fiction mostly. The regular stuff is heavy on symbolism and characters and emotions, but so often not a lot happens. This is boring. If I want drama with no movement I can go on Facebook.

I recently read two books, both fantasy (though one is urban fantasy), both by women, yet the plotting could not have been more different. Because I read one right after the other I was struck by how different the endings were. So spoilers ahead for Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb and The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle. Neither are recent books, so I don't think I am ruining it for anyone by discussing the endings.

To be fair, these are very different books, the few similarities I pointed out above notwithstanding. Robin Hobb's book is the final book of a trilogy. It is epic fantasy, which tends to go for length and sweeping, world-wide plotlines. In fact this is the second of four different series all set in the same world.  There are dragons, pirates, prophecy and earth-shattering natural disasters. Enough plot for even a junkie like me. That is not to say the other things necessary for a good book are not there. The characters were well developed and the writing is quite nice, but I am focusing on a certain thing here.

The ending just didn't do it for me though. It felt like the end of the Return of the King movie. Each scene of the last half hour faded to black and seemed like the end, but no, look, something else comes up. In trying to give a satisfying ending to each character in the book Hobb carried the end past the point I wanted to read. Chapter after chapter continued the book past the logical conclusion to a feeling of compulsive tidying up. It was nice to see what everyone got up to the main conflicts were resolved, but I didn't learn anything new about the characters.  It was elaboration of already explained resolutions.

After I read Ship of Destiny I started on The Mysteries. It is completely different, set in modern times and only marginally fantasy. It is a stand-alone novel, much shorter and no dragons at all. The main character is a detective who finds lost people. There are vignettes between the main plotline chapters about mysterious disappearances through the years. He is hired to find a woman who has vanished. We begin to see the connection to a case he had years ago and the current one, as well as to the historical disappearances.

I liked the parallel between the otherworldly cases he is working on and the completely prosaic disappearances of his father and girlfriend, who both left to live other lives. The contrast between people taken and held by the fairies and people who just wanted to leave is interesting.

But then we come to the ending. The girl is saved, all is well, I suppose. Instead of tying off all the ends neatly, in the last chapter the author introduces more ambiguity. The girlfriend renews contact, the client shows some romantic interest, and a girl previous lost returns to show the mystery of the fairies isn't completely solved.  It isn't a cliff-hanger, I don't think there is a sequel. It didn't feel like that kind of ending, "Tune in next week to see what happens to the hapless baby!" But I do think it was a dirty trick kind of ending. Leaving the reader wanting more is great, but adding that extra just at the end was weird.

So here are two book with unsatisfying endings, one gave too much closure, one too much left open. Endings are tricky things. I don't know how many books and movies have been great up to that last twenty minutes. The worst example I can think of was a science fiction book that had the aliens completely conquering the earth until the last minute intervention of the vampires (not mentioned earlier in the book at all) saved the day.  That was silly. These books just tried too hard for a certain kind of end, and missed.

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