(Note: This blog entry contains spoilers for several fantasy works, including Abercrombie’s First Law series, Parker’s The Folding Knife, Moorcock’s Elric saga, and Tolkein’s Simarillion. If you don’t know or wish to know the conclusions to these stories, abort now.)
I finished reading The Folding Knife the other day. Written by K.J. Parker, the book concerns a man named Basso who, through scheming and chicanery, becomes the First Citizen (a limited dictator) of the Rome-like Vesani Republic. The book was more a socio-economic fantasy, with heavy discussions of politics, currency manipulations, international banking, and the like. It’s a different kind of fantasy book.
It was also pretty much a downer at the end, as Basso ends up broke and on the run, with everyone he ever cared about either dead, or hating him. As I returned to my Kindle’s main menu, I leaned back in my chair, stared at the ceiling, and asked myself, “Why did I read this again?”
I don’t mind dark books. I don’t mind grimdark fantasy. Mass death, maiming of main characters, assault, slavery, some light incest … none of this stuff bothers me insofar as when it is relevant and makes the story go. The world is often a nasty place and bad things do happen to good people. If it is consistent within the story, bleak subject matter won’t cause me to turn aside from a book.
(For the record, I am not bothered by slow-burn romance, noble deeds, valiant rescues, or cheesy hero tropes, for the same reasons, and I don’t consider books that are not “gritty” or are noblebright—a sometimes-used word for the opposite of grimdark—to be inferior.)
But one thing I don’t like are endings that are complete downers, where the bad guys win and there is no hope for the future. Allow me to explain.
(Muse: I sure wish you would.)
To me, there is a difference between a bittersweet ending and a complete downer. In the former, despite the protagonists suffering loss and ruin, and regardless of who is left alive, there is still a glimmer of optimism for the future. In the latter, it seems like that no matter what the protagonists have done, the other side has prevailed and all of the protagonist’s efforts—you know, the side the reader is set up to cheer for—go for naught.
And I really don’t think I like the second one. It feels like a slap in the face to the reader. I don’t mean this in an episodic sense. Certainly, the bad guys can prevail in a certain time frame. But by the end of the story arc, or trilogy or whatever, I want to see the main character succeed in their objective(s). Otherwise, what’s the point?
Some examples of bittersweet endings:
– The Simarillion. On the down side, the elvish realm of Beleriand has been destroyed, most of the high-born elves are dead or have fled, and the world is generally in ruins. However, Morgoth, the ultimate enemy, has been cast into the void and the men of Numenor are ready to usher in an era of prosperity. Obviously, the history of Middle Earth doesn’t end there but at that point, despite all the chaos, things were looking up.
– By the end of Stormbringer, at the end of the Elric saga, the entire world is dead, including the protagonist. All memories of the previous age and its wonders have been lost. However, through Elric’s actions and sacrifices, the Chaos gods have been banished and the world (and humanity) have a chance to advance without Chaos’s influence. There is hope for the future.
Okay, that’s one side. Now what I consider to be downer endings:
– By the end of the First Law series, Logen and Ferro are both on the run and/or insane, and West is dying from disease. Bayaz, the genocidal maniac who engineered countless deaths, walks away unscathed. Jezal, the coward and useless jackass, becomes king, where his hot princess wife is eager to pump out his children under threat of death to the person she really loves. Glokta, an amoral semi-sadist, ends up in the catbird’s seat, pulling the strings behind Jezal’s throne. Talk about depressing. No happy endings for anyone except the jerks.
– In the book I just finished, The Folding Knife, the protagonist Basso—who was a king-figure—is fleeing for his life, doomed to menial labor. All the people he cared about are dead (his mentor, his nephew), betrayed him (his current wife), or hate him enough to want him dead (his sister). The republic he headed is being torn by strife and economic ruin and it’s hinted that it will soon fall to its long-standing enemy. Mass death and devastation and all he has left are regrets.
In the second set of examples, I couldn’t help but walk away from these almost feeling depressed.
None of this new, either. I remember reading Romeo and Juliet circa ninth grade. Great, everyone the audience cared about was dead. I had basically same reaction then: “Why? To annoy and depress? Congrats, Willie, mission accomplished.”
Look, I’m no pollyanna. I try to be realistic. I know bad things happen and there are bad people in the world who do these things. At the same time, I view reading fiction as an escape. I go in for the story, so I can see people overcoming some of these horrible events. There doesn’t have to be a better world at the end but I want there to be a chance at a better one.
At the end of First Law, the main bad guy has gotten away with launching a war that killed tens of thousands for his own personal gain (taking out a rival). He suffers zero repercussions. The only people who end up with a happy ending are the cruel, the selfish, and the amoral.
I din’t really want to read that.
If I want to see bad people getting away with things without any comeuppance, I can flip on the news any day of the week. Our entire world is full of people who do horrible things and suffer no consequences. When I dive into fiction, I don’t expect everything to be wine and roses. But I would like a possibility that there may be something better in the future for the characters I’ve come to cheer for.
Maybe I am too idealistic.
So what’s the point of this ramble? I guess there is none, other than “dark” is not the same as “hopeless.” I can get behind dark, I think I’m done with hopeless in my fiction. (My apologies to Cormac McCarthy.) Nothing wrong with those books and for things like First Law, I know there are a ton of fans who adore them. That’s cool and I wish the authors of these books nothing but success.
They’re just not for me.
(Muse: That was a lot of talk for not saying much.)
That’s what I do.