They don’t always need to be comfortable or straightforward. In fact, they shouldn’t be. No matter what the medium, you expect the author to fulfil a sort of unwritten agreement that, at the end of it all, you will have gained something from taking the time to engage with their story. That could be as simple as learning something new (as the classic parables of old do) or it could be more personal (learning deep truths about the nature of life or society through the eyes of a character you identify with).
Endings and why some of them leave us dissatisfied have been on my mind recently, since finishing the finales to several video games and fiction series. Both mediums have presented me with examples of endings that livid up to my expectations and others that fell short.
The final Artemis Fowl novel by Eoin Colfer, The Last Guardian, (praised by critics, its school-age target readers and reading enthusiasts too) didn’t wash well with me at all. I started reading the Artemis Fowl series way back when I was in high school after a good friend recommended it to me. So you could argue that my tastes have changed and the once epic derring-do of Artemis, Butler and Holly Short just isn’t spectacular anymore. But I don’t think that’s the problem. In my eyes, a good story is a good story, be it a children’s book, an adult novel, a play, a video game, an album or anything else.
The problem was, and I hate to criticise Colfer, whose previous books gave me so much joy, long before I reached the final page, this last Artemis Fowl novel took me on a journey I had no desire to go on. The jeopardy was needlessly ratcheted up with a worldwide blackout by Opal Koboi, now Artemis’s most frequent nemesis, who has caused much trouble for him in the past. Yet the entire adventure more or less happens inside a vacuum. There are descriptions of catastrophes impacting our own world and the fairy world, which lies underground, but, save for one instance involving the centaur Foaly and his wife, our heroes are never really in danger of losing anyone to all the apocalyptic chaos that’s occurring. This makes the rest of the plot, which hurtles along at an exaggerated pace, even tougher to swallow. It essentially revolves around a single skirmish that takes place at Fowl Manor. It felt like a disservice, given the boy genius’s previous high-stakes, globe-trotting escapades, which have seen him execute plans that could bring a smile to Houdini’s face. Taking place intimately among the setting of the original novel, I was ready for more call-backs, reflections on how the previous seven adventures have changed Artemis and his friends and, most of all, at least one pivot moment that told me – a Fowl fan since the beginning – “You, reader, have changed and so has Artemis”.
I didn’t get that and I could only screw my face up as the final pages closed Fowl’s story, deliberately quoting the opening lines of the first book. But it didn’t have to be this way. Oblivion, the final 672-page titan in Anthony Horowitz’s richly-imagined Power of Five series, knocked my expectations to the ground, bringing a series I also started as a teenager to a satisfying end. Part of this, I must assume, is because of careful planning and the author having at least some idea of where he wanted to take things. In the book, 10 years have passed, the five main characters are scattered to all corners of the global and what little hope they had to defeat the Old Ones (the devilish antagonists) seems to have been lost. Through the course of novel, the characters’ faith is repeatedly tested. As is their relationship to characters they never predicted they’d be stuck with. Betrayals that were seeded in books past leap forth from the shadows. And there’s plenty of misdirection to make you grip the pages tighter before the series’ own divine twist.
Horowitz’s Power of Five is based on the unfinished fantasy series, Pentagram, he wrote in the 1980s. With Artemis Fowl, I get the sense that, after the success of the first book, Colfer was laying more track as he went along. There’s no harm in that. Horowitz did the same with his schoolboy spy series Alex Rider (which, incidentally, also concluded in a more satisfying manner in my view). The speculation before JK Rowling’s final Harry Potter novel was huge. Would Potter live? Would Potter die? Would the threads of seven hulking novels all tie up gracefully? To her credit, I’d say Rowling did an outstanding job. At its most simplest, Harry Potter is a coming of age story and it fulfils its pledge to readers.
From his fifth novel onwards, I began to feel as if any true arc Colfer had in mind for his characters was drifting away. But there’s always a chance to correct your course, to save a freefalling tale, with a strong ending. Artemis started off as an anti-hero and a loner driven by a refusal to believe his father was dead. He was immediately someone different in the world of children and teenager’s literature. He has changed. He’s got friends, morals, but still has his old arrogance. In his final book, however, there are no revelations, no admissions of deep-seated love, nothing to make a series follower feel Artemis’s journey of personal growth has reached its pivot conclusion. There is only incident, action and reaction. And it left me empty.
The criticism of ‘making it up as they went along’ could be levelled at many, many entertainment series. But I expect more from books. A lot more. While video games, films and TV shows can be bound by loose variations on the same narrative structures due all kinds of creative or business decisions, the written word can take you anywhere. And I applaud any writer who shies away from a quick resolution in favour of giving readers, and long-timers especially, the resolution they deserve.
Exploring endings and some of the narrative structures that have become commonplace in visual and interactive media is something I’d like to do in future posts.
Until then, what are you own thoughts on series’ endings in books and other media? Have you had a major disappointment? And why did the author disappoint you?