Earned versus Unearned Endings

So, when discussing the Scholomance trilogy, I said that I put it way above Uprooted or the Temeraire series, the former because of a much superior ending and the latter because the Scholomance trilogy is massively more tightly plotted. Various of you pointed to Spinning Silver and said that was your favorite of Novik’s books until the Scholomance trilogy bumped it down to second place. That’s one I haven’t read, and after your various comments about it, now I’m much more interested in it. But I thought I’d go back to Uprooted and explain why I loved it the first time I read it, but love it a lot less now, and why that’s different (very, very different) from the Scholomance trilogy. Then maybe those of you who have read Spinning Silver can evaluate that one on this particular axis.

Now, first, I should say briefly, that I really loved the first book of the Temeraire series and had no problem suspending (major) disbelief in the (extreme) ecological implausibility of having significant populations of giant dragons all over the place, especially Great Britain.

The story carried me over that hump. I loved the book and I thought the ending was fine. Then in the second book, I got bored with the long, long, long trip to China. Then, in some later book, I got bored with the LONG, LONG, LONG trip across the Australian desert for what (as I recollect) was basically no purpose. After that I think I read one more book? But I wasn’t very invested and quit. The problems here had to do with plot threads going off in various directions until the action diffused out into a mist of long journeys interspersed with random things I don’t remember very well. That’s a huge contrast to the Scholomance trilogy, where you read the third book and everything pops into clearer and clearer focus as you go, all the plot threads weaving tightly together into one cohesive picture.

So that was a big and important difference.

But the problem I had with Uprooted was totally different from the problem I had with the later books of the Temeraire series.

I loved Uprooted while I was reading it, straight through to the end, which … I did not love. It was too neat. It was too happy.

Yes, I love happy endings. But.

Yes, I particularly love redemption arcs. BUT.

In Uprooted, when we saw the finale of the redemption arc, that redemption was unearned. The ending was unjust.

The evil forest was WAY too evil to just pat it on the head and say all was forgiven and let’s all be friends now. I don’t remember the details about how everyone got into that mess in the first place. The part I remember is that the evil forest did A LOT of REALLY DIRE AND HORRIBLE stuff to innocent people for a LONG TIME and then, poof! That’s okay though! It’s all right! Let’s all be friends!

The horrible things the forest did were actually not okay, not remotely okay. The full story novel did not seem, to me, to lead to forgiveness or redemption in a believable or just way.

I can think of a few other stories that did not work for me in this exact way: An unjust ending, or sometimes an unjust plot twist, ruined the story for me beyond any possible retrieval.

For example, this one, which was at least nominated for awards and maybe won, I don’t remember:

I had several problems with this story. I thought the protagonist’s voice sounded clinical rather than genuine, like an anthropologist telling a story she imagined someone might have lived rather than like someone living that life. Some other plot elements seemed peculiar and unbelievable. But the thing that absolutely ruined this story for me was that, well, sure, the meduse killed everyone on the ship except Binti, but that’s okay because … well, it’s all right because … I mean, really, you can’t blame the meduse because after all …

No. No, that is not okay with me. It wasn’t just that Binti finds this mass murder event okay, although that’s bad enough. Everyone else in the story also seems to shrug that off, and that was even worse. This plot twist was handled in a way that was deeply unjust. Could it have been fixed? Sure. Revamping the emotional reaction of the human characters would have done it even without changing a single thing about the plot. Writing Binti herself as a sociopath who doesn’t care a bit about other people would have fixed this problem, though it sure wouldn’t have made me like the story any better.

This one isn’t SFF, but:

You may recall that I loathed this book. It’s beautifully written, I’ll say that. But I hated the way the protagonist slowly destroyed his life over the course of the novel, I hated the way the author took a perfectly good nonsexual male-female friendship and turned it sexual and then ruined it, I hated the way the opening mystery is left totally unsolved, and I absolutely detested the ending, in which the bad guy gets away with vicious murder and walks away scott free. That is the quintessential unjust ending. This is the first book of what appears to be a six-book series, and for all I know the story may still be going, but I will never read the second book. I don’t care how the author handles anything whatsoever. I don’t care if the protagonist ever puts his life back together. I don’t care whether he recovers his friendship with the female colleagues. I don’t care about the initial mystery. I don’t even care whether the murderer is ever brought to justice. The ending of the first book means I’m never picking up another book in the series OR another book by the author.

And my real point in this context is that this unjust ending alone, even if everything else had been great, would almost certainly have ruined the book for me.

I pause to note that In the Woods was a NYT bestseller, I see. Well, whatever. We all know that very popular books can be absolutely horrible.

What other kinds of books have endings that are not exactly bad — not necessarily bad — but are handled in a way that may be unjust?

Well, there’s The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. I have very fond memories of that series, and I bet most of you do as well. I read it many times. But (spoiler!) when half the characters wind up forgetting everything important at the end, that’s a problem. It’s a problem with fairness — the author is not being fair to those characters and therefore the author is not being fair to the reader. That’s a kind of unjust ending that makes readers throw the book across the room and shout.

Really, I do feel Susan Cooper ought to have realized that everyone was going to hate that aspect of the ending.

Here’s a different one which the author pulled off surprisingly successfully: Diplomatic Immunity by LMB. Here, Miles goes through all that and then, boom, he’s unconscious for the climax and half the denouement. Bujold can pull that off because (a) Ekaterin is a great character, and (b) Bujold is just that good a writer. But it’s unfair to Miles. It was also unnecessary. She could perfectly well have handled that part of the book differently. I don’t think there was any important advantage to the plot to handling it the way she did. In fact, it made the ending harder to write, not easier.

In contrast to all the above, sometimes the ending is particularly excellent, and excellent in a way that provides … I’m not sure how to put this … that provides a more just ending than the reader thought was possible. The reader sees defeat coming and of course trusts that the author will have the characters pull victory out of defeat, and that happens, but in a way that is surprising and also perfect for this particular story.

I am in fact thinking of the ending, and here I mean the climactic ending rather than the epilogue-style ending, of the Scholomance trilogy here. The solution fits perfectly into the metaphysics of the story and it’s also right for all the characters involved, not just El and Orion, but everyone. I appreciated the quiet epilogue-style ending too — I almost always love epilogues — but that wasn’t the part that involved a surprising and fitting and just solution to the problem.

Here’s another one: in the Demon’s Lexicon series by Sarah Rees Brennan — which is a fairly dark series, and very intense, by the way — but it’s also a great trilogy. It’s got a lot going for it, including tremendous characterization and amazing dialogue and good worldbuilding, but right at the moment I’m thinking about the ending. Jamie is an important character from the beginning of the trilogy, but moves to a role that’s very central to the plot in the third book, even though he’s not a pov character at that point. I’m going to provide a spoiler about the ending, but I’ll keep it vague.

The important thing in this context is that (a) we don’t see the solution coming; (b) it fits the characters, the metaphysics, and the situation; (c) it’s a better ending than the reader probably expects — better for the characters — better for the minor characters, not just the important characters — better for the bad guys too, a lot of them, because (here’s the spoiler!) Jamie pulls them over the the right side. There’s a redemption arc we don’t see coming, buried beneath everything else that’s going on. This is amazingly great and also it’s a just ending, an earned ending, one that doesn’t feel like oh, never mind, all is forgiven when really, it shouldn’t be.

One more: in David Brin’s The Uplift War, a lot is going on, a lot of it important for humans. But the central problem isn’t exactly about humans, it’s about partially uplifted gorillas. Everything is difficult and complicated and it’s impossible to see how anything can possibly work out. And then, boom, it DOES work out, in a way that fits the characters and the world. The gorillas make their own decision, which no one saw coming, and one of the important characters exclaims something like, “I worked so hard for this to happen and never even knew that was what I was working for!” The reader immediately sees that yes, that’s right, this is exactly what needed to happen, it’s what everyone would have been working for except they hadn’t thought of it. It’s also just what the reader wants to have happen, even though the reader doesn’t know that until it does happen. It’s unexpected, but exactly right.

All this reminds me of a term that Tolkien (I think?) coined — eucatastrophe. Yes, this post here indicates that Tolkien is the one who coined that term.

In essence, a eucatastrophe is a massive turn in fortune from a seemingly unconquerable situation to an unforseen victory, usually brought by grace rather than heroic effort. Such a turn is catastrophic in the sense of its breadth and surprise and positive in that a great evil or misfortune is averted.

Heroic effort or grace, either is fine with me. And of course many fine stories don’t quite reach this level with their various endings and they’re still good and still have good endings. But a novel that heads for a terrible ending and then the author delivers by fiat an unearned happy ending rather than an earned happy ending — that’s not just unsatisfying. It feels wrong. It doesn’t fit. It feels like cheating. In Uprooted specifically, it feels disconnected from the story, as though the story has depth, but the ending is facile and shallow. I’m not sure I’m expressing this as well as I’d like to, so I’ll go back to the term that seems to fit best to me: It feels unjust.

And it turns out that this is a big problem for me, bigger than I realized at the time. Over time, the ending of Uprooted bothered me more and more and this ended by coloring the whole story, which I now like much less than I did when I first read it. I re-read the book again, later, and finally figured out what the problem was, which I’m not sure I understood the first time I read it. I doubt I’ll ever re-read now.

So … I guess that’s a really long discussion about an important quality where a novel may succeed far better than expected or fail more profoundly than expected. But I think I’ll wind up bringing this back down to a simple question: How about Spinning Silver? If you’ve read it, how did you like the ending?

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33 thoughts on “Earned versus Unearned Endings”

  1. I thought the ending of Spinning Silver was amazing. I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a lot more like Scholomance than Uprooted.

    Even though it’s been a few years since I’ve read it, I still recall a lot of the plot of Spinning Silver (unlike Uprooted). It was one of the reasons why I was so eager to read A Deadly Education.

  2. And I agree about the ending of The Dark is Rising. I hated that they were forced to forget. That’s something Lorellan would do.

  3. Kathryn McConaughy

    The first time I read Spinning Silver, I really disliked the beginning – a number of the MCs (all of them?) are really unlikeable. But they all develop over the course of the story, and by the end I was really enjoying it. I read it again and liked the beginning much more.
    Fair warning, I did find the villain in this story much more disturbing and intense than I expected. Even the small amount of his POV that we get I do NOT want to read again.

  4. Had a story that would not jell.

    I could think of two ways the heroine could do something. And trying to figure out which way she would find to make work.

    So finally I figured out a third. She’s going to spend the novel trying to find a way to do either of the first two.

  5. I concur with the other comments about Spinning Silver, the ending is much better than Uprooted (I re-read both of them recently). It’s a more complex story with multiple protagonists and they all came together and wrapped up well. My only complaint is that I wished there was more of an epilogue for some of the characters.

  6. Also, I’m not sure I agree about the ending being unfair to Miles in Diplomatic Immunity. He’s used to taking crazy risks and dealing with the consequences, but the consequences are different now that he has a wife and family and it’s not just him spending months in an ImpMil hospital or whatever usually happens. I think that’s an important part of his growth, and is reflected in his more cautious approach to things in CryoBurn. I don’t think it would have had the same impact on readers if his consequences and recovery had been off screen.

  7. I kind of felt sympathy for the forest. I mean, yes, it did horrible things to innocents and it had to be stopped, but it came to life from the rage and grief caused by the betrayal and murder committed by humans.

    Have you all read the original short story by Novik that she later expanded into Spinning Silver? Interesting how she changed the ending.

  8. I sympathized with the forest too — but not nearly enough to justify what it did.

    Interesting about the short story! I’m definitely going to read Spinning Silver, and then I’ll go back and read the story.

    Kriti, I think you could have seen the consequences AND also had Miles be an active participant, both. I don’t think it was an either/or choice.

  9. This is how I began my review of Spinning Silver: “Spinning Silver astonished me. It astonished me more with every page I turned, and the ending floored me—if I hadn’t been sitting down I would have collapsed. It was just so utterly perfect.” (I’ll put the whole review as my website link for this comment.)

    It’s been long enough since I read it that I can’t remember the details of the ending, only that I was so impressed that she pulled off something I didn’t think anyone could pull off, making me believe in the redemptive arc of a particular character, among other things.

    No, I did not know there was a short story that turned into Spinning Silver! I will have to look for it!

    I think I’m on Kriti’s side about Diplomatic Immunity: partly because I love Ekaterin so much, but I agree it shows growth in Miles as a character—but also in the books, if that makes sense—that he’s no longer a one-man show. He doesn’t have to be the magician pulling success from the fire of his own ashes anymore: he’s got a team. And the ending was made possible because of his former actions, so it didn’t feel deus ex machina or anything. (Been a while since I re-read that one: I’ll have to read it again with this question in mind.)


    There, done. Not a sample or anything wambly either; the whole thing.

    AFTER I finish Tasmakat, I’ll read this.

  11. I *hate* any ending that invalidates all the character growth that happened before (it was all a dream, memory wipe, etc). There’s a couple trilogies I was enjoying right up until the end, and then they became dead to me because the main character chose to forget the whole thing, or hit some magical reset button so the whole thing never happened, etc. A really bad ending can ruin the whole thing for me. Probably that’s why I never reread Dark is Rising obsessively like I did as a kid w Narnia, Tortall, and Prydain.

  12. Elaine T’s Teen here.
    Against the grain, I thought Spinning Silver was very boring. About halfway through, I just put it down and never picked it up again. Uprooted was a very interesting puzzle, and while the shift from fantasy to politics at the midpoint was the most jarring thing about it, I quite liked the ending.

    There was no justice in the ending, that is true. But there was no justice in the beginning, or the middle either. The evil behind the forest was not something that could be killed, or even punished. It could not understand, when people tried to kill it, and its utter incomprehension of death was a reoccurring element through most of the book. Perhaps humans hadn’t known what they were starting., and yet neither did the Wood.
    There had been great evil committed on both sides; due, primarily, to complete and utter incomprehension of each side for the other, and hate and rage on both parts.

    It was an ending that made sense with the rest of the story, made sense with the way the rest of the story had worked from beginning to end. There could be no other end, to the point where I would say the story had been written backwards from the ending, if not for the jarring shift to politics midway through. To be honest, I never saw it as a redemption arc.

    Would the original poster mind clarifying for me what precisely qualifies it to be referred to as a redemption arc? All that I recall was explanation, not redemption.

    At the end that I remember reading, by explanation from one of the forest people; and understanding, the Wood-Queen was able to be given her race’s equivalent of death, and the narrator now serves as a bridge between the Wood, and her people- and with that understanding, there will be no more trouble between their kinds.
    The epilogue was another matter. It didn’t survive a second reading. I forget why.

    Perhaps I would rather read – hmm, Jules Verne, or Edger Allen Poe, or J.R.R. Tolkien than either Uprooted or Spinning Silver. But I would rather read Uprooted than Spinning Silver, or Temarair.

    And I fully agree on the Dark is Rising. The ending- and every installment that wasn’t Over Sea, Under Stone- felt cheap. I eventually picked it up again years later, and concluded that the characters had only won because the author made them win. Of course, that is true of all fiction… but in this case, the hand of the author was too visible. In over Sea, under Stone, I at least believed that the children were afraid, and in danger. But by The Grey King, the author was far too overtly behind every good and bad thing that happened. As of Silver on the Tree, , there were no stakes, really. There was only stuff happening in order, before a dramatic but meaningless ending.

    Elaine T here
    … Well, that’s what I get for leaving things up on my laptop, I guess. I’d left this open because I had similar opinions on Uprooted at least, and was intending to opine. Novik does understand law and justice, she must to have written Laurence, an excellent example of the Lawful Good type. I bounced hard off Spinning Silver and haven’t opened the sample of #1 of Scholomance yet.

    (The teen from the next room, ‘I’m looking for what they mean by redemption arc. no two people seem to have the same definition of it, ever. .’)

    On Diplomatic Immunity, I remember LMB on tor.com remarking that she got towards the end and realized it would be better if Ekatarine narrated it… but to do it properly Ekatarine would have had to have narrative sections throughout the book. And she didn’t want to rewrite it – there may have been a deadline involved. The others discussed, I’ve read, but don’t recall details of. I do remember one historical series where the ending flopped. The whole thing read as the protagonist having shaky ethical decisions, and learning better. But throughout the last book he continues to blow it big time, and yet it read like we were supposed to cheer for him. I walled the series

  13. To me a redemptive arc involves: Doing something terrible … seeing that it was terrible … trying to make up for whatever it was, even if that is actually impossible … becoming a better person … being seen by other characters in the novel to have become a better person. It’s not going to work for me without that last part, even if that is not necessary for actual redemption.

    I don’t know that I should necessarily have used that term in connection to Uprooted because I don’t remember it well enough to know whether that arc was actually in place. Perhaps I should have just said the forgiveness at the end seemed unearned. Perhaps it seemed unearned in every direction. Perhaps it’s true there was no justice anywhere in the story — I don’t really want to re-read it with that in mind, although now I’m curious about whether I’d agree. But if I do agree about that, then UGH, the story cannot possibly ever work for me.

    And I think that the ending of Diplomatic Immunity would have worked MUCH better for me if Ekaterine had indeed had pov sections throughout. I hadn’t thought of that, but I think that’s exactly what the story needed. What a shame that LMB didn’t add those sections.

  14. I am impressed. A dramatic arc that began at the end of book 1 finally ended at the end of book 6. (Another arc only took the first 4 books) And yet I am not bored by the ongoing series. I write, of course, of Beth Brower’s “Unselected Journals of Emma M Lion.” “Emma’s” voice is just too engaging.

  15. I’m really enjoying Emma – I have a theory about how she’s going to eventually resolve her money troubles, too. I think the author was intentionally dropping a couple breadcrumbs earlier on.

  16. There are two related possibilities, yes. Emma has “professional woman of letters” written on her forehead in copperplate.
    Shame about the minor anachronisms; I guess they go with indie publishing. (Missing fountain pens, jam dodgers were thumbprint cookies prior to 1946, etc.)

  17. Those Emma books are terrific- but since book six just came out over a year after book five, do we have to wait a whole year for book seven? I am, as usual, too drawn into the characters, and am worried that Islington has let himself demonstrate vulnerability and will be hurt.
    As for Spinning Silver, I reread it and agree the plot is well done. I see glimmerings of El in Miryam. I do not care to read about the hate so many people have/had for people of my religion, although I can see that Novick is both unflinching and compassionate in her descriptions. Perhaps that is why I disliked the book the first time.

  18. I saw something from the author about the timing – she thinks of it as being structured like a tv show, and books 1-5 were “season 1”. She sat on 6 until she could release “season 2” relatively close together.

    I’ve got theories about where Emma’s story is going. Curious to see if I’m right.

  19. Thank you for clarification. If Uprooted didn’t work for you, it didn’t work. And yes, by your definition, Uprooted was not a redemption arc.

  20. Wow, I can see I need to move the Emma series to the top.
    The top of my TBR pile is getting pretty cluttered…

  21. Endings are, in my experience, less likely to undermine character growth than sequels, but I hate either way.

  22. I really liked the ending to Spinning Silver. There are characters who might be considered villains at the start of the book that get happy endings, but I don’t think the happy endings are unjust. I think one of these two character’s story can be considered a “redemption arc” — although it has been a while since I re-read Spinning Silver so I can’t be positive — and it was definitely a satisfying arc.

    In terms of justice, I read a review somewhere that Spinning Silver, which is loosely based on the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin, is essentially a transformation of a particularly unjust fairy tale into a “just” story. (I did love all the call backs to the different elements of Rumplestiltskin, and seeing how Novik transformed them, and the story certainly felt more “just” than the original fairy tale.)

    As for a PP’s comment that Spinning Silver was boring — I will agree that there is a bit more flab in the middle in Spinning Silver than in, say, Scholomance. The latter’s pace is like a runaway horse, whereas the former is more like a cantering horse that occasionally slows to an amble. I didn’t mind the ambling though because I really enjoyed the company and the scenery!

  23. It occurs to me that Scholomance wasn’t entirely just: Ophelia lost cachet, but not power, despite sacrificing 1200(?) teenagers. It’s possible but unlikely Novik plans a sequel; to date she’s never done more than a novella, and even it was essentially a shared-universe fan fiction story. (She picked Lizzy Bennet, the obvious choice; Steven Maturin adopts a dragon would work nearly as well.)

  24. Oh, and I forgot to mention re Dark is Rising, which was one of my favorite series when I was in middle school, that I was sad that most of the characters will not remember their adventures, but didn’t feel that the ending was “unjust.” Bran’s choice was whether he would stay human or part of the High Magic, and to allow the children to go back to living their ordinary lives but still remember all that had happened–to still be part of the High Magic in some way–would seem to less the import and the sacrifice of his choice.

    So to me whether I am annoyed by an ending involving the main characters forgetting, or everything being a dream, etc., really depends on whether the ending (in my opinion) serves and/or is consistent with the internal logic of the story. One series where the ending really upset me is The Queen of the Tearling series by Erika Johansen. Part of it is that I loved the characters in the books and the ending was just — ugh!

  25. Tearling is definitely one of the ones I was thinking of. Everything about that ending made me mad – not just the erasure of characters I liked, but also the idea that one bad thing in history could make a place so irredeemable that the only solution is to make an entire alternate universe where it never happened…it’s such a dark statement to make.

  26. I too will never read another Tana French book because of Into the Woods! I hated it. Ditto for the ending of the Dark Is Rising series. I think I re-read all the other books and never re-read the last one. Same for Jan Siegel’s first trilogy (I think). It has different names depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on, but it starts with Prospero’s Children and I really enjoyed it right up until the end when SPOILER the character chooses to forget everything and give up in the face of the evil powers. Wow, was I angry. Angry enough that I remember the author’s name 20 years later.

    I too liked Uprooted the first time I read it, but the further away from it I got the less I liked it. For the ending and also because the main male character is so terrible (with sexual assault overtones? I can’t remember exactly) to the MC and is also just excused for his behavior. I haven’t read any of Novik’s books since.

  27. Well, R Morgan, I have to say, maybe you should give the Scholomance trilogy a try. But, while the male lead in Uprooted is far from my favorite, he comes across to me as deeply oblivious more than actually sexually abusive. … On the other hand, being seriously unkind because you’re deeply oblivious isn’t great either.

  28. Thank you for writing this! I hate it when the ending is “Oh, I forgive you everything, life is happily ever after, la, la, la…”. Even worse is when the character is not even a little bit redeemed but still a gold-plated jerk and yet we forgive him and live happily ever after, la, la. I’m looking at you, “Spindle” by W.R. Gingell.

    Just my two cents, I really disliked “Spinning Silver”, perhaps because I think the short story Naomi wrote first was so much better. It’s in “The Starlit Wood”.

    Just FYI, Robin McKinley’s “A Knot in the Grain” is on sale today for 99 cents.

  29. Thank you, Carol — I’ll definitely read the story second, after the novel, so that may change how I feel about them.

    And thanks for the tip! I’ve added a post about the sale.

  30. @R Morgan Hah! That Jan Siegel series was the other one I specifically had in mind when I was talking about endings that made me angry. It’s always nice to know that the things that really ticked me off annoyed other people too.

  31. @Sarahz Double ha! I agree! I felt that one was especially egregious because she made the decision and actively wiped her own memory. I was very very angry at that ending. To the point where I thought, this isn’t a trilogy, right, there’s one more book, surely?

    Rachel, I may eventually try Scholomance. I just haven’t been in the mood.

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