Almost Happily Ever After

I finished the first run-through of my latest novel, The Gates of Heaven, the final novel in my epic fantasy series, The Dreaming King Saga. Tonight I read (and made a few changes to) the climax and denouement. And again, I was tears–even as I fixed silly mistakes I’d made while too immersed in the story to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s (metaphorically, at least, since I write on a computer).

I talked a bit with my brother about how stories end, and two classics come to mind. The first is Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffery. I’m going to pick on Grand Master Anne McCaffery here. Let us just say, she has written much, much better stories than Moreta. The Ship Who Sang, and Weyr Search, the Nebula winning novella that launched the Dragonriders of Pern come to mind.

The thing is, Moreta comes up as a character in another of McCaffery’s books, Dragonsinger.  In that story, the main character, Menolly, directs a choir singing the Ballad of Moreta’s Ride. In the process, we get to hear the story. It’s a tragedy, because Moreta dies. It says right in the text of Dragonsinger that the story is a tragedy.

Thus, we who have read many, perhaps all, of the Pern books, picked up Moreta expecting a tragedy. We know she’s going to die right from the start.  That’s the point.  Reading a book like that, I, for one, want to cry at the end. I expect and want to be sad.  In fact, that is the promise Ms. McCaffery made to us in Dragonsinger.  She flat out stated that the story is a tragedy.

Well, when you get to the end of Moreta, it’s like, “Oh, she’s dead.  Well, life goes on. In fact, life is really good!”

Wait.  What?  I thought this was a tragedy? The book’s ending generates not a single tear, barely even a moment of sadness. McCaffery broke her promise to us.

More, with that ending, even had the book been the best she ever wrote, it still would have disappointed. I learned  long ago, from the Christopher Reeve Superman movie (the first one), and Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East, that a bad ending (Superman) ruins a good story, and that a good ending (Empire) makes you forget a thousand flaws in the story.

So if you like the Pern stories, and have managed not to read Moreta, just skip it. The snippet in Dragonsinger is much, much better than the novel. (But read Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. They’re good.)

The other ending of a classic is The Lord of the Rings. A few years back, there was a panel at MileHiCon that asked whether the Lord of the Rings would be the same without that last chapter, The Grey Havens. Of course it wouldn’t. Frodo kicked ass, saved the world, and lost everything he ever wanted. I’ve read and/or listened to that story many times. I’ve even watched the movies a few times. Every time, I am in tears by the time Sam arrives home to say, “Well, I’m back.”

And Tolkien didn’t promise us tears.

The thing is, if our heroes win without a cost, at some point it becomes a shallow victory, a hollow victory. There must be a cost. Frodo was willing to take the risk. He chose to go, chose the pain and injury of the journey. That the injuries could not be healed he could not know. So the hero who bows to no one, not even the king, cannot go home and live in peace. What cost would you pay for that victory?

It’s marvelous storytelling. The good guys won a total victory and we’re still crying by the end (and shortly after laughing for the Scouring of the Shire too). There isn’t an author anywhere that wouldn’t love to write a story with an ending like that and actually pull it off.

It would be hubris for me to compare my story to The Lord of the Rings. It does not have the languages, the background, the shear scope of Lord of the Rings. It does not have the understated magic (if Tolkien says “as if by magic” he means nuclear bomb level magic–the story reads very differently when you realize that.)  However, I can dare to hope that someday, someone will read The Dreaming King Saga, about Magnus and Carlota, Kala and Asmund, Anton and all the others, for the third time or the fifth time, and weep at the ending.

I wrote the thing. I knew what was coming–have known for years now–and I wept.