Where (not) to end a book

I read Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Peril last week. It’s the eighth book in her Chronicles of Elantra. As of the last book, the Hawks have agreed to send our heroine Kaylin on a journey to the West Marches – perhaps it is more a pilgrimage – to observe a Barrani ceremony that takes place there. This book, for the most part, follows that journey.

The Elantra books all have mystery/crime novel elements, but in this book they’re not at the forefront. It’s not quite as eventful as some of the others, but that’s not a bad thing – it’s actually quite relaxing, and for the characters too I think. We learn a lot about the world, about the history of the Barrani, about Kaylin’s friend, colleague and mentor Teela. Also Kaylin gets an awesome dragon familiar. I enjoyed it a lot.

And, as the book drew to a close, I realised – hang on, they’re not actually going to get to the West Marches in this book, are they?

So, in some ways, it’s half a book: because the end of the journey, and its goal, have yet to come. On the other hand, it does resolve the mystery from the beginning, and connects it to what’s been going on in the background of the earlier novels. And because it concludes that element – we get a confrontation, and see Kaylin survive it – the book is still satisfying on its own.

Also, once you’re eight books in, I think you’ve earned the right to cut a major narrative arc in half!

The reason I point this out is because the feeling I had at the end was so different from that I had at the end of another book I read recently. With Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken, I had that same feeling of: hang on, this isn’t actually going to finish, is it?

(Non-specific spoilers ahead.)

I hadn’t realised Unspoken was the first book in a series; I was expecting a stand-alone. For the most part, it’s the story of a teenage wannabe-journalist, Kami Glass, who sets about uncovering a mystery in her town. But towards the end, the whole scope of that mystery widens. The novel doesn’t end with our heroine winning, for today: she and her friends survive, but they haven’t defeated anything, and the conspiracy is bigger than they had realised.

So that’s a downer. But on top of that, the person who is closest to Kami in the world basically dumps her. Sarah Rees Brennan could not have picked a lower point to end on.

This didn’t make me excited for the next book to come out. Instead, it spoiled the whole thing for me. And I had been enjoying the book. But it’s not a complete story, and it ends in such a dark place that I cannot accept it as the first novel in a series.

It’s half a novel instead. You can chop a book in pieces if you’re Tad Williams and your novel is several thousand pages long. But it didn’t work for me in Unspoken.

And with the story split in half like that, I feel like the second book is going to be quite different from the first one. Which is a natural part of changing the scope like that, and which I wouldn’t mind if I were reading straight on. But it’s not what I signed up for when I started Unspoken, and the ending of that soured me enough that I don’t really want to read on.

I haven’t been this annoyed at the ending of a book since The Knife of Never Letting Go, which tagged on a cliffhanger in the last scene. It would have ended quite satisfyingly without, and I would have looked forward to the follow up. I don’t need to be tricked into reading a sequel with a cliffhanger, or a false ending. If I enjoy a book, I’ll naturally want to read the next one. But if you end at a place where the story is unfinished (and if you’re not an ongoing series with enough going on that you’ve earnt that) … well, that just feels like a cheat.

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