All good things… Part 1: The Iron Druid Chronicles – Scourged

Endings suck both because there’s no more and because they’re incredibly hard to write.

I recently managed to read the final books in two different series at basically the same time and I’ve got a TV series finale sitting on Hulu staring at me in reproach. I always get lots of feelings when a story concludes and the only way I know how to deal with them is to write. So I decided now is probably a good time to talk about all of them and offer some of my thoughts on the pitfalls and difficulties of ending long-running stories while I’m at it. We’re going to start with The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne because that’s the one I finished first.

Ending a long-running book series is hard. If you don’t believe me just look at the examples set for us by Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. Neither of them was just lazing about as they continued to write and write and write – Jordan just kept adding to the middle of his series rather than finish it while Martin has chosen to work on other projects and to flesh out the history of his story. If ending these things were easy The Wheel of Time would almost certainly be significantly shorter and might have been finished by Jordan. Heck, even when Brandon Sanderson took over the project following Jordan’s passing he found he had to write three more books to wrap up all the plot threads Jordan had set in motion and there were still some things left to be desired.

Kevin Hearne did at least manage to end his series. But he didn’t do it perfectly. If, indeed, it is even possible to end a series like this perfectly. Let’s talk about some of the issues he ran into and the ways he tried to combat them and how well he did. SPOILERS for the entire Iron Druid Chronicles series ahead!

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The tone finishes shifting

One of the major issues with long-running stories for which there seems to be no real answer is shifting tones. You fall in love with the tone and characters of the first book in a series and by the end, it’s completely different. In SF/F novels that follow this trope, you’ll most often see a first book start out relatively fun. The threats might be real but the hero deals with them relatively easily and maintains their charm throughout. As the story continues the problems get more and more dangerous, the mood gets darker and darker, and by the end of the series, it’s almost impossible to recognize the originally friendly, happy character with whom you started the series in the grizzled, bitter one with whom you’re finishing.

The most famous example of this might be Harry Potter. Despite being raised by an emotionally abusive family he was a fairly well-adjusted kid who made friends relatively easily, treated most people with kindness, and found pleasure in small things. By the end of the series he was angry and bitter and we only got a glimpse of the return of the previously mellow kid in the epilogue of the final book once he was years removed from the events of the story that had been told.

The problem is that this isn’t bad writing; characters grow and change and stories often need to allow that. That a character might become less happy after experiencing multiples tragedies and life-or-death struggles is a more than reasonable writing choice. But it still means that by the end of the multi-book story you’re no longer reading the style of story you fell in love with. This is absolutely a thing that happens in The Iron Druid Chronicles.

The tale starts off with a happy bookshop owner who, yes, has lived for millennia on the run from a deity in the Irish pantheon but for whom life is a joy. His only companion is the Irish Wolfhound, Oberon, with whom Atticus has formed a bond that allows them to communicate using telepathic speech. Oberon as a dog finds pleasure in the simple things of life and often reminds Atticus to do so, as well. As the saga continues Atticus finds himself embroiled in deeper and darker trouble. By the end, he faces the literal Ragnarok, an apocalyptic event in the Norse mythological style led by Loki and Hel (though these interpretations of the characters are very different from those in the recent Marvel movie.) The story also does not end happily at all, but we’ll get to that in more detail in a minute.

The ending of the story is short on details

One of the issues with ending these long series, as I hinted at earlier, is attempting to wrap up the large number of plot threads. For many series, each book will only resolve some of the plot threads from previous books while it introduces several new ones and likely won’t even resolve all of those, either. This means that every book adds more characters and plot threads to be tracked in later books. It’s difficult to wrap them all up successfully in a single book, as Brandon Sanderson found out when he agreed to attempt to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed.

Before I had even started the final IDC book I was ready for the series to be over. I had stopped having fun with it several books previous but I kept reading because I have only once met a story that got so twisted from where it had started that I gave up caring about the characters and chose to move on with my life. And the book reads a bit like Kevin Hearne was tired of it as well. The book reads as if the outline for the novel were fleshed out the minimal degree necessary to tell the story and then went to print.

The point that stands out most to me in this regard was his treatment of the Yeti. Through the course of the saga, we were introduced to five Yeti who turned out to be the children of Irish ocean deity Manannan Mac Lir. They helped with a part of one of the quests taken on by Granuaile MacTiernan, a druid trained and bonded by Atticus as well as his love interest. The returned to this story long enough to defeat a fire giant summoned by Loki to burn the world. Their total appearance in the novel lasted approximately 10 pages and three of them unceremoniously died.

60% of the Yeti in the entire world were killed while they fought and killed a being who was apparently the only or last of his kind. And it received as much “screen time” as bath and breakfast for Atticus’ hound, Oberon, received in the first book. I hate when characters return after long periods of time away simply so they can be killed off at any point in a story but this seems particularly egregious. This is not even remotely the only time this happens in Scourged, either.

Several books prior we received a multi-chapter massive fight between the heroes and Loki’s monstrous wolf, Fenrir. In another section of the final book the battle between the world serpent, Jörmungandr, and Atticus’ occasional witch ally, Laksha Kulasekaran, lasted only a pair of pages as Laksha merely possesses the monster and commits suicide. So Laksha makes a return after being largely absent for a long period of time to die again and does so to quickly end what the story had built up to be the greatest threat Atticus would yet face, as well.

Other prominent characters received a token amount of page time or merely a reference. Flidais shows up long enough to get drunk and start a bar fight before vanishing for the rest of the book. Perun and Leif Helgarson are mentioned but never seen.

Hearne may not have actually been tired of the story. It’s possible that this was simply a choice the writer made in order to ensure the plot threads were dealt with in this single book. Which brings us back to the question of whether it’s even possible to provide fitting endings for these massive sagas. The scope just gets to be too large to actually do it justice; events and characters get left out or are under-represented.

The story ends. Then it gets an epilogue.

Things get even worse, personally, for Atticus by the end of the story as his erstwhile allies lop off his right arm – necessary for a very large amount of the Atticus’ druidic abilities – following the battle. The Norse feel his efforts in the war were not sufficient for the crimes he committed. And it’s hard to blame them. Atticus didn’t just attack their pantheon and kill a handful of their gods; that would have been bad enough. He also enlisted the aid of the frost giants by promising them that they would have an opportunity to capture and rape Freya if they came with him. In his defense, what little there is of it, he hoped for and expected them to fail. He mostly wanted them along as a distraction while he and his band of heroes attempted to kill Thor.

Hearne does the series credit by taking this decision of Atticus very seriously at the very end of the story, though. Atticus is further punished by being banned from ever returning to the stomping grounds of the Norse gods. When Granuaile finds out about what he did to deserve the punishment she is disgusted with him and ends their relationship, as well. The tone of the story has finished shifting from a light-hearted romp with a talking dog into a full-blown tragedy. And every result follows logically from the decisions Atticus made. In a lot of stories a decision that, as gross as it was, was such a minor plot point in a story would not have blown up in a character’s face like that. Again, credit to Hearne for either keeping it in mind when it happened or catching back up to it, later, and working it back into the story instead of just ignoring it.

The story doesn’t end happily, nor does it have the tone it did at the start, but it does end fittingly. Could Atticus have made other choices for a better result? Maybe, maybe not. But this result fits the choices he made even if they were the only reasonable choices available to him. This is something he laments at the end to drive the point home. It’s a bit fatalistic but, again, it suits the story where it has come to rest.

And then the epilogue comes. Oberon gives Atticus an idea to have his arm restored and while we aren’t shown the fruits borne of the idea, we’re left with the distinct impression that everything will work out for him. We’re also reminded multiple times that Atticus and Granuaile are functionally immortal and it’s entirely possible they might get back together some day. The epilogue basically reads as if the editor told Kevin, “Listen. This is great and all. But you gotta give people hope for the ending they would have rather had because that’s what you do.” So rather than stick to his guns with the ending that was there or add an epilogue that suggested Atticus might find peace some day even without a girlfriend or his arm – something that would have been a great moment of validation for people who are missing limbs or don’t feel the need for romantic relationships – we get an ending that promises those things are still possibilities for the “hero” who “cocked everything up.”

There are absolutely worse things than providing hope for the readers who wanted to see a completely happy ending for Atticus but it one thing it did not do was make the story stronger.

Scourged isn’t a perfect ending for The Iron Druid Chronicles but is an ending. It’s also a good sight better than other endings we have seen to other tales. Hearne provided us with several terrific books before we got here and it’s good to see that he managed to complete the tale before the story collapsed beneath its own weight.

 

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is almost entirely filler

And that’s not a bad thing

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is a simple, short show with an extremely straight-forward plot and charming characters. The show is only a single season of only 10 episodes. It’s cute, calm, and incredibly pleasant to watch in this day of high-tension serialized shows. It’s almost refreshing to watch a show where everything pretty much goes the way you expect, especially when there’s no life or death drama to contend with. The simple plot, however, means the majority of the airtime is filler.

There has been this sentiment around the internet, recently – or at least in my circles of the internet – that “Filler Episodes” of television are among the worst evils to plague humanity. People complain about it in the Arrowverse shows on the CW, they complain about it in The Walking Dead, I’ve even seen some people complain about filler moments in Game of Thrones. First, let’s answer the question, “What even is filler?”

The simple definition is a segment of a story that doesn’t contribute to the overall story aka advance the plot. The most common place you’ll see this is in a TV series where somewhere between one and a handful of episodes will not particularly advance the overall plot of the story. It is rarer but it can show up in video games or movies, too. One example of it happening in a movie is the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where the Gryffindor boys sit on their beds eating sweets that cause them to make animal noises. The best example in a video game off the top of my head comes from Persona 5. After the heroes complete the first dungeon there is a 30-minute series of cutscenes during that shows the kids celebrating their victory by eating themselves sick at a fancy hotel buffet but otherwise does very little to advance the plot. So that’s what filler is and you know a lot of people are complaining about it but is it inevitably bad? Absolutely not.

Think of it like donuts, for example. Some donuts have no filling, and those are fine. You can probably eat several simple glazed or powdered cake donuts in a sitting. Some donuts have a jelly filling and you bite into those and wonder, “Why would you ruin this perfectly fine donut with overly sweet fruit preserves?” But still other donuts have the Bavarian cream filling. And those donuts can be the best donuts you’ve ever eaten but they’re very rich. So if you got a dozen donuts you’d probably want to avoid the jelly-filled donuts, to take only a few of the ones with the Bavarian cream, and then you’d stock up primarily on the regular ones.

There is such a thing as good filler and bad filler. But since you’re not doing anything to the story you pretty much have to do something to the characters. Good filler is a great opportunity to make the characters in your story seem more real and maybe even expand the universe of your story by giving them simple moments free of life-or-death tension for a bit to just be. But in the being the audience should learn something new about them. That’s why the example of filler from Harry Potter is an example of bad filler. It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters – we learn nothing new about the boys from this scene, and candy that causes the person eating it to make an animal noise doesn’t even contribute much to our understanding of the universe. The Persona 5 example, on the other hand, is good filler. In a calm moment, you can see the characters introduced to that point interact with and tease each other. You learn more about their motivations, their relationships, and how they think. It would have been easier for the writers, developers, and designers to just show the kids pigging out for a few seconds and then move on but doing it that way actually benefited the story by helping the audience understand the characters who would be making important plot decisions later.

Let’s talk about a TV series. How about Star Trek? Which episode is the most iconic of all the episodes in the original series? If you said “The Trouble with Tribbles” you win a cookie. From a website. Congrats. That episode is pure filler. The stakes are low, it’s silly to a nearly unreasonable degree, and it absolutely makes every single top 10 ranking out there – usually in the top 5. It’s a great episode. But the other thing about filler is knowing when and how to use it. If every episode were like that, Star Trek would have been a very different show. So the two keys to good filler, as you may have guessed from the donut analogy, is quantity and type.

The modern television experience, however, is built around two ideas. Binge watching for internet-focused series and viewer-retainment for the more traditional offerings. In both cases, the serialized format (which I explained in more detail in my post about The Orvillemakes the most sense. Bingers will prefer a serialized style that naturally leads them from episode to episode. Weekly shows benefit from curious viewers who will be far more likely to come back next week for a continuing plot of a mediocre or even poorly written show if the story still has loose ends. There is also the fact that many series are shortening their seasons from the once traditional 23-26 episodes into something more like 10-15. This all means that adding filler into a season will almost certainly force writers to trim the main story.

Also, without the narrative room for filler that existed previously the filler that does get produced is now poorly squeezed in and often unjustified. For example, an episode like “The Trouble with Tribbles” would make no sense in Star Trek: Discovery right now because the writers have used the serialized format to ratchet the tension up to a permanent 11. There’s no time to take a break and be silly because people are dying for every moment the USS Discovery isn’t out shooting down bad guys. Something similar has happened in The Walking Dead. Couple this with the fact that viewers are also now trained to be upset when their narrative curiosity goes unrewarded in the next episode and the complaints out there can seem justified. Especially if that filler is more like the Harry Potter example than Star Trek or Persona 5.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie, however, uses its filler to expand and reveal its terrific cast of characters in a way that makes watching the show enjoyable even without overly impressive visuals or a particularly dramatic story.  It allows the audience to relax and enjoy learning more about the characters’ motivations and watch their relationships grow in a show-don’t-tell way that can usually only be seen in filler episodes. The dedication to focusing on characters instead of plot tension makes the show an almost meditative experience. It’s very easy to just veg out and feel like you’re hanging out with some friends. You probably won’t want to watch this kind of show constantly any more than every episode of Star Trek should have been “The Trouble with Tribbles”. But in a world filled with regular donuts interspersed with a few of the gross jelly-filled variety, it can be good to have some rich bavarian cream donuts to break things up, from time to time.