The Return of the King
You can never go home again. That’s the message of the “Scouring of the Shire,” a concluding chapter in the LOTR trilogy that didn’t make it into the film adaptations’ endless series of codas, but is quite central to the book trilogy’s message. When the hero hobbits arrive home to find corruption and misery has seeped from the wider world into Hobbiton’s once-innocent infrastructure — and when they actually have to draw arms and kill their fellow hobbits to rout Saruman and his handlers — it almost breaks them, and does really break Frodo. And so when Frodo and Bilbo leave with the elves and the other ringbearers because Middle Earth was saved, but not saved for them, we weep.
But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save The Shire, and it has been saved but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger someone has to give them up, lose them so that others may keep them.
Close to perfect, if absurdly sentimental. I think J.R.R. Tolkien’s choice of splitting the ending into content family life for Sam but doom for Frodo is the kind of balance between happy and tragic that all the below series are trying to imitate. But it’s not easy. And so, I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.
The Hunger Games, Mockingjay:
Some of the ultraviolence in the final slog feels gratuitous (those alligator muttations) and Katniss’ long period of PTSD is tiresome. But her reaction is also realistic. Furthermore, the sacrifice, both of Katniss’ sanity (temporarily) and the life of Prim, the very person she entered the arena to save in the first place, seems appropriate for the level to which the trilogy’s stakes were raised. Suzanne Collins teaches a brutal lesson in the cost of violence, even arguably necessary revolutionary violence, but I have personally found it to also be a resonant one, which has stayed with me long after I closed the books.
As for the “happy” ending that isn’t, the victors’ life in a rebuilt District 12 and their eventual procreation, Collins ends with a return to quietness and semi-contentment that rightly never quite feels like full joy. Rather, it’s an acquiescence to the life force. It works for me. Do we really think Katniss and Peeta would be going to all-night dance parties at this point?
His Dark Materials, The Amber Spyglass
Although I deeply appreciate its anti-church, pro-reason values, I found the later installments of Philip Pullman’s series to be more confusing and boring than many of the other books listed below.
That said, the concluding sequence is fantastic. It reads as a pro-sex reversal of the Garden of Eden narrative. This is of course brilliant and subversive, while the necessary parting occasioned by the heroes’ closing up of the portals between their separate worlds is a sad but masterful stroke of plotting. Will and Lyra’s separation aches just about perfectly.
Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Really, Jo Rowling? “ALL WAS WELL?” “All was well” even though you killed off our most beloved characters in a giant bloodbath and literally left all the bodies lying in a row? Even though Hermione was brutally tortured and Harry died and came back to life (oh yeah, that was a problem too)? So yeah. All was not well. Everyone hates the epilogue. Is there anyone who doesn’t hate the epilogue?
The rest of the book, for me, has been somewhat redeemed by seeing Ralph Fiennes ham it up onscreen as a campy, de-fanged Voldemort (“come give your uncle Voldemort a hug, Draco!” my best friend and I croaked to each other for months afterwards), but I’m not sure that kind of redemption says good things about the source material. Certainly, there’s lots to love in the book, particularly the Deathly Hallows plot itself, the pivotal Snape reveal, and a few stunning set-pieces. But another year’s wait time would have been so worth it if it meant Rowling giving the book another good edit and resolving some of its issues. Books 5 and 6 were peak Harry, and even though the series overall was an infinitely preferable read, for me, to His Dark Materials, Rowling didn’t quite have the chutzpah to pull off the required semi-tragic ending.
Twilight, Breaking Dawn
For a long time I truly believed this was the pinnacle of hot-mess series conclusions. I had just started reading Twilight “for research into the youth today,” of course, when it was released. I confess that when Breaking Dawn‘s plot leaked online and people started talking about this weird vampire baby and a demon pregnancy, I wanted to stake the book right through the heart and then behead it. I cheered all the teenage girls who were showing up at bookstores demanding their money back. I still do.
But now I have more mixed feelings, because I think there’s something brilliant about the insane heights of awfulness this book reaches for. I mean, Breaking Dawn truly lays bare Stephenie Meyer’s most insipid, retro, and saccharine qualities (a love shield? Bella’s power is a love shield?) but also really lets her sick, twisted, Mormon-housewife imagination roam free at the same time. Bella drinking blood through a sippy straw. A half-vampire baby killing its loving mother from the inside. There’s some dark stuff in here. In retrospect, and thanks to the movies’ playing up the gore (and that long beheadings-spree fantasy sequence added in to the last film) this book now almost feels to me like it crosses the line from anti-feminist horror camp to feminist horror camp, but all in Meyer’s deep, repressed subconscious. I’m kind of fond of it.
Still, we have to admit that on a storytelling level, there’s a lot here that just sucks. Also, the baby’s name is Reneesme. RENEESME.
Hot. Stinking. Trash. It’s hard to dignify this one with a full response. I mean, if I could somehow be granted back the time I wasted reading this entire series, I would be thrilled.
Killing off your heroine is one thing, but switching perspective from hero to heroine for the whole book WHILE NOT DISTINGUISHING THEIR VOICES at all, and confusing the crap out of your readers, is unforgivable, Veronica Roth. Plus, it all starts to feel like weird Christian propaganda. And while we’re on that subject…
The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle
This one is the most insidious of all, because it’s really Christian propaganda masked by lovely writing and strong imagery, damn its Lion-loving eyes. Picture this, if you will. A young Jewish girl falls in love with Narnia, and reads the books over and over again, finding herself particularly repelled by/attracted to the final installment, in which everyone is revealed to be TOTALLY DEAD and there are these unfairly demonized darker people who worship the wrong animal god (Aslan is the right animal God). What is up with this freaky book, child-reader Sarah wonders?
Then one day she wakes up and realizes that she’s been proselytized to, and a lifetime of trust issues ensue. I’m kidding about the last part, but this book is just execrable. Susan, who liked lipstick too much, is denied entry into Narnia Within Narnia Within Narnia because there’s a sign on the (pearly) gates that says: whores are not allowed. I get upset just thinking about it. For me, Narnia canon basically ends with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is a much nicer piece of Christian propaganda about heaven.