Occasionally, I ask some of the best book bloggers in sf/f/h a question about their reading choices, favorites, desires, or any old thing about the genre. I then collect the answers and post them here. This time I asked our participant bloggers:
What are the worst or most disappointing endings in science fiction/fantasy novels? Why?
And we got some great and varied answers. And by all means, feel free to include your suggestions in the comments.
Also check out our roundtable on the best endings.
Adam @ Punkadiddle:
Worst can mean several things. My vote for the ethically worst ending in SF — which is to say, the most deplorable — goes to E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Skylark novels. At the climax of that series the clean-cut hero Richard Seaton teams up with his human arch-enemy Marc C. DuQuesne to repel an invasion by the malevolent alien Chlorans. This resolves into a battle of psionics, a team of humans against ‘rabid Chloran attackers … minds that thundered destruction at them’. The result is a genuinely startling holocaust of alien life, reported in an even more startlingly offhand manner: Seaton and DuQuesne move whole stars (fifty thousand million of them) across millions of light years, colliding them together to turn them into weapons — the Chlorans ‘died in uncounted trillions … their halogenous flesh was charred back and desiccated in the split second of the passing of the wave front from each exploding double star’. Humanoid are spared: since for each sun destroyed ‘an oxygen-bearing, human-populated planet was snatched through four-space into the safety of Galaxy B’. The book finishes with DuQuesne declaring his love for, and being accepted by, the beautiful, jutting-breasted, narrow-waisted nuclear physicist Stephanie de Marigny: there is no backward glance at the stupendous slaughter of Chloran life.
It seems to me that Genocide is a Bad Thing; and Celebrating Genocide a very questionable novelistic strategy.
As for the worst ending in aesthetic terms — the most disappointing, as it were — well, here I’m going to do something a little unusual and nominate one of my own novels: On (Gollancz 2001) When I wrote that book I wanted to do something with ‘precariousness’ as a narrative strategy. As part of that asethetic strategy I deliberately (I know: I would say that, wouldn’t I) ended the novel abruptly, with a quick absurdist conceptual tumble from my world. What I discovered was that an author experiments with deliberate disappointment at his peril. Readers hated it.
Rose Fox @ Genreville:
I bet I won’t be the only person to say Hyperion by Dan Simmons. When I read it I had no idea that it was only the first half of a book. I slogged all the way through it to an end that stopped like a Looney Tunes cliff disappearing under Wile E. Coyote. I think I actually threw the physical book against the wall, something I don’t recall ever doing before or since.
More recently, I was really annoyed with the way George R.R. Martin ended Arya Stark’s storyline in A Feast for Crows; not only is it a nasty cliffhanger, but it’s a cliffhanger that we know won’t be resolved in the next book because she’s not in the next book, thanks to his “half the characters in one book, half in the other” scheme for splitting the two. At the rate Martin writes, it’ll probably be ten years before we find out what happens to her. Very vexing. Martin’s generally gotten more into using cliffhangers to end “Song of Ice and Fire” storylines, and I really don’t like it. It’s not like those books need more dramatic tension!
James Oliver @ Dazed Rambling:
(Going to live up to my blog’s name with this one…)
For me, the worst endings are non-endings that are typically found in the first or second books in a series. The worst culprit I have come across in the past few years was The Stowaway by Geno and R.A. Salvatore. The book itself read like bad fan fiction, to be honest, but the lack of an ending was like sprinkling the poisoned cake with broken glass. The “ending” of this first book in a duology broke mid-scene, the final sentence little more than a question asked by the main villain. The following page, where one would expect the beginning of a chapter perhaps, was just a note advertising the second book’s release date.
Secondary to the non-ending comes the cliffhanger. When it comes to cliffhangers, I see no reason at all to have them at the end of a novel, especially when there is no telling when the next novel will come. George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows is a more recent and highly frustrating culprit when it comes to this. The need to keep readers on the edge of their seats and craving the next book is understood, but I do not accept it.
In the end, both seem like hack methods for ensuring that the readership continues to follow the books, but the non-ending reeks of half-assed writing. I find myself amazed when I come across either, as it rings of poor writing. However, I will admit that the cliffhanger can be used effectively at the very end of a series, as Joe Abercrombie has demonstrated, though some people tend to hate that ending.
Omphalos @ Omphalos SF Book Reviews:
First of all, before I throw my own two cents into this list, let me say to all of those out there who are going to say that the ending of BSG was the worst ever: POSH! I think most of you who feel that way were probably miffed that Moore pulled the wool over your eyes about Earth. That kind of irked me too, but not eough to say that the ending to BSG was the worst ever. In fact, I quite liked it. It felt like a mix of Heinlein and Chad Oliver, and I thought that what they did with Thrace was inventive. We need more SF endings like that.
Now, the worst ending in SF undoubtedly is also the longest and most drawn out ending in the history of the genre: Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. These two monumental piece of junk books were penned by Brian Herbert and his “writing” partner Kevin J. Anderson in an attempt to wrap up Frank Herbert’s monumental, epic and amazingly well crafted Dune chronicles.
Can I tell you a secret? Lean in close now. The Herbert’s have ears all over the place and I don’t want them to hear this…again. The series was complete when Frank died. The whole point of the six Dune books that Frank Herbert wrote were to show one thing: How Leto II successfully put humanity onto the Golden Path, or a path towards a societal configuration that would ensure the immortality of the race. The first trilogy of books tell the story of Leto II coming to power, and the empire he inherited from his father, Paul. The fourth book, God Emperor of Dune, shows Leto’s plan at its most vulnerable point. Without providing any spoiling detail, Leto made it work. The last two books, Heretics and Chapterhouse, were about a different story in the Dune universe where the characters saw a risk to the Golden Path. At the end of Chapterhouse Frank Herbert left a few rhetorical question that Herbert the Younger and Anderson spun into the “greatest cliff-hanger in the history of the genre.”
Yeah, right. A close reading of Heretics and Chapterhouse reveal all the answers that anyone needs. But, with a few notes that they claim to have found in Herbert’s attic, and the mythical outline for “Dune 7″ that was reportedly found in a safety deposit box in the months after Herbert and Anderson claim to have gotten together to draft an outline for the plot of Dune: House Atreides (the first of six useless, needless prequels to the first Frank Herbert Dune novel, and the first baby-steps in a blatant, clumsy reengineering of an absolute classic of literature), they have indeed gone where no man should ever go. Frank Herbert’s Dune is, in my mind, unassailable. It’s the best book that SF has to offer, and it probably always will be. It was a masterful updating of even then-dated motifs and tropes, a romantic tale of adventure, a coming-of-age tale par excellance, a singular statement on the state of politics in the 60′s, and the landmark novel of the ecological age of that our culture has been working itself towards ever since. Hunters and Sandworms are not only unworthy of shelf space near Dune, they shouldn’t even be used as library door-stops.
Peter William @ Ubiquitous Absence:
For me, this one is easy; it’s Greg Keyes, The Born Queen. I had such high expectations for this series. The opening of the first book is, in my opinion, the best opening to a series I’ve encountered. The series continues onward in a remarkable, lyrical fashion…until you get to the ending of the final book. The story has been colossal, the reader is primed, all the elements begin to converge and, then….the reader is left grasping for the wind.
Joe Sherry @ Adventures in Reading:
The absolute worst ending I can recall is that of To Green Angel Tower, the concluding volume of the Memory, Sorrow, Thorn trilogy fromTad Williams. Not that the series itself is all that good, but Williams has this climactic final battle with a great sacrifice from one of the major characters and you think for a moment that Williams stuck the landing.
This is standard kitchen-boy epic fantasy, so nobody is too surprised by what happens to Simon, but the character who was killed? Yeah, he’s still alive to dispense some wisdom and essentially walks off into the sunset.
It’s one of those endings that completely invalidated the power and emotion of what came before. It’s not relief that Josua survived, it’s anger at Williams for the bait and switch he just pulled. That ending is such a cop out.
John DeNardo @ SF Signal:
Like the best endings, the worst ones are also the ones remembered most vividly. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to thing of the worst endings I’ve experienced, and all I can remember is how cheated I felt after reading Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy.
Picture it now: Hamilton spends thousands of pages in a beautifully orchestrated game of self one-upmanship: a huge cast of characters, wondrous technology, interesting aliens, sentient ships, and people coming back from the dead. (A space opera/horror mashup! How cool is that?) The reader had no choice but to wonder how the author was going to tie it up.
Well, I think the author did, too.
*** Begin spoiler ***
Hamilton’s Deus Ex Machina solution was to essentially have a godlike being scoop all the good thing out of this universe, leaving the bad things behind. Argh!
*** End Spoiler ***
This was definitely not in parity with the rest of the series which truly was a fantastic reading experience up until that point. The series still remains one of my fond reading memories, but there remains that bitter aftertaste…
Jared @ Pornokitsch:
There’s a lot of ‘way-too-tidy’ high fantasy endings that wind me up, but the worst climax of all time has got to be F. Paul Wilson’s Nightworld. The dramatic conclusion to a six volume series: People holding hands and singing REM’s “Shiny, Happy People”. Ow.
LibraryDad @ LibraryDad:
The most disappointing ending in a fantasy novel I have ever encountered was in Eldrie the Healer by Claudia J. Edwards (Book One of the Bastard Princess Series).
You see, I really enjoyed the book. It had a female lead, plenty of action, and even a sex scene or two. And, since I was new to fantasy at the time, I had high hopes that other fantasy books would be this good. And of course I assumed that the rest of the series would be good as well.
And that’s where the disappointment comes in. The series was never finished. And Claudia J. Edwards appears to have dropped off the writing scene. Years ago I even heard a rumor that she had died, thus the cause for no more books in the series.
Whatever the reason was for the series dying an early death, I don’t know. But I do know that the sudden ending was very disappointing.
Alexandra Wolfe @ The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress:
I could write a full-blown essay (and probably will, over on my blog) about any number of novels I’ve read over the last decade that have left me, in some cases, scratching my head, but mostly left me feeling frustrated. A few were of the tedious and dull variety of writing where the author obviously sold their story on a great idea, along with a number of sample chapters. And then? Failed miserably due to a lack of writing and descriptive skill necessary to fulfill the premise.
Judgement Day by Jane Jensen falls squarely into this category, as does Katherine Neville’s The Eight. Both start out with the kernel of an idea that is, indeed, tantalizing. But the author’s inability to pull it off shows very quickly, and these stories quickly veer off into meandering travel-logs with banal and very unsatisfactory endings.
Another of these, is the befuddled plots with unsympathetic characters hampered by flat prose, which include Jeff Long’s Year Zero and Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio. While the prose is infinitely better in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This one suffers from a sagging middle (rather than a disappointing end) where characters wander off-plot and hamper what would have been a rather interesting take on the cult of vampires and the history of Dracula. Sad to say, I was so bored by the time I stopped in the middle of reading that I’ve never finished the book.
The worst offender of not just a disappointing ending but (in my humble opinion) worst writing (ever) has to go to, Greg Bear. Blood Music, which is nothing but a short story stretched tracing-paper thin, doesn’t just have possibly the worst ending I’ve ever suffered, but is the worst book I’ve ever read. The premise starts off with the chilling opener of a reckless scientist, Vergil Ulam, injecting himself with his own banned GM serum thereby unleashing the next doomsday scenario. However, after the first few intriguing chapters, the author stumbles unable to take the premise further. Add in the terrible editing and junior high school level prose, and one has to wonder how this one ever made it onto the shelves.
Jeff @ Fantasy Book News:
The most disappointing ending I’ve read in fantasy novels recently was the underwhelming conclusion to The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller. The novel spent too much time discussing trivial issues without much of anything happening, followed it up with an ending that came completely out of nowhere, and knocked off most of the extremely under-developed characters in one random event. This type of ending not only doesn’t tie together any of the plot lines from the novel, it leaves the reader with absolutely no desire to continue reading the series. Readers beware, and writers stand to learn a thing or two.
Adam @ The Weirdside:
For me, the worst ending I ever read was from Isaac Asimov’s The God’s Themselves. That book was mind-boggling, marvelous, innovative, and various other cliche phrases of praise, but the ending made me (most literally) launch the book across the room.
Why did I hate it so much? Well, first off, it ended with the two main human characters deciding that they really want to try and have sex. With the implications and style of the book, I thought for sure it’d end on one of those epiphany-type lines; the kind that get quoted for decades. Nope, it ends with an earthling deciding to throw caution to the wind and have hot, wild monkey sex with a woman from the moon, even though he may snap her in half.
If Asimov had made me feel for these characters as people, maybe I would have seen it differently, but as it was, I cared more about the piles of sentient goo in the parallel universe than I did about them.
Steve @ The Crotchety Old Fan:
For starters, the endings of most of my own fiction. It is a pretty bad ending when the story isn’t finished. (Which seems to be my problem of late. I’ve promised myself any number of times that I’d concentrate on just one story, but I seem to have this nasty habit of not keeping promised to myself.)
Other than my own execrable attempts – over the past 18 months I’ve reviewed a fair number of stinkers – one I couldn’t even bring myself to finish (first time in my life!). Another was a “thriller” in the Dan Brown/everything in the world is a conspiracy and the conspiracy is the reason you aren’t rich/aren’t married to (insert Hollywood heart throb), aren’t published, etc., etc.
Those kinds of novels have the worst endings of all because they don’t end! They just set you up for the next piece of trash that will make some borderline nut case a literary icon and steal the bread right out from under legitimate authors (and man I REALLY, REALLY hate it when I’m in agreement with the Vatican on anything!)
I also absolutely despise novels that hide the fact that the story isn’t complete in one volume. No thanks, you just lost my follow-on dollars. And almost as bad are the publisher’s attempts to mitigate the above response by filling out the last thirty pages or so with a thrilling excerpt from the continuation. I had this same response to serialized novels in the magazines (when they used to do that). I’d wait until all three, four or five issues were in hand before reading any of it.
Summing it up, I’d have to say that “bad endings” are those that fraudulently hold you captive and/or try to trick you into spending more money with the publisher.
TJ @ Book Love Affair:
The most disappointing endings in science fiction and fantasy novels are those that are disingenuous to the reader. I’m hesitant to point out Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, because it’s still one of my favorite novels, but the ending has severe issues because it seems to betray so much of what the novel had been about. Of course, this particular case is incredibly debatable, but for me it nearly ruined the novel. It’s a testament to Moon’s writing and deep characters that I still cannot tear myself away from loving the novel–even if I wish the last two chapters were amputated. I’ll explain further–and I warn there shall be spoilers. The Speed of Dark tells the story of an autistic man named Lou. His life is pretty good–not perfect by any means–but good. He has a job he’s incredibly talented at, friends both ‘normal’ and autistic, a woman he’s interested in, and fences with enviable skill. Lou’s world is shaken when a particularly ignorant boss tries to force him and his co-workers to ‘cure’ their autism. Despite having built Lou as a person who had been happy with who he was–proving he could not only function in life as an autistic but enjoy life–Moon makes him decide to get the treatment. Upon receiving the treatment she could have made it seem tragic that he loses all the things he once enjoyed, but these losses are barely mentioned as Lou rushes into his bigger, better life as a ‘normal’ person. The ending was like a blow. Had it been bittersweet or tragic by working with the meaning and life Moon had given Lou, I could understand; however, it almost feels like it’s all been a lie.
Jvstin @ Blog, Jvstin Style:
My nomination, and it pains me to do it, because I like the novels so much otherwise, is Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy.
Big scale space opera, lots of cool technology, returned dead plaguing human space. Hamilton thinks big, writes big and loves the cast of thousands with viewpoint characters spread across a wide swath of locales and situations. Peter F Hamilton is a leading star of the “New Space Opera”.
But the ending, Peter, the ending! The novels are let down badly by the denouement. The denouement of the trilogy is, unfortunately, a complete and literal deus ex machina. Joshua Calvert literally finds a lost God (a naked quantum singularity) to undo all of the damage (and change the nature of human space in the bargain). I felt cheated by this. After thousands of pages, the book ends like a bad medieval morality play.
I am very happy that subsequent novels from Hamilton have had much better endings, but this series just fails on that level. I wonder if Hamilton rewrote the novels today if he wouldn’t be able to do it better. (He could hardly make it worse!)
Harry Markov @ Temple Library Reviews:
John you keep asking the most demanding questions and this one is the most demanding so far of them all. There are two types of endings that I have as categories that apply for endings in the SF/F novels.
First, I have the endings that close the book 30 to 50 pages after the big high and serve to be anticlimactic. These are nothing but a small irk, which I tolerate, but I think disappoint as a type and the freshest example here would be Bitter Night by Diana Pharaoh Francis. Good book, but has an ending that is too far away from the action reaching an end for my taste. It’s not exactly fantasy in the most traditional term, but urban fantasy is a legit enough subgenre so I hope it’s valid.
Second and more obvious, I have an allergy to badly written endings. These are more often than not attached to badly written beginnings and middles and come in so many shapes and sizes. I try to avoid badly written books in any speculative genre, but have had a masochistic streak, when I read everything, even if I hated it. The example I recall most vividly involves another urban fantasy series by author Justin Gustainis. Black Magic Woman was fine but the following Evil Ways was written in a style that was not befitting the story and the big bang of an ending was a lot of smoke and no fire. It was as if you expected a shocking Lady Gaga performance from Hannah Montana.
ediFanoB @ Only The Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy:
I spent some time to think about this question. I don’t have examples. Normally I don’t finish books which I don’t like. So I don’t know their endings. But I assume when a book is worse also the ending is worse.
From my point of view it is most disappointing when a novel ends either somewhere in the middle of nowhere or all lived happily ever after. But there are also artificially created ends. What does this mean? I live in Germany. In former times I read a lot of translations. German publishers tend to split books but they don’t tell you that the book has been split. So you buy a book. You read it and like it and then you reach the end which is like a cold shower. The story ends without an end and you have no information whether there is a second book or not.
Mark Lord @ Praeter Naturam:
It pains me to say this, as it’s one of my favourite books, but one of the most disappointing endings has to be the fizzling out, living happily ever after ending of The Lord of the Rings. Having experienced such drama and tension throughout the three books the reader doesn’t really expect such a slow winding down to the books. Yes perhaps explain what happens to the characters afterwards, but we really get a bit too much of it. There’s the epilogue where they return to the Shire and everything’s turned a bit sour and they have to sort that out, but after defeating Sauron, this seems a little bit lame. But then Tolkien wasn’t perhaps writing a thriller as such, and he probably didn’t really care too much if readers got a little bit bored, and that’s why his work is so rich and rewarding, so I don’t think I would actually want to change anything either.
Tinkoo Valia @ Variety SF
We go through the 3 book generally second rate series “Rama II”, “Garden of Rama”, & then this (after Clarke’s excellent “Rendezvous with Rama”) – star traveling, meeting & fighting aliens, etc – only to know that the alien we are really dealing with is the God!