Last year I read The Final Empire and enjoyed it enough to carry on with the series of books. I enjoyed the non-conventional plot of the novel, but it didn’t quite come together for me as an artistic whole. I ended my review of the first novel by worrying that the subsequent novels would revert to fantasy form with a quest, and I was right to be alarmed at the possibility. The fantasy quest has been described as a story where the protagonists traverse the landscape collecting plot coupons until they have enough to send away to the author for an ending. That describes fairly well the intent of the characters in the second and third novels, but it doesn’t play out quite as I expected. Spoilers follow.
The first novel is predicated on the idea that the ruler of “The Final Empire” has cloaked themselves in the mythology of a deity, but is actually “just” a singularly powerful magic-user. I found this idea very appealing, because it breaks the usual kind of fantasy world construction where mortal beings are pawns in a cosmic struggle. It places human agency front and centre, and the implications throughout the first novel are that the ruler had assumed this awesome power to defeat some other supernatural force. Conceptually, this vaguely demonic world is his best defence against this greater foe. At his death, he claims that humanity doesn’t understand what sacrifices he makes on their behalf. This idea is incredible, justifying the time spent.
And it is completely undone in the sequels, where it transpires that The Lord Ruler borrowed and mis-applied the power of a great cosmic creator. The Final Empire is a mistake, not a plan. The struggle that the characters experience is indeed, the remnants of the great struggle between two giant cosmic forces – “Preservation” and “Ruin” – who we might as well characterise here in terms of “Good and Evil”. The gimmick is that creation of the world required these things to act in concert, but they have now become unbalanced. This repositions the world architecture into territory that could hardly be more familiar.
As a result, their quest, following a trail of clues left by The Lord Ruler, is unsuccessful. As a mortal, albeit powerful, he had no real idea how to resolve the cosmic struggle. He played his part, made some mistakes as he did so, and tried his best to keep the system ticking over, essentially a holding pattern for a millennium. The characters are hardly less frustrated than the reader, because it means that a huge amount of story is inconclusive and so is effectively just marking time. While I respect this attempt to undermine the quest architecture, I didn’t get the sense that it offered an alternative structure. It’s a story full of activity, but not meaningful action, to a large degree.
The trilogy concludes with a second person absorbing the power of “Preservation”, as The Lord Ruler had done, but instead of trying to maintain the stalemate, she attempts to annihilate “Ruin”. This confrontation nullifies both powers temporarily, whence they are both adopted by another character. This “Hero of Ages” uses the power to restore the world to its configuration before The Lord Ruler first assumed his powers. This combined being, a kind of trinity, then persists as a benevolent god, watching over the world.
This ending surrenders completely to conventional fantasy structures, with a heavy religious overtone. It submits totally to the fantasy genre’s fetish for a perfect past. It could hardly be more deus ex machina, a god arrives and just fixes everything at the end. The only restraint shown is that this new being is unable to bring the dead back to life, or it would be a simple re-tread of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the epitome of muscular Christian allegory. The ending of this trilogy made me almost as angry, because it really felt like a betrayal of all the interesting ideas that powered the bulk of the story. It’s all too nice and tidy, almost completely denying the validity or power of human agency.
Instead of providing an antidote for boring fantasy norms, this sequence eventually endorses them.