Can a Bad Ending Ruin a Great Book?

Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

Contains spoilers

Can a bad ending ruin a great book?

For much of this book, I was swept up in the story, and was delighted by all the considerable tools and tricks K.J. Parker brought to bear — brisk plotting, a vivid narrator, an entertaining cast of characters, sharp dialogue and some truly inspired twists and turns (the one featuring the Emperor comes to mind).

I was ready to give this book 5 stars and was going to heartily endorse it to everyone I knew…and then I finished the book.

Without getting into spoilers, the point is this: a story is more than a premise. It’s a promise. Some stories are up front about their promise: “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” is one of the earliest lines in Romeo and Juliet; a binary sunset tells you that Luke Skywalker wants to go on a grand adventure beyond his tiny little farm. Others take their time easing into the point of the story: the Joads migrating west isn’t the point of Grapes of Wrath; it’s a study of the ruin capitalism brings on families trying to survive, for example, or how The Godfather is more than just a mob movie — it’s a study of the rot within the heart of the American dream.

In each of these examples, the storytellers guide you through the promise of their story, escorting you to their destination. Sometimes storytellers lie to you — what you think is the promise of the story turns out not to be what you thought it was (The Sixth Sense, for example), but in those cases, the twist turns out to be more satisfying than the original conceit, and you feel good about the way the story ending.

But then there’s the approach Game of Thrones TV series took, where D.B. Weiss and David Benioff looked at the brilliant first four seasons, learned all the wrong lessons, and ultimately made a final season that was so unsatisfying from a storytelling perspective that it retroactively ruined the entire series, driving GoT from a landmark in pop culture into something that was quickly and embarrassingly buried from our collective conscience, now only trotted out once in a blue moon when someone asks, “What the fuck was that?”

Thankfully, this book doesn’t come remotely close to that level of ineptitude. Parker skillfully navigates us through the most of the book, and I can even appreciate the ending from afar, to a certain degree, even if I disagree vehemently with the concept and execution.

The promise of the book is the siege of the city — it’s right there in the title, after all. The narrator tells you the whole reason why he wrote the book is because he wanted to tell the story of the defense of the city. And then he dies. Which is fine! I rather liked that, actually. It was a nice twist. What was not a nice twist is that Parker gives you absolutely nothing about what happened afterwards; it’s not as if the book ends with the character’s death. There’s even a postscript! But that postscript is worse than useless — it’s insulting. It doesn’t tell the reader anything. Does the city survive the siege? Do certain characters live or die? Do all the defenders get wiped out? What happens to the guy leading the siege? Is a new world order made? All of the questions that drove the entire story simply don’t get answered at all. The character dies, and then book abruptly ends.

Parker basically said, “I’m going to tell you a brilliant story about a siege” and then, once you’re truly well and hooked, he stops suddenly, in mid-sentence. And you quite naturally ask, “So what happens next?” and then he says, “Wouldn’t you like to know?” and walks away from you. I can’t help but feel a little insulted by it, even if I can appreciate what he was trying to say from a storytelling perspective.

Parker clearly sees the journey of the story to be more important than the destination, and to be fair, it is a hell of a journey. As I said at the beginning, it was a great book for 99% of the way, and I genuinely enjoyed it. But even while I can appreciate the ending from a literary perspective, it still left me frustrated and, after sitting with it for a few days, my feelings haven’t changed. For most of the going, I was sure that the book would be one I’d add to my rotation of books that I like to re-read, and recommend to others, but the ending changed that.

So, can a bad ending ruin a great book? Yes and no. No, because it still is a genuinely great book for the most part. But yes, because the ending is all I’ll think about now, and not the parts I enjoyed up to that point.

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