Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The end is the beginning is the end

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The Scythian Trilogy

As I’ve noted before, the number three has a magical quality for authors, which may be why so many of us are tempted to write trilogies. If the second installment in a series is about building on the world established by the first and taking it into unexpected directions, the third is generally about coming full circle: it revisits and reimagines the events that brought us here in the first place, often revealing surprising perspectives on the story’s origins. The Dark Knight Rises is a good recent example: in many ways, it’s an attempt to engage Batman Begins through the lens of The Dark Knight, and both of the earlier films are enriched in the process. It doesn’t always work, of course: I may be in the minority here, but to my eyes, a movie like The Bourne Ultimatum gets a little mired in backstory when it tries to cast new light on what came before. And as The Bourne Legacy unfortunately demonstrates, once you’ve already attempted that kind of thematic return, it can be very hard to move forward in an interesting way—which is why so many franchises fall apart when they attempt a fourth installment.

In my case, a trilogy wasn’t necessarily a part of the plan—I would have considered myself lucky enough just to get The Icon Thief into print—but once I knew that I’d be writing a set of connected novels, I had to think hard about what this really meant, both in general and for these books in particular. Writing City of Exiles forced me to consider the problem of a sequel, which needs to continue the story established in the previous installment while remaining a satisfying book in its own right, and Eternal Empire, in turn, obliged me to deal with the issue of endings. I knew from the start that this would be the last book in the series, and I wanted to come up with a strong conclusion while I still had the freedom and ability to do so. As a result, when it came time for me to plan out the third book, only a few months after finishing the second, I was thinking as much about destruction as creation. (Years from now, if I ever write a fourth novel with these characters, I may need to eat my words, but for the moment, let’s assume that I stick to my guns.)

The Scythian Trilogy

I decided, in short, that Eternal Empire would be a direct sequel to The Icon Thief to a degree that City of Exiles was not. In a sense, it ends up serving double duty: City of Exiles ends on a cliffhanger that the third novel needed to resolve, but it also reaches further back to the first installment, so the resolutions of these two books essentially unfold in parallel before converging at the very end. I don’t think I was aware of this structural peculiarity while I was writing the book, and if I’d known, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. It meant a lot of complicated bookkeeping and rebalancing, as I tried to give each character his or her fair share of attention while advancing the story at the same time, and at one point, I worried that the book would become too unwieldy to manage. (In fact, it ended up being exactly the same length as the previous two novels, although not without a lot of cutting and reworking.) Throughout it all, I was encouraged by the fact that the ending was in sight, which allowed me to take greater risks than if I were hoarding material for future books. For better or worse, it’s all here.

And it freed me to do something that I thought I’d never do: bring back Maddy Blume, the protagonist of The Icon Thief. Of all the characters I’ve created, I feel most protective of Maddy, whose inner life, in some ways, is closest to my own. As I recently explained in my author’s commentary for the first book, I felt that I’d resolved her story on an appropriate note of ambiguity, and I didn’t want to bring her back for a sequel, both because I couldn’t think of a plausible way of including her and because I thought she deserved a break. Eventually, though, I found myself curious about what she’d been doing in the intervening years, and I finally hit on a narrative device that would allow me to reintroduce her in a logical way. Sometimes the belated return of an established character can make it seem as if an author is writing fanfic for his own creations—which I’ve hopefully managed to avoid. But the result, at least for me, is the novel that I’ve been building toward all along, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. And I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2013 at 8:23 am

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