Today I am trying something different.
This review-slash-essay-slash-rant contains MAJOR spoilers for Illuminae, The Raven King, Vicious, and oddly enough, The Lion King. Read at your own risk.
You know that point in a Disney movie were an important character you care about appears to be dead and all the other characters start grieving? But wait! The character is not actually dead or comes back to life immediately and everyone gets to a happy ending. Hell, TVTropes even named it Disney Death.
It it understandable that this kind of trope would turn up a lot in Disney films. The heroes should not win against the bad guy without a struggles, otherwise why tell the story? There has to be some kind of pathos near the end, a change. At the same time, these movies are meant for children so they cannot end in such a sour tone as to have one of the main characters just die at the end. Maybe at the middle when the audience can still see the characters recover from this death (take Mufasa for example), but not at the toward the end as the audience should leave feeling all warm and fuzzy. Of course there are a few exceptions but one can understand why this trope is so prevalent.
And yet, it keeps cropping up in the books I’ve been reading.
First there was The Raven King, the final book in one of my favorite series, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. The first book begins with a promise that Gansey is going to die before the year ends. Through the first three books and a big chunk of the last one there’s the looming threat that Gansey will be killed by Blue’s kiss. That is more than 1600 pages worth of build up.
He does die in quite a heartbreaking scene that had me sobbing like a baby. Then he actually stays dead for only one chapter before the other characters figure out a way to bring him back.
I felt conflicted. On the one hand I was relieved that this character I adore was getting a happy ending. Yet I also felt cheated. After all that build-up, I was given the pay-off, I cried and I even grieved in that odd way one grieves for fictional people, then the pay-off got snatched from me in the span of a chapter.
I could not really articulate why the fact that Gansey had lived had bothered me so much until I read Vicious by V.E. Schwab, a splendid, violent, well-written novel about superpowered villains that also happens to have like a thousand fake-outs. Even the dog gets two fake-out deaths. To be fair, with a character that it immortal, another one that can raise the dead and whole premise that relies on near death experiences, it was pretty much inevitable. At the end, one of the central characters is killed before being brought back a few pages later, similarly to Gansey. That wasn’t the fake-out that bothered me, though.
A bit after the middle, Mitch is shot by Eli, the main “villain” (arguably, it is hard to tell in this book). It is harrowing and upsetting just as it is meant to be. Only it turns out Mitch was wearing a bulletproof vest so he’s fine.
Now, in Vicious, Schwab is setting out to deconstruct superhero tropes and comics are known for how the deaths tend not to stick for long. It is not hard too see why she would play around with this too. In Mitch’s case however, it feels a bit cheap. Again all the emotions, the pathos is ripped from you. He is not brought back by any of in-universe elements like the dead-raising twelve-year-old girl. He is just wearing a bulletproof vest that went conveniently unmentioned until after his death. Also worth-noting is that none of the characters actually take a second to grieve Mitch’s apparent murder; it’s just the reader who is supposed to be moved.
Finally, I am writing this having just finished the much-hyped Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. As whole, the book is both daring and uneven due to its unconventional not-quite-epistolary format. It also contains many concepts crammed in together: insane AI, zombies, enemy ship in pursuit, war about to come, teenage love. Despite the ambitious plot, the writing is not always strong enough to back it up. The writing issues range from dry IM exchanges with acronyms, which, a year after the book was published, already feel outdated, to a lot of telling without showing like having the characters’ psychological profiles displayed less than twenty pages and some awful surveillance footage descriptions. The book is at its best when it plays with its design and format, especially with the introduction of the sentient AIDAN.
I thought it was an okay book up until I reached the last third. Then things got intense. The stakes were raised, one of the main characters, Ezra, was revealed to have been dead for at least half of the book, the other main character was trapped, having chosen to sacrifice herself to save the rest of the fleet. At last, I got why people really liked this book. I thought it was quite a daring thing to kill one of the main characters, half of the leading couple like that and instead focus on the dynamic between Kady and AIDAN. I cried when AIDAN died and when Kady received a lethal dose of radiation. I loved it.
In the last fifteen pages all of that was undone, ripped from the reader yet again. Turns out Ezra was alive all along. Kady get cured from the “lethal” dose of radiation. Even, AIDAN finds a way to survive for the sequel. Instead of being hooked with that cliffhanger, I am left bitter and frustrated, feeling that this book could have been so much better if only it had followed up what it was building up.
The difference between The Raven King, Vicious and Illuminae is that the former two have a lot of great elements to make up for this trope, the latter doesn’t.