It’s relatively easy to start a book series — you just start writing. But ending a series on a logical and satisfying note? That’s a slightly more complicated trick, which Ryk E. Spoor attempts with Challenges of the Deeps. In this Big Idea, Spoor is here to tell you about sticking this particular dismount.
RYK E. SPOOR:
In two previous Big Idea columns, I wrote about the challenges of first building the larger-than-life universe of Grand Central Arena, and then the scary challenge of following this with an exploration of both adventure and personal understanding in Spheres of Influence. Writing the third Arenaverse novel, Challenges of the Deeps, presented me with a very different set of problems.
These stemmed from a purely practical issue – for various reasons, Challenges might be the last Arenaverse novel for quite some time (until I could write and self-publish another), barring Challenges or my forthcoming magical girl novel Princess Holy Aura suddenly taking off big-time.
That meant that I had to figure out a way to make Challenges of the Deeps a reasonable, if not conclusive, final volume to the series – one that might leave the reader with a lot of questions, but would still, somehow, feel like a conclusion – not leave them frustrated when they closed the book.
I first considered the idea of actually finishing the series – of getting to the true Big Reveal of what the Arena really was, the reason it was built, and what that meant for Humanity and the other Factions. But I quickly concluded this was impossible. There remained so much to do that I simply couldn’t imagine that I could get to that point without at least three books to work in, and more likely five or six if I wanted to really tell the story properly.
When I thought about it that way, I realized that what I was really doing was ending the beginning, while setting up the chance to begin the ending – just as if I was concluding the first book in a trilogy. And just like Phoenix Rising, the first in the Balanced Sword trilogy, the challenge was to figure out what themes and plots had to be brought to a conclusion now in order to provide a moment for the universe to, in effect, take a breath, look around, and prepare for the next great arc in the progression towards the ultimate mysteries.
Put that way, it became clear that the purpose of Challenges of the Deeps was to complete the process of establishing Humanity as a true force in the Arena – not just a group of peculiar newcomers, not just a nine-days’ wonder, but a group that others would ally with, would commit to, would look at and know “these are the people who may change the Arena”.
Looking back through Grand Central Arena and Spheres of Influence, there are of course a huge number of overt and implied plot threads that remained. The overarching one – which I had to accept I was not going to answer in this or even the next book – was the question of the Voidbuilders – who and what they were, why they had made the Arena, and what would happen to those who discovered the answers to those questions. But while I couldn’t answer it, I could – and in fact would have to – provide at least some movement towards obtaining that answer.
Another – present since early in GCA – was the issue of the Molothos. Humanity had been effectively at war with one of the most powerful factions in the Arena practically since their arrival, and I had already planned that it would be in the third book that the Molothos finally found Humanity’s Sphere. But I’d also planned on the Molothos War taking at least one or two more books to resolve. Could I resolve it in one? I knew that if I could, I should; having Humanity survive and resolve a conflict with the most feared of the Great Factions would certainly go a long way to cementing their place in the Arena, and would give the reader a good sense of resolution in plot.
Another dangling thread was Ariane Austin. In Spheres she had been forced to confront her own failures as Leader of the Faction of Humanity, and to decide to really shoulder that burden, but the question of the strange powers sealed away was still left unaddressed, and had been hanging fire since GCA. If I could, I needed to resolve that – let us see Ariane begin to really unlock that power and establish that she needed neither Shadeweaver nor Faith to do so. Fortunately, I’d already set up the opportunity to do that in Spheres, with the mysterious mission into the Deeps that Orphan had asked them to get a crew for.
Similarly, Simon Sandrisson had his mysterious … connection to the Arena that he had only begun to explore and understand, DuQuesne and Wu Kung also had some strange anomalies that needed to be addressed, and other characters such as Oasis and Maria-Susanna were themselves dangling plot threads that needed to be if not tied up, at least brought to a point that they were no longer merely nagging questions.
There were also some personal story arc threads to complete. Wu Kung had suffered a terrible loss of his entire virtual world – which, as AIs in the Arenaverse are as much people as those of meat, meant he had lost his friends and family to the actions of an unknown enemy. That needed resolution, as did the question of the Genasi – the native species of the Arena that now had a chance to become true citizens of the Arena.
And … I really, really needed to start moving the personal relationships along. Ariane, Simon, and DuQuesne had been doing a sort of dance around the issue since the first book – for, admittedly, damned good reason, what with all the sudden-death situations, paradigm shifts, and pressure, not to mention Ariane ending up in the position of commanding officer for both of them. But even with those reasons, it had to come to an end somehow.
The most obvious plot thread, of course, was at the ending of Spheres, when Ariane announced her intention to fulfill her commitment to Orphan and accompany him on a secret mission into the Deeps of the Arena, a mission I knew the purpose of and that was vital to completing part of Ariane’s own arc.
I started thinking about that mission, and suddenly I realized that it provided the opportunity I needed to do everything necessary, if I changed one thing: kept Simon Sandrisson from going on that trip. Originally I’d intended that journey to be an entire book in itself, the three main characters plus Wu Kung traveling with Orphan to his unknown destination, with only minor flashes of what was going on at home, culminating of course with the Molothos discovering the location of Humanity’s Sphere. But seeing everything that needed to be done in this book, it was clear that what I needed was to split Challenges of the Deeps across two locations: the Deeps themselves, where Orphan would take them, and Nexus Arena and Humanity’s Sphere, where all other action was taking place.
Leaving Simon behind was a wonderful opportunity. It threw Ariane and DuQuesne together under circumstances that their relationship could grow, while allowing them to help Orphan address his problem — and bring Ariane to a place where she could truly learn about what she had become.
More importantly, it put Simon in a position where he had to take charge of his life, without being able to rely on Ariane or DuQuesne to backstop him. The Molothos could discover Humanity’s location early on, and have an honest-to-goodness space-opera style battle of fleets be the final climax of the book – and Simon would be the one who would be heavily involved in defending Humanity. As a character it would force him to become more of what he currently was only in potential.
The resulting book, Challenges of the Deeps, ended up being one of the most densely-packed things I’ve ever written; I start by sending our heroes to a meeting with Orphan, and a chapter later get Wu Kung and Humanity involved in the Genasi’s Challenge to the Great Faction of the Vengeance – and from that Challenge (which is itself one of my favorite sequences I’ve ever written) charge into the Deeps with Ariane, DuQuesne and Wu Kung while throwing Simon in the deep end of the political pool… and set him and Humanity up for warfare, while putting the others in danger from a more personal, but even more mysterious, opponent. Along the way I throw some light on Oasis/K, the Analytic, Maria-Susanna, and finally discover the name of the adversary who murdered four Hyperions and destroyed Wu Kung’s virtual world.
I end the beginning – bringing Humanity to a point where they have true, powerful allies and a victory that leaves no one in doubt of their position. And I also begin the ending, by giving us hints as to some of the deep past and showing, I think, a vague outline of where the ultimate direction of Humanity – and especially Captain Ariane Austin and her friends – will take them.
It was a hell of a lot of fun to write, and I think that it’s as good a temporary stopping point as I could possibly have imagined. I hope the readers agree with me.