People who read Lois McMaster Bujold’s new novella, “The Prisoner of Limnos” in the first 24 hours of release got bit of a shock when Lois announced on her blog that the early edition had somehow dropped the last lines of several chapters. (Links at the end; WordPress isn’t in a sharing mood today.)
As students of writing, we’re taught that these last lines are of extreme importance. Story, by Robert McKee, talks about how a scene can change the whole situation from a plus to a minus, or vice versa – and sometimes, it’s that last line in a scene or chapter that gives the final twist. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King also places importance on the final words of any scene. Compared to painters, we writers have it a little bit easier – we can put on as many finishing touches as we like, and all of them can be take-backs or do-overs with a simple application of the delete key or strike-out. In the editing stage, we decide, and the reader never has to know the anguish we put into those decisions to keep or to leave.
Given the importance of the endings, what’s shocking to me is that as an early reader of “The Prisoner of Limnos”, I only noticed one chopped-off ending. If endings are so important, what was going on here? I had had a great experience with the book as-is; had I missed an even greater book because the ending lines had been dropped?
Well, I’m happy to report my second reading was as rewarding as the first, even though I had to stop (!) and think (!) instead of ride the wave of story. From now on, we’re heading into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t read the Penric novellas, I highly recommend that you do, and come back. They are all fixed now, and you can update the old ones. (See second link below.)
In general, Lois’s last lines add depth to characterization, a sense of heart-tweaking piquancy, or a reassurance to the reader that everything will be just as it looks. In most cases, the second-to-last line is springboard enough to launch the reader into the next chapter – mostly because the rest of the chapter has propellant force. In fact, when the second-to-last line failed, there was already a strong through-line so that while I was annoyed at the failure, I was still so eager to get the rest of the story that I didn’t care much and was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt.
So, last lines are important, but so is everything else.
Let’s take a closer look.
S2Last: “Let’s go find Duke Jurgo.” Oh yes, let’s! This is a springboard that jumps us into the next chapter.
Last (cut in first version): They exited the bookroom together, Nikys’s shorter steps for once outpacing Penric’s leggy stride. This is a simple exeunt; it places us in the bodies, so the physical anchor may seem important for the transition.
S2Last: That was Desdemona, without question.
This is a kind of punchline ending that’s very typical of Lois’ writing, so it seems like a natural ending for the chapter.
Last: Even Jurgo caught it, by the wry smile that turned his mouth. “Let us all hope so.” This twists the punchline even further. Plus, we are reassured that Jurgo is onboard with this scheme – but it’s not very necessary for that reason, because as we turn the page to Chapter Three, Pen and Nikys are on a boat, so we know the rest of the conversation went their way.
S2Last: Des, it seemed, was much less terrified by this return to Cedonia than he was. Of course, a demon could not be killed, exactly. Are you saying I would be a surprise?
Last: Oh, Pen. You have been a surprise from the beginning.
Fortunately, this set-up and punchline survived the strangely random cuts. It would have been a very abrupt ending and kind of a silly question on Pen’s part. I’d like to think I would have noticed.
S2Last: The coach-hire the next morning seemed to care only that their coin was good, which thanks to Jurgo’s generous purse it was, and to get them on their way as efficiently and lucratively as possible. They would reach the hinterlands of Thasalon by sundown. Still unremarked. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have noticed if this one had been cut, too. Although, it does a very important job of putting us in a physical time and place, and cluing us into the timeline.
Last: While not having to stop and let Penric steal them funds from local temples was certainly a boon, this round, Nikys suspected the return journey might not run so smoothly. I have more of a problem with this last line. It calls back to the previous novel in a subtle way – the reader who pays attention will realize there’s a prequel, and the reader who has “read ‘em all” will have fond flashbacks. This is fan service, and I like it. But on the other hand, it sets up some unneeded foreshadowing for a difficult return. Is it a vestigial tail, of a time when Lois expected that our band of heroes would have trouble all the way to the last chapter? Or was it meant to heighten the tension? Everything is going well enough now, but we mere humans need to expect things will go badly (because other humans will mess up the plans of the Gods? Hmm – this sentence may have more thematic concerns than I originally thought).
S2Last: Nor are you, Pen dear, but it seems the position is taken. This is a very Bujoldian punchline, and feels complete as-is.
Last: Pen was too exhausted to fret further tonight. Judging that they were both about as sincere as two strange cats, he exchanged polite nods with Bosha and withdrew. But then again, THIS is also a very Bujoldian side-joke that illuminates character in five simple words. Very typical of her style, and I’m glad it’s here.
S2Last: (Nikys speaking:) Hope or prayer, she offered up: “I always wanted to have a sister, too.” Aw! Of course you did, Nikys. What a sweet ending!
Last: “Let us try to make that happen, then,” said Tanar softly. Awwww! Now the feeling is mutual, and we have confidence that Tanar is on their side for sure – or possibly that she’s a very, very evil double agent to say such a thing. My mind is a little too twisty on this one.
S2Last: Nikys nodded, satisfied. Everyone else kept staring. Everyone’s been Penric’d. Seems as good a place as any, although we’re all slightly uneasy about the whole thing, except Nikys and Pen & Co.
Last: “Dyes,” said Tanar after a moment. “Now that is something I might help with!” This resolves the uneasy feeling and puts us back into action – something also accomplished by the first lines of the next chapter.
S2Last: And then the cart was turning onto the street, and other peoples’ troubles had to make way for her own. The last leg of this mortal relay. We are set in a physical place, and also we have a timing device. Very useful for orienting the reader.
Last: Maybe. Hmmm. See my notes on the end of Chapter IV – this seems to be foreshadowing more troubles on the return, but I didn’t need it as a first-time reader because I expected there would be trials and tribulations. And as a second-time reader, I know the course is fairly smooth after the Goddess visits Nikys. Maybe it does reinforce thematic concerns about the lack of faith humans have.
S2L: “No reason it can’t be both,” said Pen, judiciously. “And every reason it could. The gods have no hands but ours, they say.” He held up his fingers and wiggled them. This is a huge doctrinal point about the Five Gods. They don’t know what will happen; they can only give hints into human and animal minds. Very nice reminder to end on.
Last: “Not mine,” growled Bosha, and retreated back under his blue curtain. But this? Oh, this is the important reverse side of the Gods coin – humans (and maybe animals) can refuse the call. Free will is very important in this universe, and this was a very necessary line; a real pity that it was cut. It doesn’t change the story, but it is a change in the message.
S2Last: (Pen offers:) “I can take—” Oh, my goodness, I’m so busy crying that I don’t notice how this ends so weirdly. I just want to turn the page and get back to normal . . . where I find Des crying too! So beautiful.
Last: She reached out and caught his hand, laid a finger to stop his anxious lips. “No. It’s really all right. We can go, now.” She echoed his own words back to him. “It will be very well.” This time, she stood first, and pulled him up after her. I am so comforted by Nikys’ demonstration of love, and even more, I’m touched that she reaches out in the middle of her own turmoil to reassure Pen. Oh, noes! Now I’m crying even more than the first time!
S2Last: He grinned and touched his hand to his heart, echoing her echo. Then tapped her lips twice with his thumb, for whatever blessing he could muster. “Our god guard you on your way. And the rest of His kin.” Oh, a blessing is a fine, fine way to end a chapter. I liked this very much.
Last: When he closed and locked the door behind them, the cell felt very silent and empty. And here’s the dramatic twist, from benediction to abandonment.
S2Last: She wished her imagination came with a lever to shut it off, like an irrigation gate. This nightmare garden needed no watering. Fair enough. Good ending that makes us long for better news.
Last: The darkness was cooling rapidly. Nikys leaned against her mother, who leaned equally exhausted against her, and not just to share heat. As the horse plodded on, Nikys wondered if she had just traded a gold coin for a gold coin. But you can’t just turn off the emotions! How heartbreaking to care for a loved one in danger – how even more heartbreaking to come close to wondering which loved one is of more value.
S2Last: A last look up before the rising stone eclipsed her found Acolyte Hekat still leaning on her railing, looking down studying them. He made the tally of the gods broadly over his chest at her, tapping his lips twice by way of farewell. Hasta la vista, baby! Seems good enough of an ending.
Last: She touched her fingers to her forehead in return salute, and Pen thought her brother might not be the only member of her family with a strong ironic streak. But this line reassures us that all will be well – Hekat will not raise the alarm. We can turn our faces to future challenges.
S2Last: Nikys raised her face. “You do? What?”
This is the only one that annoyed me during the first read. I highlighted it in my Kindle and wrote “Cliffhanger???” But by this time, I was very invested in the story. I turned the page, hoping we’d stay in the same viewpoint, and was miffed that, yes, indeed, we had changed viewpoint characters. My mind bent a little bit, and thought maybe the plan would be explained in Chapter XVI. But alas, it was a goof, and I never got a good answer for that “What?”.
Last: She tapped Nikys’s forehead in a gesture not quite a blessing. And said, in a voice as arid as Nikys had ever heard from her, “Die first.” The punchline! This is a terribly Bujoldian joke, right down to the aridness of tone. And it’s very important, because you note, there are no reassuring messages or further points to dilute it.
S2Last: Pen gestured the tally of the gods, and tapped his lips twice with this thumb. “By every sign,” he said, “He already has.”
“…Aye.” Oh. This is a good ending.
Last: They sat together in reflective silence as the boat tacked south. Honestly, this is just final polish for the people who didn’t read the subtext. It puts us back into space and bodies, but I think it’d be fine without the last sentence.
Chapter XVI: None of this was cut. There’s an awful lot of wrap-up here, but it ties up loose ends, and gives us a sweet scene at the end of mother and her little boy all grown up.
Chapter XVII: None of it was cut.
Last: Then it was time to traverse the dock to the gangplank of the Saonese ship, and be herded up it by sailors ready to get underway. Three sturdy masts, Pen observed with approval, and even larger than the cargo vessel on which he’d traveled from Lodi to Patos not four months past, which now seemed a century ago. Making this Pen’s second sea voyage ever. Would it be as life-altering as the first? I think we all know this stuff, and we all know what’s going to happen, but it’s reassuring to see the author lay it out and round things off. We’re on the home stretch here.
Chapter XVIII: The final chapter
None of it was cut! And thank goodness for that. It was a very good, very romance story ending. Everything about the future is completely spelled out: they plan to have a home, kids, and a cat. Their happily-ever-after is defined and agreed upon to an extent that many romance novels never bother to spell out.
Who knows what will happen? Further adventures may upset these plans (we know that Nikys didn’t get her complete happy ending with her first husband), but our characters are happy and in agreement. The story had a smooth sailing after the Goddess of Spring appeared, and one rather thinks that Pen and Nikys are in for a life of overall happiness. All will be well!
Nov. 1 update about fixing the old editions: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/15930157-limnos-update-update
Story by Robert McKee: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/48654.Story
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/180467.Self_Editing_for_Fiction_Writers?ac=1&from_search=true