Bonus: “Some Thoughts on the Ending of An Unclean Legacy”

I thought I’d share some thoughts on An Unclean Legacy and how it evolved from the original story to the book. This contains medium spoilers: I’m going to avoid spoiling anything crucial to the story, but I will talk about a lot of stuff. Skip this entry if you want to be completely unspoiled! We’ll be back to the letters column on Monday. ^_^

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So the first version of An Unclean Legacy was basically written live—back then I was posting Hitherby Dragons 6x/week, with nothing even faintly resembling a buffer, and while I had the basic ideas plotted by the first post, when it came to the details I was basically riding the hurricane.

One consequence of this is that the character of Violet got a bit shortchanged.

See, each of the siblings had received one magical gift on their tenth birthday—anything in the world they wanted, really, although Sophie’s first request was arguably denied. And Violet had wanted not to have to worry about suitors, which in practice meant that anyone that got too close to marrying her by force or choice was seized up by magic, cut into extremely fine pieces, and expelled over the local forest in a mist.

Why?

Well, hm.

So, most of the Groeneveldt siblings are fundamentally messed up by what they can do. That isn’t a general statement by me on what it means to have talent; I suspect that where it’s coming from is Montechristien’s guilt. They’re all coming from a household where power is fundamentally held in suspicion, particularly once Yseult dies but even to some extent when she was alive. Giving Violet a power that she could use as a weapon against her siblings, in a story like this one, meant that she would have to turn that weapon against her siblings at some point, as part of the exploration and explanation of what that power meant, and I didn’t want her to do that.

So there are hints throughout the book that Violet has some of the Saraman nature: that she has unnatural tracking abilities, unnatural beauty, is probably a sorceress, and may or may not have a handful of low-end not-quite-human tricks—but that isn’t really allowed to matter. If she were able to turn into a giant land-shark or whatever then we’d have to show her turning into a giant land-shark (or whatever) and fighting with, probably, Elisabet. And that would break my heart.

At the same time, it was important that Violet not be vulnerable, because that isn’t what she’s about either. If there were a relatively powerless marriageable female eldest sibling, it’d be a natural reason for external powers to get involved in the Groeneveldt succession struggle. That would give the other siblings a reason to band together to protect her from those outside forces, and—given that their reasons for hating and fearing one another were only barely stronger than their love for one another as it was—that would have screwed the story up something fierce. Nor could I just ignore the matter—I can handwave Francescu’s suitors disappearing because frankly he was a lot less viable as marriage bait by the time they both got their gifts, but I wanted pseudomedieval pseudoChristian metaphysics and that meant a pseudomedieval pseudoChristian society and that meant that I had to have an actual reason why people weren’t spending all their time trying to influence Montechristien by way of Violet.

At least, I think that’s what was going on in my head. I assume that I conceived the whole story in a single night and for a single night’s post and then only realized slowly how long it was going to be, so it’s quite possible that it was just “OK, Violet needs a way to be able to kill anything,” (subconscious advises: except her siblings), “lol, maybe she didn’t like boys when she was 10 and so has the power to kill any potential fiance.” Or possibly there was some connection between holding things too closely and killing them that was going on there, something like that percolating. It would fit, of course!

But anyway.

So day after day passed, and I didn’t have a good moment to introduce her gift. I was writing An Unclean Legacy mostly in three segments per day, and while I didn’t have to link them together chronologically I did need to link them thematically so that each day had a beginning and an ending. And Violet’s gift wasn’t really thematically connected to any of the stuff that was going on with the siblings, in part for the reasons we just discussed—it’s a hedge against the outside world interfering rather than part of the internal story. Plus, she was interacting almost exclusively with her siblings and her father, which made it a pretty hard thing to bring up.

“As you know, Manfred, anyone who gets too close to marrying me gets threshed by Montechristien’s Magical Suitor-Threshing Machine.”

“Golly! I’m sure glad I’m your brother and not your fiance!”

Manfred would not actually have said golly, however. Instead, he would have looked at her in that way that Manfred, when people give unnecessary exposition in his company, looks.

So by the time Violet’s gift came up at all, it was only barely early enough to not seem like a deus ex machina when it mattered—and possibly even did seem a deus ex machina, and an unnecessary one to boot, since there were plenty of other ways I could have resolved the particular point in question.

I wanted to fix that particular awkwardness when I was writing the expanded version. In fact, I knew as soon as I sat down to start that fixing that was the first step—that the first scene of the new, expanded story would be Violet receiving her gift. That meant that I had to give her a more dramatic motivation—the story isn’t a comedy of manners, so showing her and Francescu fending off various suitors at age ~10 until she got so exasperated that she snapped wasn’t really something I could open with. Fortunately, I knew that she had at least two fairly unpleasant suitors in the story, so I figured that a bit of prognostication could make her choice of gift an obviously wise one as well as illustrating some of the dangers of the world in which she lives.

Here’s the interesting thing: it was a wise choice. It sounds completely stupid, as a magical gift, but she gets much more mileage out of her ten-year-old gift than at least three of her siblings. I did some stuff in the update to make her gift feel more epic, to make it resonate with high heroic fantasy, but even before the update—before Violet and her magic mirror seeing the suitors to come, before the implications that she has broad conceptual and narrative authority over what it means to be her suitor and who and what qualifies for the threshing, before the chance to look in at her personal story’s ending—it was always something that gave her the power to make her own destiny.

Of course, opening with a scene like that means ending with a mirror-scene; a book’s ending, IMO, reflects its beginning, and I wound up organizing Unclean Legacy as cut more or less directly in half by the mirror. (Arguably, anyway. There are really two places you could put the mirror.)

The interesting thing about this, and the reason we’re talking today, was that the best scene I could find to mirror and answer that opening with Violet receiving her gift wasn’t the close to Violet’s story—which, for I think good reason, was mostly a grace note towards the end of Christine & Sophie’s story—but rather her father Montechristien’s proposal to her mother, Yseult.

Now, the very beginning and very end of a book aren’t always the heart of what it’s about. That’s why they’re called prologues, I think, rather than chapters one, sometimes. And epilogues, rather than chapters whatever! Sometimes the very beginning and ending is a structure around the story rather than the beginning and ending of the rawest part of the story itself.

And so if I had to say what the heart of the story is, well, it goes from “the Devil and the Unicorn” to “In a World of Miracles,” from Montechristien and Santrieste’s answers to the Devil to Sophie and Manfred’s answers to the onyx void; that it’s about suicide and salvation and suffering and all that kind of thing.

But the Once Upon a Time opening is still about a girl who doesn’t have to bow to anybody, and who accomplishes this in part by being completely unsuitable for marriage and functionally immune to the threat of sexual assault (as well as by inheriting money and power); and the Happily Ever After ending is still about a woman who accepts a marriage proposal from a guy who objectifies her a bit less than her previous suitors had.

(I’m giving away the ending because it’s a flashback and a digestif; the interest value of the ending isn’t the events but the emotional content and the details.)

I’m not totally sure how I feel about that beginning and ending on feminist grounds. I certainly didn’t expect that to be the moral of one of my stories, ever. I mean, I think Yseult found something priceless but I wouldn’t consider her happy ending something that Violet was ever looking for; nor does it seem to me like I want to say Yseult’s fantasy is more evolved or mature than Violet’s, because it’s not; Yseult is arguably an incomplete Violet, rather than the other way around.

So I don’t know what it means, exactly, only that it’s right. Maybe one day someone will tell me why and I’ll be “oh, of course, it’s because it’s a flashback that that works” or “Violet’s story doesn’t make sense without showing where she’d be without her gift, which is noticeably but not necessarily overwhelmingly different.”

I don’t know. It’s weird. I like romantic happy endings, but I’m critical of the patriarchal structure of marriage, and so I don’t want Yseult’s ending to be something obviously good or something obviously bad, but … well. It is what it is.

We know it pretty early on in the story.

Yseult’s time with Montechristien isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t suck. It’s a happily ever after, more or less.

3 thoughts on “Bonus: “Some Thoughts on the Ending of An Unclean Legacy”

  1. I’m only commenting from having read the original, not the expanded version — haven’t bought that yet. But in my reading the Violet story, in the original, was essentially tragic — she got the ability to defend herself from coercion at the cost of being unable to sustain an adult relationship. At ten, she didn’t like boys (or girls, or whatever), and at twenty, she does like boys (or girls, or whatever) but she’s not going to be able to settle down with one, build a family, and generally do most of the things that take up most of many people’s lives.

    This has psychological validity to me as a kind of dealing-with-abuse narrative.

    It also has psychological validity to me as a kind of legend about geekdom, USA, late 20th century. The original story is about Smurfs, after all. Geeks are, among things, people who still care about Smurfs (and other disposable childhood culture) long after they are supposed to not care any more. In part this is due to having a talent associated with guilt — the technical ability that geeks have is required by U.S. society, but not culturally valued by it, and geeks feel guilt (or its close associate, shame) over their possession of something that seems to make it difficult for them to be normal. So, a la that overdone T.V. show Big Bang Theory, the standard model of geeks as seen from outside is someone still attached to all those childhood things (Star Wars, comics, etc.) who consequently has difficulty in adult relationships. But Violet isn’t one of the tiresome caricatures in Big Bang Theory — anyways.

    These kinds of mini-theories are, to me, what literary criticism is about. I remember an old comment of yours in which you said that the particular story it was attached to would be the one that critics would be most interested in, because it was all about classical Greek-god kinds of things — and I don’t think that’s true. It’s a process of investing a story with meaning that the author didn’t necessarily intend, and naturally, I think that most people who do it are interested in fiction that’s more about contemporary than classical things. It’s like fanfic, only … not fictional. (It can of course be not true in some sense. There are lots of nonfiction-genre works that aren’t true.)

    So at any rate. Thanks for telling us what you were thinking about when this was written … I hope it’s OK if other people take the story-structure and come up with their own meanings for it.

  2. I’ve now finished reading the expanded and revised Unclean Legacy and I’m sorry to report that I have decidedly mixed feelings.

    The expansions are nearly all backstory and history and worldbuilding. And they display in full your usual flair and invention and general coolness. But…there’s a good reason why all that stuff wasn’t in what you originally posted, and the reason is that they are extraneous to the, you know, story. The story is about how these seven people finally made a start on putting aside their blinders and actually seeing each other. We don’t need to know their world’s version of the Garden of Eden for that; we don’t even need the details on Gargamel/Groeneveldt’s 22 years as a Smurf blue essential hunter. And in the expanded version with all of that in, I found the story itself feeling a bit diluted.

  3. That’s fine!

    In my head, what happened was that the story became about something else, with a strong sub-theme/sub-story/arc that’s the story you see. It doesn’t even really get going until the third chapter, and ends at the third-to-last chapter, with a couple of larger stories around it.

    But it’s OK to disagree about that. ^_^

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