Observations on Novels and the Reader’s Life–Crispin: The End of Time by Avi
Who reads trilogies backwards?
Who has the nerve to foil the effort an author makes to write a logical narrative by snickering and reading the end of the tale first? Who has the gall to disregard the painstakingly crafted introductions of each chapter by skipping ahead and meet each fictional personage not at the beginning, but slap in the third act? I dare you to show me your despicable self and confess your blatant indifference towards the respectable writing community. I dare you to acknowledge your total worthlessness as a responsible reader.
Come on, anyone?
Well–that would be me, Your Honor. But let me explain . . .
THE READER’S LIFE:
I’m slumped in a straight-backed library chair, frantically trying to answer magazine emails from various staff members before I have to leave. Footsteps rustle behind me.
“Have you read this book?”
I peer over my shoulder to see Mom holding up Crispin: The End of Time by Avi.
‘Nice cover design,’ I think to myself. ‘That purple color scheme goes great with the cover art. And that’s tasteful gold relief lettering. Also, I like that they chose to put a border around the whole thing. Not many people think to do that.’ (You can see why I set my chops on being our magazine’s graphic designer.)
I notice the book isn’t a tome of elephantine weight–only slightly over two hundred pages, perhaps–but I see the word Newbery in small white letters near the bottom of the cover. ‘Ah, a Newbery Medal winner . . .’
Eventually, I manage to remember that Mom is patiently waiting for my reply.
“Um, no, Ma’am. But I’ve seen it in bookstores and such.” The unusual author’s name of Avi had stuck itself to my brain, as I’m constantly on the alert for worthy pseudonyms.
Mom shrugs slightly, as if weighing the book’s worth back and forth in her mind, and exits the computer room. I quickly forget that I ever saw the book with the purple-schemed cover as I immerse myself once again in my maelstrom of an inbox.
Later, at home, as I distractedly rummage through the new pile of library books . . . ah, Mom checked out the purple one, after all.
Upon a closer inspection of Crispin’s cover, I realize that the word Newbery is indeed part of a tell-tale phrase. The final book in the Newbery Medal-winning trilogy.
Drats. What’s a body to do not?
I am faced with three life-altering options:
1) Wait until I can access the Internet again, order the first two books of this trilogy, and read the series in order like a good, smart girl.
2) Don’t read the book at all. I probably don’t have time to read it. Magazine Crunch Week doesn’t leave much room for anything other than Magazine Crunch Week.
3) Turn my face to the wind, laugh boisterously and, with brandished arms, shout, “Who says I have to read them in order? Let me test this author’s mettle and see how good he is! I’ll read the last book first! HA HA! Just try and stop me!”
Well, I chose . . .
In Crispin: The End of Time, young Crispin is a thirteen-year-old orphan wandering with his sole friend, Troth, through war-torn France and England during the Hundred Years’ War. His mentor, Bear, who in Crispin’s memory was a wonderful and caring man, has just died. Now, Crispin’s only hope of security is to reach an impossibly distant country called Iceland, of which Bear had said, ” . . . is a land without kings, or lords, or armies. Men live in freedom there.”
As I was intruding on Crispin’s saga two-thirds of the way through, I was prepared to read about things I wouldn’t understand, about past happenings hinted at but not retold, and about people often referenced to (such as Bear) who were no longer appearing in the tale, save in memory. While some readers might think that not knowing all previous events by the time the third book rolls around is a detriment to the reader, I, having experienced #3 before #1 and #2, beg to differ. While hardly having a clue as to what Bear was like during his lifetime, or of how Crispin and Troth came to know each other and how they ended up destitute in the French countryside, Crispin was a solid book from beginning to end, leaving me satisfied; and the unexplained mystery concerning Crispin and Troth’s past with Bear only added to the intrigue of the novel. Even though he had already written this “backstory” in his previous books, Avi didn’t succumb–unlike other authors–to the temptation of detailing the plots of #1 and #2 in his third book. Rather, he let the tale of Crispin’s struggle to reach Iceland flow on its own power, with only a few well-placed memories and one or two explanatory sentences to help an ignorant reader get by. This particularly is a testament to Avi’s talent as a writer.
Avi writes beautifully, his carefully crafted prose often reminding you of music. He tells his tale through Crispin’s eyes in a first-person narrative, which I found was perfect for the story. As I was discovering Crispin for the first time, Crispin was continuously discovering himself through his own eyes in a solid character arc.
Now, after completing reading The End of Time, I admit I did go back and give the first two books a try, the first being The Cross of Lead. And I was disappointed. I discovered I didn’t want to know the backstory. The Bear I found was entirely disparate from the Bear I had imagined. The hope and looking forward found in The End of Time didn’t permeate the first two trilogy installments. I found them to be quite depressing, and I didn’t finish them. Oddly enough, the third book was completely satisfying on its own, and the first two books actually watered down The End of Time‘s power.
So, perhaps this could be a small lesson for fiction writers (myself included among them) and readers alike. For a writer of a series, make an act of trust and let your books stand on their own two feet as much as you are able. Let readers admire the novels for their own power, not for their abundant recappings of aforementioned material. No matter how intertwined the plots of your related books are, your series will be much stronger as a whole if you allow the individual pieces of it to take flight with their own wings. And you might reconsider writing a series at all; rather, take a look at the most poignant section of your saga, and let all else fall back to weave a blurred yet brilliant tapestry of backstory that will give your tale both infinite depth and tasteful simplicity.
And for readers, why don’t you try shocking the dignified courtroom judge and reading a trilogy backwards for yourself? You might be surprised with your own pleasure at putting the last, first, in Gospel fashion!