I held these chapter notes back because they were all a bit inter-linked and spoilery. Now that the entire book is OUT THERE, it’s time to drop the notes:
(I’ll have separate notes for the interactive game soon)
All it takes
This chapter was exceedingly difficult to write. It’s essentially the make-or-break chapter – if readers don’t buy it, then the whole book retrospectively falls apart. It has to work.
I’ve been aware that this was coming for a while – at least an arc and a half-or-so back, even if some of the specifics have altered. Therefore it’s been critical to have the concept of the ‘mindscape’ continually seeded, primarily through Aera’s presence in Tarn’s subconscious, so that this wouldn’t feel too abrupt.
That said, it is SUPPOSED to feel like a tonal break. It’s the moment when we realise that they’re not going to win the day by having a big fight and lopping off the bad guy’s head. As of writing these chapter notes I’ve only had limited feedback but it’s been positive so far
It’s been observed that there are significant similarities, at least thematically, with how the Babylon 5 Vorlon/Shadow war is resolved, and what happens here. Rather than a big victorious battle, instead there’s something of a stalemate in which the only solution is for everyone to swallow their pride and leave. Not deliberate in this case, but B5’s approach to ending a big conflict in a non-obvious way was always highly influential on my thinking.
This is a complex chapter in terms of staging. There’s a lot to get done: do a final exploration of some of the backstory, but without it bogging down the entire finale, explore Kraisa’s character for the last time, and of course present and land the notion of Tarn’s solution. That second point was especially important: I wanted this chapter to unpick our assumptions about Kraisa, and explore her motivations, so that we understand her at least a little better, rather than seeing her only as a villain. It doesn’t excuse her behaviour and decisions, but it gives them context.
There’s a moment at the very end when Tarn points out to Kraisa and Aera that they could have simply embraced Evinden and the new world, and made it their home, rather than always longing for a past and another place that didn’t really exist. Tarn is making the case for always moving forward, rather than seeking to rewind to an imaginary past. A theme that is especially pertinent in the UK and US these days, alas.
This chapter is really the beginning of the end for the book. There are two chapters left after this one, so every word brings me closer to finishing. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, even while being wrapped up in an enormous sense of achievement.
‘All it takes’ is Tarn’s final chapter. I don’t go back to his POV again, so writing this I knew it was the last time I’d be inside his head. He’s changed a lot and I rather miss the old, innocent, naive Tarn – there’s a few hints of that in here, still, I hope, but he’s had to move on.
As for that chapter title, it’s got a double meaning. On the one hand, the assumption is that ‘All it takes’ means that Tarn is going to do everything possible to win. He won’t stop until the battle is won! All it takes! He’ll do anything! What it actually ends up meaning is that the solution is surprisingly simple. That’s all it takes. Just to stop fighting. To let them go.
The Mountain Breaker
This is Tranton’s final chapter. Each of these last chapters feels like a goodbye. There was a lot of action to get through in this one, but also some critical character beats. In here we have Tranton fully acknowledge that he now has responsibilities – and that he’s OK with that. His ending line referencing Fenris Silt highlights how far he’s come from the dismissive, irresponsible, detached loner we met at the beginning.
This chapter takes Kirya off in an unexpected direction. She provides the bittersweet feeling in this ending, so that even while knowing that our heroes have ‘won’ there’s still a sense of loss, or failure, to balance things out. It’s something I did with my previous book, A Day of Faces, whereby the emotions of the ending are complex and non-obvious and layered, rather than one-note. That’s the intent, anyway. Kirya’s reaction also produces some tension leading into the final chapter, so that there’s still some sense of dramatic tension, rather than it feeling like everything has already been wrapped up.
We also have the title ‘The Mountain Breaker’, which of course turns out to actually be referencing Kraisa/Aera, rather than the ship – although the ship does finally get its moment of heroism as well. The mountain passes are open once more, thanks to the ‘villain’. If Tarn and the others had simply killed Kraisa, that might never have happened – it’s debateable whether Tarn would have had the power, control or ambition to try such a thing. Readers will have varying responses to what Tarn has done, but this final gesture from Kraisa is intended to suggest that he made the right call, even if it isn’t as directly satisfying from the perspective of vengeance.
Tranton’s arm break proved to be an unexpectedly fiddly detail to handle. I’ve never broken a bone, so far, so had no direct reference point. Fortunately (that is probably not the appropriate word) one of my colleagues broke her arm a couple of years ago and was all too happy to relive it in full, gory detail. It’s ultimately a minor part of the chapter, but hopefully it resonates in a mostly realistic way.
One thing to note: Roldan Stryke being on the Mountain Breaker is a small detail in the course of the massive events of the chapter, but it’s a huge character moment for him. Since his actions earlier in the book he’s refused to board the ship, due to his feeling of disgrace – him being on the deck here indicates a certain progress, a moving through his past and embracing something else. Not exactly forgiving himself, but accepting what he has done, accepting that it can’t be changed, and instead choosing to do the best he can in the present and the future.
Ths interesting thing is that Stryke was originally going to die during the finale. He was scheduled for termination at various points, with a cave-in or some kind of complication down in the mines being the most likely candidate. Ultimately that felt like a cheap shot: I dislike it when writers force a character death simply to raise the stakes. It can feel manipulative rather than a natural part of the story. Of course, the implication is that the radiation from the machine isn’t going to do him much good in the long term – that felt like a more resonant fate for Stryke than having him unnecessarily perish in an overly dramatic final act kind of way.
Given where the story goes in the final chapter, it can be argued that ‘The Mountain Breaker’ is the actual ending of the core story. The next and final chapter is more of a coda. For that reason I really focused in on those last couple of paragraphs. Kirya’s final line here is poignant, tragic, truthful, conflicting and ambiguous. That one sentence she utters raises all kinds of questions – most of which will be settled in the final chapter.
‘The waves broke on the shore’ is perhaps the most momentous line of the book. It’s certainly the most important line as far as Kirya’s character is concerned. It’s such a simple sentence but, in the context of The Mechanical Crown, it holds such weight and significance.
As does calling this chapter ‘The Headland’.
So, here’s the thing. I don’t like sad endings, or grim endings, or deliberately nasty endings. But I also don’t really like happy endings – at least, a happy ending has to be done PERFECTLY for it to not be exceedingly twee and irritating.
Therefore it seems to be that I go for bittersweet endings, with a bit of both. Happy for the world, but sad for the characters – or some of them. That’s how it was for A Day of Faces, and it’s how it is here, as well. I feel the tone is more honest and earned, and has the natural miture of emotions and consequences that life tends to have, rather than falling too heavily to either side.
The significant challenge here was to paint a picture of ‘what happened next’ without it being a big list of ‘X did Y’. The original draft of the story, ten years ago, ended with exactly that: a mini biographical entry for the major players, as if it was a biopic. Naff and lazy.
That’s why the story settles on Kirya here, rather than Tranton. He started the book, so there would have been a nice circular feel to go back to him, but everything about TMC is about progressive thinking and not clinging to the past, and it was important to end the story with the younger of the characters. Of course, even Kirya is in her late 50s/early 60s here, so she’s hardly young – hence the feeling here that she’s also ready to pass the reins over to a new generation.
Something I wanted to play with a bit here was to hold off on details of what happened to Tarn for as long as possible. I wanted, among some of the gloomier aspects, for the reader to wonder what might have happened to him, and what might have happened to their relationship. That he is still alive, and that they are still together, is the most overtly optimistic and purely happy aspect of the ending. The temptation was to have both of them in this chapter and make it about them both, but resisting that and having Tarn have essentially a cameo at the end felt more interesting.
That time jump, then. Initially I thought maybe a few months, but that wasn’t going to be big enough. Then I thought FIVE YEARS! That’ll be momentous. But Endgame beat me to it. Ten years, perhaps? Even then, though, it’s hard to see ramifications on a global scale in such a short time. So it ended up being around 40 years, so that we have a fundamentally shifted world. Some characters are dead, some are very old, some are just old. Our heroes are on the verge of becoming irrelevant. But they’re OK with that, because they made a difference. It didn’t go exactly the way they expected, but it never does.
Tranton ends up staying in the valley, finally putting down roots again, and accepting responsibility.
Kirya leaves the valley, abandons her inheritance, forfeits her right to power. The path she’d always been locked to no longer having a hold on her. Free of her chains – except for those new ones made of guilt, from what has happened.
Tarn finds a family and a purpose. He wins his freedom, and then helps others win their’s.
Yes, Stryke is dead,, but he went out in the way he’d have liked. And besides, who knows what he did in those last few years of his life? Perhaps he finally got to retire to a small village. He wouldn’t have wanted to spend deacdes in retirement, anyway, right?
I nearly made a massive error in the writing of this chapter, initially making a reference to the crown being found sat on the empty throne – before remembering that the throne, the throne room and the entire palace had been whipped away to another dimension. Oops. That would have been awkward.
Anyway, that’s it. Quite the journey. I hope these notes were of interest and might even have been useful to other writers.
See you in the next book.