Still Life, the fifth and final volume of the Books of Elsewhere, by Jacqueline West (Dial, middle grade, June 2014) offers a very satisfying close indeed to the story of how a girl named Olive moved into a house full of pictures enchanted by a dark magician, and how through bravery, good-heartedness, and lots of mistakes that (sometimes) worked out for the best, helped to defeat him once and for all (with the help of three marvelous cats, some good friends, and a totally unexpected source).
Here are the three main things the last book of a series needs to do:
-- Introduce new tensions, while providing sufficient backstory so that forgetful readers aren't confused.
Check. There are new tensions here in spades (several new characters pose problems for young Olive, and there are several intriguing new dilemmas and mysteries to solve). And the relationships that Olive's forged in the previous books continue to play important roles.
This isn't a stand-alone book by any stretch of the imagination--too much has happened! And frankly, I was worried I didnt' remember enough for it to make sense to me. But thanks to Jacqueline West's graceful integration of reminders within the new story, I never had that uncomfortable feeling of hopping over gaping plot holes in my mind that sometimes troubles me when reading final volumes.
-- Allow the central characters to develop, which includes giving them enough room to grow as thoughtful, brave people, so that their actions are believable when the final denouement comes and you, the reader, really care.
Check. Olive isn't desperately intelligent, nor is she endowed with abilities beyond those of a normal young tween. But she does get to grow lots as a person during the course of her struggles to do the right thing. The fact that she makes mistakes of judgement makes her believable, the fact that she keeps going regardless makes her someone to cheer for.
-- End it with an ending (that doesn't have to be an epilogue saying who married whom, naming no names). Questions should be answered, a future for the main characters should be imaginable, and people trapped in paintings should not be left there to rot.
I have no complaints in this regard. And here's what I especially like about this book--we get to see Olive's parents as caring people who, in their own math-absorbed way, are decent parents. They were not good parents in earlier books, so I'm glad I don't have to worry about Olive on that account.
A really great series will make me want to go start at the beginning all over again, and if I were still my child self, without c. 250 books on the tbr shelves, I might well do so, though I really can't right now. I can, however, enthusiastically recommend The Books of Elsewhere to any young (or young-esque) reader who enjoys stories of fantasies and real lives intersecting, who likes their conflicts up close and personal, who likes reading about characters who mean really well and who do their best, but who aren't Chosen, who likes cats, and who has imagined walking into a painting....or the people in a painting walking out of it.........
And if the young reader described above is struggling with parental expectations of aptitude vs actual aptitudes in something altogether different, I recommend it even more highly! (Olive's parents are both mathematicians; she is an artist).
Added bonus: Still Life is a nice cold book, with snow and ice and almost freezing to death. Good for reading on a hot summer day.
(Am I missing another thing the final volume of a series should do? Since I just came up with my three things literally ten minutes ago, I haven't pondered the question all that deeply, and I would like to be told what obvious things I'm missing!)
Just for the sake of Tidiness, I went through and found my reviews of the earlier books (although for reasons unknown to me I never reviewed the third book...)
The Second Spy