Lovers of fantasy, I know you share my frustration. I’ve read the comments on social media. I’ve seen the blogs. Being able to find consistently engrossing reads in the fantasy genre is not easy. The websites that should help you do that (I won’t bother naming them — you know who they are) are terrible at predicting what you will like.
So, since I recently DNF’d (“did not finish”) a dozen or so fantasy novels, I decided to compile a list of Positive and Negative lessons.
These lessons might vary in usefulness, depending on what you’re trying to do. If you are a reader trying to figure out in advance what books not to buy, some of these could help you. Others are shortcomings hard to detect before clicking the buy button. So why include them? Well, they’re helpful for myself and other authors, so we can think about how not to write a book!
Oh, and one last thing: if you have other tips for avoiding or detecting less-than-worthy reading material, please share them in the comments or email me at Derek@DerekWritesFantasy.com
LESSON #1 — Don’t judge a book by its publisher (or lack thereof, i.e., a self-published book). You might think, “Wow, Such-and-Such Publisher just put this out so it must be good.” I mean, publishers have high standards right? (It sure seems that way for up-and-coming authors like me, since it is almost impossible to get a literary agent of publishing house interested). But I recently paid $13.99 (eBook price) for one by a one of the top houses for fantasy and it was terrible. No idea how the author got an agent or a publishing deal. Whether a book is Major Press or Small Press or Self-Published tells us nothing about how much we’ll like it.
LESSON #2 — Openings tell you a lot about whether you’ll like a book. I wish, before I’d dropped big money on amazon I would have read the first few pages for several books I did not finish. Example: several of them dropped dozens of place names and people names in the first five to ten pages. I felt like I needed to take notes. Who wants to work that hard? Maybe they wanted to impress me, “Hey, I have a complex world with a lot of politics.” But you know what? A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) has a deep world and amazing political depth. But George R.R. Martin drew me in right away with plot and characters. I remember reading the “Prologue” in the bookstore (remember bookstores?) and saying to myself, “At last! Another great fantasy series!”
LESSON #3 — Make every effort to determine if a book is meant for YA (Young Adult readers) or MG (Middle Grade readers) instead of Adult. I wish, and maybe you agree, that such things were marked clearly on the book itself or on the websites where books are reviewed. Most of the time (with some exceptions, such as when I read the Harry Potter series years ago) I do not want a YA or MG book (or a book by an author who thinks they are writing adult fantasy but they only know how to write YA).
LESSON #4 — Some fantasy authors have a lower standard of realism than some readers prefer (nice way to say it). Yes, I know all about Plot Armor and the Batman Effect. Main characters tend not to get hit by attacks or they get minor injuries only. Main characters tend not to miss with their attacks. I get that. But for various reasons authors will choose to ignore some realities of life. For example, a main character will cut through enemy combatants like butter and without their sword arm getting tired (in one I read recently, he was killing all day long and the numbers were in multiples of twenty). Another example (might be controversial), smaller females defeat larger, stronger males in melee combat with no apparent explanation. I get that females could have powers or other combat advantages (assassin like sneakers, outrageous skill with missile attacks, magical enhancement, etc.). Anyway, agree with me or not, I don’t know a great way to determine in advance if an author will portray combat implausibly, but consider this at least a note to authors asking for some consideration in this matter.
LESSON #5 — Know what kind of worlds you like. I know that I like inspiring worlds, with places I’d like to see. I’m okay with dystopian stories too, but I usually like to know if the world I am encountering is crapsack or dystopian. But I don’t enjoy worlds that seem to feature nothing but weirdness. Some of the recent novels I tried had gimmicks and weirdness, but no depth, consistency, or sense of wonder. To use George R.R. Martin’s works again as an example, the world is pretty crapsack. I admit I would not want to be a peasant or cannon fodder in Westeros. But I have dreamed of being there and seeing things like the Wall or the forests and especially Winterfell. It feels like a real place, not a Green Screened landscape with some CGI weirdness thrown in.
LESSON #6 — Reviews should indicate that the characters are interesting and relatable. I don’t know any other way to avoid some of the terrible writing I’ve read recently by traditional and self-published writers. Some books are one-dimensional. Maybe the author’s thing is “political intrigue” or “combat realism” or “surreal landscapes.” That’s great. Without characters I care about, none of it matters. In the opening of one novel, a queen committed suicide in the first few pages rather than let herself be captured. Neither the queen nor the children bereaved by her death had been properly introduced. I guess it was supposed to be sad. It made me close the book and transfer it to my DNF file. I felt like the author did not understand characterization (again, a traditionally published book, and a debut novel — so no idea what the publisher was thinking).
LESSON #7 — If you buy eBooks (like I do) give the ones $5.99 and under a try (after reading reviews). The $13.99 eBooks by big publishers are not always better.
LESSON #8 — Look for authors whose characters and worlds mirror the reality we live in. They open up new ways of looking at life, the world, and our place in it. Once you find an author like that, they’re definitely worth following.
I ordered a Kindle eBook recently. By a big name modern author, mega-award winning. I was trying her out for the first time. Maybe I picked the wrong one. reading the first chapter was like drinking cold split pea soup — in the winter on a cold morning — for breakfast.
So I looked up reviews on Goodreads. One reviewer gave the book two stars (many gave it five) and she really made me think, not only about the book that I wasted $9.99 on but also about the experience of being disappointed by a book.
Have you had that feeling? You come off the high of a particular book or series. You are desperate to have that experience again, that Fantasy Experience that radically amazed you. (Yes, you can get similar feelings from other genres and from literary fiction, but this website is mostly about fantasy). And after that high you try book after book.
At best they're flat. At worst they make you want a refund. (Can you get refunds for an eBook?).
About this particular book by a big name author. I suspect it was either an experimental manuscript she had and she decided to get it published since she has the name and brand to do that — or it was her pet project, something she wrote that fit her tastes and was about her passion which only a small subset of readers will likely share.
The reviewer on Goodreads panned the book and a few of her sentences struck me as profound:
"I guess I just don’t enjoy being this confused for so long and receiving so little explanation for anything."
"I was kept in the dark for so long that my attention was waning."
"Trying to stay invested when I had no idea where it was going or what questions I needed to be asking was hard work."
So what is it I (or dare I say "we") want in a fantasy book (or a book of almost any genre)?
So, the whole experience made me think about books I've loved, just liked, been bored by, and hated. It's something worth thinking about and I'm sure you can come up with your own list of writers and titles, the elements that enchanted you and — occasionally — left you speechless.