Top 12 Beloved Fantasy Books I Can’t Stand

Taste is a funny thing. It can be frustrating not to like something when it seems everybody else does. I have a friend who dislikes The Name of the Wind so much that he’s baffled and more than a little bit angry at all the love it gets.

Well I for one love Rothfuss’s writing, but there are many books I had high hopes for that left me vastly underwhelmed. Here’s a list of some of them. I’m not going to include divisive ones like any book from the Stone of Truth series ( I assume all discriminating readers know that they’re shit.) Also I’ve never finished anything by Terry Prachett (despite loving Douglas Adams the most) so fair warning about my weird taste.

Like all things we consume, it’s a matter of taste, not objective good and bad. The following reviews may be harsh, but it doesn’t mean that these books are bad. Just not my jam.

10. Tome of the Undergates


Goodreads: 3.34 

Nominally, the idea of a group of adventurers that don’t get along is intriguing, but their disagreements are handled with the subtlety of the Three Stooges and the pointless action of Michael Bay. The characters alternately and for little reason punch, hit, slam each others heads into the ground and contemplate backstabbing each other. Their only reactions to the physical blows and bloody noses is mild annoyance. And that is one of the biggest problems with the book; the characters interactions with each other never seems real. The eloquent pirate captain doesn’t seem real. The ornery ship captain doesn’t seem real. Their internal monologues don’t seem real. It’s a book of contrived situations that the characters enter but never really interact with.

Additionally, the pacing is lacking in key areas. Other have questioned the decision by starting the book with a 200 page fight, and those concerns are valid, but worse, to me, is the constant interruption of each action sequence with internal monologues that consist of redundant questions of the “How did I get myself in this situation?” variety. Worse, every bad situation the protag gets into is solved by his blacking out and then later regaining consciousness to realize his enemies are all dead.

I was hoping for a Scott Lynch-like book, but sadly this tome has only unrealistic characters, embarrassingly bad dialogue, poor pacing, underwhelming prose, and a plot as old as the hills.  I suspect very strongly that if it weren’t for nepotism, it wouldn’t exist at all.

9. Range of Ghosts


Goodreads 3.71 

I have read some incredible short fiction from Elizabeth Bear, and the setting for this trilogy-opening book couldn’t have been more enticing. How can steppe fantasy with secret cults and horse warriors go wrong?

So what happened? The prose is rough and often feels first-drafty. None of the characters are very enjoyable to read about. Worst of all is the pacing: this feels like a few chapters streeeeetched way out into a plodding book.

Bear does deserve credit for doing something original, but I have seldom had a harder time getting into a novel.

8. Lives of Tao


Goodreads 3.71
Elevator Pitch: An out-of-shape geek meets a  symbiotic alien and trains to become a superspy to join a war between good aliens and bad aliens.
It’s an interesting idea, but poor plotting, bad dialogue, too-modern thinking ancient beings, and standard tropes, Bechdel-test failing women, etc left me feeling sorely disappointed.
 Other than the somewhat nifty idea, I don’t think there’s anything to recommend this book.

 7. Blackbirds


Goodreads 3.78  
Chuck Wendig writes hilarious, excellent writing advice over at terribleminds. In the years since he first found a blog audience, he’s gone on to write many big books, including Star Wars.
Which is it was a little shocking that this book was such a gigantic turd. Completely cliche and predictable in every way; this was a paint by numbers plot and characters so two-dimensional they could effortlessly move into made-for-tv movies.
It was bad enough that I never read anything else by him and, without really ever deciding to, stopped reading his blog as well.

6. Vermillion


Goodreads  3.6

Another writer whose earlier work I thought was amazing. I was well on the way to reading everything Tanzer wrote, but this book was atrocious. Well everything after the opening act in SF, which felt like what the book needed to be.

I don’t blame you if you don’t remember the TV show “The Adventures of Brisco County JR” but this felt like fanfiction for it. Silly when it should have been serious-no narrative tension, no verisimilitude at all.

Everything is hyper-sexualized and for me, at least, I stopped caring what happened to the characters or the world.


5. The Stand

Goodreads  4.34


Stephen King is a good enough writer to create this story, but not a good enough one to make it very good. The ingredients are there–a varied cast of characters, a plausible doomsday scenario, a rebuilding society, and so on. Particularly brilliant, I think, was the addition of a sociologist.

But there are too many problems. The book is too long (I read the expanded version.) I prefer longer books, but not overwritten ones. He will tell us what a character is thinking of doing, then describe the action in great detail, stretching pages. This is what writing folks call “show don’t tell” and everyone else calls “very boring.”

Secondly, the characters are too cutesy. And too similar. And too many of them were shaped by accidents (usually drunk drivers hitting loved ones) in their past. They all seem to be white, middle-class Christian (with a few agnostics, until they convert.) Bleh. And what’s with writing from a dog’s perspective? I get that it was the 80’s, but come on.

All of that is forgivable. But when there is a story about a society destroyed and the various human emotions and thoughts that go into it, it seems unwise and unneeded to add angels and demons. Or prophets. Or gods. And speaking of gods, he pretty clearly has the Judeo-Christian god protecting his characters at the end.

Mother Abagail is a wailing caricature, the literary equivalent of blackface. Randall Flag was slightly more interesting, but veered too quickly into cartoon villain. Neither should have existed–they hijacked the story both by their existence and by their execution.

I enjoyed the book, but it really could have been something great. Instead, it was flawed and uneven. I couldn’t really recommend it to anyone, even with those with a taste for apocalyptic fiction.

4. The Fireman


Goodreads 3.91

Apparently I’m going after the entire family here. Now I quite liked Joe Hill’s earlier books. Heart-shaped Box was quite scary, Horns was (mostly) super, and NOS4A2 was in parts pretty neat.

This one was dull! And indulgent! And too long! (You can tell I mean it because I used so many !’s) It was a slog-and-a-half getting through this and the constant references to The Stand  didn’t make it feel any better..

Still it was ten times better than the next book on the list.


3. The Passage

Goodreads 4.04

I love long books, I really do. As a fantasy fan, I will choose the 1000 page book over the 400 page one every time. But the thing about long books is that they need to justify their length. And this book is a self-indulgent, meandering poor excuse for prose brick.

Though there is a somewhat interesting, if hardly original, story, it’s buried beneath numerous digressions and really poor plotting. We get a long paragraph of a minor character reminiscing about his dead dog, for instance. There are far too many of these instances–a good editor could have cut out 200 pages of digressions easily. The characters don’t feel real and melodrama is used in the place of emotion. The future world is also not planned out well–the characters feel like people from today, with expectations of hot showers and other modern sensibilities.

But the worst thing is that the story doesn’t make sense. Too many times there are unexplained deus ex machina–a character gets led 2000 miles by a God? And then they wait there for 100 years, magically immortal because of … ? God again? And, SPOILERS, all of that is to use the last bomb in the world to kill one of the 12 monsters in the titular but otherwise not at all important passage?

It’s not all bad. I liked the monsters–infused with humanity but still quite terrifying. And the epistolary aspects of the novel worked quite well–it was there that the author showed some talent. And I liked the Road Warrior-like setting of the fortress city.

When I read the afterward, where the author explained that his little kid made up most of the story, it made a lot of sense. In terms of something that could entertain a kid, it’s probably fine. But if you want a plot that makes any sense, or a book with character development, pacing, or non-awkward prose, better give this one a miss.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell


Goodreads 3.81 
Oh man, I’m kind of embarrassed to include this. On paper, I love the mix of historical fiction and magical realism. I also adore the use of footnotes[1] in fiction. So what’s my problem? Take a look:

“Houses, like people, are apt to become rather eccentric if left too much on their own; this house was the architectural equivalent of an old gentleman in a worn dressing-gown and torn slippers, who got up and went to bed at odd times of day, and who kept up a continual conversation with friends no one else could see.” 

“When he awoke it was dawn. Or something like dawn. The light was watery, dim and incomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog.

It’s just so overwritten. To me it feels like the writer falling in love with their own voice. It’s quite good prose in isolation but at 1006 pages it feels to me like a massive over-indulgence. I’m not saying everyone has to be Hemingway, but the abundance of descriptions sapped the pace, slowed the narrative, and killed my interest in both plot and characters. For many, it was a feature that made the book incredible but it just killed me[2]

[1] See?

[2] Metaphorically, that is

1. Way of Kings


Goodreads 4.64 

I admire Sanderson’s ability to write quickly, but his nanowrimo-like approach has some serious drawbacks. And the flaws are readily and frequently apparent in this latest work of his. For instance, every character’s POV is littered with an overabundance of rhetorical questions which make the story sound amateurish and the characters’ thought frequently redundant. Too many characters have similar reactions–sniffing or raising one eyebrow. A woman famed for her wit and grace considers throwing a tantrum twice to get her way. And too many times a character says something dramatic and then jogs off. ?

Too many scenes seem to reveal Sanderson striving to write to his outline, at the expense of things like character development, good dialogue, and plot progression. The prose is often overwritten. Phrases like “as literal as the rocks themselves” or “waved curtly”or “frowned in sorrow” are puzzlingly bad. The dialogue suffers too: the scene where one character tells another “My sense of honor makes me easy to manipulate” is so on the nose Parts of it aren’t thought out either–a character who can’t afford to heat his house is able to get drunk on strong wine.

Nearly ever character who is meant to be clever simply interprets words literally. This isn’t clever, especially not after one or two times. Other mildly sarcastic remarks elicit surprised approval and comments on intelligence from onlookers. A supposedly clever character responds to her allies instruction of “Keep your wits about you,” with a joke about keeping her wits about her would mean that someone got too close with a cudgel. That’s not witty, that’s annoying. It’s hard to believe that sarcasm is such a rare commodity in any world.

I think this is a ok story told poorly–with tighter prose and better editing, he could have had a 400 page book that would have been great. As it is, Sanderson’s ability to write so quickly is turning out to hurt him as much as it helps him. For me, it’s also creepy to read a book written by a Mormon with the question: “What would the world be like if all men lived by the book?”


So here are some books that were not my jam. Do you agree? Disagree? Have something to add? Lemme know.


Top 10 Books of 2017

I haven’t worked since February and yet I did not manage to read 100 books this year. Not even close! A book a week is the meager average of what I managed. However, unlike last year, I read a lot of great books. It was difficult to cut it down to ten and I’ve left some great books off.

As always, these are books that I read this year not necessarily that were published this year. (In fact, none were published this year and many are 50+ years old.)

10. Field Notes on Democracy

Arundhati Roygrasshoppers

This is a bit of weird inclusion on a list that mostly is spec fic. I’m trying to read more non-fiction and it wouldn’t be a surprise if next year’s list had many more non-fiction selections.Also it’s pretty detailed on Indian politics of the last thirty years and thus a little over my head. But Roy’s writing is so good and so important that I really have to include it on my list. In condemning the neo-liberal paradigm, especially as swaddled in the ragged remnants of democracy, Roy has written a book that transcends country.

Quote: Truth, in Kashmir, is probably more dangerous than anything else.

9. Three Body Problem

Cixin Liu3body

A lot of my friends really loved this book. I quite liked it too, but for some reason never loved it. It felt like a more interesting version of Ender’s Game. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in SF.

Quote: “It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.” 

8. Babel-17

Samuel R. Delanybabel17

My (belated) first Delany. This would be quite a bit higher on my list, save for the second half of the book let down the strong opening. From the strong characterization and world-building and insight that built this story, it kind of slipped into predictable melodrama. Still a fantastic read.

Quote: “Sometimes you want to say things, and you’re missing an idea to make them with, and missing a word to make the idea with. In the beginning was the word. That’s how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist.”

7. City of Stairs

Robert Jackson Bennetcityofstairs

A surreal adventure set in a fantasy world where “Europe” was colonized by “India,” there are a couple layers here. The overt detective story is a fine framework, but the brilliance of this book, apart from the memorable characters, is the imperial inversion, which make the politics subtly and irresistibly more intriguing.

Quote: “Forgetting… is a beautiful thing. When you forget, you remake yourself… For a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must forget it was a caterpillar at all. Then it will be as if the caterpillar never was & there was only ever a butterfly.”

6. Labyrinths

Jorge Luis Borgeslabyrinths

This is one of those books that if I were smarter, I’d have enjoyed it more. But the bit I did glean was fascinating. The labyrinth (despite its repeated inclusion) isn’t the inevitable metaphor for this collection; more apt might be a prism; something reflecting ever-so-slightly and non-ending versions of a thing. The Immortal is in particular a stunning story.

Example: “The metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.”

5. Dinner at Deviant’s Palace

Tim Powersdinner

I’m a Tim Powers fanboy, but until this year I hadn’t tracked this book down. Set in a convincing post-apocalyptic LA, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is the tale of a musician who infiltrates cults and rescues people. In other words, Powers has slyly inserted a Bard as his protagonist and no one even objected. There’s all the clever world-building you’d expect in a Powers novel and emotions feel real and earned.

Quote: “To sing?” he demanded, his voice shrill with incredulous scorn. “You’d stop saving lives–souls!–to sit in a bar and sing? Oh, but you only did it while you needed the money, isn’t that right? And now that you can fiddle for it, everybody else can… can be gutted and skinned, and it won’t disturb your self-satisfaction even as much as a wrinkle in your precious costume would, huh? It must be nice to be the only person worthy of your concern.”

4. Red Mars

Kim Stanley Robinsonred mars

I inevitably find outer space boring so I was hesitant to pick this up. But from the first page Robinson makes it clear that this is a human story.  With a varied cast of characters, weird shifts in time that somehow work, and an alluring image of forests and rivers covering the surface of mars, I’d rank this as one of my very favorite sci-fi books ever.

Quote: “Historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can’t grasp the current situation.”

3. This Census Taker

China Mievillecensus taker

It’s a weird year when my favorite author can only get to third place. But it’s not China Mieville’s fault I read so many classics this year. I liked almost everything about this book, including the changes from 1st to 2nd to 3 person, the decision to keep it novella length, and the low key presenting of vital information. I even liked that there weren’t many classic Mieville touches, apart from a hint at magic keys and the gun of the Census-Taker.

The only thing the that didn’t wow me was the framing story with the writing. In such a slight book, it felt extra unnecessary. That said, there’s a good chance I didn’t quite grok what was going on there. Census Taker is spooky and cool and weird and Weird.

Quote: “You can tell it any way you want, he said, you can be I or he or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying, though you might be telling two stories at once.”

2. Lud in the Mist

Hope Mirrleesludinthemist

This semi-obscure classic is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. Written at a time when even the bankers in England were legendary wordsmiths, Lud-in-the-Mist is over-stuffed, bursting with gorgeous prose.

The moon was on the wane, but still sufficiently full to give a good light. She was, indeed, an orchard thief, for no fruit being left to rob, she had robbed the leaves of all their colour. 

The language alone is reason enough to give it a look, but all the elements really come together. The main character is a useless bureaucrat, the women have agency, the villains have motive. There is a mystery and the pacing is surprisingly fast. In addition, there is one of the best ‘dreamland’ sequences I’ve ever read.

Lud-in-the-Mist is well deserving of its position as a classic and something that genre fans should relish.

(Another )Quote: “And the nymph whom all travellers pursue and none has ever yet caught – the white high-road, glimmered and beckoned to them through the dusk.”

1. Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. LeGuinlefthand


I like that Le Guin pretty much dispenses with plot, and mixes in some Solzhenitsyn and travelogue and taoism and politics and epistolary and just presents us with this melange of everything. The characters aren’t super interesting but the world building is supreme and the prose is of course oft times beautiful. It’s a thought-provoking book and it might even be her best.

Quote: “My business is unlearning, not learning.”


Meet the new Wench. Same as the old Wench.

A long time ago, Garrett Calcaterra and I wrote a silly interactive story with Pirates and ninjas and vampires and spaceships and alchemists and more. Like an R-rated Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, written in a Python-esque series of absurdities.

It’s been languishing on Amazon for a while. But now? Oh it’s still there–but now with a slightly improved cover. So if it’s been on your radar, strike now while the fresh cover of paint is still, um, fresh? I’m as bad at metaphors as a dog is at, um, metaphors, but still the point remains.

Click the picture to go straight to Amazon.

Good Brew final cover