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.


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

Arcs, Guns, and Underdogs: The Invisible Tropes of Western Literature


I went to a panel at Orycon about the tropes of the East meeting those of the West, and one of the questions that came up was “What are some Western tropes so pervasive we barely notice them?”(In case it isn’t clear, West/Western is meant in the political/geographical sense, not the cowboy one.)

The Western predilection for happy endings was mentioned, as was the necessity of character arcs. Local author Fonda Lee (whose new book Jade City sounds spectacular) served as moderator and proposed the question added a doozy about personal agency over fate, a trope so strong that she noted powerlessness is nearly taboo.

There was a lot more to cover and the panelists moved on but the question stuck with me. I asked writers Damien Walter, Gord Sellar,  and Garrett Calcaterra, and if they had anything to add. You’ll see there is some crossover and I wonder if there are things so solidly ingrained that we don’t even notice them.

First, here are a couple I have noticed.

  • The Underdog. Often this takes the form of one who succeeds despite everyone they meeting hating that underdog. Women who only meet misogynists, people of color who only encounter racists, and so on. This can feel empowering and inspiring, but also relies on milquetoast antagonists and the story can come off as very contrived.
  • Tragic Flaws in the character and an expected character arc from the events of the story to being fixing that . This flaw often takes the place of alcoholism, or apathy, or emotional withdrawal. Regardless, the plot that comes along just happens to right the exact wrong (or in some cases begins the process) found in the character.
  • Chekov’s Gun. Everything from YT’s dentata to Daenerys’s dragon eggs, we love to see the solution for Act III slyly introduced earlier. This can be very rewarding but, as with the next entry, can feel too neat if constantly relied on.
  • Lack of Deus Ex Machina . It’s nice to have the elements of the story tie together and satisfying to have the solution be self-contained within the story. However this gives fiction a tidiness that life doesn’t have.
  • Structure. The Three Acts. The Hero’s Journey. We have certain expectations of structure and hence pacing that most works follow.
  • The faithful dog. For people who grow up in Muslim countries, or places like India, the idea of these dangerous pests as companions feels very strange indeed. But in the west we love dogs to the point where killing off a pet is ofttimes seen as less forgivable than killing of human characters.

That’s all I got. Onto the others!

Guns / Swords as symbols of personal empowerment

–Damien Walter
 “Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believe that killing people makes them powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”

Love Conquers All

–Garrett Calcaterra
  “To me, the most ubiquitous trope is “love conquers all,” which tends to be used in one of three ways in western storytelling. In its standard form, our hero is driven to defeat insurmountable odds in order to be with the one they love, but the trope is also inverted oftentimes, so that by killing our hero’s loved one, our hero is set upon a lonely path as an anti-hero. The third way the trope is used is the more literary/tragic route, where our protagonist shows their naivete by believing that true love conquers all. The two lovers try to isolate themselves from the outside world, but of course that never works and heartbreak/tragedy/hijinx ensue.”

Agency is Magic

–Gord Sellar
 “Agency is Magic. That is: we insist on character agency being relevant—to the point where if it’s not apparent to the reader, then we see it as a defect in a story, and teach young writers that they MUST give characters agency, however constrained—and also on it being
able to effect real change in the world of the story, or at least upon the story problems. If you read literature from other societies, you may find this is not a starting assumption at all. In mainstream literature, this isn’t always such a disconnect, or in horror where
the lack of agency in some situations is nightmare fuel (Poe’s “The Premature Burial being a great exemplar of this) but in most popular fiction—and especially science fiction, where the intelligence of individuals interfaces with a mysterious universe to produce
understanding, then knowledge, and then ultimately some kind of power (in the form of a technology, or some other means of grappling with the world), this comes across as pretty alien: characters who just sort of wait out problems, or powerlessly behold them, strikes us as odd. Even if a character is trapped, or seemingly powerless, we usually expect they’ll discover a way to do something to ensure their own escape, survival, or overcoming of the system. Agency must have at least some ability to act upon the character’s situation, or what’s the point of the story? When I encounter stories where characters either don’t exert agency, or do so in a way that strikes me as passive and not responding to their conditions, it just annoys me.

And yet in Korean narratives (TV, film, and translated fiction), I run into this somewhat regularly. Characters either cannot do anything to change their conditions, or they could do so, but they somehow just don’t, aren’t willing, or cannot imagine doing so. (Whether that’s art imitating life or the other way round is a question I won’t get into beyond saying that I meet a lot more people in Korea than I would in Canada who seem to think that patiently waiting out a bad situation is the “right” way to deal with it. North Americans may actually do this a lot  too, but when we talk about ideal solutions, it’s assumed one must “make an effort” and  “do something” about whatever’s troubling one, or one has no right to complain about it.)

220px-TheJournalsOfMusan2011Poster There’s a film titled Musan Ilgi (The Journals of Musan) which is about a North Korean escapee who lives in Seoul. The poor guy’s life is basically hell—everyone despises him, and he runs into trouble while working a crap job on the streets. At every turn, I found myself waiting for him to stand up for himself, and at every turn he failed to do so. Like a lot of Korean narrative, it was very melodramatic, and aimed at jerking tears and evoking a kind of patronizing sympathy for “those poor North Korean defectors” but it was hard to stomach the film, as a Western viewer. I found myself wanting to shake the guy and say, “Stand up for yourself!” and finally, when he just kept letting people crap on him, I felt a visceral revulsion, even a desire to punch him myself. When, near the end of the movie, he finally snapped and did stand up for himself in a very small way, he was very brutally punished. The film felt almost as if it was an assault on the idea of agency doing any good at all, and I bothered me on a very deep level because of it, I guess.

It may be that this is also a feature of postcolonial and subaltern literature: I see it not only in Korean (i.e. postcolonial) literature, but also in some of the canonical African-American novels and short stories—things like Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Ellison’s _Invisible Man_ and Toni Morrison’s _Beloved_ and a bunch of Langston Hughes’ poetry and short fiction. Sometimes the only expression of agency possible (or conceivable) is to endure, in both Korean and some African-American stories, but to someone steeped in agency-saturated fiction, this can feel strange and frustrating. I guess it depends: sometimes agency being incapable of overcoming a problem is actually a radical thing to depict, since that’s so rarely depicted in fiction. It’s like, “Yes, I’m making you look at something agency can’t solve.” I think that can be great. But I think when agency’s missing for other reasons—because passivity is fetishized, or used as a way of evoking melodramatic sympathy—it’s probably toxic. I think the idea of agency being a potential force for good, and something to be embraced, is a good idea, even if it’s kind of fantastical and mythic. Better than (from what I see in real life) people walking around with no sense of their own agency at all… something I encounter a little too often, if you ask me.Oh, and this seems to be a really old pattern, to me, too: agency matters even when the gods are out to get you, in ancient Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, and Biblical narratives. Why? Because if you couldn’t do anything, what’s the point of the story? Agency being constrained, we understand, expect, and enjoy. That pressure pushes characters to struggle, try harder, and win. But character passivity? It just seems “wrong” to us. So we almost always have this trope where agency, applied, is like magic ointment to problems. It may not fix the thing you think, but apply enough agency and *something* changes that helps resolve the issue.”

So that was only a light level look at some common tropes. Do you have any thoughts on the above? Do you like or dislike the tropes we mentioned and do you have any to add?