We have all been there: we hear about a book via whatever channels available to us, and we get excited to pick it up – only for that book to fall short in some way, shape, or form. These are five books that have gotten me excited, but did not to live up to my expectations.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
The Hype – Hugo Award-winning novel; interesting concept
How It Failed – Poor characterisation; deeply-embedded racism and misogyny
I chose to pick up Farmer’s novel because of the concept and because it won a Hugo Award, but as I progressed through it I realised that I had made a horrible mistake. The characterisation was poor in the extreme (How does one manage to make Sir Richard Burton, the great adventurer, sound like such a bore?), and the novel was also rife with racist and misogynistic themes that make clear the lack of necessary care Farmer had for finer details. While some readers might say that I ought to brush such things aside because of when the novel was written (first published in 1971), I would like to point out that Ursula Le Guin was writing during the same period as Farmer, and her books do not suffer from the same grievous flaws (her incredible novel The Left Hand of Darkness had already won the Hugo in 1969 – a full two years before To Your Scattered Bodies Go). In short, Farmer had absolutely no excuse for turning out such terrible product, and the only reason I finished this novel in the first place was so I could complain about it at length and be justified because I actually finished the thing.
Son of the Morning by Mark Alder
The Hype – Interesting concept; comparisons to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones
How It Failed – Terrible world-building; poor characterisation
This book has ensured that I will always take Amazon and Goodreads ratings with more than a grain of salt – or anything that purports to be “like A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones”, for that matter. After all, it was those points that encouraged me to pick this up in the first place, along with the absolutely brilliant concept driving it. But upon reading this novel I realised I had been sorely misled: where I expected deep, rich and expansive world-building, I got a world that was so weak and flimsy that it felt like nothing more than a thin sheet draped over a rickety scaffolding. Where I expected interesting, complex characterisation, I got one-dimensional caricatures good for nothing more than delivering occasionally-witty aphorisms. And where I expected an epic plot, I got a plot that tried desperately to be epic, but failed each and every time. Like To Your Scattered Bodies Go I finished this book just so I could complain about it and be justified in my complaints.
The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher
The Hype – Interesting concept; science fiction/horror mix; intriguing setting
How It Failed – Flawed world-building; badly-constructed plot; poor characterisation
When a horror story is focused on creating a sense of fear around a monster, I believe it behooves the writer to keep that monster out of sight and as mysterious as possible, so that when the big reveal comes, the reader’s fear is as genuine as it possibly can be. The problem with this novel is that Christopher reveals his hand far, far too early – right at the beginning, in fact, as readers familiar with world mythology will have absolutely no problems identifying the monster of the story right from the get-go. Now, this would not be so terrible if Christopher had worked on the world-building and characterisation of the characters (including the monster – if I cannot have a truly horrific monster I would like at least to have an interesting one with sensible and understandable motivations and goals), but neither of those things exist in this novel, either. I cannot recall how many times I rolled my eyes while I was reading this book, but I suppose that if eye-rolling was an Olympic sport, I would have done well enough to at least earn a medal.
The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan
The Hype – Recommended to me as being “similar to Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series”
How It Failed – Cliched setting and characters
The Gentlemen Bastards is one of my most favourite fantasy series, and it has set the bar for a lot of the fantasy I decide to read. So when someone from an online book group I used to frequent suggested I pick up Sullivan’s series when I started asking for books similar to Lynch’s series, I was eager to give it a shot, aware that while I would not get the exact same thing as the Gentlemen Bastards, I would at least come relatively close. Unfortunately, The Crown Conspiracy was about as far away from Lynch’s series as it was possible to get: a cliched fantasy setting and equally cliched characters (to say nothing of the bog-standard “conflict” that formed the plot’s core) were the major disappointments of this novel, and though I did finish it, I do not feel particularly inclined to pick up the series again anytime soon.
The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán
The Hype – The concept; the cover; the George R. R. Martin blurb
How It Failed – Inconsistent writing quality; odd world-building
I can still remember the hype that accompanied Tor’s release of this novel’s cover online – mostly because I had something of a front-row seat for it when the cover showed up on Tumblr. And, like almost everybody else who saw that cover, I was thoroughly excited: after all, when the cover features a knight astride a dinosaur, and comes with a blurb from George R. R. Martin himself, saying that the novel is like “a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones”, it’s hard not to feel excited. However, I suppose Martin meant Game of Thrones the Television Show, not his own A Song of Ice and Fire in that blurb, because while there are quite a few fun elements in The Dinosaur Lords, it’s not quite as perfect as I might like (which is also how I felt about the first three seasons of Game of Thrones). There is Milán’s rather odd world-building, for one, which does not make sense unless one is willing to adjust one’s expectations in a way that accommodates…whatever it is he’s trying to do, which is not really made clear or even quite hinted at any point in the novel. Also problematic is how it seems like Milán’s editor did not go through the book’s writing as thoroughly as he or she ought to have, because I caught the phrase “hands of sweat” in the novel, and it is only the most egregious error in a whole host of other errors scattered throughout the book. Still, it’s not as terrible as the first four books I’ve mentioned, but I’m not exactly champing at the bit to pick up the next novel in the series.