Tag Archives: what makes a good book

When Good Novels go Bad #amreading

On Monday, I reviewed a lovely memoir by Judy Kiehart, a book I heartily enjoyed. Today I want to talk about a book by one of my favorite authors, who shall remain nameless. I don’t love every book that comes my way, but I don’t do negative reviews.

magicHowever, we can learn a great deal from books embodying poorly executed plots and badly scripted dialogue.

The book in question is the third installment in what may become a five-part subseries set in the early days of his 22-book universe. I have been a fan of this author’s work since the opening pages of book 1 in this epic series.

I immensely enjoy the way he explores the concept of good vs. evil and gives the side that began in the first five books as antagonists a role that makes them heroes. His protagonists are usually likable, easily relatable people. I care about their happiness and want them to succeed.

In his universe, neither side is good. Both sides manipulate events to make their case, and both are convinced of the purity of their motives. This author has devised a magic system where some people are born with the ability to manipulate certain kinds of subatomic particles.

scienceThe first books of the series establish a science of magic. One can either use chaotic magic or ordered magic. Although some mages can only use one side or the other, the most powerful mages can manipulate both sides of the magic. The entire series explores this concept well. It is a well-planned magic system, with good rules.

These books are military fantasies. Politics and the abuse of power are frequent themes in his novels, as are the age-old conflict between men and women. The overall lesson of the entire series is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Absolute order is death, and so is absolute chaos. Still, both are necessary for life, so maintaining the balance of order and chaos is crucial.

One of the crucial points of the 22-book series is that every great and powerful civilization begins with the purest of motives—to create a better place for humanity. Throughout the 22-book series, greed and an unquenchable lust for power eventually prove the ruin of the greatest empires.

So, let’s discuss what disappoints me about the subseries that begins with book 19. The protagonist is a naïve, untried young mage forced from his home. His uncle is a powerful chaos mage and raises him to use chaos, but our protagonist is bad at it. After the local ruler murders his uncle, our main character is forced into hiding and discovers he is an order mage.

This subseries deals with the origins of a city of mages, who in generations to come, will ultimately base their power on chaos magic. The twist the author explores in these books is that the city is founded by an order mage as a haven for all mages. It is a fact that future generations will choose to forget.

The prior subseries, books 17 and 18, was brilliant, two of my favorites. However, book 19 begins a decline in quality. The idea for the plot was strong in 19. However, the story arc weakened in 20 and was stretched too thin in 21.

DangerStructurally, the books in this subseries feel like he knew how to end it but struggled to fill in the arc. Past events and conversations get repeated verbatim to every new character. Long passages of remembering and agonizing over what is done and dusted fluffs up the narrative.

This is an author who has always championed both racial and gender equality. While he writes straight protagonists, he includes LGBTQ characters. Most of the time, he gets it right. But in book 19, he lost the way when it came to his female characters. We are supposed to think the women are strong and admire them, but they are two-dimensional, arrogant, and always have the last word.

I disliked the women intensely and felt that if a good editor had seen the work before it was published, the snidely superior way their dialogue reads could have been toned down. As it is now, they all come off as bitches.

And that is only the visible part of the iceberg that is sinking this subseries.

Unlikeable side characters don’t derail a book. However, the pacing stutters along, and that will ruin any novel.

The plots of the three books 19, 20, and 21 form one complete arc that would total around 300,000 words. However, the filler events feel forced, like the author would have set this project aside at several points but was contracted to churn out three books whether he was inspired to write or not.

The arc completely flattens in book 21. It feels like the author had the inspiration for one good book of a decent length but was required to peck out enough words to cut the manuscript into three novel-length sections.

ok to write garbage quote c j cherryhTo me, book 21 reads as if (while books 19 and 20 were in the publishing gauntlet) he still had to fluff up the ending to make book 21 long enough to be considered a novel. The evidence of a lack of genuine inspiration is the absurd “scar” the protagonist is left with after winning an unbelievable victory and nearly dying.

My disbelief refused to be suspended.

In the early days of this series, the author managed to put out one book a year, and they were well-structured. Line editing and proofreading in this author’s books have never been a strong point. I have always felt like he was the only one who saw his work before publication but was able to ignore the flaws.

This subseries is different. I suspect once he had plowed to the end of his first draft, my favorite author checked the manuscript for typos using Word’s ReadAloud function and ProWriting Aid or Grammarly and handed it in at the last minute.

Then, the Big Traditional Publisher published it as is, assuming the manuscript was clear of obvious flaws and gave it scant editorial input. They knew they could sell the series just on the author’s name.

That kind of arrogance irks me and does the author no favors. This could have been a brilliant subseries. The concept of an origin story allows for so much opportunity—and because of Big Traditional Publisher’s churn-and-burn policy, it just fell flat.

The Flaws:

  • Two-dimensional characters
  • Repetitive dialogue
  • Thin plot
  • Absurd events are inserted to justify previous actions and keep things moving
  • Did I mention the repetitive dialogue?

The Positives:

  • Great worldbuilding overall
  • A wonderful exploration of power and the lengths people will go to acquire it
  • A believable magic system.
  • Good exploration of the layers of society
  • Good historical explanation of future societal tensions

I wanted to love those three books. I really enjoyed books 17 and 18 and had hopes for a good, satisfying read. What I got instead was a hard lesson in the truth about writing:

f scott fitzgerald quoteEveryone, even your favorite author, writes a stinker now and then.

I’m ¼ of the way into book 22 in this series, which is a follow-up. It takes place fifteen years later, with the daughter of a side character as the protagonist. So far, she is more believable than the women in the prior three novels, and most of the dialogue is less annoying.

My inner editor is behaving herself, and it feels like we may enjoy this book.


Filed under writing