Worst Books I Read in 2011 – Book List

I only read four 1-star books in 2011! Constructing this list was quite a task, consequently, because I had to choose six unfortunate 2-star books to fill the remaining spots. Some of these books are on here because they are just bad. Some are here because they are boring, or a little flat, but not altogether unrewarding.

Unlike this year’s best books list, I don’t see a cohesive theme to these books. There are a few “thrillers” on the list. Otherwise there is a mixture of fantasy, science fiction, and non-genre/literary fiction. Many of the books were just a burden to read; a few actively made me dislike them, and for those I think I wrote the best reviews of all the books on the list. Enjoy!

As always, feel free to comment over at my blog.

Reviews

10. Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics cover image
ISBN:
9780670037773
Format:
Hardcover, 514 pages
Published:
Penguin, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This book is not about physics.

Of course, if you are not shallow (like me) and did more than just judged the book by its title and cover, you would know this. And don’t take this as an indictment of the book for its non-physics focus. I just thought I should warn anyone who, like me, mistakenly begins reading the book by thinking it’s about physics. It isn’t.

Attempting to describe this book to people as I read it was a baffling experience. Well, to be honest, I am terrible at talking about books I’m reading, or have read, any time. (Excellent at writing about them, but terrible at speaking.) Special Topics in Calamity Physics presented me with a particular challenge, because it seems to be so many things. Then, by the time I arrived at the end, I was wondering if it was any of those things at all.

In fact, if I had to judge this book by its cover, I should have gone off the back cover. It sports a blurb from Sir Literary Author Himself, Jonathan Franzen, Esq. I have nothing against Jonathan Franzen and will in fact shortly be reading my first Franzen novel … but he says of Special Topics, “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink.” And if that’s not a warning sign that we are about to enter the land of silly over-extended metaphors, then I don’t know what is.

See, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is not just literary. It is OMG, LITERARY literary, with neon lights and pink glitter and embarrassingly ill-fitting pantsuits. Not a sentence goes by without some sort of allusion to a book, movie, or television show—complete with actual citation. Blue van Meer, our protagonist, is just that kind of girl. She describes everything in an overwrought, self-annotated technicolor. As a reader, one can either take this book seriously, at face value—and very probably enjoy it—or one just has to laugh at its earnestness. Marisha Pessl tries to create a “dark, strong drink” by turning it into a strange brew, and the result is … patchy.

I feel like Pessl wants to keep one guessing as long as possible about what type of book Special Topics might be—she wants to avoid collapsing the wavefunction, if you will, for as long as possible. And like anything of indeterminate shape or texture, this is not very interesting. The book meanders drunkenly from genre to genre. First it’s your typical “bookish new girl falls in with wrong crowd at high school” story; I didn’t ever expect it to stay that way. Yet it takes strange turns. Pessl has characters of questionable motivation—oh, she supplies more than enough motives for every character, but the difficulty becomes selecting which motives are true. Instead of a straightforward linear narrative, Pessl attempts to use ambiguity to create a sense of choice where there isn’t any. It is an intriguing attempt, but I’m not so sure it’s successful. Essentially, Pessl inverts the trope of unreliable narrator, giving us an unreliable story in which the narrator is desperately groping for some semblance of reality.

Thanks to Goodreads, I recently learned that Umberto Eco has a new novel out. I love Umberto Eco. He is one of my favourite authors, and in particular, Foucault’s Pendulum left me awestruck in a way few novels have, before or since. Believe it or not, Special Topics shares something in common with that book, for both involve conspiracy theories that become more real as the sceptics spin them. There is something almost but not quite metafictional happening. But Pessl is not Eco, and Special Topics is not Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco has subtlety and a deep, placid sensibility that is manifest in his writing. Pessl has skill—I won’t deny that—but it’s the skill of a raw, wild, passionate young writer. Special Topics is a story that has not been honed in the way it should have been—one can tell this just from the length, if nothing else.

The other contribution to this book’s “please notice my literaryness” comes from its narrator. Blue is ridiculously well-read and ridiculously skilled at writing. (She also has a vast and nebulous forest of daddy issues.) I like her well enough, and while she sometimes gets on my nerves, she is really the only interesting character in the book. The others—including Hannah and Blue’s Dad—are devices that belong wholly to the story. Any idea that they might have volition of their own is absurd. No, Blue is the only actor on this stage. At times her narration is a delight, but for the most part it is the purplest of prose.

This book took me a long time to read. Some of that isn’t the book’s fault; this has been a busy, stressful week for me. I probably should have picked a different book to read. But as I approached the middle of Special Topics, any interest I had in it seemed to flicker, gutter, and come perilously close to extinguishing. I had to push myself to read, when normally I will happily spend hours devouring a book if I have the time. The last fifty pages seem to go downhill, as Pessl becomes more and more evasive with the “truth” behind this story; also, I skimmed about twenty pages prior to that, tired of Blue’s endless descriptions of her impromptu detective work.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics wore out its welcome with me. I wish I could say nicer things about it, because it isn’t a bad book. It isn’t pointless or even poorly written, and I could probably see someone making a case that it is inspired and, yes, suitably literary. Alas, Special Topics is also relentless, unforgiving, even uncooperative. We tussled, this book and I, and I do not feel all that much improved for it.

I guess I fail the final exam?

9. A Family Daughter

by Maile Meloy

A Family Daughter cover image
ISBN:
9780743277662
Format:
Hardcover, 325 pages
Published:
Scribner, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Once upon a time I sat down to read a book called Liars and Saints, which I had noticed in a piece in TIME magazine. I had bought the book with the intent of giving it as a gift, but after reading it I thought better: although not completely terrible, Liars and Saints possessed nothing to recommend it, inhabiting that wasteland of contrived implausibilities that seems to be the home of so much literary fiction. Generations pass in a matter of pages, sex is had, and babies get made. It was rather standard, rather bland fare for that type of novel.

Apparently I am a robot who merely follows his to-read list unquestioningly: A Family Daughter was on the list; it was available at my library; I borrowed it. I didn’t look at the description, so it wasn’t until I started reading and saw the names “Abby” and “Yvette”. Those sounded vaguely familiar—was this a sequel? A prequel? What had I gotten myself into?

It turns out A Family Daughter is related to Maile Meloy’s previous novel, but not in the conventional sense. Instead, it swallows the universe of Liars and Saint, which turns out to be a somewhat-fictional family history as written by this book’s version of Abby Collins! This is very meta, and normally I love metafiction. Maybe it’s a holdover from my days of high school drama class and a perverse fascination with breaking the fourth wall; certainly I like when authors self-deprecatingly portray themselves or their own work in the story. However, the simple metafictional nature of A Family Daughter is nowhere near intriguing enough to save it from its numerous flaws.

I got out the sticky notes around page 6. I don’t ordinarily take notes while reading, resorting to a sticky only when I need to ensure I can find a specific page—usually for a quotation. Sometimes I use stickies while reading non-fiction, in order to remind myself of points I want to address in my review. When I break out the stickies en masse for fiction, it’s usually a bad sign: I’m not just going to criticize this book; I’m going to itemize my criticism.

The sticky on page 6 reads, “One-line descriptions” and was prompted by this passage:

Yvette stood at the kitchen counter wondering what part of her daughter’s selfishness was her fault. Had she not given Clarissa enough attention when she was Abby’s age? Had her other children distracted her—Margot, who was older and perfect, and Jamie, who was younger and troubled?

I don’t want to make too much of this, because all writers make choices, and sometimes the best choice is the most expedient one. And I admit that my recollection of Liars and Saints did not leave me favourably disposed to this book. However, I still balk when I read the above passage, not because it’s particularly bad writing, but because it just seems to pigeonhole this book as “literary” more than any genre snobbery on my part could. Through these pithy and simplistic descriptions, Meloy reminds us that we don’t really need to pay attention to these characters, because they are all just stereotypes and caricatures. In general, the characters in this book are either flat and unremarkable—like Peter, the TA and Abby’s sometime love interest—or completely unbelievable—like Saffron, Katya, et al. Teddy, the Santerre family patriarch, is a textbook case of the crotchety old man:

The receptionist had a nice voice, and dark hair. Teddy made an appointment on a computer screen to have somebody’s grandson put a sonic probe into his eyes and then suck out the lens and put in a folded-up new one, and he gave the pretty woman Yvette’s e-mail address. He had begun life, he reflected, with the radio, the telegraph, and the Victrola, and he had been perfectly happy with those.

(I swear it wasn’t just because of that last line that I chose to highlight this passage, although it does make the technophile in me cringe.) I think Meloy is trying to be funny here, or at least cute, with such turns of phrase as “somebody’s grandson”. Alas, it falls flat, because it might be entertaining, but it does nothing to deepen Teddy’s character. Throughout the book, he is this one-note instrument: he’s disappointed with his son for never making anything of his life; he’s chronically unable to perceive Clarissa’s flirtation with lesbianism; he has, in general, checked out of much of family life because of his aging senses.

I’ll say this for Liars and Saints: at least the stories of more of its characters were accessible. A Family Daughter follows mostly Abby and Jamie, with brief but unsatisfying detours toward Clarissa and a therapist (more on her later). We get a glimpse at Teddy’s backstory, and a little more from Yvette, but that’s about it. This is not the multigenerational story that Liars and Saints aspired to be—and that would be fine, if it stood alone. Since it seems to inhabit a parallel universe, I feel adrift: how much do I really know about this Teddy? How much can I assume is the same as what I learned about him in Liars and Saints? There are all these echoes in my mind, and I’m not sure what’s real.

I kind of like the therapist character, if only because it’s so rare for a book with characters in therapy to show us the other side of the table, so to speak. Meloy writes, “Leila Tirrett was a psychologist with a Ph.D. and problems of her own”, and aside from attempting to sound ironic, I like that she humanizes the character this way. Suddenly she’s no longer just a third party who listens to Abby’s problems and confessions: she’s a real person, with her own issues, and Abby is just the latest patient in her life.

Small moments like the one above prevent me from condemning A Family Daughter completely. Like Liars and Saints, it is not so much terrible as just unremarkable. That might sound weird, considering that this book is full of improbable events. There’s a Romanian orphan who turns out to be the son of a Hungarian prostitute—who wants him back. Jamie ends up marrying the mother and adopting the orphan, and they move from Argentina to the United States to attempt a happily ever after ending (I will let you guess how that works for them). There’s a reason that we say truth is often stranger than fiction, for we tend to require our fiction be realistic, that events flow logically from their cause. When they don’t, it becomes absurd. Mixing absurdism with attempts to create powerful dramas is a dangerous business. Adept authors can come up with something akin to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but most of the time, you get something more along the lines of The Hitman Diaries. I know where A Family Daughter lies along this spectrum.

I would like to think that Meloy is attempting something clever and, yes, risky. Her metafictional novel-within-the-novel, while not entirely novel to me, is still an intriguing premise that should have gone a long way to making me enjoy this book. Unfortunately, the plot and characters themselves are just so literary in the most pretentious sense of that term; their problems are larger than life. I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down on all literary fiction everywhere. However, this book demonstrates some of the common flaws in literary fiction that will make me harder on a book of its ilk. Nobody ever stops having sex. Nobody ever says, “Gee, I could avoid this drama if I just talk to someone.” To her credit, Meloy keeps the drama below “hysterical” levels, and so A Family Daughter feels only contrived, not truly absurd. Much with Liars and Saints, this is a bland novel whose structure is intriguing but whose semiotics remain insufferable.

8. Hell and Earth

by Elizabeth Bear

Hell and Earth cover image
ISBN:
9780451463043
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 397 pages
Published:
Roc, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

So this appears to be the last book, at least for now, of Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series. The series is actually two loose duologies: Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water are set in the modern day; Ink and Steel and this book are part of the Stratford Man duology, set in a Faerie-infested Elizabethan England. As my previous reviews of books in this series make clear, I am incredibly ambivalent. Bear’s commitment to detail is obvious, but the sheer intricacy and convoluted nature of her plots make these novels somewhat of a chore. Ink and Steel alleviated that by way of setting: I was just utterly fascinated by the way Bear took familiar historical figures, like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and weaved them into her complex tapestry of war and intrigue among Faerie, England, and Hell.

Hell and Earth concludes the story of Kit Marlowe, dead poet and spy now living in Faerie, and William Shakespeare, master playwright and sorcerer loyal to England and to Elizabeth. Marlowe and Shakespeare square off against members of their own Promethean Club, which has fractured into various factions who are all vying for power and prestige. Bear mixes fact with fantasy quite liberally—the end of the book includes an Author’s Note outlining where she altered the historical record or embellished it, which was quite a bit. Marlowe, of course, is very much alive, albeit somewhat worse for wear. The King James Bible becomes a poetic masterpiece of magic. And Shakespeare becomes instrumental in defeating the Gunpowder Plot. (From my own reading on the subject—i.e., an intense ten-second session of Googling—it seems like Shakespeare was connected to many of the conspirators, which makes sense, but did not play so large a role in defusing the conspiracy.)

It has been over two years since I read the previous book in this series, so I am somewhat foggy on the details! That didn’t work to my advantage as I read Hell and Earth, which is intimately connected to Ink and Steel—they are very close to being a single book. Of course, this didn’t do much for my opinion of the story or the plot, both of which are hard to follow. In particular, Bear’s idea of exposition is somewhat loquacious but unhelpful: the characters say a lot, but I don’t comprehend much of it. This did not become problematic until the climax, where understanding the actions of Lucifer is central to understanding the events. (I still don’t know what was really going on there, and if you feel you can explain it to me, please comment!) So there were parts of this book that I didn’t skim but I felt as if I had skimmed. I think this is how I felt like much of the first two Promethean Age books (except I distinctly remember disliking those books as well, which isn’t quite the case here). I hope that I have established enough “street cred” as a reviewer to make these complaints meaningful and more than just idle whining. There is a plot to Hell and Earth, but its complexities escape me.

In fact, reading this book was kind of like dunking my head underwater and holding my breath while I travelled back in time four hundred years. Bear portrays the setting in a very interesting way: her visual descriptions are sparse, but her use of language and description of the relationships between characters more than make up for this. In the end, what we get is a very conceptual and emotional grasp of England at the beginning of the seventeenth century: Elizabeth’s power is waning, and after she dies, a Scottish king assumes the throne. There’s a great deal of uncertainty, particularly when it comes to religious freedom and the growing influence of the Puritans. Oh, and don’t forget the plague. Nasty stuff, that.

If, like me, you are partial to this period of English history, and especially interested in fantastic portrayals of Shakespeare and his literary contemporaries, then these two books hold something for you. Bear has done her research, even though she often deviates from history for her own purposes. Whatever background knowledge one brings to the book will only serve to augment the experience; for those with little knowledge, it might seem heavy on the name soup, but it will still be an interesting glimpse into a history that never was.

I wish I could provide a more pertinent review of Hell and Earth. It deserves one. There are some great themes here: Marlowe’s love for and loyalty to Will are tested; Will himself must choose between Elizabeth or England; and we glimpse the burdens of ruling Faerie or Hell. There are some deep moments to this book, the kind of weighty moments that only happen when there is an extensive, enchanting mythology to rely upon. All these details are excellent, but they also create a lot of noise, and that’s where my memories of this book begin and end.

7. Fragment

by Warren Fahy

Fragment cover image
ISBN:
9780553807530
Format:
Hardcover, 356 pages
Published:
Delacorte Press, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Often I go into novels with expectations. If they’re by an author I know and like, or if they came highly recommended from a trusted source, then I might have very high expectations. If they’re something I plucked from the library’s “New Books” shelf, then I’ll be less hesitant. Sometimes, however, I go into a book with few or no expectations. This is not because I am being open-minded; I am a huge literary snob and have the Umberto Eco reviews to prove it. No, when I go into a book without expectations, it’s because I’ve simply forgotten what expectations to have. Fragment is an example of this situation: I learned of the book from an io9 review, shelved it, then promptly forgot about it until I got it at the library last week.

It’s a good thing I had few expectations for this book, because Fragment does not aim high. Warren Fahy attempts to combine a science-fiction thriller with social commentary on the abundance of reality television and popular scientist sound clips—in other words, the shallow, consumer-driven nature of our culture. This is where I’m supposed to say that the combination doesn’t work but each element is fine when considered on its own—that would be a lie. Fragment, considered in whole or in its components, is just a big mess, and while it is probably totally possible to ignore that and enjoy the book, it was not something I was capable of doing.

Fragment is set mostly on Henders Island, named after the captain of a British naval vessel who spotted it while out looking for the HMS Bounty. He didn’t actually land there, which proved to be a good decision, since it turns out Henders is the last extant fragment of a supercontinent that has been isolated from the rest of Earth’s landmasses for millions of years. The bottom line? Evolution has diverged so drastically on Henders that life on that island is just not compatible with life on the rest of the planet. It’s seriously alien, seriously aggressive, and seriously dangerous.

Seriously.

So of course, a bunch of people poke it with a stick, and the sticks turn out to be animals that poke back. Lots of people die, stupid decisions get made, tactical nukes get broken out, and in the end the only people who really win are the good-hearted scientists and the reality television producers (isn’t that always the case?).

I’ll say this for Fahy: he knows how to take the outrageousness and turn it up to eleven. I guess this is what people expect in thrillers? I don’t know. I struggle a lot with evaluating thrillers and thriller-like stories, because on one hand I don’t want to turn into GENRE SNOB HULK and CRUSH THE THRILLERS for often forsaking depth in favour of a formulaic plot structure and rote characterization. On the other hand … well, what I just said. People reject science fiction and fantasy for being “too unrealistic”, but I feel that there is a great deal of science fiction and fantasy where, while the setting might be less realistic, the plot and the behaviour of the character is a lot more realistic and more engaging than most thrillers. But I’m biased—and Fragment does nothing to help in that respect.

Fragment is also science fiction, of course, and that part of the novel isn’t bad. It isn’t great either. If I had a nickel for every review that contains something to the effect of “I love the premise, but …”, then I would … well, I would have a lot of nickels, and I would probably spend most of them hiring small children to put them into those little paper rolls.

But I digress.

Fragment’s outrageous plot also comes with a matching set of outrageous characters. For instance, there is Thatcher Redmond, a completely spineless (not literally spineless, like the inhabitants of Henders Island) scientist who spends all his time thinking about gambling, how he can rape science for money, and the fact that he indirectly caused the death of his love-child. He is not a nice dude, and indeed, Fahy doesn’t seem to include any redeeming qualities about him. Not once does he even stop to consider if he is doing the wrong thing.

On the opposite end of the scale we have Nell and George. Suffice it to say, they hook up at the end of the book, in a rather awkward way that would be charming if it weren’t so bizarrely out of place. They meet for the first time ever on September 16, and the story ends on the morning of September 18, by which time they have progressed from that awkward, “Wait, your last name is Duckworth?” “What of it, Dr. Bingswanger?” phase to that equally awkward “Let’s kiss while the entire world is watching it as a live feed” phase. Everything about their relationship is trite and contrived, and it feels so inevitable yet forced that this alone is enough to make me dislike the book. Excising this wouldn’t necessarily save it, in my eyes, but at least I could point to it and say, “See? The protagonists don’t have hook up after enduring mortal peril! Fahy defied the genre!!” I can’t do that now.

Fragment does attempt to let slip the surly bonds of thrillerdom and touch the face of satire with its portrayal of reality television. The modern-day ship that stumbles across Henders Island and sets off this entire adventure is the Trident, playing host to a bunch of real-life scientists as part of a reality television show. With its ratings in trouble, a visit to an uncharted island seems like the perfect boost—all the more so when some of the scientists get killed by the indigenous wildlife. But then suddenly the military intervenes and the government shuts down your broadcast, and then what do you do? More re-runs of that awful Crystal Skull documentary, I suppose. (Can’t you at least play Mythbusters?)

Unfortunately, Fahy’s critique of reality television never seems to progress beyond the stage of a shallow portrayal of rabid producers and network executives. Cynthia, much like Thatcher Redmond or George and Nell, is herself a fairly two-dimensional character. The book is very explicit in establishing that she wants all her pet scientists to get involved on television and that she wants drama! and will do almost anything to get it. Aside from a few tentative mentions of pressures on Cynthia to perform despite her stellar track record, we never really get to see much more into her character—and she is essentially our only window on this reality television angle. I think this is a shame, because this is by far Fragment’s most original and intriguing feature. I suspect it is probably what made me want to read it in the first place, and for the most part it feels like a squandered opportunity.

I re-read that io9 review and see where the warning bells should have sounded in my head. This is what happens when books languish upon one’s to-read shelf for two years before one gets around to reading them! I don’t want to be too hard on Fragment, because I have read much worse books. It has a fairly coherent story and a well-defined conflict. The science-fictional part of the premise is stunning, and the reality TV angle is also a cool, albeit underdeveloped, addition. So there’s plenty to tolerate or even like about Fragment depending on where your preferences lie. However, it was frustrating for me to read a book like this, because I had the constant sense it was something that could have been so much more. See, I lied at the beginning of the review. I never go into a book tabula rasa, with no expectations. I always have the highest expectations for my literature, whatever it is. I can see how that might be perceived as a mistake or as additional evidence of my snobbery (but seriously, why would you need that when you already know I read Umberto Eco?). I prefer to think of it, however, as not forcing a book into a more condescending niche because it’s “just” an example of a certain genre. Every book has the potential to be something more—and some books, like Fragment, don’t quite meet that potential.

6. The Stolen One

by Suzanne Crowley

The Stolen One cover image
ISBN:
9780061232008
Format:
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published:
Greenwillow, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I was not sure how I would approach my review of The Stolen One until I came across this sentence: "My heart began to beat." This comes from the first-person narrator, Katherine "Kat" Bab, who is very much alive. From that point onward, it was open season on Suzanne Crowley and The Stolen One. Until I reached that fateful sentence, I was having difficulty forming any opinion about the book. It certainly wasn't great, but there were also very few problems with it. For the most part, it was just a bland, easy-to-read piece of historical fiction. Which, when I think about it, is not a good thing at all.

Kat and Anna are sisters; their mother Grace adopted Kat when she was a baby and has kept Kat's heritage a secret. It's a secret she takes to the grave, which quickly approaches so that Kat can drag Anna off to London to find her parents. Thanks to her amazing embroidery skills, she gets snatched up to be a maid to Queen Elizabeth I, and there are even rumours that she is Elizabeth's illegitimate daughter. Ooh, spicy!

The mystery of the identity of Kat's parents serves well enough as a kind of backdrop plot, I suppose, but Crowley goes to little trouble to make it interesting. Grace was a maid in the keeping of Katherine Parr during the latter's residency at Sudeley Castle, and excerpts from Grace's journals written at this time intersperse Kat's contemporary narration. These are our main source of clues as to the identity of Kat's parents (mostly the mother, because there is only one candidate for the father). Kat's own investigation is rather lackadaisical, and the identity of her mother becomes clear to us from Grace's journal before Kat herself can confirm it. Worst of all, Kat apparently has possession of Grace's journal the entire time, but she doesn't open it until the end of the book. Smart.

I suppose that if the mystery isn't the most intriguing aspect of The Stolen One, then that must be the relationship between village-reared Kat and queenly Elizabeth. Crowley teases us with the possibility that Kat is Elizabeth's daughter, and that puts us in the right state of mind to compare the two as members of the same family. Alas, Crowley does not really convey a good sense of who the Tudors were. While she puts an effort into characters' dialects, their modes of dress, and the living conditions at the time, she supplies a scant amount of historical background. Perhaps this is justifiable, since Kat can't really be expected to have a degree in the history of the British monarchy. Nevertheless, The Stolen One might be set during the early Elizabethan era, but aside from the need to have a young Elizabeth around and some allusions to the oppression of Catholics, there's very little about this book that makes it stand out as Elizabethan. It verges upon "generic British historical", and while I want to emphasize that it doesn't actually cross this line, it does come close.

The third of three plots concerns Kat's love life. Kat has, ostensibly, three suitors: she abandons her village's pear farmer, Christian, to go off to London; she rebukes the son of the Chief of Wardrobes, Nicolas, who chases all the skirts in the castle; and she flirts with Rafael, Lord Ludcombe, rake, and son of a woman who befriends Kat and Anna when they first arrive in London. Honestly, none of the three men seem like perfect catches: Nicolas and Rafael want her only for her body and her proximity to the Queen, and Christian treats Kat like she's property. Oh, and when he can't have Kat, he marries Anna instead. True love strikes again. It's very disappointing when Kat eventually realizes she is also a victim of true love and decides to settle down with one of them. It's all very sudden, and that makes the entire thing seem contrived.

I will level with you and confess that I might have led you astray in one respect: the copy I have here is an ARC, with the words "uncorrected proof" in big letters on the front cover and "reviewers are requested to check all quotations against the final bound book". So the somewhat unfortunate sentence I quoted in my first paragraph could very well have been corrected in the final printing, and if it has, then it's my bad for making so much of it. Nevertheless, I feel like it's a good synecdoche for my opinion of The Stolen One overall. The flaws in this book might be careless mistakes. They might be well-intentioned attempts at romance and mystery set in the Elizabethan era that just don't succeed. Either way, I don't think it matters. The Stolen One has a surfeit of plot and a dearth of characterization; it is too contrived and not nearly mysterious enough.

I wish I could have liked it more, because the ideas behind it are cool, but Crowley doesn't quite attain them. "Meh" might be better than "this is the worst book ever!!", but sometimes I feel like it's a lot more damning. At least with vitriol a book has done something to make the reader care; apathy is the cruelest reaction.

5. The Ringworld Throne

by Larry Niven

The Ringworld Throne cover image
ISBN:
9780345412966
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 368 pages
Published:
Del Rey, 1996

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Once upon a time, a science-fiction author wrote a novel about a Big Dumb object. It would go on to win the trifecta: the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for best novel, not to mention become the iconic novel about Big Dumb Objects. It is now, essentially, a classic.

Fans with engineering degrees from MIT decided to crunch the numbers and ask difficult questions about how this Big Dumb Object could actually work the way the author said it works. Because that's what fans do. However, the author decided to address these questions by writing a sequel. He included several retcons and focused a great deal on recreational sex conducted between hominids of different species for the purposes of trade negotiations (rishathra). Although it received nominations for the Hugo and the Nebula, this sequel did not win any awards.

Still the author was not satisfied! He wrote a third book in the series, introducing still more retcons and still more rishathra. He continued tweaking and modifying both the story and the physics underlying it, not recognizing all the while that, in this relentless pursuit of perfection, he was cheapening something that had once been great.

That's pretty much the story of the Ringworld trilogy, which is now a tetralogy. Although I won't rule out the possibility that I'll read Ringworld's Children, nothing could be further from my mind at this moment. The Ringworld Throne so thoroughly turned me off both the series and Larry Niven's writing in general that I am in no mood to pick up yet another sequel.

At first, this book was so uninteresting that I had to force myself to read it. For the first hundred or so pages, I seriously entertained the notion of setting it aside. However, I've only abandoned four books since joining Goodreads 3 years ago, and I did not want this to be number five. So I persevered, and while I don't regret the decision (I think it might have haunted me otherwise), this book was far from satisfying.

Seriously, what is it with Niven and rishathra? Dude, I get it: you like talking about hominids having sex. Most of the first part of The Ringworld Throne consists of people from various Ringworld species—Machine People, Grass Giants, Red herders, etc.—leading an expedition to wipe out some vampires. (Vampires, in Niven's world, are sub-sentient hominids who release pheromones that cause other hominids to have sex with them while they drink their victims' blood.) Among the expedition is Valavirgillin, one of the people Louis Wu met and befriended during The Ringworld Engineers. In between discussing tactics for killing vampires, Valavirgillin and her allies have rishathra and talk about rishathra endlessly.

It all feels rather pointless, especially because I thought I was getting another book about Louis Wu and Chmeee. Louis does play a larger role as the story progresses, but we don't see Chmeee after the prologue. We meet his son, Acolyte, who is endearing after the Kzinti fashion but otherwise essentially another set piece for Niven's increasingly-bizarre chess game among Louis, the Hindmost, and his Protector-Antagonist-of-the-Week.

The original Ringworld fascinated because it was, well, original. The concept was new, and Niven had assembled an eclectic ensemble of humans and aliens to explore the Ringworld and get into trouble. And it had a textbook example of the sense of wonder that good science-fiction novels, especially those with Big Dumb Objects, can evoke. Niven, if nothing else, is great at discussing scale, and the Ringworld can make one feel small and insignificant.

Even The Ringworld Engineers had its strong points. Niven upgraded the Ringworld's backstory, positing a new species as the engineers and giving Louis a truly enormous problem to solve. Though he is successful in the end, he does so at (he thinks) a terrible price. And so when The Ringworld Throne opens, we see a tired Louis Wu ready to retreat into his autumn years. He is going to strike off across the Ringworld alone, without any boosterspice to keep him young, determined to age and die normally. This story alone would be intriguing, but Niven does not leave well enough alone and insists on including the parallel story of Valavirgillin's Vampire Slayers.

In addition to the unnecessary emphasis on rishathra, this storyline feels so out of place in a science-fiction novel. Yes, there are various non-human species, but most of the technology is medieval or just barely industrial, and the threat is just vampires. If the book had been published last year, we might be able to accuse Niven of riding the vampire craze set off by those novels you've all heard about. As it is, I have trouble understanding the point to this entire storyline. And I don't know if it's just because the story failed to entice me whatsoever, but I had a very difficult time following the order of events and keeping track of who was who. There were times when I just skimmed the pages until I reached a chapter with Louis Wu and read from there.

Unfortunately, Louis' story doesn't make much more sense. He enters into some sort of contractual arrangement with yet another Protector, and they then engage in a test of wills/minds, jockeying for superiority while the Hindmost whines about stepping discs. Although more nominally science-fictional than Valavirgillin's story, this plot also fails to pass the "Make Me Care" test. The Protectors are an intriguing alien species, but Niven relies far too much on speculation among his characters as a form of exposition. While it might make for a lighter touch when it comes to narration, this has the one drawback of allowing Niven an easy way out when it comes to retconning in later books: the characters were mistaken, or lying, or both. So I just don't feel like investing much time or effort into learning about a backstory that is just going to get revised anyway.

I wish, having now read these three books, that I could somehow take everything I like from each of the books and mash it up into a single, coherent Ringworld narrative. There's something good in each of them—yes, even in this one—but it's lost in a lot of mediocre and downright awful stuff. Niven shares a problem all-too-common among other science-fiction writers: his ability to come up with big ideas far exceeds his mastery of the actual craft of writing. Niven is a good writer, but he is a good writer with awesome ideas, an essentially disappointing combination.

The Ringworld Throne is, as I said earlier, likely the conclusion for me of the Ringworld series, at least for now. And if you are considering the series, consider reading only the first book; it did earn its place in the canon of classical science fiction. I cannot say the same for its sequels, particularly this one.

Lastly, for Terence:
Kritical kitty sez u broke ur scients ficshun

4. Mainspring

by Jay Lake

Mainspring cover image
ISBN:
9780765356369
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 324 pages
Published:
Tor Science Fiction, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Why hello, alternate universe with airships; we meet again.

This was not the way I intended to start reading Jay Lake. I heard about him when Green came out and added that to my to-read list, but when I was at a used book store, Mainspring and Escapement were there, so I bought them. I always regret when my first experience with a new author I'm anticipating reading is a sour one. Sadly, Mainspring testifies to the dangers of setting a lousy story in an amazing world.

Lake takes steampunk to its logical extreme and has created a universe literally designed to function as clockwork. The Earth rotates around a mainspring (hence the title). All around the equator is a wall of mountains topped with brass teeth that mesh with an orbital track; the Earth revolves using gears. With God's craftsmanship evident in the cosmos, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the universe was designed by a Maker. Lake reinforces this when he sends a brass angel to incite his protagonist off on a quest. Nevertheless, as Mainspring unfolds, the question of the universe's origin and meaning is one of many things that are more complicated than they first appear.

I don't like Hethor. He's not that smart, not that deep, and all too foolhardy. If the fate of the world really were in Hethor's hands, as they are in Mainspring, we would be Screwed with a capital S. As it is, he manages to Screw us over (which is a good thing, what with rewinding the mainspring of the Earth) despite channelling epic fail for the entire novel. The archangel Gabriel tells Hethor he must acquire the lost Key Perilous, which he can then use to rewind the Earth's mainspring. Of course, being the cryptic messenger of God that he is, Gabriel fails to instruct Hethor how to go about doing this, or even provide a hint as to the Key's location. Hethor stumbles around the world for a few hundred pages, getting too many people killed along the way, and doesn't end up finding the Key. That's OK though, because it turns out that as long as he gets himself to the mainspring, he can rewind it anyway.

I had high hopes for Hethor at the beginning of his quest. And Mainspring is totally in the style of the epic fairy-tale quest. Hethor encounters a number of supernatural guardians he must defeat along his way to finding the Key and saving the world, not the least of which is William of Ghent, a "sorcerer" and Rational Humanist who doesn't seem to know what he wants or what Hethor wants. Lake is never entirely clear on anyone's motivations, and Hethor doesn't bat an eye when his actions cause William to fall (but not fatally) into the depths of the clockwork Earth. No, for this young boy who until a few weeks ago was a clockmaker's apprentice in New Haven, almost killing someone is par for the course.

My apathy for Hethor grew measurably at this point, and its growth proceeded apace for the rest of the book. Despite its quest-like structure, Mainspring makes Hethor into an utterly reactionary protagonist. He just goes along with whatever happens to him; it's very mellow, but it's also a frustrating lack of direction for someone who is supposed to have a very specific purpose. Although he says he is concerned about having no idea where the Key Perilous might be located, his actions (or lack thereof) tell a different story. No, Hethor, in his infinite wisdom and laziness, is content to continue following a breadcrumb trail of golden tablets that drop from the sky.

So Mainspring consists of an uninspiring main character wandering from conflict to conflict. He's supposed to be a misogynistic young prude from Victorian New England, but he has no qualms about having sex with a woman from among the hirsute people who live near the Equatorial Wall in Africa. (This entire part of the book made me very uncomfortable. I recognize that Lake challenges Hethor's internalized Victorian sensibilities about savages and the superiority of English imperialism. Still, a whole bunch of furry people killing in his name and viewing him as a kind of messenger-messiah … well, I'll leave it at that.)

The whole idea of a clockwork Earth is fascinating when expressed as a sentence, but there the romance with this fantasy must end. Lake just doesn't put enough work into convincing me his alternate world is viable. So Queen Victoria still rules the New England colonies. Why? Why are Britain and China the dominant powers? What else is different in this world where no one in the book has ever been to Australia? Instead of providing much background, Lake focuses instead on Hethor's quest, about which I'm torn. Do I not care about it because agents of a force I guess is God always seem to rescue Hethor whenever he's in peril? Do I not care because Hethor, despite not following any instructions he's given, manages to succeed anyway, and it all seems rather pointless in the end?

At first I intended to give this book two stars. However, I have struggled to think of a single positive example to balance my negative tone. I'm drawing a blank. So while I wanted to be charitable, I really can't justify it: Mainspring is disappointing, frustrating, and not all that entertaining.

3. Invasive Procedures

by Orson Scott Card

Invasive Procedures cover image
ISBN:
9780765352828
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 416 pages
Published:
Tor Books, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Genetics is one of the reasons I'm glad we have science-fiction authors. So far physicists have conspired to make faster-than-light travel impossible (or at least highly impractical), so perhaps we won't be meeting any intelligent alien species any time soon. In the past ten years, however, our understanding of genetics and the human genome has grown considerably. As we become more adept at manipulating our genome, whether it's to cure hereditary diseases or augment healthy genes, we must confront questions that, until recently, were exclusively the domain of science fiction. We will be faced with moral crises as we struggle to define what it means to be human, whether parents should be able to choose fundamental attributes of their children, the lengths to which we will go to make people "better." These are questions without easy answers, and we are damn lucky that there are brave men and women blazing a trail, looking at our options. When considered carefully and thoughtfully, the results are stories like Nothing Human, "Act One", and Lilith's Brood.

When done poorly in the style of a thriller, well, you get Invasive Procedures.

Excuse me while I ascend into my ivory tower of literary elitism, not that I'm here to disparage the quality of thrillers in general or, indeed, engage in any sort of genre-ist bigotry the likes of which has been perpetrated upon my own beloved genres of science fiction and fantasy all too much. I won't lie, however: the title of this book nearly turned me off; I picked it up because it has Orson Scott Card's name on the cover (and it was free), and that is where the good times stopped.

Calling the characters of Invasive Procedures "cardboard" would be an affront to thick paper stock. There is not a single memorable character in this book. The bad guy, George Galen, is a stereotypical discredited scientist who leads a cult and plots to make humanity better even as he ensures his own immortality. The Healers have gone around curing people of incurable genetic diseases through the use of personalized gene therapy. To anyone other than their intended recipient, such therapies manifest as virulent and rapidly-fatal (people die within minutes of being exposed). So the fictitious Biohazard Agency, or BHA, decides it has to take the Healers down. Considering that the director of the BHA becomes one of Galen's brainwashed lackeys, complete with tremors and a penchant for referring to Galen as "the master," you can guess how well that plan goes.

This brainwashing thing really irks me. It strikes me as a very lazy way to turn good guys into antagonists and traitors. Building betrayal, laying the right seeds and creating the proper conditions for treachery, is a complicated business. It must be done subtly enough that it is believable, but obviously enough that when the reader looks back, the clues are all in place. But a solid, well-executed Face Heel Turn is just so rewarding! Brainwashing is the lazy writer's way out. It certainly can be used to great effect sometimes; this book just isn't one of them.

The trouble here with brainwashing is that it removes volition, and without volition, the conflict in the story is meaningless. If Galen just brainwashes his way into power, that is bad, but it isn't very interesting. Betrayal is interesting and dramatic because it is real, because a traitor is responsible for his or actions, whereas a brainwashed saliva addict is not.

This might be forgivable, except that volition—or the lack of it—is a big problem in Invasive Procedures. None of our characters, not even the ones not dropping Galen-spit, seem particularly interested in exercising their free will. Frank Hartman, the "hero" of the book, accomplished his major contribution prior to the story's beginning; he already has a "countervirus" when he joins the BHA. The rest of the book consists of him being manipulated by the lackey-director and demonstrating his intelligence and manliness in front of the heroine/love-interest, Dr. Monica Owens.

Of any of the characters, Monica's situation and motivation is the most acceptable. She becomes Galen's personal surgeon because he kidnaps her young son. That's understandable, I suppose. Card and Johnston don't give us much time to get beyond this most primitive need to protect. They make it clear that the brainwashing victims don't have much choice in the matter, and in a similar way they harp upon Monica's powerlessness. Powerlessness and not having a choice seems to be a big thing in this book. As with all the characters in this book, the narrator presents the basic facts of Monica's life in stark exposition. We learn almost nothing about who she is from what she does, because she does so very little. It's as if the authors are afraid to give their characters anything to do, lest the characters disrupt their precious little plot.

As far as that goes, there is nothing about Invasive Procedures that stands out to recommend it above the average thriller. Card and Johnston never dig deeper than the surface of the issues they raise, totally dashing my hopes that this book would prove any good. To be fair, they deftly manipulate the emotional consequences of the Healers' actions, tugging on heartstrings as we see a young girl suffering from sickle cell anemia. That's all well and good, but it doesn't quite balance against the hackneyed exposition and the horror-movie level bad science: a virus that kills people in minutes, a chip that rewires the brain in seconds to restore the memories of a dead man, not to mention a virus that rewrites Frank's entire genetic code!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that this book, while nominally science fiction, is not good science fiction. It asks Big Questions, but it deigns not to facilitate the Big Discussions that should naturally follow, preferring instead to force its characters to conform to a convoluted, largely unexciting and predictable plot. If you are looking for a creepy book about organ transplantation and rogue gene therapy, this is not it. Likewise, though my experience in this area is lacking, I wouldn't even recommend Invasive Procedures for its thriller qualities.

Of course, it's entirely my own fault for reading it. No one forced me, recommended it to me, or even pointed out its existence. I picked it up off a table because it was looking forlorn, knowing full well that despite Card's name on the cover, it probably wasn't going to be very good. Sometimes books like this surprise me, hence the popular adage discounting prejudice based on the cover. Sometimes books like this don't surprise me. Invasive Procedures fails across the board, with flat characters, a predictable plot, and unsatisfactory science-fictional elements.

2. Renegade's Magic

by Robin Hobb

Renegade's Magic  cover image
ISBN:
9780060758301
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 704 pages
Published:
Eos, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I suppose we should call this one 600 Pages of Nevare Eating Things and Arguing with Himself.

In this conclusion to Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy, Nevare faces the enemy within, who goes by the name "Soldier's Boy." As the story opens, Nevare flees from Gettys after magically faking his own death. He heads straight for the Speck forest, where he unleashes his magic on the King's Road to wreak havoc and set back construction. Such a great expenditure burns his reserves of magic, which manifests itself as extreme weight loss. It also lets Soldier's Boy take control of their shared body, relegating Nevare to the role of observer/annoying head-side-kick for the majority of the book.

Soldier's Boy promptly demonstrates he is just as incompetent at using magic and making friends as Nevare is. Since he's uncool and no one likes him, he eats his feelings (though he claims he's just trying to "build up his magic," I think we can all read between the lines here). Meanwhile, he and Nevare continue a battle of the unwitted as it gradually becomes apparent that the only way either one of them can properly wield the magic to save the Specks from the Gernians is if these two personalities merge to form a unified, whole Nevare. And neither one wants that to happen.

I've thought long and hard about what I want to say about Renegade's Magic and the Soldier's Son trilogy in general. Truthfully, I'm finding it difficult to cultivate enough enthusiasm to praise or criticize. Shaman's Crossing's was worthy of the former, and Forest Mage was worthy of the latter. In comparison, this book is a bland mixture of the two.

Renegade's Magic is an improvement over Forest Mage, if only because we get a complete look at the Speck society. Just as our exposure to Gernian ideology made Shaman's Crossing more interesting, the Speck ideology forms a major component of this book, and it is no less worthy of attention. The Specks, though "primitive" in technology in comparison to the Gernians and ourselves, have a very complex hierarchical society. At the top, of course, are the Great Ones, the Speck mages. Below them are the feeders, attendants to the Great Ones. These two echelons are honoured by their kin-clans, for Great Ones bring prestige to a clan, and the feeders keep their Great Ones happy and healthy. Child-rearing is a collective effort by the clan, and the clans themselves are migratory.

Speck society has a lot to recommend it. I wouldn't want to be a Great One, despite the literal and social power that accompanies such status. Maybe it's an aversion to or horror of obesity, or a reaction against the idea of having "feeders." But Hobb depicts a people much more attuned to nature than our own technologically-elevated societies. More importantly, we finally get a diverse culture to associate to the name that has been uttered ever since the first book. The Specks are no longer some spectre of an enemy out east. They are a group of clans, far from monolithic, struggling to survive.

A small part of me was hoping Soldier's Boy's raid on Gettys would work and drive the Gernians away from the frontier. It seemed like the least distasteful option on the table. Of course, I didn't expect it to work. Nevertheless, I am disappointed with the way Hobb ultimately resolves the conflict between the Gernians and the Specks. It seems like cheating, a distraction instead of a resolution. And "the magic" accomplishes it all through Nevare, without Nevare having much of an influence at all. This disempowerment of the protagonist is never a good thing; it verges perilously close to deus ex machina territory, and it robs the resolution of its reward.

And then after that resolution, the story doesn't end. No, it keeps on going in a coda as a restored Nevare leaves the Specks behind to return to Gernia. Because you can go home again? This ending, more than anything else about Renegade's Magic disappoints me. After making such a big deal of the division between Nevare and Soldier's Boy and the uncertainty over what would happen when the two merge … the result is nothing. The resulting character seems suspiciously like Nevare: Gernian and whiny.

It's obvious from the first book that Hobb had set herself a difficult task. After all, her characters are just as nasty and self-centred as those involved in the colonization of the Americas, and look how well that went. So I'm not sure what I expected when it comes to resolving the conflict between the Gernians and the Specks, especially because I seem so dissatisfied in any "magical" ending. Despite my reservations, I will give Hobb credit for her careful foreshadowing in earlier books and her ability to make lesser plot threads coalesce during the climax.

Unfortunately, the exciting moments, such as Soldier's Boy's raid and the climax, are few and far between here. Renegade's Magic is almost as dull as Forest Mage: in the latter, Nevare spent most of the book as a cemetery sentry; in the former, Soldier's Boy spends most of his time eating and butting heads with other Speck Great Ones. Neither book is in any particular hurry to tell its story, and neither does it with the skill that Hobb demonstrates in Soldier's Son. I'm at a loss to explain why this is, why the first book of a trilogy can be so good while the sequels suffer from structural and narrative flaws. Some of this must be subjective, since other people don't have as much of a problem with these two books.

Objectively, though, I think it comes down to a problem of focus. Take Orandula, the god of death, life, balances, and smartass carrion birds, as an example. Great character; I love its dialogue. Still, was there much of a point? It seemed like such a random addition to this universe, more useful as a plot device than a thematic one. Hobb's insistence on spending so much time on Soldier's Boy's careful rebuilding of his reserves and training of the Speck "army" seems like little more than padding to me. I wish there had been a more tangible goal to which the story could have built, something for Soldier's Boy and Nevare to do other than bicker and concoct half-baked schemes while waiting for the magic to take over and solve everything.

Hobb has a nice writing style and a good ability for describing the world her characters inhabit. Yet these books fail to provide the type of complex narrative I desire in my fantasy. The issues are there. The characters are waiting, but they aren't given enough direction, and Hobb keeps them on too tight a leash. Sorry to say, but Renegade's Magic is far more representative of the trilogy than Shaman's Crossing.

1. Forest Mage

by Robin Hobb

Forest Mage cover image
ISBN:
9780060758295
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 726 pages
Published:
Eos, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Huh. Probably should have just called this one Bad Things Happen to Nevare.

Robin Hobb is swiftly spending the credit she earned with her last book. If giving Shaman's Crossing a second chance dispelled my vaguely unpleasant memories of it, those memories are returning with renewed vigour, despite the fact that I have not read Forest Mage before.

Bad things happened to Nevare in the first book, of course. Bad things have to happen to the protagonist; without conflict the story would be rather boring. Yet there was always a sense of hope, an idea that Nevare would somehow rally and carry the day. It seems as if Forest Mage is a concerted effort to tell us, "No, no, he really can't win this one." Nevare's situation goes from inconvenient to bad to worse to stupendously worse to sentenced to death worse. During this time, he gets unmanageably fat and goes around making a lot of stupid decisions. Nor is he alone in this endeavour.

It's tempting to call Forest Mage a tragedy, because there is really no other word to describe it. Nevare is a man torn between two peoples, Gernians and Specks. Neither will back down, and he seems at a loss to reconcile their opposing goals. Speck magic has seized control of Nevare's body, and his obesity freaks everyone else out because they don't have KFC in Gernia. Nevare's father, who was a level-headed, intelligent, and thoughtful man in the first book is suddenly a tyrannical harpy. His sister and his love interest both abandon him. Eventually, he is reduced to the status of an exiled cemetery sentry in a border town. And that lasts until he gets accused of murder and sentenced to hang, after being flogged with a thousand lashes.

It's just depressing, but it isn't all that tragic. True tragedy comes from hamartia. The main character has to make a mistake which leads to terrible consequences. Nevare did make a mistake when he went on the Kidona spiritual quest that culminated in his failure to kill Tree Woman. Yet the consequences for this act have been disproportionate to his failure; moreover, his subsequent misfortune seems to be caused by a manipulative force ("the magic") instead of Nevare's continued lack of judgement.

So whereas the misfortune visited upon Nevare in the first book came from his own doing, most of what happens to him in Forest Mage seems excessive and external. Hobb pushes him, roughly and crudely, out of Gernian society and into an existential no-man's land between Gernia and the Speck forest. The climax of the book is Nevare's realization that he must give himself over to the magic, because otherwise it will continue to bring ruin upon him and those close to him. But why, oh why, did that take 726 pages?

And why did Nevare stay in Gettys after he learned Spink and Epiny had moved there? He knew he would not be able to conceal his presence from them for long. He suspected that they would all meet a bad end. But no, instead of fleeing north or south along the border, he chose to stay. So if I want to make this more of a tragedy, if I want to pin this on Nevare, I have to accept that Nevare is some kind of idiot who doesn't deserve to be my protagonist anyway.

I do not like the choices Forest Mage offers me. I do not like being in this position. The backstory here is so rich, so full of possibility, and glimpsing that possibility was so easy in Shaman's Crossing. The difference between these two books, in terms of quality, is night and day. Both are a testament to what Hobb can do. The latter is Hobb exhibiting some of her best abilities as a fantasist. The former … well, I don't know.

I just have a hard time accepting some of the story. In particular, the change that has come over Nevare's father between books startles me. He was hard and demanding even in the first book, and not a little conservative and set in his ways. Yet he was fair and honest too. That is not the case here. Not only does he refuse to give Nevare any sort of fair hearing, but he quickly becomes all sorts of paranoid, willing to accuse anyone and everyone of abetting Nevare in some kind of "scheme" to stay obese. The father from the first book was completely gone by this point, and I was sort of skimming until the plague ravaged Burvelle's Landing and Nevare set off on the next step in his journey to obscurity.

Alternatively disturbing and depressing, ultimately pointless, Forest Mage is an alarming reversal from the potential awakened by Shaman's Crossing. I don't know what went wrong here. I am hoping Renegade's Magic manages to pick up what's left of this plot and fashion it into some kind of acceptable resolution. As it is, Nevare is just a tool of "the magic" now, which wants what it can't have. I can see, on an intellectual level, the cleverness behind Hobb's plot—but the story, on the whole, just lacks a crucial spark.

Once more plz, with feeling?