When it comes to the hatred of a 'worst' book, the reaction isn't really that much different. You either get a whole lot of venomous spite, or a painstakingly constructed critical dismissal. Of course, being a rebellious sort of reader, I find myself dabbling in those 'worst of' lists on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes it's just a matter of wanting to read something completely different; other times it's just a contrary desire to prove people wrong; and sometimes it's a matter of finding some sort of dark appeal in whatever element it was that sparked their hatred.
Anyway, with that said, I wanted to look at the issue from two different sides.
To start with, I scoured a number of 'worst of' lists around the net (Best Fantasy Books has a great list, as does Goodreads here and here) and restricted myself to the 'worst' 20 titles on each list. These are books variously described as insipid, 2-dimensional, utterly predictable, uninspiring, terribly written, bland, and unrealistic. While there are a few I've never read and never plan to read (Twilight, I'm looking at you), and a few I agree with wholeheartedly (sorry, Narnia lovers), I was surprised by how many 'worst' reads I enjoyed.
- The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb seems to get a lot of universal hatred, no matter what list you're looking at, but I don't get it. It's not the greatest fantasy epic I've ever read, not by any means, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first book - enough so that I picked up books 2 and 3, even if I haven't read them yet. Interesting world building, a creative system of magic, some nicely flawed heroes, and a dangerous sort of sexuality that, I will admit, has a Mord'Sith sort of flavor to it.
- Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind is a series where I'll agree to meet the haters halfway. The first book absolutely blew me away when I read it, and I couldn't snatch up the second fast enough. As for the rest of the series . . . well, the third book was okay, but after that the series got progressively worse. It felt as if Goodkind lost interest in framing his political philosophy with an actual story, and then fell into the trap of writing more, not because the story needed it, but because it continued to sell.
- Dragonlance & Forgotten Realms get dumped on a lot, but you have to take them in context. They're a sort of genre gateway drug, a bridge between role-playing and reading, and are responsible for bringing a lot of people to the genre - authors and readers both. Yes, it's been 20 years, and I honestly don't care to find out whether Raistlin and Drizzt stand up to an adult reread, but I have extremely fond memories of what Weis, Hickman, and Salvatore crafted back in the TSR days.
- Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks is another series where I'll agree to meet the haters somewhere in the middle. The first trilogy is a classic for all the right reasons, and as much as it owes to Tolkien, I'd argue it's a far more accessible read. Yes, the series did get ridiculously repetitive, and it seemed as if Brooks retold the exact same story several times with different characters, but moving on to explore the origins of Shannara seems to have rekindled something. The last few books have been markedly different, not to mention better, and I'm back on the fan side of the fence again.
- Gor by John Norman is a series that's almost too easy to hate. What I find odd, though, is that it likely wouldn't be subject to a fraction of that hatred if it were marketed as erotica instead of fantasy - what's taboo and sexist for one genre is perfectly acceptable for another. Skim the bondage fantasies (if they're an issue), and skip the novels outside the Tarl Cabot storyline, and there's a lot of old-school, pulp sci-fi, sword-and-sorcery adventure to be enjoyed. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, but sexed up.
- The Wayfarer Redemption by Sara Douglass is a series that I admittedly don't remember well enough to really say much about, except to say that I enjoyed it enough to read all 6 books. From what I do remember, it had an interesting story, some edgy characters, and a really solid mythology behind it all. It may very well be cheesy and clumsy, as the critics complain, but it couldn't have been that horrible if I persevered through a half dozen books.
- Lord of the Isles by David Drake is one of those series I've enjoyed for precisely the same reasons so many people seem to hate it. It's a traditional fantasy that really takes no chances, and does nothing particularly original with the material, but which is a fun diversion. It borders on camp at times, and is formulaic in structure, but the writing flows well and the characters are immensely likable. I pick up a new book every once in a while when I want a popcorn fantasy read to enjoy, and it's like revisiting old friends.
- The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson is admittedly a difficult read, with a main character who is a total ass, and I get that a lot of readers can't get past the rape scene, but it all comes down to context. You have an angry, bitter man, dying of leprosy, necessarily cut off from all physical contact. He believes the fantasy world in which he finds himself is all a dream, with no real-world consequences to his actions, so he lashes out and indulges his frustrations. It's his personal growth and ultimate understanding of those consequences that makes the series so compelling, along with the lingering, carefully juggled question as to whether or not the richly imagined fantasy world is a dream or reality. Dark and difficult, yes, but brilliant as well.
- The Sum of All Men by David Farland is a series that I felt started off strong, so I have a hard time hating it, but which did exhaust any appeal for me after a few books. The writing was decent, the characters strong, and the novelty of the magic system was exciting at first, but it began to feel like a late night role playing session that stupidly refused to end. It's hard to maintain any semblance of dramatic tension when characters just keep endowing themselves with more powers in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. That being said, the first 2 books are worth a read.
- The Belgariad by David Eddings is another series I don't remember well enough to defend, but which I enjoyed enough to read all 5 books. It was nothing special or remarkable, and didn't leave any sort of lasting impression on me, but it fed my fantasy habit well enough back in high school. I think I may have actually started on The Malloreon but, if I did, I don't remember anything about it. Take that for what it's worth.
- Wit'ch Fire by James Clemens gets almost as much universal hatred as Robert Newcomb's saga, but I don't get it either. It was a largely generic fantasy novel, formulaic and predictable, but sometimes that's exactly what you're looking for - a comfortable read that entertains, but which doesn't challenge. The characters could have been imbued with a little more personality, but it's brisk pacing stands out in my memory as something unique. As for the apostrophe issue, unless you're reading the story aloud, I don't see them as an issue.
That, for what it's worth, is my take on defending the 'worst' of the genre. Come back next week and we'll take a look at some of those titles I bought out of spite, just to prove the haters wrong . . . and which I thoroughly enjoyed.
In the meantime, share your thoughts on 'best' and 'worst' below.
In the meantime, share your thoughts on 'best' and 'worst' below.