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Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Reviewed by Liz Bourke

Theft of Swords US cover

Theft of Swords UK cover

Michael J. Sullivan is that rare beast, a man who self-published six books to moderate financial success, and parlayed that success into a deal with a major publisher. Theft of Swords collects the previously self-published The Crown Conspiracy (2007) and Avempartha (2009) in one volume. As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. Bad words. But I'll restrain myself, and restrict my vocabulary to standards acceptable in polite company. The book's own words ought to be enough to condemn it.

I've read bad books. Tedious tie-ins, books that had a good idea and execrable execution, books where the standard of writing barely crossed competent and where clichés swarmed like schools of toothy fish. Thanks to my broad experience and lack of discrimination, Theft of Swords isn't, quite, the absolute worst book I've ever read.

But it loses the prize by a very, very slender margin.

Our protagonists are the honorable and infamous thief duo Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. Hadrian is a mercenary who wields a short sword and a bastard sword. He was trained by his father, a blacksmith, and we eventually learn—or, rather, are hit over the head with obvious foreshadowing—that he's been taught secret knightly skills handed down for a thousand years. Royce is a half-elf with a dark past and a tormented soul, who is—it seems—in love with a Hooker With A Heart of Gold. In The Crown Conspiracy, they're hired to steal a sword from a palace chapel, but things go wrong. When they're blamed for the death of King Amrath, imprisoned, and sentenced to execution, the Princess Arista insists that they kidnap her brother Prince Alric in return for her aid in escaping from the dungeons.

Henceforth, the plot bears a the marked resemblance to the kind of D&D campaign GMed by a thirteen-year-old boy whose naïve attachment to the worst kind of tropes hasn't yet been shaken by contact with reality or actual human beings. There are no characters here. Not really. There are collections of stereotypes strung together into caricatures, which are very occasionally enlivened by dialogue that sounds like something a real human might say. More often, however, we get this:

I'll have you flailed to death! Release me this instant. (p. 62)

or,

The blackguard means to have the kingdom for his own! (p. 164)

or,

His father is a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions. (p. 174)

Royce and Hadrian escape from the dungeon, and kidnap the prince. Following Arista's instructions—who they've only just met—they travel to a secret prison and introduce the prince (who just happens to want them dead) to a secret prisoner, who (Arista claims) will be able to sort everything out. Within the next sixty pages, we encounter a monk who has never left his abbey, and—despite the abbey being a haven for travelers—has never seen a woman and is also under the impression that horses may come in shades of green or blue. Alric and our heroes convince each other they're all on the same side. Shortly thereafter, we make the acquaintance of Esrahaddon, an ancient and mysterious wizard, immured in the secret prison for a thousand years, who speaks in ungrammatical thous. Like Yoda, he speaketh, but he makes less sense.

Measures thou see art but trifles. Walls, guards and the abyss stand least among the gauntlet. Lo what works of magic ensnare me! Magical locks claim all the doors here as smoke and dream they vanish with passage. (p. 113)

If you're going to write in a dialect with which you're not familiar, whether archaic or foreign, it behoves you to become familiar with it. If you're writing in Early Modern English (a language still read and performed, and not just by Shakespeare buffs), it behoves you—and your editor, and your copyeditor—to get the basic grammatical structures right. Early Modern English does have a grammar. And if you don't know the grammar offhand, the internet does.

The measures thou see'st be but trifles.

Esrahaddon only sticks around long enough to handwave mysteriously, point out the obvious, and declare that he has more important things to do than help Prince Alric regain his throne. Esrahaddon is a lucky wizard. He escapes both the scenes in which the Evil Plotters have a conference to explain to each other their Evil Plot (which involves getting an archduke the throne, and doesn't make any practical sense) and the most hideously described battle scenes I have ever had the displeasure to read.

A vanguard [of the attacking party] rode up and reported a strong force [of the defending party] entrenched around the city. The nobles ordered their regiments to form ranks. Flags relayed messages, archers strung their bows, and the army transformed themselves into blocks of men. In long lines of three across, they moved as one. The archers were summoned forward and moved ahead just behind the foot soldiers. (p. 196)

Knights on horseback charge fixed defenses. People defending a city do not bother to make use of the walls. The attackers say they "have to break a hole in that wall" and have no siege machinery. Three flights of arrows is considered a lot. Men with rapiers fight knights in plate armor.

In the meantime, Princess Arista is on trial for witchcraft, while Royce and Hadrian mount a rescue mission. Treacherous dwarves and Evil Scheming Aristocrats all come tumbling down into a truly terrible heap, and Prince Alric regains his throne. If this seems a little confusing to you, trust me, it was to me, too. Arista is on Alric's side—she isn't—she is but seems like she isn't—she really is, and Alric's sure of it, despite previous hints to the contrary. The characterization is wildly inconsistent, and Sullivan has chosen to attempt to increase tension by withholding any kind of clarity of information from the reader.

The Crown Conspiracy, the first half of Theft of Swords, is incoherent, awful, and as full of as much trite, stereotype-ridden nonsense as the worst kind of Forgotten Realms fanfic. Avempartha, the second half, is marginally more coherent. In all other ways it is, if anything, even worse.

The plot, what there is of it, involves the conspiracies of evil scheming churchmen, a magical sword hidden in an elvish tower, a terrible bloodthirsty beast which looks like a dragon, breathes fire like a dragon, and lairs like a dragon, but is always referred to as a Gilarabrywn, and a Naïve Farmgirl straight out of central casting. The farmgirl, whose name is Thrace Annabell Wood, comes to the city to find Royce and Hadrian. She wants to ask them to steal a magic sword that can kill the evil dragon Gilarabrywn.

Thrace Annabell Wood is the character that, for me, highlights what is worst about these books. In The Crown Conspiracy, I could put the author's female-gender-related hiccups down to a broad and bemusing lack of writing chops. Princess Arista is characterized with wild inconsistency—by turns decisive princess and dithering damsel—but so, speaking generally, is every character who's more than a walk-on. But in Thrace's first scene, she's the target of an interrupted rape. When Royce and Hadrian rescue her, she cries. A lot. And proceeds to thank them on her knees, after they get her cleaned up. Once clean, she proves to be a "young beauty with startling blue eyes and golden hair" (p. 240) that "shimmers." Sullivan's female characters, all two of the ones with major speaking parts, are infantilized and sexualized in the same breath. From the perspective of a woman who reads fantasy, this is disappointing. It is, in fact, more than a little disturbing.

As it transpires, the wizard Esrahaddon is responsible for Thrace's quest to find our two protagonists. The mysterious ancient wizard is back, but fortunately for the reader's sanity, this time he has fewer ungrammatical thous. He does, however, have his fingers in the dragon Gilarabrywn mess. Which is confusing and needlessly complicated even by the standards of The Crown Conspiracy. I'm none too sure why the Gilarabrywn—which I will henceforth refer to as the dragon, rather than calling a rabbit a Smeerp—is terrorizing the particular country village it's terrorizing, but some scheming churchmen have hatched a plot to set up a (fake) Lost Heir to an empire that's been gone a thousand years. They plan to get their patsy to kill the dragon and thereby prove his credentials. Unfortunately for them—and everyone else who's around when the dragon comes to call—things do not go as planned. Meanwhile, Hadrian is teaching Thrace's father how to fight, and Royce is visiting the elvish tower to find the magic dragon-killing sword (and get in touch with his roots) at the behest of the wizard Esrahaddon. The Princess Arista and some church knights are also around to pontificate, scream, weep, and be killed or kidnapped by the dragon. The general arc of the Plot Coupon Monster-Killing story is obvious to all, and where Avempartha diverges even slightly from the cliché, it's only to descend to new and even more cringeworthy depths of excruciating clunkery, which includes such dialogue as:

"No one is going to kill that thing," Hadrian told him. "Listen, I have been here for 3 [sic] nights. I have seen it and I know what it can do." (p. 359)

and such political theory as:

The feudal system so prevalent across the four nations held them back, chaining the kingdoms to a poverty of weakness and divided interests. What they needed was a centralized government with an enlightened ruler and a talented, educated bureaucracy overseeing every aspect of life. (p. 385)

and such glittering description as:

Elaborately decorated in silver and gold encrusted with fine sparkling gems, the pommel caught the starlight and sparkled. (p. 431)

In the ultimate showdown, Arista, kidnapped by the dragon (who, like Esrahaddon, speaks fake Early Modern English) bursts into tears as she's rescued by Royce and Esrahaddon; Hadrian and Thrace's father fight the dragon; and Thrace? Well, Thrace watches her father die and goes Inigo Montoya on the dragon.

"Daddy!" she screamed, running to him. She scrambled up the slope, crying as she came . . .

She would not let him go. She could not; he was all there was. She sobbed and wailed, clutching his shirt, kissing his cheek and forehead . . . (p. 447)

Unfortunately, her You killed my father; prepare to die moment fails to bring the win. We later learn that the death of her Daddy! has driven her into suicidal depression. This is really not a positive representation of women with agency.

For our conclusion, Esrahaddon acts mysterious, and engages in patently obvious foreshadowing—ominous and intriguing hints are neither ominous nor intriguing if you can immediately point at the people to whom they refer, a fact of which Sullivan seems entirely unaware—the scheming churchmen want Thrace, now semi-comatose from grief, for a Lost Heir figurehead, and sundry elves are, in an amazing and suggestive non sequitur, having a "congress of nations."

Theft of Swords is the kind of book that is so bad that it infects other perfectly innocent books with its badness. It is a screaming black hole of the very worst influences of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, mixed with naïve stereotypes, Dept. of Redundancy Dept. levels of word repetition, and prose that doesn't have much further to go before it plumbs the uttermost depths where the Eye of Argon dwells, down in the turgid, purple caverns of the deep. I finished it out of sheer disbelief at its badness, and my advice as a result is Don't follow my example.

If you see this book, run, do not walk, in the opposite direction. Your brain will thank you.

Comments

Posted by Adam Roberts at January 13, 2012 10:49 AM:

Bravo! *Stands up, applauds heartily* Great review.

Posted by Nic at January 13, 2012 11:11 AM:

His father is a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions.

That is... special. Seriously, how did this stuff get past a professional editor?

Thanks for the Friday morning chuckle!

Posted by E. M. Edwards at January 13, 2012 12:09 PM:

Better you than me, sister.

I wish I could say this is an aberration. But while it may be an extreme example, there are similar titles published by actual publishers, and purchased, the abyss help them, by actual readers every year.

Books like this either give hope, considering that a monstrous lack of ability is no bar to getting published, just a slight bump in the road - or else utter, soul crushing despair, highlighting that a not insignificant percentage of published genre novels are crap.

Perhaps both.

Posted by E. M. Edwards at January 13, 2012 12:26 PM:

And yet ...

... someone, somewhere, will possibly give this book a five stared review.

This is another problem: not just that people are dribbling spoilt milk constantly into the cream, but that others are waving forward punters to drink it. Or else out of a weird cult of positivity, say nothing at all.

Not an issue generally found on Strange Horizons I'm happy to say.

Posted by Liviu at January 13, 2012 2:08 PM:

"As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. Bad words."

This paragraph should be highlighted in the "worst arrogant review" hall of shame. Whoever edited (if anyone as I have major doubts any self-respecting review editor would allow this crap to be published) shares the shame and this saddens me as I thought recent reviews in Strange Horizons showed the site moved away from the crude genre bashing of a few years ago.

As for the book itself, I actually greatly enjoyed it - it is light fun (the first volume Crown Conspiracy) and somewhat darker and more intriguing fun (the second volume - Avempartha)
Not worse than most fantasy of today and actually better than a large part.

If you read this book to write your master thesis, you waste your time sure, but for a few hours of unabashed fun, you can do much worse.

The other thing I detect is the envy that Mr. Sullivan managed to achieve "man who self-published six books to moderate financial success, and parlayed that success into a deal with a major publisher" while others toil in the short story venues and feel lucky when they get a trip to mines of tie-in, while this guy dared to self-publish and achieve success (note that The Crown Conspiracy was originally published by a small press but the author went on his own later as the small press did not have the resources to continue).

Deal with it as this is the future.

Posted by Justin at January 13, 2012 2:16 PM:

I find myself in wholehearted agreement with Liviu.

I'm not going to debate your critique of the book. As reviewers, we all have the right (and responsibility) to speak our minds. I actually think some of the points are absolutely valid.

However, there's a level of vitriol in this review I can't stomach. This is 25% critique and 75% hit piece. No thanks.

Posted by Paul (@princejvstin) at January 13, 2012 2:30 PM:

I can countenance being dissatisfied with a book, and dissatisfied enough not to eschew writing a review, but to instead write a negative review.

It seems that you, the reviewer, are *angry* at reading the book. It makes the review less of a review and more of a carpet-bombing the author's work.

Posted by E. M. Edwards at January 13, 2012 3:26 PM:

Ah. Here come the Five Star brigade.

So the future is crap? I'd stop reading if I thought that was the truth. I think the reviewer here is justifiably irritated that due rigor doesn't appear to have been intelligently applied to this bit of fiction. I'm less surprised, or less angry, as I there are a lot of fantasy novels that appear to suffer the same failings.

I'm not surprised either that this particular book has come about as it has. Sounds like it has been scooped up on the merit of having sold some reasonable copy as a self-published novel /and or small imprint. Well done that. But I'd be curious how much has gone into helping it to make the jump to a mainstream publisher. It doesn't sound like enough, but you can only do so much with the base material - or else you might as well choose another book.

Before charges of envy or elitism fly, I'm all for self-publishing, but I think the quality has to be there regardless of the medium. So all right, I'm not envious, I'm just an elitist. And I'm really, really tired of people saying it's just light fun, a breakneck romp, nothing new but you know, brainless entertainment ...

Really? And people wonder why Fantasy is considered to be the scrubber of brunt pots and digger of latrines. You can have easy to read, and well paced fantasy novels, and still bring in something new and ably written.

Or you can like crap. Go on and be brave and proclaim it. The love of god-awfulness that dare not speak its name. Fill your gob with derivative garbage that slides down like a slightly gelid Big Mac. Lots of people do, which is why in part middlingly tasteless but easily digestible burgers sell in the millions.

But you can't have it both ways. You can't *pretend* it is actually good fare, worth being held up on an equal level with more literate offerings. It's no five star meal.

I've read some excerpts. You can too if you like: http://www.orbitbooks.net/theft-of-swords/

And no I have no plans to read the whole book - there are many, many better ones which have a prior claim on my time - and I think the review is pretty spot on about its complaints.

Why not just come out and admit it. "Hey, I like bad books." There, that feels better. Lots of people do, and they sell well because of those numbers.

Nothing wrong with this. If every published book was a polished gem, we'd have nothing to roll around in behind locked doors or in the oleaginous privacy of our online styes. We might be drawn out of our comfort zones, be challenged, be amazed.

Hell, what am I saying? Forget all that, let's just have more of the same.

Posted by Liviu at January 13, 2012 4:10 PM:

"But you can't have it both ways. You can't *pretend* it is actually good fare, worth being held up on an equal level with more literate offerings. It's no five star meal."

It depends on what your criteria for "good" are; if they are the Nobel ones, well not even the god of modern traditional fantasy made it (and I utterly agree with the Nobel judgement btw) as the recent controversy shows.

Theft of Swords is lightish and entertaining fare (as mentioned the series gets more sophisticated and darker as it goes culminating in a superb heart wrenching ending to the 5th volume, while the 6th tries to go back to "all happy and merry round" and thus fails to a large extent imho) and that is how I look at it and how I judge it. And by that standard, I think the series does quite well

As for judging fantasy against fantasy, sure i am up for it and I agree that a lot is bad by its own lights (see Seven Princes as a recent example of such by the same publisher), but I strongly disagree about this series.

As for "not intending to read it" that's fair, but it simply shows this genre or subgenre is essentially not for you. I rarely try paranormal and when I once recently did (Discovery of Witches) lured by false hype and then slagged badly the novel in cause on Amazon I got same irate comments and partly deserved as most of my dislike simply stemmed from the nature of the novel as I detest vampires and the like

The review would have much more power if the opening paragraph would not be so obviously biased and the vitriol would be tuned down a little; this way it reads like envy and a specific agenda

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 13, 2012 6:17 PM:

I'm biased, I admit it.

I'm biased against sloppiness, work that repeats the same word three times in one line, and can't be bothered to check the grammar of early modern English - something which takes five minutes and an internet - before sending it out into the world. It offends my sense of craft: if you're making a thing, you take pains to make the best thing you can with the time and materials you have, or what kind of craftsperson are you?

(This is where the old "Fast, cheap, or good? Pick two" conundrum comes in, as anyone who's ever dealt with a plumber will acknowledge. Not that I'm comparing writers to plumbers, except superficially.)

I love epic fantasy. And high fantasy. And middle fantasy. And urban fantasy. And even some low fantasy. Swords and sorceries and adventures oh my! I read this book because I wanted to like it.

Yes, I have an agenda. I don't disclaim it. I want more fantasy with line of direction and clarity, more fantasy where the women have agency and the men have brains.

What do I have to envy Michael J. Sullivan for? I'm a historian working on a project I love, occasionally a reviewer, and even more occasionally a poet - not someone who entertains serious thought of breaking into longform fiction publishing. (For a start, I should have to write a book, and in order to do that, I would first have to give up sleeping.)

Posted by Liviu at January 13, 2012 9:01 PM:

well the review stands by itself but even on its terms and discounting the very insulting first paragraph and there are a few mistakes or at best a failure to properly explain your quotes, eg

"The feudal system so prevalent across the four nations held them back, chaining the kingdoms to a poverty of weakness and divided interests. What they needed was a centralized government with an enlightened ruler and a talented, educated bureaucracy overseeing every aspect of life.'

is what the "bad guys" want and the author satirizes, the high churchmen definitely do not want Thrace as the new empress to start with but they realize they have no choice in many ways and that actually she may do very well for their plans, while for her arc you gotta read the latter books to see how Thrace which becomes Modina will deal with her trauma and what will happen. There are a ton of women with agency in the series and while the two main heroes may lack a lot of brains (which is true to some extent as how they are manipulated by various parties is a big part of the fun), the lack of strong women in the series is just a false statement.

And for the prose, there is a lot of tongue in cheek such which i personally found charming rather than annoying (there is a play called The Crown Conspiracy in the second book after all that makes fun of the first book) but that is a matter of taste

As mentioned leave aside the first paragraph which basically screams "how dares this self published guy have success,let's take him down a peg or two" and even then and the review is misguided imho but at least that would be arguable...

the way it is, this is a very low point for Strange Horizons

Posted by Johnny at January 14, 2012 1:57 AM:

Oh my god. This is BRUTAL.

Speaking as someone who loves the series as the light, but heartfelt fare it is, to see someone call themselves a "reviewer" or even a "critic" and then spout this kind of nasty vitriol actually stuns me.

You don't like the book. That's clear. But to attack it in the style of a schoolyard bully who LITERALLY HASN'T THE FOGGIEST IDEA HOW TO OBJECTIVELY WRITE A NEGATIVE REVIEW, that is baffling.

Look at Liviu. He has read the final book and found it wanting in comparison with the 5th book...but you know what? I respect the HELL out of his somewhat negative (yet entirely balanced review) of the 6th book. You know why? Because he took the time to compose it in a balanced "Here's what worked and here's what didn't work for me" review.

STRANGE HORIZON'S ought to be flat out ASHAMED to allow such a hatred-laced review stand.

This post actually DISGUSTS me and makes me feel very sad that the author (who's work A LOT of fantasy fans have enjoyed) has to even read this biased review.

Liz, do everyone a favour and head down to Temple Bar, have a pint and seriously consider what it is you feel like putting out there for all to see. Because THIS is NOT a review. This is the ranting blog post of a post-pubescent bully without the forethought or the tact to do a PROPER review. Trinity College could do without folk like you on their student roll sheet. I'm not joking, I hope one of your professors reads this.

Oh and Adam Roberts. Congrats brother. You officially end up on the list of author's I'll never read or review. Supporting such garbage as a "review" shows me what you care about. Instead of supporting an up and coming author, you applaud a bully for an attack review? *slow clap* Braaaaaavo sir. *facepalm*

Posted by Johnny at January 14, 2012 2:10 AM:

Oh andf this:

"If you're going to write in a dialect with which you're not familiar, whether archaic or foreign, it behoves you to become familiar with it. If you're writing in Early Modern English (a language still read and performed, and not just by Shakespeare buffs), it behoves you—and your editor, and your copyeditor—to get the basic grammatical structures right. Early Modern English does have a grammar. And if you don't know the grammar offhand, the internet does. "

I'm going to say this once.

This is a FANTASY BOOK.

He can make up whatever f*ing language he pleases quite frankly. You likening it to anything existing in English simply shows me how much of a straw man argument you are searching for.

Fantasy 101: Fantasy authors make up languages ALL THE TIME. Any comparison to OUR language that you make...is on you, not the author. It BEHOVES you to F*ing accept that if you are reading a fantasy book. Tolkien was a language student. Sullivan isn't. You'll excuse him if his MADE-UP fantasy world doesn't rope itself into Olde English the way you are taught it...

How you even think for one second that is any kind of valid argument is so beyond me.

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 14, 2012 3:06 AM:

Greatly, O Liviu, do I desire to refute you. It may not be possible, for we seem to hold vastly divergent views on what constitutes insult and mistake, but I shall try.

Let me say, first, that I am glad you found enjoyment and pleasure in Michael J. Sullivan's work: pleasure is, indeed, not a thing to be lightly disdained in this world. For my part I found little pleasure in it, and much that caused me distress - much, indeed, that led me to consider the work in question as lacking in technical skill. Matters of skill aside, it evidenced a carelessness in craft that offended my (envious, you say, even vitriolic; I will not argue, it does not wound me) sensibilities.

The quote you cite in your comment, above, you hold I have failed to explain. Is it not itself sufficient explanation for my use of it? Do you not think it naive political theory among a group of feudal magnates? In what way does feudalism contribute to a "poverty of weakness"? And for what cause should "divided interests" be united? How should feudal magnates have developed a theory of centralised government in the first place? It is a mouthful of meal, with no flavour to it, born of a mind that failed to entirely consider the cultural and logistical dimensions of feudal tenure, homage, and fealty. As a reader of history, it offends me for its deficit of knowledge; as a reader of fantasy, for its deficit of imagination.

But at this moment, all this has become, to me, quite beside the point. Laying aside matters of political theory, of skill and craft and even personal preference, you have accused me of falsity. Of deliberate falsity. I do not hold that lightly. I would have you uphold your accusation with solid evidence: how so, in reference to The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, is my statement false? Demonstrate, if you will, the female characters and the nature of their agency. Prove my lie, now that you have called my honesty into doubt - or if you choose not to do so, I will hold your own good faith in question.

Posted by Johnny at January 14, 2012 3:43 AM:

Oh my god.

Now I'm simply convinced that Liz likes the sound of her own pretentious voice.

Sweet holy hell. How such an elitist is allowed to "objectively" review ANY book, let alone a fantasy book is so beyond me.

Liz, do EVERYONE a favor. Battle off and review textbooks, because subjectively reviewing FICTION... Not your forte my dear.

I see you pointedly ignore my post about your calling into question Esrahaddon's language by comparing an invented FANTASY DIALECT to English.

Yep, that's going to help your case sweetheart.

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 14, 2012 3:52 AM:

Johnny:

I'm happy that you've chosen to hector and insult me for my bullying ways. I have seen my error, and shall henceforth repent -

No, wait. First, I shall inquire: if nothing worked for me, and I read the entire book to be certain, and to be fair, should I keep silence? It would be rank hypocrisy of you to suggest it, sir, since you have not yourself followed the "If you can't say something nice, say nothing," guideline. (I decline to say rule. It might be a good drawing-room rule, but this is not a drawing-room - unless it is Strange Horizon's, and our hosts may set their own rules, I'm sure.)

I am also certain that, should my professors and my student colleagues care to read my less-academic work, they will lose no respect for my willingness to state an opinion in public and support it from the evidence: this is, after all, what they have spent some time teaching me to do. I am equally certain that they will have their own opinions. Literature is, after all, a subjective arena.

And hatred? I do not hate Sullivan's work. I am all out of words disappointed by it, but hatred? That would imply that my disappointment is deeply personal.

(And, Johnny? I don't drink, as a general rule. Holidays, and deadlines only, and - for very good reasons - only in very limited quantities. So I would suggest not advising other people to buzz off and have a drink if you don't know them.)

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 14, 2012 4:05 AM:

Addendum, Johnny:

Pretentious, I'll own. (Also, I find using words fun, and won't apologise for trying different ways of putting them together, especially after a long night's translating.) But elitist? Sweetheart, my tastes are entirely catholic.

(If Sullivan desired to invent a dialect, he should have done so. False archaism is sloppy and lazy.)

You'll have to excuse me for some little time, I'm afraid, as night marches on towards morning. Perhaps we may continue this discussion at a later point, should time and schedule permit.

Posted by Cal at January 14, 2012 4:05 AM:

@ E.M. Edwards.

Sorry, who exactly are you to decide what denotes a "bad book"?

Funnily enough I assumed that the content of fiction and the enjoyment therein was "subjective".

It always makes for a laughable exercise to me when good stories are deemed "crap" or "bad" when the writing is not considered "up to snuff" by academics or at least pretentious snobs. Is this because you are stuck writing reviews instead of your own unpublished fiction? I'm not sure. I DO know that it most certainly smacks of sour grapes.

Because you dislike it, or find it not up to some sort of yard stick based on Chaucer or Dumas does not make it "bad". It means you (quite sadly) can find little enjoyment in the simpler things. It means that if you ever claimed to enjoy a movie for popcorn value, then you are a blatant hypocrite...and what are the odds you have guilty pleasure movies you like watching huh? I'm willing to wager that you have a few of them.

On top of all this, this is one of the most UNPROFESSIONAL negative reviews I think I've ever read.

Posted by Johnny at January 14, 2012 4:08 AM:

Dllfc. Swthrt. 'll tll y t drnk whn fl it mght hlp wth yr clr MH sss.

Posted by jennygadget at January 14, 2012 4:25 AM:

johnny, you who are so ridiculous it almost approaches slightly entertaining, I hate to give your poorly argued rantings any sort of attention, but I am dying of curiosity and must ask: what are MH issues?

Posted by Maya Chhabra at January 14, 2012 5:07 AM:

MH issues= mental health issues.

So, Johnny, it's bullying to write a nasty review of a book one dislikes, but not bullying to imply that you hope someone loses their university place for writing the review, assume they have mental problems, and call a stranger "dollface" and "sweetheart" (I'm sure you would have said that if she were a guy, right?).

If you liked this book, give it a positive review explaining its merits. That will certainly do more for the reputation of this series than the sort of thing you've been saying in these comments.

Posted by Abigail at January 14, 2012 7:42 AM:

Editor's note: Johnny's latest comment has been disemvoweled for being abusive and insulting. Any further comments along those lines, from him or anyone else, will meet with the same fate, and repeated offenses will get the commenters banned. That includes, by the way, calling people "ridiculous." I'm only letting that comment stand because it was so obviously provoked, but Maya's response gives a better demonstration of how I'd like provocation to be addressed.

This is obviously a heated topic, and to my mind critics of the review have too easily allowed themselves to slide into personal criticisms of those who disagree with them, but let's all try to avoid personal insults.

Posted by Sean at January 14, 2012 11:16 AM:

I can understand this sort of a post (I wouldn't qualify this as a review), from a young, eager reader of the genre, who's seething over the irretrievable time spent on a lousy book. Well, someone like myself (the young part is debatable). Indeed, I do strongly empathize with the impulse, as I have reacted so myself in not so distant a past by ranting on my personal blog.

But, surely such expression ought not enter a serious review, regardless of the work! Liz, I'm afraid you've utterly missed the mark here by the way in which you've chosen to pen this post, especially in the opening and closing. And perhaps, more importantly, so have any potential editor of this site.

Next time you find yourself in the grips of a similar urge; before contemplating a critique, vent to your heart's content, in a personal commentary and through a personal venue. And even then, remind yourself of the role and responsibility of a critic and its craft (if indeed that's what you aspire to be and to do), rather than glorifying in your righteous bias.

Posted by Jenn Byrne at January 14, 2012 12:52 PM:

I personally enjoyed this review. Heavy handed criticism can do wonders when it comes to the too easy habit of letting authors write disposable, unmemorable fantasy/fiction in general. Liz's concerns about women with agency are entirely valid and something that most men would arguably overlook. Something which I feel a distinct lack of in most fantasy. I thoroughly enjoyed this Review. And yes I will call it a review. I found that it pulled no punches, something which many reviews have done in the past in order to make themselves more digestable to its readers leading me to purchase books that were no more than tripe. Some people like tripe. I myself have enjoyed books I know are bad, while recognising that they are truly awful, because of some redeeming aspect. What Liz found in Sullivan's book was a complete lack of any redeeming aspect and she presented that clearly. Well done Liz for saving me the cash of buying yet another disappointing and stereotype-ridden burden doe my bookshelves. I look forward to more reviews from you.

And Johnny, it looks like somebody needs a nap.

Posted by Nic at January 14, 2012 12:56 PM:

Reviewer: I consider this book to be bad because of A (here's an example of that), B (here's an example of that), and C (here are several examples of this). How could a professional publishing house release something so riddled with errors and just plain bad writing?

Commenters: You're wrong! The book is not bad because ... you're a big meanie!

I love how so many commenters here are laying in to the reviewer for being so elitist as to express her opinion on a book, while proclaiming in the same breath that *their* opinion on said book is clearly the only correct way to view things.

The reviewer has an opinion of the book. You guys, clearly, have a different one. Why is this a crisis? Why not, instead of offering personal insults, calling her experience into question, and suggesting that she must just be bitter because she wishes she were published (sigh...), talk about what you *liked* about the book? She has provided examples of what she disliked, allowing readers of the review to make up their own minds about whether or not this is likely to suit their tastes - why don't you do the same? Talk about a character that you thought was well drawn, quote other passages that you thought were more evocative or entertaining or whatever than these "out of context" quotes.

Cal:

Because you dislike it, or find it not up to some sort of yard stick based on Chaucer or Dumas does not make it "bad". It means you (quite sadly) can find little enjoyment in the simpler things. It means that if you ever claimed to enjoy a movie for popcorn value, then you are a blatant hypocrite...and what are the odds you have guilty pleasure movies you like watching huh? I'm willing to wager that you have a few of them.

You disagree, we get it; but tell us what you enjoyed about the book, rather than telling the reviewer that she couldn't possibly have had the reaction that she did.

Finally, how is any of this genre-bashing? How is it elitist to say "I love fantasy, but this is not a good example of it"? Part of taking fantasy seriously, it seems to me, lies in criticising bad books as well as praising good ones. Or else you're basically saying that your favourite genre shouldn't be held to the same standards as other genres. And I absolutely resist that idea. I don't believe that 'good writing' and 'entertaining' have to be mutually exclusive categories; in fact, I tend to find that the former enhances the latter. YMMV.

Posted by Frank Johnson at January 14, 2012 2:16 PM:

I've read and highly recommended all the books in the Riyria Revelations (I've only read five of the six so far and am anxiously awaiting the final). They are fun books with well realized characters, and interesting and complex plots. They have given hours of entertainment and many sleepless nights as I've read far past when I had intended simply because I did not want to leave Mr. Sullivan's world nor be parted from his characters.

Are they for everyone? No, of course not. Name me a single book that is universally declared as loved by all?

Ms. Bourke is a poet and is studying classics at Trinity College. So her opinions on a book that pontificates itself as being written by the next Chaucer or Dante would be both appropriate and welcomed. But what I'm seeing here is liken to seeing someone whose tastes tend toward subtitled films at Cannes declaring that the first Indiana Jones movie should have never been made because they failed to appreciate the serialized adventure films of the 1960's.

Mr. Sullivan's books have never pretended to be more than they are...fun, escapist ENTERTAINMENT. (Although personally I think he is far too modest in that assessment as the books have a growing complexity and depth that develops as the series progresses). They are a throw back to early fantasy when tropes were as comfortable as a warm cardigan on a cold winter's night. The fact that Ms. Bourke questions Mr. Sullivan's failure to "entirely consider the cultural and logistical dimensions of feudal tenure, homage, and fealty." just proves that she has missed the point of the books entirely.

What I see in this diatribe, is not an objective analysis of the work as it is (or was intended), complete with both faults and positive attributes but what would appear to be the ravings of someone whose camel's back has been broken and Mr. Sullivan happened to be the unfortunate straw that came along to do so.

Does Ms. Bourke have a right to her own opinion? Of course and I would have no problem had she posted this on her own website. To each her own. But this isn't her website this is Strange Horizon...a site that is suppose to have editorial oversight. I agree with others who have posted here that posting such a "review" shows a serious lack of prudence.

Is it any wonder that the fantasy magazines are all but extinct and replaced by book blogs such as Fantasy Book Critic who perform what had once been their primary role far more effectively? If you truly want to see someone who knows how to give an objective view I suggest sites such as Bookworm Blues. Sarah has no qualms with providing a negative review of a book she did not enjoy...but she does so in a fair manner without resorting to such over the top language as what Ms. Bourke has resorted to.

In the end, writing is about communicating intent. Mr. Sullivan has...in my opinion...met his intention as he wished to entertain (and is proved empirically by thousands of positive reviews on sites such as Amazon and goodreads). Ms. Bourke's intention (as stated) was to prevent others from reading Mr. Sullivan's work, I would suspect that the manner by which she has executed will likely have the opposite effect.

In conclusion I want to just point out Ms. Bourke's own hypocrisy in posting THIS review on STRANGE HORIZONS: "When professionals are involved, there should be consequences." Pot meet kettle as this is assuredly a very unprofessional treatment on a site that, because it is supposed to have editorial oversight has proven itself as anything other than "professional."

Posted by E. M. Edwards at January 14, 2012 2:21 PM:

First let us discard the expected accusation of envy re the success of a self-publushed author. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm a huge supporter of this! A card carrying member of the fan-club and secret society of struggling hack writers, you might say. As far as I'm concerned every time a self-published author lands a book deal, a dragon gets its wings.

Now, secondly, what I find more distasteful here is the silly accusations of non-professinalism, applied to a very professional review. It speaks volumes that few of those doing so seem capable of offering evidence of this - resting their weight of disapproval interestingly and most heavily on a single phrase: "an unprofessional NEGATIVE review." Or I liked it, you didn't - BOO!

Now the interweb groans with unprofessional positive reviews. Both on Amazon and across the blogsphere. Where are the complaints for *these*? Why aren't we hearing people's disgust and approbation heaped upon these? Such as this: http://io9.com/Seven-princes/

Everything about my example is gushing, and let's be frank, painfully amateurish. Clunky exposition of the book's plot rather than examination of it, a waving away of admittedly weak characterization without explaining how this then works and isn't a severe flaw, similarly admitting the work is highly derivative and chaotically plotted - and all of this delivered in a strangely positive, unprofessional mishmash (that I suppose at least mirrors the work it is discussing, but I have the feeling this is not intentional). But in total, a poor example of a review if you're looking for something professional.

But it's positive. Unabashedly so.

Ah, but uncritical positivity is the key which unlocks all doors, you say. Editors and publisher are watching from their towers, marking it all down: who has been naughty and who has been nice. ARCs and invites to industry events, hang in the balance. And at the end of polishing sack-loads of golden turds, you might even be raised up into their own privileged ranks.

Nonsense, of course for the most part, but combined with a vague uneasiness in our time of social media about saying anything that isn't nice, it is a trend which threatens to trample intelligent, considered discussion of genre fiction. And stifle honest criticism.

The defense of many people for their clomping foot of pernicious everyman optimism, is that all literature simply come down to 'taste.' Every book is equally good and it's down to the reader and the market to sort it all out. My bad is their good, etc.. I can't support this argument. I simply can't. There is no evidence for it that I can find. So I will discard it.

Writing is both an art form and a skill. Both involve relative levels of native talent and developed expertise. That's even before we talk about intent. What goes on the back of a cereal box doesn't necessarily have the same poetic weight and time spent searching for complexity, themes, and wider connections as does a four hundred page book.

They serve different functions, and while both can be done well or shoddily, they are *not* the same thing, and their not-ness, their dissimilarity isn't down to taste, preference, or just opinion. What is written on my blog and what gets published in an anthology of weird tales edited by the infernal VanderMeers, is not automatically the same thing. Or just a question of taste. I may have taken an hour or weeks, I may be an unrecognized genius or unfit to write "Willy" on a latrine wall.*

*Here's a negative review of a non-genre book, and I'd very much like to know if the same commenters here feel that it is equally un-professional:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/sep/10/fiction.reviews2

One hopes that we can find people, be they publishers or reviewers, both able and willing to differentiate between the two.

This goes for SFF novels as well. Can we be surprised that some established authors feel uneasy about being labeled genre writers when genre fans try to insist that all novels are equal? That literary classics are just "a matter of opinion"? That the Eye of Argon can be compared in the same class with something by M. John Harrison?

No wonder a lot of literary authors and awards feel nervous. I would too, with this sort of prevailing attitude. It's fine, but you can't have both: either novels come in different levels of quality, or it's all just light, enjoyable, commercial fiction. The bulky kind you buy at airports and leave behind on the plane which the anti-terrorist squad then incinerates.

Thankfully, no amount of wittering on message boards and angry comments can kill off some authors' desire to write good books. And genre fiction has them.

Some are much better than others. More innovative, more expertly rendered, more time and effort put into their pages, and more attention and care taken by editors and publishers to see that there are not mistakes, problems, and fatal weaknesses before it goes to the printer. Some of these are master and mistress works which will spark both enjoyment and discussion. They are in other words, very good books.

Others are crap. Poorly devised, imperfectly developed, and often for the best of bad reasons, proffered to the world to enjoy without any self-aware irony. And for portions of the market, this sort of crap sells rather well. You can certainly have works that are so bad they are enjoyable. But the more common version of this phrase is obstinately wrong: "so bad they are good."

This doublespeak which while understandable, falls down upon examination. Bad books aren't good, but they may be enjoyable. I don't generally enjoy bad books, but I do understand why some people do. I'm fine with this. I don't think we have to only enjoy the best which the world offers and discard the rest. How wasteful!

People rightfully enjoy bad sex, bad habits, bad food, bad movies, bad art, bad holidays. But that doesn't make them good. Nor does that fact that a reader enjoys something, make it not-bad.

But a lot of readers seem to get their fingers twisted up when admitting to this. No - they insist, using liberal capital letters and ad hominems - it's all just like, your opinion man. It's all just a matter of taste.

We don't say this about engineering projects but then I suppose the consequences aren't on the same scale. If a book lets us down because it has been put together by someone who did a shoddy job writing it, we are not dropped screaming into an icy river as if in the case of a faulty bridge. But both need expertise, knowledge, and the application of craft with some degree of creative problem solving. You can more easily tell when a bridge looks unsafe to cross, than a book - but it behooves us to have honest people inspecting both, and telling us what our chances are.

And that's where this is all going. I know it's a long rant, but I have point which I'll bring up now, here at the end. Strange Horizons and its stable of reviewers are in my experience very honest inspectors. They prod, suffer, and stress-tess fictional spans, so that we may either cross in safety or choose another route. They are absolutely, and above all, professional.

What they are not always, is universally positive. And that I've noted, both here and on previous reviews which sparked the same tiresome complaints in the comments, seems to be what gets people's fan belts all in a knot. They can't abide it. So, they must then dirty the argument by claiming that people are being *gasp* mean spirited bullies - or nonprofessionals.

A critic or an inspector of bridges doesn't need to be your friend. They don't even need to be nice. What they need to be is reasonably incorruptible, knowledgeable and thorough. Professionals then. And I find nothing about the review above, that isn't all of these.

Posted by Johnny at January 14, 2012 2:30 PM:

Indeed. What Frank said.

My comments, as well as Liviu and Sean's were all not what you all seem to be focusing on here.

None of us begrudge Liz disliking the book. She is more than welcome to do so, as all books aren't for everyone.

What ALL of us were saying (though it was apparently falling on deaf ears) was that her review was NOT balanced, NOT subjective and was not something I would deem a "review" at all. At best it is a ranting blogpost by someone who's really angry. I mentioned MH because writing a blogpost laced with such vitriol (particularly one aimed at a book and an author who clearly worked quite hard to do what he did, regrdless of what you thought the outcome was) is the equivalent of standing on a street corner shouting at a tree while an imaginary dog nips at your heels. To me ranting blog posts have always signified some sort of issue upstairs. Otherwise why on EARTH can't you write a negative review without resorting to petty bullying and nasty comments?

I don't need to sing the praises of the book (s) (as so many here in the comments have suggested I do. why?

Because A. (again, pay attention here) That's NOT what any of us took issue with. We took issue with the way the "review" was presented (Read: Angry Blog Rage) and not content.

and B. Because there are hundreds of good reviews on amazon and good reads.

But yeah, Frank said everything FAR more eloquently than I ever could.

Posted by Abigail at January 14, 2012 2:41 PM:

Johnny:

I mentioned MH because writing a blogpost laced with such vitriol (particularly one aimed at a book and an author who clearly worked quite hard to do what he did, regrdless of what you thought the outcome was) is the equivalent of standing on a street corner shouting at a tree while an imaginary dog nips at your heels.

You are on very thin ice here. I don't find your behavior at all what it ought to be given the warning you've already received - I would have expected an apology, not justifications. The comparison you drew was offensive and unjustifiable, and if you persist in making it or others like it, I will ban you from commenting on this site. This is your last warning.

Posted by E. M. Edwards at January 14, 2012 2:50 PM:

Edit.

Not and, OR. "disgust OR approbation."

Posted by Johnny at January 14, 2012 2:56 PM:

Threats now Abigail?

Praytell, what does a ranting blogpost laced with anger accomplish? In all seriousness. That's what I'd like to know. Instead of standing by and watching for comments that bother you or you feel are wrong to snap at...perhaps you could elucidate all of us on WHY you feel that the "review" (which it ISN'T) should stand...and why you feel the need to defend it so vehemently when it is clearly in the wrong structure-wise (Like I said above, she can dislike the book all she wants, and even tell us why...but what she did was not that)

It's okay to be backed into a corner and not want to back down, but truly I think I agree that this is a low point in SH. Such behavior is NOT professional.

I go to many blog sites for reviews and NOT ONE of those would publish such a blatantly nasty review. The entire point of a review is to stay unbiased and be balanced. It is NOT, I repeat NOT to bash a book. If you don't like a book fine. Stay classy, tell us why it didn't work for you.

Above and beyond all that, the taking of book quotes and lines of text "out of context" is a politician's trick and it works even less here, especially for those of us who have read the work and know those to be taken utterly out of context.

Abigail, if the above review is the future of SFF "magazines", then I hail Book Bloggers and the future.

Posted by Bryn at January 14, 2012 2:59 PM:

The book may be great, or terrible, or as has been demonstrated, both depending on the eyes of the beholder. What is most evident from the voice of the review is the pleasure the reviewer took in trying to hurt the author (who she undoubtedly knew would read this). The obvious glee, while entertaining, is also distasteful and says a lot about how the reviewer chooses to take her pleasure. It would actually be nicer if it _was_ born of jealousy (as has been mooted) rather of a natural delight in hurting people, but who can say? It's also clear to me that Liz revels in the fight that she opted to provoke, so we're simply feeding her sense of self importance here. These are merely observations. The world is made of many oddly shaped personalities and we can choose who we opt to spend our time on. Strange Horizons can also choose what to allow on its site. In this instance they clearly needed the traffic more than the credibility.

PS

> I'm biased against sloppiness, work that repeats the same word three times in one line

> BAD puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. BAD words. But I'll restrain myself, and restrict my vocabulary to standards acceptable in polite company. The book's own words ought to be enough to condemn it. I've read BAD books.


LOL. Sailing close to the wind yourself!

Posted by Adam Roberts at January 14, 2012 3:16 PM:

Johnny: "If you don't like a book fine. Stay classy, tell us why it didn't work for you."

... which is exactly what Liz did in her review. She supplied evidence (for instance: quoting from the text) to support her argument. You, Johnny, don't have evidence; instead you have emphasis, thanks to your RANDOMLY capitalised WORDS. You also have a number of sexist and offensive views, which you're not afraid to air. That's is not the same thing.

Liz's review is more than negative: it is wittily negative. It's a joy to read. A review is a piece of writing, like any other; and like any other is has a duty to be entertaining -- this review is.

Posted by Abigail at January 14, 2012 3:54 PM:

Johnny:

No threats. Just promises, which are now being fulfilled. Since you find it impossible to engage in civilized discussion, you are no longer welcome on this site. Any further comments you post here or elsewhere will be deleted.

Posted by Frank Johnson at January 14, 2012 3:57 PM:

@Jenn
I find nothing disposable or unmemorable in Mr. Sullivan's writing. If Ms. Bourke does, that is her prerogative...but this isn't "heavy handed" this is, as Bryn pointed out, "mean spirited" and written to inflict harm, not enlighten or entertain the readers of her review.
As to your and Ms. Bourke's concern about women with agency...she is simply working with limited information. The series is an ensemble cast with four protagonists two women and two men. Arista and Modina are remarkable female role models who are strong and forthright without, as some fantasy tends to do, resorting to donning leather and wielding swords. Ms. Bourke just doesn’t know the arc which Mr. Sullivan has designed for these women. He has every intention of providing exceptional women to represent the series, and much of how they are represented in the first book is to provide contrast for what they are to become. But as I say Ms. Bourke does not know this so I can't fault her for her current impression - she has come to conclusions that Mr. Sullivan wished her to...for those of us who see the whole picture (or at least 5/6th of it) I would say she has placed a foot firmly into a trap of Mr. Sullivan's own design.
@Abagail
To censure is never the correct approach. Johnny, much like Ms. Bourke will harm his case more than aid it and to limit the free exchange of ideas will do more harm than to good. Strange Horizon's has already showed some lack of judgment by posting such a derisive review. If they did so in order to generate eyeballs and comments, so be it...but to then stifle others would show (imho) following a bad decision with a worse one. Counter a person's arguments...offer up a dissenting opinion but as Strange Horizon's has already demonstrated that word intended to harm the author are perfectly justifiable, why would you limit another's opinions?

Posted by DC at January 14, 2012 4:12 PM:

I read a free short story from Sullivan on Amazon, featuring the characters from Theft of Swords, and I thought it was quite unimpressive. Not the best ad for the series.

Glad that Liz has given her frank opinion on the book. I think it's a very well-written review.

Posted by Abigail at January 14, 2012 4:15 PM:

Frank:

My goal is for this department to provide a venue for intelligent, thoughtful discussion. That goal is not furthered by allowing abusive participants to run unchecked. I think that I've given this comment thread extraordinary leeway, but there is a line and Johnny crossed it, repeatedly and despite warnings. Therefore he is no longer welcome here.

Please note that this is not an invitation for discussion of my policies. I have made them clear, and I expect you, and everyone else in this thread, to either abide by them, or go elsewhere.

Posted by Alexander at January 14, 2012 4:22 PM:

Johnny: [i]Oh and Adam Roberts. Congrats brother. You officially end up on the list of author's I'll never read or review. Supporting such garbage as a "review" shows me what you care about. Instead of supporting an up and coming author, you applaud a bully for an attack review? [/i]

Isn't that a shame. All of Roberts' hard-earned reputation for supporting low-quality writing beyond upholding nonconfrontational pleasantness at all costs has collapsed.


Excellent review. One of the things I most value about SH is the willingness of its reviews to call out disappointing, underwhelming or flat-out terrible writing. The presence of terrible prose and storytelling in published work is disappointing but far worse is the standard of 'It's okay because it's all fantasy' or 'This criticism can be dismissed because I know the author has politics/envy/hatred of life.' Instead of actually dealing with the criticism.

Posted by Jamie Todd Rubin at January 14, 2012 4:29 PM:

It seems to me that the review achieved exactly what I perceive to be its intent: a sensationalized post that generates lots of buzz. The buzz, as it turns out accrues to the reviewer and the book reviewed. To that extent, the review made me want to read the book, despite Ms. Bourke's warning.

I'm sure most folks here realize that this kind of review is by no means new. It has been a staple of SF/F for more than seven decades. The more vitriolic reviews often appeared in fanzines as opposed to prozines, but there are always exceptions. Even Isaac Asimov was drawn into the fray early in his career by a review of his CAVES OF STEEL inked by Henry Bott. He learned (as I'm sure many of us learn) that there is no percentage in arguing with such reviews or reviewers. Besides, it's highly unlikely such reviews affect book sales one way or another. Readers turned away by the review will be replaced by readers made curious by it.

Posted by jennygadget at January 14, 2012 4:38 PM:

Frank

Ms. Bourke is reviewing this book, not the entire series. She is not working with limited information, so much as limiting her review to only the portion of the series she has read.

While I cannot speak for Ms. Bourke or Ms. Bryne I think I speak for a great many women, myself included of course, when I say that your revelations are hardly comforting. I do not desire to watch any female characters grow from cliche to Real! Girls! In order for me to enjoy and respect a piece of work (and, in turn, not be insulted by it) I require them to be that way from the start, at minimum.

Posted by Frank Johnson at January 14, 2012 5:15 PM:

@Abagail,
We obviously were typing simultaneously as your banning and my expression to keep the lines open for communication happened at the same time.

I do think that you gave amble warning, and practiced tremendous leeway. My comment was not intended to question your policy or right to exercise whatever control you wish to in your own sandbox. I was merely stating an opinion that doing so might make matters worse than allowing people to come to their own conclusions about the comments being posed.

Posted by Nic at January 14, 2012 5:23 PM:

Readers turned away by the review will be replaced by readers made curious by it.

Very possible; all publicity, etc! Which does add weight to my feeling that all discussion of books is worthwhile, even if sometimes painful for fans of the particular book under review. Do please come back and continue the debate once you've read it; I'm genuinely curious...

Posted by Nic at January 14, 2012 5:26 PM:

@Frank:

Fair enough. I think it's clear enough to an outside observer, though, that in this case the issue wasn't his opinion about the review, but his offensively ablist comments. The lines of communication are still open for the rest of us. :-)

Posted by Frank Johnson at January 14, 2012 5:27 PM:

@jennygadget I never meant to suggest that the females as portrayed solely in Theft of Swords are lacking. In fact the case may be made that it is the women who have more to do with overcoming the obsticles presented in the plot then the men. Arista is responsible for subverting a plot to take over her kingdom because of some resourceful and unconventional actions, and Thrace (who is a girl in age shows her strength of will in continuing to find a way to fight a beast by any means necessary - even though doing so would seem to be an exercise in futility. I applaud her determination and think that it is uplifting that a "girl" (for yes in years she is a "girl") manages to destroy a beast that had bested several able bodied knights and even the "hero" of Theft of Swords was able to do little against it.

I find these portrayals as neither insulting to women or cliche.

Posted by kev mcveigh at January 14, 2012 6:04 PM:

Can any of those defending Sullivan here please explain one thing for me. How is bad prose entertaining? Surely it disrupts the reading experience rather than enhance it?

I'm not suggesting that all books need to read like Joyce or Nabokov, it isn't a question of style but of competence.

Posted by Jamie Todd Rubin at January 14, 2012 6:08 PM:

Ken: "How is bad prose entertaining?"

Ever attend the annual Kirk Poland Bad Prose Contest at Readercon? One of the most hilarious and entertaining uses of bad prose I've ever seen. Just saying... ;-)

Posted by Jamie Todd Rubin at January 14, 2012 6:09 PM:

Sorry, that should have read, Kev, not Ken. :-p

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 14, 2012 6:29 PM:

I've a deadline, so this is a bit of a flyby. I'll drop back again tomorrow and catch up again then.


Sean:

The responsibility of a reviewer - a critic, since you choose that term - is to critique. I have stated my arguments and my analysis. With, yes, vehement rhetoric: nothing requires me to be dispassionate and emotionless in argument. Do you choose to rebut the substance of this review? Or do you merely choose to take offence at my tone?

You may, I'm sure, choose to do both. But I would ask you to demonstrate why passion and emotion is wrong - and more wrong, indeed, in a negative review than a positive one - before you argue that I should not employ such things.


Frank:

Ms. Bourke is a poet and is studying classics at Trinity College. So her opinions on a book that pontificates itself as being written by the next Chaucer or Dante would be both appropriate and welcomed.

Historians are geeks, mate. We're in it for the fun of it. (Chaucer, btw? Hilarious. Dante? Never read him. Classical literature? Full of dirty, dirty jokes and killing.) But I get it. I'm an ivory-tower academic, or at least on the way there, so clearly I must have high-falutin' tastes. Mate, that's not arguing from the evidence, that's arguing from an unfounded assumption.

I've presented my argument from the evidence. If you wish to refute it, please do so - in whatever terms you desire. But refute it, if you please, from the evidence: taking issue with my tone alone does small justice to your argument.


Johnny:

Abigail, my apologies at responding to a commenter you've banned, but I feel I must make this point. I am open about my "mental health issues" - depression and social anxiety - but even if I weren't, being non-neurotypical is not a cause for shame, nor necessarily a barrier to constructing an argument or to partaking in society. Mental instability is, moreover, an accusation frequently leveled at women in order to delegitimise their reponses.


Bryn:

You assume my malice. I can provide you no contrary evidence which you would believe. But I should like to correct your assumption that I am speaking to the author in any sense. As a reviewer, I speak to potential readers. A reviewer is under no obligation to hold back for fear of hurting the author's feelings: to do so would not be honest criticism.
You are not the first commenter here to call my tone rather than my argument into the issue, so I will say to you what I said to Sean: Demonstrate why passion and emotion are wrong - and, indeed, more wrong in a negative review than a positive one - if you care to do so.


Frank Johnson:

My information is limited to the volume which I read. Refute my argument on the grounds of the evidence available. Demonstrate how Arista is instrumental in subverting the plot - as I recall, she discovers it, cannot tell anyone about it, and is locked in a tower until her rescue - and how Thrace's suicidal rage upon the death of her father proves anything about her agency as an independent person.


Jamie Todd Rubin:


To my mind, a review should inform - and, to some degree, entertain. What happens next isn't my business.

Posted by Frank Johnson at January 14, 2012 7:32 PM:

@kev mcveigh - I guess your statement assumes that Michael Sullivan writes bad prose. Can Ms. Bourke pluck examples to make a point? Sure. Are isolated snippets taken out of context indicative of the work as a whole? I wouldn't say so, but I'm sure Ms. Bourke would disagree.

I found nothing disruptive about Mr. Sullivan’s style. In fact I found the work to be quite the page-turner and as I already stated a thoroughly fun and enjoyable experience.

On the question of "style of prose" I actually don't understand Ms. Bourke's assertion of Mr. Sullivan being turgid or purple. In fact I find it the absolute opposite in other words clean and unadorned. I've read many highly acclaimed fantasy books that have so much description on even the most mundane of items or setting that I found myself skimming past entire sections. Never once did I feel such a desire when reading The Riyria Revelations.

But it is useless to debate what is "good prose" and what is "bad prose." Even conventions are highly debated, such as the use of the Oxford comma. In Ms. Bourke's examples she noted that a "3" was not properly edited as a "three" - seriously? Talk about picking at nits. I've yet to read ANY book that a similar instance of a missed correction cannot be found. And yet Ms. Bourke holds this up as proof to condemn the work. It comes off petty at best, and vindictive at least.

As to any grammar errors in Early Modern English, as others have pointed out it makes an assumption that may not exist. It is a fantasy world and although a particular passage may show similarities to Early Modern English, can the reviewer say with 100% certainty that the author was "aiming for that?" As others have pointed out in his world, characters can speak with whatever conventions he has decreed.
One last point I’d like to make on the syntax aspect of the dialog. It’s DIALOG. Most people do not speak in perfect grammatical sentences, and when writers do so in dialog it often comes off as stilted and “not the way real people talk.” So yes, I often see poor grammar in dialog, but I don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that it is lack of skill on the author’s part. It may be being done for effect or to help develop the nature of a character. In general, I think Ms. Bourke’s predisposition was to assume the worst possible motives even to the point of rewriting the author’s dialog to be her idea of “correct.” My reaction to this…when you write a book of your own, then you can put whatever words into the character’s mouth that you desire, and you should extend other authors the same courtesy.
.

Posted by Jonathan M at January 14, 2012 7:40 PM:

Reading through these responses I am struck by the feeling that a proxy war is being fought.

The apparent battleground is on the issue of whether or not negative reviews are acceptable and whether or not Liz B's tone has a place in a review. This is the apparent battleground but I don't think it's the real bone of contention.

The real issue, as I see it, is that Strange Horizons has a track record of publishing attack pieces on works of core genre and this track record continues in the form of an attack piece by a haughty ivory tower intellectual who studies classics of all things.

In other words, the issue is not whether or not Liz B's tone is acceptable or whether or not negative reviews have a place in discussion of genre, it is whether or not Strange Horizons has the *right* to comment on works of epic fantasy and whether this kind of review should be taken as anything other than an expression of hostility towards people who like the kind of books that Sullivan publishes.

I don't think this is really a discussion of the review so much as a clash between two different genre tribes and both sides are trying to claim that their values are universal.

Posted by Hélène at January 14, 2012 7:42 PM:

Taking issue with my tone alone does small justice to your argument : unfortunately, I find it difficult not to. Your tone in this review (?) felt so outrageous that I hardly could think of your argument and its value. Your tone deconstructed your argument in my case.

You question the representation of women (as in your review of Prince of Thorns if I remember correctly). This baffles me. It's medieval fantasy. Women can't act as suffragettes! As a matter of fact, I find that the women in the two first books have rather strong characters, they aren't here just to decorate and they're not specially dependent on the men. I mean they are socially and economically dependent but not psychologically. I'm a historian and when I read about a woman reasoning in a medieval fantasy book as a XXIth century feminist, I have trouble suspending my disbelief.

NB : I'm French. Please, be indulgent with my faults! ;)

Posted by jennygadget at January 14, 2012 8:01 PM:

Frank Johnson,

You contradict yourself. (and not in a Walt Whitman "I contain multitudes" sort of way)

First you say that Ms. Bourke has come to the conclusion that Sullivan has wanted her to, with respect to his female characters. Then you say you see nothing cliche or insulting with respect to these same characters as they are portrayed in the same volume. Which is it?

If the answer is that one needs to read all five volumes in order to see that Sullivan has indeed written these characters in a way that is at least as fleshed out as his male ones, then I stand by my earlier assertion that I find this alone to both insulting and not worth my time. Even if the issue is one of reader's hindsight rather than simply character growth.

I dont even know what to say regarding your assertion that their is no value in debating if something is bad prose or not. I will allow that there will always be degrees of subjectivity and difference of opinions. Not being able to come to agreement hardly makes the debate useless, however.

Posted by Frank Johnson at January 14, 2012 8:07 PM:

@Ms. Bourke
Upon the death of her father, Arista saves her brother's life by having him removed from the castle for his own safety. She could flee as well, but chooses to stay behind, endangering her own life, both to ensure the kingdom will not be usurped but also so that she can continue to seek out the real culprits in the crime of their father's death.

As for Thrace, even when she is imprisoned and helpless she digs through a pile of dissembled body parts searching for anything that can be used as weapon against the Gilarabrywn, she is willing to face the monster with nothing more than a deer’s antlers or a shard of glass but she is resolved not to give up or surrender. As I already mentioned she is able to accomplish what a dozen well armed knights were not able to. Yes, in the end Thrace has been stripped of absolutely everything, including every single person who she loves and has loved her and after all that she has endured she cracks. Does this indicate she has no fortitude? Or is it indicative of even the most strong-willed people having a breaking point?

Posted by Abigail at January 14, 2012 8:11 PM:

Jonathan:

Strange Horizons has a track record of publishing attack pieces on works of core genre

I don't appreciate the term "attack piece." None of our reviewers set out to dislike the books they read, and a negative review is not an attack on anyone.

Also, though SH has published negative reviews of epic fantasy in the past (which have also brought down upon us the wrath of some of the same people turning up in this comment thread), I question the implicit assumption that this reflects an editorial policy. In the last year, we've published positive reviews of Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman, Cold Fire and Traitors' Gate by Kate Elliott (the first two of those, by the way, are by Liz), The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham, Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, Blood in the Water and Banners in the Wind by Juliet E. McKenna, Farlander by Col Buchanan, The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, and Kate Elliott again, with Cold Magic. There have also, to be sure, been negative reviews of epic fantasy, such as Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves and Helen Lowe's The Heir of Night, but I resent the implication that this is the result of editorial policy rather than the reviewers' judgment.

I agree that there's a culture clash going on here, and that implicit in many of the criticisms voiced is the sense that SH ought not to be allowed to write about epic fantasy unless it does so positively. But the magazine's policy is and will continue to be that all genres are within our purview, and that all should be subjected to an equal degree of scrutiny.

Posted by E. M. Edwards at January 14, 2012 8:45 PM:

Perception and reality: negative reviews are not attack pieces, but often are perceived by those uncomfortable with digesting negative reviews of genre. I don't see SH as being associated with this anymore than anywhere else.

Sexual bias: female negative reviewers, or female reviewers full stop, get endlessly more vitriol in response to their reviews than male reviewers offering the same or even more acerbic criticism. This is not unique to the community here, but no more praiseworthy.

Professionalism vs. amateurism: no one here has been able to respond to my question about other professional reviews. Are people like Philip Hensher, Adam Roberts and Gore Vidal, non-professional? The answer of course is they are professionals. Both professional writers, and critics. This piece by Liz is a walk in the park compared to some of their acid that coats their very funny and very, very skilled pieces of criticism. Does genre have a different standard? If so, why should it?

A lot of uproar, but very little in the way of evidence that this review is anything that would be surprising to find in a national, *professional* publication.

Posted by Frank Johnson at January 14, 2012 8:56 PM:

@jennygadget - The contradictions come because Ms. Bourke and I disagree in the nature of the characters.

I see an intelligent woman (Arista) and a strong-willed brave girl (Thrace). Ms Bourke sees Arista as inconsistent...and Thrace as a whinning child who cries...often...and goes into an unprovoked suicidal rage.

As to Arista's inconsistency, it stems from the fact that the author is trying to put fourth two different possibilities...Arista loves her brother and removed him from the castle for his own good...or...Arista is a power hungry back-stabber with schemes to kill her brother so that she can rule. So yes, I think the fact that Ms. Bourke, by her own admission could not figure her out is why I say she came to the conclusion that the author wanted.

As to Thrace...Ms. Bourke does not agree with the author's choice of "breaking her spirit" which somehow negates any “agency” (sorry I’m not a scholar so I’m not even 100% sure that she means by this) I personally had no problem with that, and found it fitting to the situation that the girl goes through and appreciate the reasons for her nearly comatose state as it comes into play in future volumes.

Degrading the characterizations of female roles in fantasy is a sure fire way to breed controversy and I take Ms. Bourke’s assertions that they are portrayed as "infantilized and sexualized" as unfounded and meant to provoke animosity against this author’s work. It is a cheap trick, and apparently something this reviewer has done in other reviews as well.

People have asked for those who like the book to post, and I have, but I’m not an author, or a reviewer, and I’m not sure why my opinions of the books have become the focus rather than Ms.Bourke who wrote the piece and Strange Horizons who posted it.

Posted by jennygadet at January 14, 2012 9:27 PM:

Frank Johnson

How is any of what you just said not completely contradictory to this:

" But as I say Ms. Bourke does not know this so I can't fault her for her current impression - she has come to conclusions that Mr. Sullivan wished her to...for those of us who see the whole picture (or at least 5/6th of it) I would say she has placed a foot firmly into a trap of Mr. Sullivan's own design."

You dont get to (condescendingly) say the above, and the later argue:

"I take Ms. Bourke’s assertions that they are portrayed as "infantilized and sexualized" as unfounded and meant to provoke animosity against this author’s work. It is a cheap trick, and apparently something this reviewer has done in other reviews as well."

Not if you expect anyone with sense and logic to see you as credible and consistent.

Posted by kev mcveigh at January 14, 2012 9:48 PM:

Frank,
I dispute your contention that it is useless to discuss good or bad prose. Yes there are grey areas, preferred styles etc. but to suggest that it is purely subjective is either disingenuous, naive or just a sign of shallow reading. To argue as many bloggers do, that it doesn't matter, its only entertainment is symptomatic of creeping anti intellectualism. Likewise jibes at Ivory Towers and academics, usually by people who know nothing of such things.
By the way, I don't know you Frank, so don't take this as a personal attack, but your comments resemble those elsewhere that frustrate and concern me.

Posted by Lauren at January 14, 2012 10:35 PM:

Do not like the reviews? Eschew the reviewer.

The review the essay-detractors request would've faded into anonymity. As it stands, this review has received greater attention than should be expected. Without this article and it's reactions, I would never have known who Liz Bourke is.

This emotionally charged flame-war rededicate her followers. Even the naysayers will start reading the reviewer more to vindicate themselves.

Ms. Bourke just did a fantastic job of increasing her following.

Posted by Jonathan M at January 14, 2012 10:55 PM:

Abigail -- I don't think for even a second that SH is in the habit of intentionally publishing attack pieces but I do think that this perception does exist and that it may be what is behind some of the animus directed at this review.

One interesting aspect of this 'clash of cultures' is a degree of conflict over whether or not there is single genre culture. As you say, SH operates on the assumption that there is and so the site attempts to cover as much as it can with as many voices as it can. While this is an entirely legitimate point of view, I can understand the people who seem to reject this vision of the field.

For some there is no unified field there are simply tribes and the perception that SH is hostile to core genre means that a review like this one will necessarily be seen by some as an assault... an 'attack piece' if you will.


The question of whether SH possesses an anti-core genre bias is an interesting one but while I suspect that the historical record does not support it, I do not think that it is beyond the pale to suggest that the people who wind up writing for SH tend to think more highly of ground-breaking works of genre than of works that fail to break any ground at all. Needless to say, I do not think that this in any way supports the idea that Liz B is not 'entitled' to write this kind of review but I can understand the thought processes and the tribal instincts that might lead you to reach that conclusion.

Posted by jennygadget at January 14, 2012 11:42 PM:

Jonathan M,

I assume, from your comment, that you (or the peoples whose thought processes you are trying to clarify? I am confused on that part) see Sullivan's series as residing within the core of the genre. This may seem like such an obvious question as to not need asking, but: I am curious as to why you believe this. What places the title in question squarely within the genre and not somewhere else?

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 14, 2012 11:48 PM:

After midnight counts as tomorrow, so I'm dropping by before dropping off, so to speak.


Frank Johnson:

Written dialogue, I hope you'll agree, should be comprehensible when it's intended to be understood. At several points I did not find this true of Sullivan's dialogue - or, indeed, his prose.

Regarding your view of Sullivan's two women. I will quote the definition of agency (sociology) which I'm using: the ability of social actors to make independent choices. (And thank you for a quick definition, Wikipedia.) We may disagree on the nature and existence of their agency, but now we'll be able to do so from the same set of terms.

As to Arista's inconsistency, it stems from the fact that the author is trying to put fourth two different possibilities...Arista loves her brother and removed him from the castle for his own good...or...Arista is a power hungry back-stabber with schemes to kill her brother so that she can rule. So yes, I think the fact that Ms. Bourke, by her own admission could not figure her out is why I say she came to the conclusion that the author wanted.

Yes, O Frank Johnson. But the fact is the author portrays both these things from within Arista's own point of view. Which is needlessly inconsistent, in my view.

You will note I did not say Thrace's suicidal rage was "unprovoked." I said I did not find her character a positive portrayal of women with agency.


Helene:

(Apologies for the lack of accents.)

I suppose now as then we must agree to disagree. Suffraggettes? No. Women with their own needs and desires and goals? Yes, if you please, even if only implied in the background.


Jonathan M:

As a "haughty ivory tower academic," I fear I must ask you to define your terms. What does "core genre" consist of, and why?

And, "Who studies classics, of all things?" On behalf of the humanities in general, I ask you to explain yourself. Why should what I study have a bearing upon my opinion - more so, perhaps, than if I studied, for example, biosciences?

The obvious implication that to study ancient history is somehow be out of touch. I do not say you implied it with intent. But I do ask you to explain, and to clarify.

Posted by jeff vandermeer at January 14, 2012 11:54 PM:

I would prefer any number of things on SH to a review of a novel that even if it were well-done clearly has been done to death one million times before. There seems no compelling *reason* to have reviewed this novel.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 15, 2012 3:46 AM:

@jeff vandermeer -- well there's the reason that someone wrote it.

Can any book be said to be more worthy of review than any other? (Despite the love of authors -- and their fans -- for positive reviews, the purpose of a review is not to provide authors with ego-boo but to offer potential readers, or those interested in genre trends, some insight as to what the book attempts and its success or failure in those goals -- or in reaching an objective minimum standard of writing craft.)

Good, or popular, books may attract more reviews -- because everyone loves a winner -- but they do not *deserve* more reviews. Or more accurately, books not deemed good or popular by whoever would judge whether this review should have been written at all, do not deserve to go unreviewed. Nor do readers deserve to have the genres embarrassments (if that is what they are) go uncommented on.

Yes, people are people and the comments of a negative review of a book will include some who'll decide they are the 'core' of the genre -- and oddly that the core is also the victim of persecution -- so they have special insight to the reviewers reasons for reviewing. Other commenters will complain because they enjoyed the story and prefer not to recognise that -- where judging the quality of a book is concerned -- while there may be issues of subjective taste up for grabs there are also objectively measurable standards for good and bad writing.

Me, I looked at the summary of the dragon and lost heir plot and thought 'Hey, he reads Terry Pratchett' (Plots of intentionally funny books are not always the best plots to borrow when writing straight fiction)

If reading comments disturbs ones equanimity to the extent of wishing the entire review unpublished, one should perhaps avoid reading comments threads on reviews. Or reviews. But that's back to people being people and wanting the world to make them happy, and for everyone else to agree that what makes them happy is the best way for the world to be run.

Posted by Fellshot at January 15, 2012 6:23 AM:

I thought that this was a well thought out, intelligently argued critical review. I liked Theft of Swords a great deal, but I don't really have a problem with someone else going forth and eviscerating a novel I liked. I am admittedly great fan of main character banter and can ignore a lot of prose sins if I get that banter.

I do agree with how Ms. Bourke outlines the problems with the female characters though. It's as if Thrace and Arista (especially Arista) have way too many narrative jobs to fill and not enough development to do it all.

Posted by Jonathan M at January 15, 2012 7:08 AM:

Liz -- That isn't my view (I'm been tarred with that particular brush many a time) but there are (clearly) some people who think that your non-reviewing activities mean that you are not the kind of person who should be reviewing epic fantasy.

Posted by Axiomatic at January 15, 2012 9:46 AM:

Frankly, the fantasy didn't sound all that epic to me anyway.

Posted by Alex Dally MacFarlane at January 15, 2012 10:21 AM:

I just want to know how a guy thinly named after an Assyrian king (Esarhaddon) got into faux medievaland. And why he's speaking Ye Olde Englishe.

Posted by Ben at January 15, 2012 11:15 AM:

I do not expect a Strange Horizons review to begin by comparing the book in question to dog excrement.

Posted by Susan at January 15, 2012 12:10 PM:

To see someone express so much glee at spreading such displeasure saddens me. I feel sorry for Ms. Bourke that she finds doing so is either entertaining or enlightening. A related post sums up my feelings better than I ever could...(http://adrianfaulkner.com/2012/01/14/dear-genre-bullying-reviews-are-very-uncomely/)

"What I cannot understand is why people would even consider approaching a review without respect for the subject matter? Respect doesn’t mean you have to like something, or hate something, it means you establish what it was trying to do and see whether it lives up to its goals."

"There should always be regret when something is bad. Not an apology, no hand wringing but genuine sadness. If I see someone try hard and fail, I don’t stand there, point a finger, say “what an idiot” and laugh. If I did (and we’re all human), I’d be an arsehole. I just shake my head and say it’s a shame."

Posted by jeff vandermeer at January 15, 2012 1:35 PM:

Kat--You've missing my point, which isn't about positive or negative reviews. But in answer to your first question....yes.

Posted by Nick H. at January 15, 2012 1:44 PM:

I'm not sure why there has to be a compelling reason to review anything. Enforcing such a standard strictly would lay waste to reviews pages all over the land. Surely the fact that the book is out there, and it falls under Strange Horizon's remit, is reason enough.

Posted by Nic at January 15, 2012 1:45 PM:

Jeff:

It's not as if we're pushed for space on the internet, though. What's wrong with reviewing a wide range of books? And why consign epic fantasy to a ghetto in which the only people who ever talk about it are the ones who think it's kinda mean to write honest reviews?

Posted by Kat Allen at January 15, 2012 2:51 PM:

@jeff vandermeer Possibly we've both been a little too subtle -- I didn't think your point was about positive or negative reviews and didn't focus on that in my reply to you. I was quietly expressing my concern that you were saying that because you didn't see a point to reviewing a bad (or mediocre, or brilliant but unoriginal) book SH should not be publishing such a review. You chose to give a one word answer to a challenge to that possible interpretation of your words, with no explanation as to why you feel book reviews should be selective and focus only on good books (which by definition will result in mostly positive reviews). I think you may find that any point you have to make is less likely to be missed (which I'm not sure I have done) if you bother to express it more clearly, and that one word responses (perhaps from your position as the voice of authority when it comes to the worthiness of fictional texts) neither forward debate nor give me reason to believe you can support your opinion beyond "wanting... everyone else to agree that what makes [you] happy is the best way for the world to be run"

The primary reason I am uncomfortable with the idea of not reviewing a book that is deemed unworthy (and clearly the editors of SH are not to be trusted as the arbiters of what books they should review so it would be *someone else* making the call) is that quite often the books that have been deemed unworthy of consideration alongside those written by ... well white men... have been those written by women and authors from various minority groups.

What do you see as the primary reason for not reviewing this book?

Posted by Zach H. at January 15, 2012 3:20 PM:

"What do you see as the primary reason for not reviewing this book? "

Seems like a pretty routine take down of a bad novel. We even get the obligatory reference to Forgotten Realms and D&D games played by teenage boys. Not that the book shouldn't be called out for being terrible--and I have to admit that even as a person who loathes snarky net speak I didn't really sense much of that with this review--but overall I don't visit SH to experience the "this book is worse than Forgotten Realms" brand of criticism. I've seen enough of that elsewhere.

Posted by Fadzlishah Johanabas at January 15, 2012 4:33 PM:

I notice that the longer this comment thread gets, the more off course the comments have become.

I believe the real issue here is a book review is about the work and not the mind behind it. Whenever people talk about rejection letters, they say, "when we don't accept your piece, it doesn't mean we reject you as a person. Feel free to write something better."

Had Ms Bourke not inserted the first paragraph, or at least had finished with something like "I'm not going to read more, but I hope the author redeems himself with the rest of the series," then this article/review would have retained its objectivity. It would have been about the book, and not the author/publisher.

For example, I believe that the movie "The Last Airbender" is a flop, a disappointment, especially when M Night Syamalan directed it. But I won't go to the extent of condemning him, and I most certainly won't go telling others to boycott him.

Ms Bourke has gone through great lengths to read the book and find parts that didn't work for her. We should all appreciate her effort. She didn't need to finish the book if she didn't like it. She didn't need to review this particular book. But she did. And from the depth of her review, she must have put the book under a microscope.

What I see here is a lot of talking and bashing and not much listening. Everyone has his/her own opinions, and is unwilling to listen to what others have to say, and resort to namecalling and condescension. You're adults, but you act like children.

Shame on you.

I do not know Michael Sullivan; however, this review reads like a personal attack against him as an author. Especially the first paragraph. God, the first paragraph just seethes with venom. There's nothing wrong with being passionate. There's nothing wrong with being so disappointed in something you've invested in that you're fuming and you want to vent out. But please, be civil, and please, respect the author even though you can't stomach his work.

As for the rest of you, please respect Ms Bourke. No more deragotory remarks about her or her line of work. If you don't agree with her review, then defend the book with what you think works. Don't disrespect the reviewer.

As for Mr Sullivan, if you're reading this far, I hope this review makes you a stronger and a better person and author. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, eh?

Posted by Fadzlishah Johanabas at January 15, 2012 4:36 PM:

By the way, how come no one commented on the cover? It looks GOOD!

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 15, 2012 5:04 PM:

Fellshot:

Appreciate that. People have very different tastes and accept very different trade-offs in terms of what gives them enjoyment.


Jonathan M:

Thanks for clarifying. I get "but what's the point?" of history/Classics/humanity sufficiently often to have a reflexive justify your argument! response.


Susan:

I note your concern and sadness, and argue that respect must be earned.

Zach H:

I'm actually a bit of a Forgotten Realms fan. Just a tiny little bit.


***

I note we seem to be moving away from a discussion of the substance of the review, and into a discussion of whether or not Strange Horizons has a legitimate right, interest, etc., to publish a)negative reviews, b)reviews of epic fantasy, c)reviews of work that's "unoriginal" or "bad" by whatever chosen yardstick. You'll find my opinion obvious, I'm sure: but it's not an argument I care to pursue, myself, and - since my free time is soon to be drastically curtailed - I won't, at any rate, have the opportunity to do so here.

I'm finding this whole conversation an illuminating argument, and I regret that I shan't be able to participate much henceforth. Since I'll be scarce for a good while, I'd like to thank my fellow commenters for their opinions, as well as for their courtesy, and to offer my gratitude to Strange Horizons for providing a forum for discussion.

Posted by Lewis at January 15, 2012 5:40 PM:

I was turned onto this book because I was interested in learning what made the author and this series an ebook success. And learn I did.

It was fun, clever, and easy to read. I didn't have to go back and reread needlessly complex prose (okay except for the wizard's speech), I really enjoyed the banter between the two main characters (reminded me of a good buddy flick) which often had me chuckling out loud. The plot was at first glance relatively straight-foward but filled with foreshadowing and hidden complexity. It made good use of fantasy tropes that again contributed to the easy read.

I think the author wrote exactly the kind of book he set out to (in a matter of months no less) and I look foward to finishing the series and seeing what else he produces in the future. Maybe this means I have bad taste but oh well so be it

(for the record I hated the Eragon series, loved A Song of Ice and Fire...except for the last one where half the book was about describing the different kinds of food everybody ate, and stopped reading the first Malazan Book of the Fallen to read Theft of Swords....oh and Black Company is prob my fav :D)

Posted by Brit Mandelo at January 15, 2012 6:12 PM:

I'm baffled by the vitriolic nonsense responses to this review - which isn't even particularly harsh, when compared with (as other commenters have noted) reviews by folks like Gore Vidal. The fight is not so much about Liz or this book as it is about readers who are frightened and disgusted by negative reviews.

Negative reviews serve a purpose and are a part of any healthy critical community, whether you agree with them personally or not. A critical community that only enjoys, shall we say, sitting in a circle patting each others' backs about how brilliant we all are and how great all of our books must be, is not honest or balanced. "Balanced" does not mean "never say anything bad." Balanced means, and I feel like this should be obvious, a balance between what we love and what we wish we could have loved, the good and the bad.

The ability to provide real, honest critique, for better or for worse, has to be a tool in a reviewer's arsenal. Liz was honest, here, about bad prose and artistic sloppiness, and those are perfectly sensible things to call out. (The ability to accept and understand honest, harsh criticism is part of being a writer, if that writer has any interest in personal development and improvement, too.)

Posted by Martin at January 15, 2012 6:50 PM:

She didn't need to finish the book if she didn't like it. She didn't need to review this particular book. But she did.

I'm amazed how many people criticising this review don't seem to understand the basic concepts of reviewing. It's not difficult: reviewer agrees to review book, reviewer reads book, reviewer delivers review. So yes, having agreed to review the book, Bourke did need to finish, even though she didn't like it. This is called professionalism.

As for the idea of "need", I just don't know what to make of this (and it has absolutely nothing to do with the review itself). No one needs to review anything. However, if a venue is going publish reviews then someone needs to decide which books to cover. Jeff VanderMeer may wish that he was the reviews editor of Strange Horizons but he isn't, Abigail Nussbaum is. As such she decides what books to cover and she clearly tries to cover as much of the field as possible. For me, this is an admirable goal and one of the things I appreciate about this magazine. If people don't think that Strange Horizons should cover epic fantasy then I'd suggest they examine why they think that. I don't think they will like the answer.

Posted by Camille at January 15, 2012 8:00 PM:

@Kat: I did not read Vandermeer's comment to be asking that "only good books" be reviewed, but rather that innovative and interesting books (good or bad) that are attempting to push boundaries be given more visibility in deciding what gets reviewed.

I like a well-done retread well enough myself, on occasion, but I think JV's point is a salient one.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 15, 2012 8:12 PM:

@Zach H Jeff Vandermeer responded 'yes' to the question of whether any book can be considered more worthy of review than any other. Which is pretty much a statement that some books are not worthy of a reviewers time -- I presumed from his previous comment that he considers this book to be one such. So I asked him to clarify what he meant. You responded to that question with your comments about the review.

But if - this book will result in a review similar to reviews that I have seen before - is held to be the primary reason for not publishing a particular review, then frex Terry Pratchett becomes unreviewable ("another good book from a man who is still funny, still clever, and still not dead yet") as do the vast majority of books which will garner positive reviews because if a book doesn't get anything wrong all you can do is say nice things about the usual things that can have nice things said about them ("nicely written, well plotted and paced, an entertaining/challenging/thought provoking read which I recommend heartily to everyone who will enjoy it").

Posted by jeff vandermeer at January 15, 2012 8:16 PM:

Kat--every review publication makes decisions about what they think deserves review and what doesn't, with the additional constraints of resources, available reviewers, etc. This seems self-evident.

Posted by Jeff VanderMeer at January 15, 2012 8:20 PM:

Martin: Don't put thoughts in my head that aren't there.

Posted by Stephen Theaker at January 15, 2012 8:22 PM:

Lots of typically silly responses to a negative review from over-invested friends, family or fans. The reviewer didn't like the book, and the review is clearly her honest expression of how she felt about it. Disagree with the review by all means, but don't waste time trying to come up with motives for it: she just thought the book was rubbish.

Posted by Zach H. at January 15, 2012 9:48 PM:

"You responded to that question with your comments about the review."

Indeed I did, as I agreed with the notion that some books simply don't deserve the coverage, and this book sounded like one. I apologize if it is bad form or some such thing to answer a question that wasn't directed at me. Thought that was pretty standard procedure when it come to comment sections--you know, jump in where ever.

Posted by Bryn at January 15, 2012 9:58 PM:

@Steven Theaker Amazing that the irony didn't simply choke you ... and yet you managed to get it out, bravo!

> Lots of typically silly responses to a negative review from over-invested friends, family or fans.

> Disagree with the review by all means, but don't waste time trying to come up with motives for it

Have you not just come up with motives for the people you disagree with?

(Not friend, family, or a fan btw (haven't read the book). But I know vicious when I see it.)

Posted by Stephen Theaker at January 15, 2012 11:07 PM:

@Bryn Not really seeing the irony there. I was pointing out that the motive for the review is perfectly clear (she thought the book was rubbish), not making a general claim that motives are impossible to discern.

It's bizarre that you think the reviewer couldn't have written this review without malicious intent. It seems to me like a fairly straightforward review of a book she considered to be poor.

Posted by Bryn at January 15, 2012 11:20 PM:

@Steven Of course you were.

But playing along with that *wink* ...So we shouldn't waste time stating our opinion of her motives because our opinions of her motives are silly and your opinion of her motives is right? Well that's us told then.

OK, that's interesting. Are you always right and everyone else wrong, or just on this occasion?

Oh wait, you weren't right about me being a friend, fan, or family... and that was something else you stated as fact. Was that perfectly clear to you as well?

It's bizarre that you think the reviewer could have written this review without malicious intent. It seems to me like a fairly straightforward hate-fest vs an author she decided to hit for her kicks and the props of cronies.

Didja see what I did there? Didja?

Posted by Stephen Theaker at January 15, 2012 11:28 PM:

I said that there were lots of silly comments from that type of person, not that every comment was silly, nor that every comment came from that kind of person.

Yes, I see what you tried to do there.

Posted by Justin at January 15, 2012 11:46 PM:

I like how everyone assumes that this book is utter crap...even those that have not read it. After all Liz Bourke pointed some negative aspects (and no positive ones) and declared it dog excrement and Jeff Vandemeer thinks that it's not even worthy of a review and yet....it has been added to many year end "best of" and "favorites of" including Library Journal and Barnes and Noble. And when originally released as seperate books were also well received. Here are some of the mentions


- A Dribble of Ink's favorite books of 2011 for Theft of Swords
- 2011 Drying Ink's Best Epic Fantasy of 2011 for Theft of Swords
- 2011 Best Fantasy Releases by Barnes and Noble Blog for Theft of Swords
- 2011 Library Journal's Best Books for Fantasy/Sci-Fi for Theft of Swords
- 2011 Library Journal's Fantasy/Sci-Fi Debut For September for Theft of Swords
- 2011 Civilian's Reader 5 Most Anticipated Reads for Nov for Theft of Swords
- 2010 Top 10 Read in 2010 List by Only the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Theft of Swords
- 2010 Bookworm Blues Best Overall Read for Avempartha
- 2010 Iceberg Ink Best Read Award for The Crown Conspiracy
- 2009 Dark Wolf Top 5 books of First Half of 2009 for The Crown Conspiracy
- 2009 Fantasy Book Critic Notable Fantasy Book for Avempartha
- 2008 Fantasy Book Critic Notable Indie for The Crown Conspiracy

Posted by Cybe at January 16, 2012 12:07 AM:

Lit crit is more convincing with the word 'novel' than 'book'.

Posted by Literary Lola at January 16, 2012 12:51 AM:

If I didn't know better, and I don't, I'd say that this "Frank Johnson" is Michale Sullivan.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 16, 2012 1:46 AM:

@Jeff Vandermeer -- yes, every magazine selects the stories it will publish and the reviews that it will publish, SH clearly has done so, but you came along and questioned that choice. You also said that some books (presumably more than this one title) are not worthy of a reviewer's time. Now since SH decided to devote the webspace and Ms Bourke's time you can't be trying to say that these factors have anything to do with the point you're trying to make (done deal, they decided to review this book), and so why not just say what *you* consider makes a book unworthy of being reviewed?

You know, it is possible that if you explained why you think this book, and others which share it's unworthiness, should not be reviewed, you might convince the powers that be at SH that you have a point (beyond your personal desire not to see these works reviewed).

So how about we give this a retry? Why don't *you* want to see a review of this book, or books you consider to be unworthy of a reviewer's time appear at this (or any other?) venue?

Posted by Kat Allen at January 16, 2012 2:09 AM:

@ Camille -- Ive repeatedly used the words worthy and unworthy to describe Jeff Vandermeer's position, since that was the word used in the question he gave his enlightening one word answer to. Have you any evidence that by reviewing this book, or others like it, SH (or any other zine) has done so at the expense of those boundary pushing books which you would seem to prefer to hear about?

@Zac H You are perfectly free to jump in on any question you like at any time. But the question you jumped in on was not about the review but was about how Jeff Vandermeer, or now you yourself would choose the worthy books that deserve to be reviewed. What objective criteria -- which can be decided upon before a reviewer reads the book in question -- make it obvious that the reviewer should not waste their time reading the book? What is it about Mr Sullivan's book that means it can immediately be tossed aside, unread, as not worthy of review? Especially given that he has made enough of a popular splash to be reprinted by Orbit.

Posted by Camille at January 16, 2012 3:50 AM:

@Kat. You're making a great many assumptions about what I think, want, and care about and what I feel about this discussion (which I quite deliberately never stated) and seem to have completely missed the bit where while I find what Vandermeer said to be salient discussion fodder, I don't actually wholly agree with it.

Vandermeer's *original* statement, which is the *only* thing I'm talking about, did not actually make any claims about goodness or popularity. You took it in that direction in your response. He referred to the subject of this review as "a novel that even if it were well done clearly has been done to death one million times before." Putting the subjunctive part of that statement aside, since the "well-done-ness" of the novel is not what that statement is taking issue with or making judgement on (hence that segment being cast in the subjunctive), the part of the statement being emphasized is the desire to see something reviewed that has NOT been "done one million times before." I see this as a plea for novelty/creativity/innovation. (Vandermeer is, after all, one of the vanguard of the New Weird; it makes perfect sense that innovation is something he would want to see more of and more buzz about). All *I* said was, "Hey, even though I personally like some of that been-there-done-that stuff, I think JV has made an interesting comment here."

Basically, I think a lot of interesting things are being said from several different quarters (some more effectively than others), and I'm sure a happy medium will be reached, if later rather than sooner. I just hate to see people get unnecessarily riled up and going off on tangents over a misinterpreted statement (no biggie, it happens to the best of us) when there are plenty of properly interpreted statements to get riled up over.

(I may be being a bit presumptuous here, but I feel certain Vandermeer will correct me if I've got him all wrong, just as he did you.)

Posted by Zach H. at January 16, 2012 3:54 AM:

Kat, I can't offer any objective criteria, as I wasn't trying to impose a guideline that SH should adhere to. I was merely giving my opinion as a reader of this site that I'd rather see a review of something that doesn't bear a "marked resemblance to the kind of D&D campaign GMed by a thirteen-year-old boy..." For instance, I notice that this site, like myself unfortunately, hasn't gotten around to the latest Durham or McKillip novels yet.

Posted by Alexander at January 16, 2012 6:30 AM:

>>[Bryn] But playing along with that *wink* ...So we >>shouldn't waste time stating our opinion of her >>motives because our opinions of her motives are >>silly and your opinion of her motives is right? >>Well that's us told then.

It's not about the motives of the reviewer, not in a credible variant of this argument. There isn't any need to assume additional motivation, personal animosity for Sullivan, or anything else that the armchair psychologists on this thread are pulling out of nowhere to discredit Bourke. Is it beyond your ability to imagine that a reviewer can react to a book that they're reviewing negatively, and bring that into the review written to negatively define the book? Perhaps I'm joining in the Anti-Sullivan Cabal, but that seems an entirely plausible motivation. The casting for further ways to discredit the reviewer are notable in that they are entirely detached from the quality of lack thereof of the book. You're making it all about the reviewer and categorically defining the reviewer as wrong in approach, in a way that ignores everything about the review except the tone of the first paragraph. That's a fairly weak mode of reasoning.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 16, 2012 6:33 AM:

@ Camille, I seem to have packed an awful lot about you into a single sentence (the first concerned me and Jeff Vandermeer). You got that I made assumptions about "assumptions about what I think, want, and care about and what I feel about this discussion" all from the words 'those boundary pushing books which you would seem to prefer to hear about?'? If I'd just used the pronoun 'he', instead of 'you' then all would have been well.

But then if you can read so much of what I'm assuming about you into those few words -- and I assume you believe yourself to be right in your conclusion -- then why is it impossible that my conclusion about what Jeff Vandermeer is saying is not equally valid?

BTW was I wrong not to upbraid you for putting quotes around "only good books" rather than just reminding you that I was mostly using the words worthy and unworthy?

I believe that when Jeff Vandermeer answered the question "Can any book be said to be more worthy of review than any other? by saying 'Yes', when I had clarified this semi-rhetorical question by adding "... books not deemed good or popular by whoever would judge whether this review should have been written at all, do not deserve to go unreviewed." he only has himself to blame if that one word reply is used to further clarify his initial comment and leads to what you believe to be a misinterpretation.

Perhaps you should have waited for him to clarify that second answer before making your definitive analysis of what he meant by his original statement. And are you really sure you want to suggest that his comment means he wants to see more reviews of books that have "novelty/creativity/innovation" since with his being in the vanguard of the New Weird "it makes perfect sense that innovation is something he would want to see more of and more buzz about".

Thank you for offering comfort for my 'no biggie' error, but I'm not swayed by an interpretation of the text that needs such emphasis on only considering one part of the whole. Still, it's the thought that counts and clearly the offer was well-meant, if unnecessary. It's a pity Mr Sullivan hasn't as excellent an advocate for his work/words as you have been for Mr Vandermeer's.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 16, 2012 6:50 AM:

@Zac H -- "I agreed with the notion that some books simply don't deserve the coverage, and this book sounded like one."

You agree that some books don't deserve to be reviewed, but you can't offer up what it was from the sound of this book that made you agree that it was unworthy of a review. You have only your opinion that it shouldn't have been reviewed.

An opinion based on the review which you wouldn't have seen if it hadn't been published for you to read and form the opinion that the book shouldn't have been reviewed... We'd better stop before we hit The Grandfather Paradox, that's been done to death too :D

Posted by Bryn at January 16, 2012 7:35 AM:

@Alexander You're entirely correct. I am ignoring everything about the review apart from the tone of the first paragraph. Exactly as I will from this point forward be ignoring everything about Ms Bourke and Strange Horizons apart from their names, which will be my cue to move on.

Goodbye.

Posted by Psychomacologist at January 16, 2012 11:03 AM:

"some scheming churchmen have hatched a plot to set up a (fake) Lost Heir to an empire that's been gone a thousand years. They plan to get their patsy to kill the dragon and thereby prove his credentials."

Er... this is the plot of Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.

So not only badly written, but ripped off too.

Posted by Maenad at January 16, 2012 12:28 PM:

Jeff:
"I would prefer any number of things on SH to a review of a novel that even if it were well-done clearly has been done to death one million times before. There seems no compelling *reason* to have reviewed this novel."

I believe this was addressed in the review:
"Michael J. Sullivan is that rare beast, a man who self-published six books to moderate financial success, and parlayed that success into a deal with a major publisher."

A rare beast is arguably worthy of examination in a publication like SH that does not cater to particular niche interests. Discourse within SH is more of a mainstream opinion-forming kind. So why not take a closer look at a new rare beast on the block?

Posted by Maenad at January 16, 2012 12:56 PM:

I address this to Fadzlishah Johanabas, but I would welcome a reply from anybody who has expressed similar sentiment in this comment thread:

"I do not know Michael Sullivan; however, this review reads like a personal attack against him as an author. Especially the first paragraph."

Could you tell me where in the following you have seen a personal attack on the _author_?

"As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. Bad words. But I'll restrain myself, and restrict my vocabulary to standards acceptable in polite company. The book's own words ought to be enough to condemn it."

May be I fail at reading comprehension (a possibility), but I only see reviewer going after the publishing house decision-makers and not Mr Sullivan himself. In fact, she expressly states that: "Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable". Mr Sullivan is only charged with having written a bad novel, a claim that the reviewer spends the rest of the article substantiating. Now, you may agree or not with the evidence she provides, but even if you feel her comments are not valid, they only extend to the book itself.

Criticism of the work /= criticism of the author.

So, again: _where_ does the reviewer attack Mr Sullivan's person?


Posted by jeff vandermeer at January 16, 2012 2:22 PM:

"Mr. VanderMeer" is sodding off to play some Angry Birds as a rather more productive enterprise than sticking around to see even more words put in his mouth. LOL.

Posted by Zach H. at January 16, 2012 2:23 PM:

Kat, I already offered up what it was about this particular book that turned me off. I'd rather more ambitious fiction get the exposure over z-grade worse than fan fiction stuff. True, SH is still doing a valuable service in letting people know about any book, and thus I am certainly not saying the review should be taken down or other similar books should never be reviewed again. I was just offering a gut reaction, how to me it's a bit unfortunate that several other writers I can think of haven't been covered on this site lately (or ever). Even if a book deserves to be called out as worse than fan fiction or bad D&D or whatever, reading yet another of that all too common iteration doesn't leave me feeling particularly enlightened in the manner that many other Strange Horizons reviews do.

Posted by Robin Sullivan at January 16, 2012 2:49 PM:

Just a few quick things (I'm Michael's wife)

1 - Michael has read the review but none of the comments (nor does he plan to)

2 - His official position is not to comment

3 - He has not directed anyone to the review nor asked them to comment

4 - He has never read Guards, Guards by Terry Prachett (or any of the Discworld series)

5 - Don't ask me questions or expect any further response from me as I have no intention to say anything more. I'm posting only to refute claims of plagiarism or impersonation.

Posted by Fadzlishah Johanabas at January 16, 2012 3:37 PM:

@Maenad: 1st paragraph -- Mr Sullivan is a moderately successful self-pub author who landed a deal with a major publisher. But what was the professional publisher thinking, investing in such utter crap?

The rest of the article deals directly with the book, which is fair play in my opinion.

There is an etiquette in reviewing works of art, especially when done for public consumption. I've read it in a book about writing, I just can't remember which. Sorry. We have to remember that a work of art is the creator's child; it's bad enough if you tell a parent "Oh, what an ugly child!" Imagine what it'll do to the family if you say "What kind of parents are you to let this monster be seen in public?"

Unfortunately, the review is more of the latter.

Anyway, a considerate reviewer would state what works in a piece and what doesn't, and objectively as possible, without prejudice. And please, don't tell me this article wasn't prejudiced. Ms Bourke wants better women characters, and she wants the pseudo-Old English to be proper Old English (since the author won't comment, we'll never know if he meant for the dialog to be as such, or he didn't do his research).

If this had been written for personal consumption, in order to get a better draft, then this review is a gem. It seriously is. I don't deny that. But the book is already out, published by a major publishing house, and considering this venue holds weight, publishers may think twice about buying the rest of the books, and this will affect the writer's livelihood. Granted, this kind of publicity may get more people to buy the book, but we don't know that, do we?

This is what the internet does. People can post anything without having to worry about consequences. And there are consequences. At the very least the author's distraught. That's what the blog posts that sprout out of this thread is talking about, right? Whether it's fair for a critique to be this harsh? If it stops there, it's not so bad. More than that, such an article may affect a person's major source of income.

Novels cost between 30 and 100 bucks a pop where I live. Thanks to phone internet, I check reviews before deciding on buying a particular book. Sometimes I buy books for the covers, but that's a different story. What's important here is a review influences my decision. If a lot of people do what I do, quite a number of authors won't earn out their advances.

I'm all for snark. I love reading Query Shark and Miss Snark. But you have to admit, their snarkiness has finesse. There's constructive criticism, and there's putting people down. I'll let you decide which category this review belongs to.

If there is nothing redeemable about the book, at least on how lucky Mr Sullivan is to have a great cover artist, or there aren't that many typos, or at least the story moves instead of getting bogged down by expositions. Anything. Even a single good quality is enough.

American Idol worked because Simon calls people's crap for what it is, while Paula comments on how gorgeous they look (before prodeding to talk nonsense). Because their comments were made in front of the whole live and TV audience, and the kids need a shred of something good to hold on to to get them through the night.

You know what, I really want to read this book. I need to check out whether my local bookstores sell it. Malaysian credit cards can't access the Kindle. Bummer.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 16, 2012 4:28 PM:

Aha, I have it, Jeff Vandermeer is an epic fantasy wizard! He wanders in, mutters a few cryptic words, carefully avoids explanations or meaningful answers, and then vanishes in a puff of smoke and laughter.

Posted by Daniel Abraham at January 16, 2012 4:56 PM:

Coming in late and with no particular skin in this game.

I think Dorothy Parker pretty much set the book-review-as-public-kneecapping as a respectable form of humor and/or schadenfreude. Any discussion of whether that form is itself moral has to go back to her and whether she was at heart a reviewer or an attack humorist. I'm with Jeff (and Auden) in thinking that being ignored is a dire enough fate for a bad book.

But there's also an argument to be made that Ms. Bourke's job is to write an article that we enjoy reading regardless of the book we're reading *about*. Cruelty makes for good entertainment. I don't enjoy watching authors mocked and derided as much since I became one, but I can respect that other folks do. And I had a lot of fun watching Charlie Sheen raked over the coals when he was having his public mental breakdown, so I don't have any particular moral high ground to preach from.

I haven't read the novel in question, and so have no opinion on it.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 16, 2012 5:10 PM:

@ Fadzlishah Johanabas - "There is an etiquette in reviewing works of art, especially when done for public consumption. I've read it in a book about writing, I just can't remember which."

Repeatedly in this comment thread I've been wondering if some people are confusing literary reviews with workshop critiques. For workshop critiques, especially those where the writer has to sit and listen to what the critiquer thinks, there are suggested rules of etiquette to guide critiquers into supplying helpful and supportive comments and not simply a brutal list of auctorial failures. Since writers are often advised to join workshops How to Write books may include such tips on how to behave etc (The idea of finding a single nice thing to say is definitely from the etiquette of workshop critiquing but one I've never actually found to be that effective)

Reviews of published books are not designed to help the author (although it is possible that they may do so) but to enlighten an audience as to the reviewer's opinions on the book -- and to entertain. Just as film reviewers need say nothing positive to soothe the feelings of director or actors, or to think of the consequences for the box office take, book reviewers have no responsibility to consider the author's feelings or possible loss of income.

[BTW The comments Liz Bourke made would not have made a particularly good critique for the purposes of improving the book. It is, for example, good practice in a critique of a stranger for private consumption to assume that the writer would not have repeatedly made the same mistake if they knew it was a mistake, and so simply pointing to a flaw without explaining why it is a flaw gives is of no use at all. But as a review of a published work, pointing out to the potential reader examples of poor writing which back up the reviewers stated opinion that there is poor writing in the book, is simply the provision of evidence in support of that opinion. No further explanation is needed because it is a review.]

Ms Bourke, however, does not put the entire responsibility for all of the books problems at the feet of Mr Sullivan. She rightly points out that Orbit should not have sought Mr Sullivan out if they were not intending to offer him the same kind of services that one would expect a publishing house to provide an author with -- particularly the services of an editor and copy-editor. No book an author submits for publication is perfect, and normally a publisher like Orbit would be expected to work with the author in bringing the finished product to a higher standard than the writer can achieve working alone. Orbit appears to have short-changed Mr Sullivan by allowing his work to hit the shelves in a less polished form than that of other authors they publish. That's just wrong. For Mr Sullian, for the reputation of their imprint, and for the genre as a whole (because if they can do that to Mr Sullivan will they soon be letting every author's second draft out into the world without a helpful professional eye being cast over it?) Of course, sha and I am assuming that Orbit did not offer those services rather than that they did and Mr Sullivan chose not to avail himself of them.

Posted by Camille at January 16, 2012 5:15 PM:

"If I'd just used the pronoun 'he', instead of 'you' then all would have been well."

Actually, yes, it would have pretty radically altered the meaning of the sentence. Others have expressed desires; I have not once, merely intrigue. Nor am I obligated to come down on a side.

Similarly, I have expressed absolutely no advocacy for Vandermeer's work -- I'm simply familiar with its subgenre. I am uncomfortable having expertise attributed to me that I never claimed. In the same way, if Sullivan had made a similarly worded comment about how he wished to see, say, more self-published things reviewed, I might have found that equally interesting, since I know also who HE is and what he has been known/discussed for, here and in other publications, even if I have not yet read his work.

"BTW was I wrong not to upbraid you for putting quotes around "only good books" rather than just reminding you that I was mostly using the words worthy and unworthy?"

If you like. I wasn't really trying to address the tangent -- which nobody misinterpreted, and which is, frankly, now generating some intriguing discussion in its own right -- merely the initial statement by Vandermeer. I understand if you feel I should have addressed it; please understand if I disagree.

(To clarify: I -- myself, personally, just me -- am not troubled by, and therefore do not feel pressed to comment on, the very subjective question of "worthy or unworthy" at this time. The Internet is vast and reviews are not in short supply; if there's a book**, odds are *someone* will review it. But I'm not asking anyone else to share my concerns or lack thereof.)


**caveat -- with a publisher behind it, but that gets into questions of economics and I think I've already contributed my quota to thread tangents!

Posted by Seth E. at January 16, 2012 5:38 PM:

I'm very, very late to the party, but wow, what a party it was.

I'm a bit baffled by the people who think this was an egregiously negative review, in the sense of "bullying" or "vicious." Even in the now-legendary first paragraph, Bourke never gets personal in the way people have claimed. She doesn't call the author an idiot, or speculate about his inner motivations. She just holds him professionally responsible for what she considers an unprofessional level of execution--and by extension, his publishers are professionally responsible for supporting that unprofessionalism. She uses some extreme imagery, but apparently her feelings were extreme.

In short, it's a pretty standard negative review. If writers want to get real, professional contracts and distribution, then they get real, professional reviews. This is what it looks like. And this is what makes the conversation about books a real conversation, as others have said above. I note that the author himself never made an appearance here, which is smart. And professional!

I'm sure Jonathan M. has left the conversation by now, but he said something that made me curious:

The question of whether SH possesses an anti-core genre bias is an interesting one but while I suspect that the historical record does not support it, I do not think that it is beyond the pale to suggest that the people who wind up writing for SH tend to think more highly of ground-breaking works of genre than of works that fail to break any ground at all.

What does this mean about the definition of "core genre?" Several people asked, but Jonathan never responded. From his comment, it seems like "ground-breaking epic fantasy" is a contradiction in terms. That, or "core genre" means "cliches done badly enough that I can instantly recognize the tropes I like." That's a fine expression of personal taste, but it's a depressing definition of the heart of the genre.

Posted by Simon P. at January 16, 2012 6:40 PM:

So, Jeff Vandermeer and Adam Roberts are both on the list of author's who opened their mouths and made comments that (as a reader) I feel puts them into a decidedly bad light. Sorry guys, that's just my honest opinion.

Those author's could learn something from Daniel Abraham who (when I've seen him comment here and other blogs, like Pat's Fantasy Hotlist) has always been lucid, interesting and thought-provoking in his contributions. He may agree or disagree with the topic at hand, but he always does so with the elegance that I feel should be present when you basically spend your life selling your art to the masses. It's a touchy game to take a side in a situation like this since you might put off potential audience for your work by showing a marked disrespect of other people's work. I feel that Abraham always rides that balance perfectly when he contributes to discussions and I enjoy reading what he has to say. Both Roberts and Vandermeer come off (to me at least) in a decidedly poorer light here.

Personally I feel the review is not really objective and really does simply seem like a case of Liz wishing to bash on the book an excessive amount. I've written a few negative reviews in my day, and while passion in those is a good thing (especially when it comes to making it entertaining as reading material) I think a modicum of respect should be employed as well. I feel I have to side with the commenters who have said that comparing a book to dog excrement in the opening paragraph of a review seems in particularly bad form imnsho.

I find the rest of the piece sort of reads like an amateurish review by a person who isn't quite sure of the etiquette. Instead of noting the good (if there was any for her) and then the bad and then explaining why those things worked or didn't work for her, she chooses a few scattered negatives and then hand-waves the rest as "It's bad, trust me. Just look at this dialogue!".

It almost seems to have been created to purposely troll, and attract trolls as well. I mean obviously with over 100 comments it has struck a chord with people, and perhaps that was the intention? I don't know. I can only comment on what I see.

Strange Horizons is well within their rights to post this review into whatever arena of acceptance they consider is proper. It's their site and they make the decisions. This is the internet after all. Thankfully, there are enough people who this might offend (as a review) that Strange Horizons might look at this as a lesson-learned as to what they will/should allow. I personally find Liz's tone to be relatively counter-productive as far as a negative review goes and such a posts' purpose.

I've been really annoyed by books myself before, but I don't think I've ever written a negative review that wasn't at least cognizant of the fact that it was being written about someone's art and should therefore attempt to at least be professional, if it can't be complimentary. I feel Liz failed on that count here.

Posted by LynnB at January 16, 2012 8:42 PM:

Interesting how Robin Sullivan identifies herself as Michael's wife but fails to mention she is the owner of the small press (Ridan) that published the series before it was picked up by Orbit and continues to publish Michael's work. Just sayin'.

Posted by Alan Laird at January 16, 2012 8:56 PM:

The review made me laugh, which I suspect was the intent. There are not enough harsh reviews if fantasy novels. I long ago gave up buying fantasy or sci if on the strength of reviews simply because once I started reading the "highly recommended" or whatever book I'd start into the supposed page turner only to find it was so dreadful I'd have to check it was the same book I'd seen reviewed. I find it refreshing to read a hatchet review. Will it affect my decision regarding buying the book? Possibly, I'd never heard of it before reading this. One thing for certain though. If they ever make a film of the book I'll certainly buy it.

Posted by Patrick Brannigan at January 16, 2012 8:59 PM:

Here in The Netherlands we used to look up to Anglo-Saxon fantasy. You are the guys who gave us The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones etc. etc. You have every right to be proud.

Nowadays however, it seems you are declining. Based on the quotes and the description of the plot and characters, I believe every word Liz has written. Theft of Swors is probably as bad as she so boldly notes and perhaps even worse. And this is a book which has been picked up by a major publisher? Anglo-Saxons, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Luckily you have a few sparkles left, like this brave lady Liz who has to courage to defend quality and spit on vulgar, cliché fantasy. Hurrah for Liz, into hellish pits with idiots like Sullivan!

Posted by Simon P. at January 16, 2012 9:19 PM:

"Interesting how Robin Sullivan identifies herself as Michael's wife but fails to mention she is the owner of the small press (Ridan) that published the series before it was picked up by Orbit and continues to publish Michael's work. Just sayin'."

And this is important because?

I'm not sure why that's something that needs to be brought up, since it is an easily found out fact, by visiting the author's site. It's not like she was hiding it or anything. And there was no reason to offer it up was there?

@Kev

"I dispute your contention that it is useless to discuss good or bad prose. Yes there are grey areas, preferred styles etc. but to suggest that it is purely subjective is either disingenuous, naive or just a sign of shallow reading. To argue as many bloggers do, that it doesn't matter, its only entertainment is symptomatic of creeping anti intellectualism. Likewise jibes at Ivory Towers and academics, usually by people who know nothing of such things."

Let's have a gander at the top selling (Read: most enjoyed) authors for the general international public (VIA Amazon and The Telegraph):

1. JK Rowling

2. Stephenie Meyer

3. Julia Donaldson

4. Terry Pratchett

5. Jamie Oliver

6. Dan Brown

7. Enid Blyton

8. Bernard Cornwell

9. Alexander McCall Smith

10. William Shakespeare

Of those at least half write what you would probably term as "bad prose" ( at least Rowling, Meyer, Brown ect. have been accused of such) and for giggles let's add James Patterson since he is the biggest selling author of the last 20 years under Rowling (Forbes? I think). Of the remaining 5 one is dead, one is a chef.

You know what, let's even go down one more peg. Rowling, Meyer and Patterson are arguably the most popular, best-selling authors of the last decade at least (on sheer numbers at the very least, if not fan praise). We could argue specific numbers, and that Patterson's output is like 6 books a year....but all 3 author's aren't considered the most well-written authors, and their prose has always been deemed "workman-like" or "easy" by many. Yet they are, and remain quite popular. I think this is important as it brings to mind a fair point: If the story is good enough, the author's prose is overlooked. If you break that down even further, if these people were "telling" you the story the way these things were passed down a thousand years ago (by word of mouth) from person to person, then the style of the telling was not important as the content. So do we, as a public consuming the stories, have any right to demand that the author's skill level (when it comes to prose) meet some phantom standard? Because honestly, what if the greatest story ever to be told was written by someone without much skill at writing. Should we be denied that story simply because the author's prose wasn't up to snuff? I think that would be unfair on both sides.

Personally, with regards to Rowling, I feel the world (and certainly the book-consuming masses of youth who didn't exist in such numbers 25 years ago) owe a debt to a woman who, whilst on welfare, wrote a story about a boy wizard that entertained the world. So what if it's not written by someone who had the schooling to construct a perfect narrative or prose. Does that matter? One could argue that without it, large selections of teens and young adults would not read as voraciously as they do in 2012. I think that's important. If dropping something into the bin for being "bad prose" is your idea of making the world better Kev, then I must say that I feel the world is actually better because kids read again. Period. Full stop.


Posted by Patrick Brannigan at January 16, 2012 9:31 PM:

Oh and by the way, lady Liz: if you want to review some of MY stories (also available in English), you are more than welcome to do so! Check http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Navarth

Posted by kev mcveigh at January 16, 2012 10:02 PM:

Simon,
lots of people used to believe the earth was flat, that didn't make it right.
Here's how it works: most people are passive consumers, they don't search the racks for stuff, they pick from what is put in front of them. Put Dostoyevsky in ASDA in a film tie-in with Colin Firth on the cover and it will sell millions. Slip the next Rowling out with the average author's publicity budget (two mars bars & a twix) and hide it on waterstones shelves and it won't sell anything like before. Popularity charts are a meaningless measure, but become self-reinforcing.

Posted by Jonathan M at January 16, 2012 10:08 PM:

@Seth --

The idea of 'core genre' is one that I've seen floating around these kinds of debates for a while now. The reason why I didn't flesh out my use of the term when challenged was because a) it's not my term and b) Tangent!

If I had to flesh the idea out I would do so in the following terms: Genre is made up of certain tropes and techniques. While the boundaries between one genre and the next tend to be pretty vague and flexible, all genres possess a set of tried-and-tested tropes that are definitely associated with that particular genre.

Some works, on the other hand, will deconstruct those tropes or use new narrative techniques. These can be thought of as peripheral or groundbreaking genre works.

The accusation made in some corners is that SH is systematically harsh in its reviewing of works of core genre while it systematically favours works that explore the peripheries and try to break new ground.


Beyond that...

I wouldn't consider all of epic fantasy to be 'core genre' because epic fantasy is a sub-genre in its own right and has a core and periphery of its own.

As for whether or not core genre is a depressing concept is very much up to the individual. Personally, I like works that push the boundaries and try new things but that really is just a personal preference. Indeed, if it is possible to prefer books that are all about experimentation to books that aren't then it is possible to do the reverse and prefer books that re-use familiar ideas and techniques in an interesting and effective manner.

Posted by Nick H. at January 16, 2012 11:46 PM:

"I'm not sure why that's something that needs to be brought up, since it is an easily found out fact, by visiting the author's site. It's not like she was hiding it or anything. And there was no reason to offer it up was there?"

I agree with this comment. It's not the least bit interesting what wasn't mentioned, as it's not at all relevant.

In actual fact, I thought the original comment under discussion was a textbook example of how to reply to criticism:

The author has the good sense not to read the comments (point 1) - I seen far, far more angst from creators who read below the line, so to speak, than those who don't.

The author has the good sense to realise that the only sensible response to a review is to not respond to it (point 2). It's amazing how many get that wrong, so credit must go where it's due there. Likewise, credit must be given for not directing people to respond on his behalf either (point 3).

Honestly, there's far more right about that comment than there is wrong (hint: there's nothing wrong about it). So, for me at least, no matter what I may think of his books, my opinion of Mr Sullivan, as a person, has grown.

Posted by Paul C. at January 17, 2012 12:50 AM:

This is the future of the clash of Internet marketing versus book reviewing. An unknown author self-publishes a multi-book series, carpet bombs genre-focused bloggers with review copies, gets at least a few of them on board, builds a base of grassroots support with enthusiastic reviews on Amazon.com, winds up getting a deal with a major publisher, and writes a modest article or two about his success for the blogs. Hard not to root for him under the circumstances.

But then there's the downside. A large percentage of the glowing reviews on Amazon are by readers who have never reviewed even one other book, although they are presumably dedicated enough readers to have discovered this somewhat obscure author. A lone negative review on Strange Horizons attracts an extraordinary number of bitterly hostile responses. The reviewer's credibility and sanity are openly questioned.

You can be sure we will be seeing more of this type of conflict in the years to come. Especially if Amazon dominates the publishing world with the Kindle and its own stable of Kindle authors. Massaging the bloggers (when not outright subsidizing them), astroturfing reviews, and attacking the personal characteristics of anyone who crosses up the marketing campaign will be standard. On one side will be people trying hard to make a living (at minimum) in a desperately competitive business, and on the other will be random people who want "their" genre to be taken seriously for its artistic merit. It's not going to be pretty.

Posted by LynnB at January 17, 2012 2:08 AM:

"I'm not sure why that's something that needs to be brought up, since it is an easily found out fact, by visiting the author's site. It's not like she was hiding it or anything. And there was no reason to offer it up was there?"

Well, Robin Sullivan either is responsible for organizing or personally performed the original editing of Michael's books, and the editing of "Theft of Swords" is the primary focus of this review. It is as unprofessional for the publisher/editor/agent of a writer to comment on reviews as it is for writers to do so.

Posted by Chris B. at January 17, 2012 2:36 AM:

A critic reviews a book critically, backs up subjective opinion with objective examples taken from the book itself... and that's cause for an internet firestorm of bitter and hostile replies.

Kudos to Liz Bourke for the review. Liz did exactly what a reviewer should do: be critical but accurate, stay true to her opinion, and aim to be objective.

It's a sad statement on the fantasy genre when a negative review cannot be tolerated by the book's fans. If you liked it, shouldn't you point out the book's qualities, on either a subjective or objective level, rather than attacking the reviewer? (Seriously, a negative review equates mental health issues?)

Posted by robin Sullivan at January 17, 2012 2:55 AM:

Lynn B said, It is as unprofessional for the publisher/editor/agent of a writer to comment on reviews as it is for writers to do so.

I made no comment on the review nor will I.

Posted by Fadzlishah Johanabas at January 17, 2012 5:32 AM:

You know what, after reading the review the second (and fourth) time, I think you're right. There's nothing wrong about this review.

I guess, as a writer, I felt the sting of the opening paragraph. My view was biased. But it's that same paragraph that kept me reading until the end of the piece.

A writer signs a binding contract with his reader to guide her until the end of the story. A reader is willing to suspend her belief system and is willing to be enlightened, entertained, enthralled, depending on what the story promises. When the writer dishonors this contract, a reader has the full right to be angry. Clearly Ms Bourke was angered by the dishonored contract.

Should she have approached this article with more finesse? Maybe. Should she had mentioned the decision to professionally publish the book at its current state? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know.

One thing I know is that, whether intentionally or not, this review has done its job remarkably well: to grab attention, to create buzz. There are how many blog posts linked to this page now, 6? 8? Each has its own list of readers. This page has a link to the book in question. I'm not surprised if there's a sudden rise in sales following this review.

A published writer's greatest fear is not negative reviews, but obscurity. Therefore, I will congratulate Ms Bourke for a job well done.

Posted by C. at January 17, 2012 5:43 AM:

This thread is pretty crazy. There are plenty of semi-objective criteria (i.e. intersubjectively confirmable criteria) that different reviewers can apply to a book, and that's something that happened here. But what's subjective in every case is how heavily they're weighted.

The reviewer here evaluated the book primarily on criteria such as stylistics and tropological inventiveness, and she warned us (I think accurately and with reasonable objectivity) that this book falls somewhere near Gord the Rogue or a Forgotten Realms novel when viewed in that light.

I mean, I'm sitting here looking at a copy of Theft of Swords, and it's readable, grammatical, contemporary English with narrative clauses that follow one from the other and make perfectly good sense. But on pretty much every page, you'll find a little diction that's cliché in the context of a fantasy novel and unrefined from the standpoint of a prose composition instructor--very comparable to a Gord or Dragonlance novel.

Of course, many people love Dragonlance and Gord the Rogue, I assume because they don't give a crap about either an elegant prose style (perhaps they are non-native speakers and/or less educated readers, unaware of what an elegant prose style looks like in English), and they don't care how often the same motifs can be found in other books they haven't read, but they obviously do care about whether the story per se is entertaining when taken in its own right.

In an ideal world, a reviewer might anticipate that others will approach a book with different criteria in mind, but it's not wrong to note that a book clearly fails a set of tests that are, for the reviewer, obstacles to enjoying the book further. And the reviewer in this case made plain what those tests were and gave examples of how the book failed.

Insofar as there are other semi-objective criteria someone else might bring to bear, that's for someone else to do in their review.

Posted by jennygadget at January 17, 2012 9:54 PM:

Simon,

"...with regards to Rowling...So what if it's not written by someone who had the schooling to construct a perfect narrative or prose."

From wikipedia:

"Rowling read for a BA in French and Classics at the University of Exeter,"

(emphasis mine)

She may not have studied Creative Writing, but she studied the same general subject as the reviewer in question.

As for the quality of Rowling's prose...however good or bad anyone may think it, it is objectively better and more challenging than Goosebumps or The Babysitter's Club. Rowling's work was popular (and improved reading levels and habits among children) in no small part because it elevated the difficulty, complexity, and quality of children's series books.

http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/rah-ch8-pg2.html

The idea that Rowling became popular for reasons that have no connection to the quality of her prose (or because the prose is bad)...this argument has no basis in the actual history of children's literature.

Posted by Steve at January 18, 2012 12:43 AM:

Aside from most of the absurdity in this review and this thread of comments - there is nothing more ridiculous than a reviewer who condemns an author's use of language by saying it isn't "correct" when the language, world, and characters are completely made up! The language in these books may be based on Early Modern English, but unless there is some note from the author that it is intended to precisely invoke the use of that language, the reader (or reviewer) should leave their own expectations at the door and enjoy the book for what it is. The language isn't real. The world isn't real. Guess what, magic isn't real. Sullivan can make up whatever phrasing he wants in this world. To pretend otherwise is absurdly ignorant.

Posted by delagar at January 18, 2012 1:45 AM:

Steve's not the first one in the thread to make this argument, but he's the final straw: I have to respond.

"The language isn't real" is not a defense of Sullivan getting the grammar of his dialect wrong, not anymore than "it's fiction!" is a defense of his getting the tactics wrong in his battle scenes. Language works in certain ways. Dialects, including non-standard dialects, work in certain ways -- that is, they will follow certain patterns that we (as speakers and readers) can identify, whether we know we're doing that or not.

Writers can't just wing it and expect the dialect to sound right, in other words. Not anymore than you can wing it and expect to get battle tactics right.

Those of us who speak languages know this. Those of us who read languages know this. That's why those bits of the novel in question that are written in (incorrectly structured) fake dialect are so hard to read -- Sullivan is getting it wrong.

Throwing in a couple of thee's and Ye's and re-arranging word order does not create a dialect. It creates confusion. It creates crap writing.

And yes, that matters.

Posted by Nicholas Whyte at January 18, 2012 10:31 AM:

This is a great review and (in paces) an enlightening discussion. Well done to SH and Liz Bourke for publishing it.

I just want to chime in to agree with Delagar. "Measures thou see art but trifles" as an English sentence is simply *wrong*; it is not good enough to say that the author is making the language up.

Perhaps I can help with an analogy. If we were talking about an sf novel where astronauts landed on the surface of Jupiter and walked around, that would simply be *wrong*. The argument can be made that the author is free to make up what he or she likes about the surface of a planet that nobody has visited ("It's a made-up Jupiter!"). But in fact we know enough about the conditions of Jupiter to be sure that it will never be possible for human beings to land on it and walk around. The visible parts of Jupiter are cloud and would not support an astronaut's weight; the solid surface is so far down that it is subject to colossal pressure which would squash any traveller. It doesn't matter how well such a book is written in other ways; anyone who knows anything about Jupiter will find that their appreciation of the book is very negatively affected by the author including such a scene.

So it is for the use of Early Modern English. It's not a made-up language; it's a real language, just as Jupiter is a real planet. There are rules about how you can use the word "thou" - for instance, it changes the verb "see" to "see'st". There is a rule about how you use the word "art" as a part of the verb "to be" - it goes with second person singular "thou", not with third person plural "measures". If the author breaks those rules, it is impossible for anyone who knows Early Modern English to ignore, as bad as describing your characters walking around on the surface of Jupiter.

And if the author has broken those rules, the copy-editors and the rest of the editorial team have a duty to spot and correct it, a duty which was clearly not discharged in this case.

Posted by paul at January 19, 2012 12:07 AM:

"And if the author has broken those rules, the copy-editors and the rest of the editorial team have a duty to spot and correct it, a duty which was clearly not discharged in this case."

Did the author break these rules or did a character? If we are to hold that the language used requires that real-world rules be followed, let's remember that the character's name implies a character from a different region than the culture of the setting. Maybe fake olde english isn't his native tongue. Maybe he's an old wizard who has been locked in a dungeon for a thousand years and his grasp on language has decayed. Don't know, as I haven't read the book.

I don't think the problem is that the review was mean. It's that it was mean for the wrong reasons. The reviewer strikes me (both from the review and her comments) as somebody who likes to impress people with her wit and grasp of language. But seeing fifteen commas in a sentence is a sign of "bad writing" in my book. It may be correct (though I don't think all of them were), but writing to show off how good a writer one is is bad writing. If I feel like something, book or review, was written with a well-worn thesaurus next to the keyboard, the author loses credibility with me. Also, when a piece makes the author seem as if she searched for the most superlative (like that?) and dramatic way of expressing negativity, credibility is similarly lost. I felt she was crusading, not simply expressing an opinion.

The review wasn't bad, it was just not credible.

Posted by Hired Goon at January 19, 2012 5:44 AM:

I read most of the books in this series, and lost interest for many of the same reasons as Liz B. The "review" was just plain nasty though. Perhaps it's like a fine-dining critic put off at having to review burger joints, popular as they are.

It was egocentric, narcissistic, and histrionic. The feminism was overly aggressive and somewhat misdirected.

I would certainly expect a more balanced review from a professional critic.

Posted by Cerebral Magpie at January 19, 2012 7:42 AM:

"It was egocentric, narcissistic, and histrionic. The feminism was overly aggressive and somewhat misdirected."

She didn't write it...
She wrote it, but she shouldn't have...
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about...
She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it...
She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art...
She wrote it, but she had help...
She wrote it, but she's an anomaly...
She wrote it, BUT...

Posted by Hired Goon at January 19, 2012 6:06 PM:

Sh ddn't wrt t...
Sh wrt t, bt sh shldn't hv...
Sh wrt t, bt lk wht sh wrt bot...
Sh wrt t, bt sh wrt nly n f t...
Sh wrt t, bt sh sn't rlly n rtst, nd t sn't rly rt...
Sh wrt t, bt sh hd hlp...
Sh wrt t, bt sh's n nmly...
Sh wrt t, BT...

Sh nds t rcnsdr hr dts

Posted by Alexander at January 19, 2012 6:46 PM:

>>[Paul]I don't think the problem is that the >>review was mean. It's that it was mean for the >>wrong reasons. The reviewer strikes me (both >>from the review and her comments) as somebody >>who likes to impress people with her wit and >>grasp of language.

You're making judgement on the character of the reviewer as a way to de-legitimize the review. It's insulting, irrelevant and (given the disproportionate bashing of specifically female reviewers who express forceful views) rather disturbing. If you believe the judgement of the review or the things it cites to be flawed than say so. Don't pretend that you have psychological insight into the core flaws of someone to discredit them.

Hired Goon: The post above your last was referencing Joanna Russ' How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983), structures and discourses that cause female writers to be discredited. Your initial post on this subject falls squarely into that pattern. As does your followup post and your "aggressive feminist" jab. You're demonstrating and reinforcing an attitude considerably worse than the sexism on display in Sullivan's text.

Posted by Hired Goon at January 19, 2012 7:15 PM:

Th rvw ws t ggrssv nd thr ws ntrly t mch f hr prsnlty nd gnd njctd nt t.

Ys lxndr y'v gt m ll fgrd t. ht wmn, ht wmn's wrtng, nd prtclrly ht wmn bshng mn's bk sn't tht rght?

Posted by Abigail at January 19, 2012 7:29 PM:

Editor's note: we now have our second disemvowelling and banning of this thread. I'm not sure why anyone would get the idea that either this magazine or this review are a friendly venue for feminist-baiting, but let me assure everyone that that is not the case. Hired Goon, you're out.

Posted by Sanoe at January 19, 2012 11:58 PM:

Liz seems to have departed but I wanted to express my appreciation of this review. I hope to read more stuff from her in the future.

Jade:
[i]"If we were talking about an sf novel where astronauts landed on the surface of Jupiter and walked around, that would simply be *wrong*."[/i]

No, it would be a novel in which Jupiter doesn't have the physical characteristics it does in the real world. Speculative fiction isn't beholden to the real world, but to internal consistency. Even hard science fiction allows the author to change physics or biology as we understand them if that change is handled with attention to various repercussions and space opera can have things like people traveling through black holes to reach the other side of the galaxy or aliens having sex with humans and producing healthy, viable children.

Is War of the Worlds simply wrong because it has Martians and those don't exist?

Posted by paul at January 20, 2012 4:26 AM:

Alexander: You're making judgment on the character of the reviewer as a way to de-legitimize the review. It's insulting, irrelevant...

No, I wasn't. It was quite relevant. Though you just made a wonderful attempt to take my point out of context to discredit it. My "attack" was directed at the review, not the author. The informal tone she chose had a personality. I was stating that the personality portrayed in this review and comments (whether actually her personality or a "character" she plays for reviewing) comes across as too dramatic to be reliable. It has nothing to do with her gender. When every citation is the extreme worst example of X she's even seen or when anybody associated with the should be verbally and physically assaulted, credibility is lost, plain and simple. It is not a character judgment, I know only what was written in the review. But the statements and tone in the review come across that way. Not just to me, to others in the discussion.

In short, I am not exaggerating things to discredit the reviewer, I am stating that the reviewer's own exaggerations discredit her without effort on my part.

Further, my comments should not be more insulting or disturbing to you simply because others in the thread have been so. My comments are my own. If they are insulting to anything, it is to credibility, not gender. Don't lump me in with everyone else who thought the review was a bit much. I don't even disagree with her review, as I have not read the book. The examples she cites make me think the book isn't for me. But her tone (and counterpoints by others) suggests that she exaggerated or took at least some out of context.

Posted by Nic at January 20, 2012 8:09 AM:

When every citation is the extreme worst example of X she's even seen

No. She explicitly says this is *not* the worst book she has ever read. (Pedantic? Perhaps. But you do say you want to avoid exaggeration, both your own and - what you perceive to be - hers.)

credibility is lost, plain and simple [...] But the statements and tone in the review come across that way. Not just to me, to others in the discussion.

The review came across to me completely credible, the points being backed up by plenty of examples and all; the style simply made it readable and entertaining. Not just to me, to others in the discussion. Opinions, we all have them; it's just that some people are focusing on tone and some on content. You object when someone takes issue with *your* tone - why is a valid area of criticism of the review, but not of your comment?

my comments should not be more insulting or disturbing to you simply because others in the thread have been so. My comments are my own.

And yet you're not delivering them in a vacuum.

Posted by Martin at January 20, 2012 9:08 AM:

when anybody associated with the should be verbally and physically assaulted, credibility is lost, plain and simple.

The reviewer thinks anybody associated with the book should be verbally and physically assaulted? That is a very serious claim. It is also a claim that is utterly unsupported by the review itself which contains not a single example of verbal, let alone physical, assault on either the author or publisher. It is true that you are "not exaggerating things to discredit the reviewer", you are simply making up lies about her.

Posted by paul at January 20, 2012 6:20 PM:

Martin: "That is a very serious claim. It is also a claim that is utterly unsupported by the review itself which contains not a single example of verbal, let alone physical..."

It is a silly claim, not a serious one, but is supported. I didn't say she committed assault, but that she thought it was worthy:

Verbal: "I have words for these people. Bad words."

Physical: "As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy."

Were that done, it would be assault. I realize she is not seriously implying it should be done. That is after all, my point. The hyperbole. And there is a lot of it. And yes, it is entertaining. Jon Stewart is entertaining, but he will tell you that he is not a reliable or credible source of news.

Posted by paul at January 20, 2012 6:34 PM:

Nic:
"No. She explicitly says this is *not* the worst book she has ever read. "

Actually, she kind of does. Not literally, but humorously:

"Thanks to my broad experience and lack of discrimination, Theft of Swords isn't, quite, the absolute worst book I've ever read."

She leaves that "not quite" to allow that it was close.

When something is unclear' it lacks "any kind of clarity". It's not just unclear, it has no clarity whatsoever.

She begins a paragraph with "The plot, what there is of it..." then continues to describe... a plot. It may not be interesting or original, but it is there. Commenters that enjoyed the book flesh it out even more.

Also, not every female character in a book needs to be a positive one. There are many real people, male and female, that are weak-willed, insecure, incompetent, rude, selfish, uneducated, clueless, etc. Having a female character that displays one or more of these traits is no more sexist than having male characters that do, and it sounds like (from both sides of the discussion) that all the characters are either flawed or not fleshed out enough to be so.

I never objected to someone taking issue with my tone. No comments I saw took issue with my tone. Alexander misjudged my intent, and I clarified. Tone affects how comments should be digested as well. But, if you feel that my tone makes me less neutral or credible, then you agree with my underlying point.

Posted by Liz Bourke at January 20, 2012 8:43 PM:

@Sanoe:

I'm still (sort of) around, but other people seem to having so much debate around straw reviewers, I think participating in person would spoil their fun.

(Snark level: high.)

Thanks. I'm glad the review worked for you.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 20, 2012 10:58 PM:

@paul -- the personality you have created for your comments appears to be an unreliable narrator given to much silliness, defamatory hyperbole, and weaseling reinterpretation of their own words.

"Were that done it would be assault" -- if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

[I'm a little disturbed that your narrator equates house-training a puppy with physical assault. I have house-trained several dogs, including an adult 'puppy' and none of them has ever been put in fear of harm -- well not beyond the terrible harm of me not paying any further attention to them for the next ten minutes.]

Posted by Cerebral Magpie at January 21, 2012 12:03 AM:

"Also, not every female character in a book needs to be a positive one."

No, but as there are no other females representing stronger roles, the two mentioned are left to be representative of one gender. Is anyone complaining about the lack of different male representations in the book? No. This is standard cliche fare for fantasy, it's unfair and to argue it is fair (as in 'be grateful there ARE women in there!') show's at best a complete lack of knowledge of the academia and discussion around female fantasy tropes, and at worst willful ignorance.

Also, anyone who argues that the reviewer has engaged in sexism is arguing 'reverse sexism', which does not exist. Any ism requires a power structure to exist. And before going any further with these fellacious arguments, I suggest you look up derailingfordummies.com. These are not new, and incredibly tiresome arguments to be thrown back in a female reviewers face.

Quite simply? A lot of you simply can't stand a woman has an opinion that doesn't match up with yours. And you need to get over yourselves pretty damn quick.

Posted by paul at January 21, 2012 1:16 AM:

KatAllen- She wasn't talking about puppies. She was talking about people. If someone "hunted you down" and did that to you, you'd just laugh it off?

CerebralMagpie-I never went the "be glad there are females at all" route. I only know that two females were mentioned in the review. If you have read the book and know that there are no other females in the book, then I'll defer to your wisdom. Still, it would not mean that all females in the world are that way, just the ones seen. Nor would it mean that the author is sexist. He might be, but that evidence is insufficient to make the claim. I have extensive education in formal logic; I understand fallacies and fallacious arguments. I.E. claiming that a weak female character in a work means the author thinks all women are weak (The reviewer never made this claim, though some commentors skirted around it). Or claiming that a man disagreeing with a woman has the same motives as every other man who disagrees with any other woman.

I do agree with your knock on reverse X-ism. I don't think the reviewer's comments were sexist (or reverse sexist ;), just interpreted them as possibly overly sensitive to how the two characters were portrayed. As someone else pointed out, even a woman (or man) "with agency" can reach a breaking point. Watching a parent die can mess someone up for a while. I don't think the description of the character's reaction would reflect poorly on either gender.

I have no problem with anybody having an opinion different than mine. I take issue that when that opinion is presented as fact, regardless of the gender of the presenter. I also take issue with the fact that you leap to the assumption that I (assuming I am included in the "a lot of you") can't disagree with a woman without it being because she is a woman. That argument is used quite often against a man that disagrees with a woman.

Picture yourself reacting to this statement: "You (or A lot of you) can't stand a man with an opinion that differs from a woman he disagrees with." Casting those who disagrees for valid reasons in with those that disagree due to prejudice or ignorance is another common and tiresome tact used to discredit. I would like to think that you are not defending the reviewer simply because she is a woman, but because you happen to agree with her or at least honestly thought that I was dismissing her simply because of her gender.

Posted by Kat Allen at January 21, 2012 5:08 AM:

@ paul -- as an aside, I'm fairly sure this is the combination of 'hunt you down like a mad dog' and 'rub your nose in it' (as in bringing a puppy's attention to a mess it's made during the house-training phase). This combination of dog-based expressions is what helps keeps the words light and witty where 'I'm googling their names so I can go round their houses to give them a good kicking and make them **** ** ****' would be much less amusing.

And yes, if someone *wrote* they were going to hunt me down and rub my nose in the mess I'd made and say Bad Puppy, I probably *would* laugh. Especially if it was in a literary review and clearly meant to illustrate the reviewer's reaction to the book. (At least until I got to the list of problems I'd let slip through and then I might well blush)

Context matters.

"Casting those who disagrees for valid reasons in with those that disagree due to prejudice or ignorance is another common and tiresome tact used to discredit"

Which would indeed be wrong, but the problem is that you're not bringing up any convincingly valid reasons to disagree (or dismiss) her opinion but making remarks about the reviewer and wild speculations about how she may have misunderstood the text ("Maybe he's an old wizard who has been locked in a dungeon for a thousand years and his grasp on language has decayed."!!!). Maybe Humbert Humbert really only wanted to buy Lolita an ice cream? I don't know, I've never read the book. I certainly wouldn't claim I could provide valid reasons to dispute Humbert Humbert being a perv with someone who *had* read the book.

Let's see an example of your argument style -- "She begins a paragraph with "The plot, what there is of it..." then continues to describe... a plot. It may not be interesting or original, but it is there. Commenters that enjoyed the book flesh it out even more." -- But, you see, the words "The plot, what there is of it" do not state that there isn't a plot. If I say 'The portion of carrots, what there was of it...' I'm not denying the presence of carrots on my plate but saying the portion was small or otherwise lacking in presence (probably unsatisfyingly so). Nothing unclear about that at all, but somehow this is a part of your valid reason for believing the review to be 'mean for the wrong reasons'. (BTW commenters mostly haven't 'fleshed out' the plot, they have retold further events. Events occur as a part of a plot but they do not, of themselves, comprise a plot.)

In short -- Liz Bourke's read the book and you haven't, so you can't have an opinion of the text, and you haven't presented any other reasons for dismissing this review that can pass muster as 'valid'. You're not being *wrongly* lumped in with the ignorant and prejudiced because ignorance of the text and prejudice against the person/ality of the reviewer is pretty much all your comments have displayed.

Posted by Abigail at January 21, 2012 8:02 AM:

Editor's note: I think we're reached the point where this discussion is growing more heated and more nitpicky than is of any value. At this stage the conversation seems to revolve more around the imagined motives of both the reviewer and the people in this comment thread than either the review or the book. So I'm calling a stop. Which, just to be clear, does not mean posting one last comment to get the last word or explain to me why my interpretation above is wrong. It means walking away.

I don't want to close this comment thread but neither do I see any value in wasting any more time with a debate that has surely been repeated several times over the last week. Unless you have something new to add (and seriously, read the last 150 or so comments before you decide that you do) I think your time would probably be better spent elsewhere.

Posted by Tergenev at January 24, 2012 2:47 AM:

I have read most of the comments, but not *all*, in this discussion. Still, I think I have one thing to add . . .

Hallelujah! I'm not impartial. I love these books. I found the series when it didn't have 'the imprimatur of a major publishing house' and I really liked it. The FACT that this little series from a largely unknown author has generated such a discussion . . such anger . . .such vitriol. Ahhh, music to my ears. Controversy has only one purpose in the publishing world, to sell books. And frankly, I don't really care what the critical response is to the series, particularly from the more highbrow reviewers. Mostly I just love the sturm und drang that has resulted. Michael Sullivan seems like a nice guy, and he tried to write a set of books that he would want to read. And I, having read them, find that I am thankful that he did. I just hope others read them as well, so that the author will be encouraged, and well paid, so that he will write more novels to be trashed on websites such as this one.

Thank you all for the splendid show!

Best regards,
Tergenev

Posted by Jan S at February 8, 2012 4:45 AM:

Liz Bourke's review is a light sigh compared to many of John Clute's reviews, and he's been highly critical (in litcrit terms) of books he claims to *like*. One of his collections, _Scores_, contains several such reviews. I commend Ms. Bourke for her wit, erudition and maintaining a firm stance.

Posted by Janine at February 20, 2012 7:18 PM:

I haven't read all the comments on this review but I have read the book in question and I am half way through the very last book in the series and I just have to say that I have really loved reading all of them.

I guess it's all just a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to their own. But there was one thing that did bother me and maybe I misunderstood the intent of the review, but it felt like the criticism of the reviewer wasn't just directed at the author of the book but any person who actually found the book enjoyable. I felt like I was being looked down on for daring to like the book and I didn't like how that made me feel.

I am not sure if this has been brought up or not but as far as I can tell the author finished the whole series before publishing one of the books and this means that I find the story flows together much better then some other more highly praised series I have read. The characters in this first book grow and develop and really come into their own as the story progresses. I wish the reviewer could have taken the time to see where the story was leading to but obviously that won't ever happen, all I can say is it will be her loss in my opinion.

I think the author's own words sum it up perfectly:

"The Riyria Revelations, especially in the beginning, is little more than fast-paced light fantasy. As the series progresses, I think you'll see more depth both in the world of Elan and the characters. This was a purposeful decision and a dangerous one. It means that by design the first book is the weakest of the set, but enables me to end it with a resounding bang. This technique may mean that some will stop after reading the first book, assuming I have little talent. They may not feel "connected" to the characters because there was not enough for them to latch onto. All I can say is that I feel the reward of incremental discovery outweighed my alternatives. If after completing the entire story, you feel I lack ability, at least I'll know you came to the conclusion having all the facts on which to judge me."

That's all I have to say really. I loved these books and as I find myself half way through the final book I feel that sadness that comes from the knowledge that the journey is about to come to an end.

If you loved this book don't feel ashamed don't let people who have a lot to say about what is supposed to be good fantasy writing make you feel bad about loving this book and if you loved it keep reading because I can promise you it only gets better.

Janine

Posted by Someone With Standards at April 29, 2012 9:38 PM:

Just wanted to say I agree with the review :D I read the first three chapters and wish I'd not wasted my money. It was painful. It makes me sad that books like this get published. Is that elitism? Unashamedly. Because I wouldn't pay good money to hear a CD of someone singing out of tune, either. Or go to a play where the actors fluff all their lines. If you're going to "be an author", learn your craft first.

Posted by Janice Leto at May 26, 2012 10:42 PM:

I just wanted to say that I don't agree with the review. :D I've read all three (six) books in the series and I say without reservation Michael J. Sullivan has made it into the ranks of my favorite authors (The other two being Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss).

In Royce and Hadrian he has created some of the most enjoyable, and well rounded characters that I've seen in a long time, and my only regrest is that it has ended. I'll miss my time spent with these books and will re-read them many times in the future, and will be passed down to my "wee ones" once they are old enough. (A great book to share with younger audience because here is no sex or swearing)

One note on female characters in this series...Mr. Sullivan writes incredibly rich and strong leading women. In particular Arista (as well as Modia) certainly hold their own against the two main leads. They are resourcefull, intelligent, and exhibit amazing leadership qualities. I highly recommend this series and encourage you to read the Amazon sample and then decide whether it might be good for you. I know that's what worked for me.

Posted by Troy at June 20, 2012 12:43 AM:

I just finished reading Theft of Swords last night, and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to Google it to find the next book. This review was one of the first results.

And I couldn't help but be a bit saddened by that fact, because by the time I was done reading the review, I'd felt that my nose had been rubbed in the shame of having both acquired and enjoyed the first book.

I can't claim to be a huge fan of Epic Fantasy. I've tried, but so many of the books I've picked up have, for me, been too... well, in the interest of not offending fans, I'll just say "intricate."

I felt this book was down-to-earth, straightforward, maybe even "pulp" fantasy (if there even is such a thing.) No, it didn't particularly tax my brain, challenge my vocabulary, or cause me to see the world in a different way. It was escapism, plain and simple. As I read it I could even imagine it being a movie.

So, no, I didn't exactly like the review. And yes, I would have been happier had she enjoyed it. But just as this book isn't for everyone, neither is the review. Reviews aren't done in a vacuum, there is always a person attached to it. This reviewer brought her opinions, her experiences, her expectations, her biases, her expertise, and her criteria to the book, and this was the result.

And while I'm not a proponent of attacking or questioning the credentials of a reviewer, I do find it helpful to figure out the mindset of whoever is reviewing, because that will tell me how much I care about their opinion.

It helps (me) to remember that not everyone approaches things the same way, and this applies to reviews as well. In her opinion, she presented it in what she felt was the best way. If she didn't think it was, she wouldn't have done so.

Had I been the one to write it, and disliked the book as much as she did, I would have gone a much different route, equivocated a bit, disclaiming that certain elements may have caused me to be far less charitable to mistakes, snd stating that some might enjoy it, rather than warn people off of it entirely. That would seem "right" to me, but many would have issues with that approach as well.

I suppose it's a bit late for a wishy-washy "can't everyone get along" appeal, long after the flamewar has died down, though for me having just gotten here, it felt like it's just happened. What transpired over weeks back in January, I lived over the cours of a few stunned hours.

But as my friend's 3-year-old daughter once said in the face of a dissenting opinion, "That's a different truth!"

On the bright side, I've found a new website to poke around in. I mean, presumably it isn't always like... this. Right? *hopeful smile*

*climbs off soapbox*

Posted by rebecca Test at July 20, 2012 4:49 PM:

i Thought this book was thoroughly enjoyable. I think that this review is very arrogant and snobbish. I get the impression that the author of this review has a complete and utter disregard to the amount of work that must of gone into this book. The idea that you find this book so bad that you have to rip it apart in this disgusting review reflects a highly opinionated and heartless person.

Posted by Janice at August 11, 2012 1:23 PM:

I think the reviewer has a minority opinion when it comes to this book.

This book captured everything I loved about reading when I was a child: action, adventure, many memorable characters, and of course, fun. It is quite easily the best adult fantacy book I have read in years. People who complain that the book is too shallow, perhaps did not read all three, as each books takes us to another depth of the story and the characters. By the time you get to the last page of the last book you will see how what a skillfully complex story the author has been weaving. I was also very pleased at the characters in this book, all characters no matter how unimportant to the plot, seemed like real people to me. This book also didn't suffer from the 'annoying strong female' syndrome. Don't get me wrong, this series had plenty of strong female characters. The author of this book though clearly understands the true meaning of strength and did not just stick a swords in all their hands and make them unreasonably stubborn with a troubled past and a great body. The female characters in this story actually had depth and behaved as if they were real humans. Quite a breath of fresh air for this genre. It was also a welcome surprise to discover that this series main goal was not to send me into a depression. There were happy moments, there were sad moments, there were serious moments, and there were funny moments. The books took you on an emotional journey that made you feel like you knew the characters your whole life. On a whole, I would highly recommend this book!

Posted by MH at August 20, 2012 12:42 AM:

I don't know about anyone else, but I enjoyed the books as light entertainment. And I did see them develop as they went along, and I totally disagree with the reviewer - but then again, everyone's got different tastes in books. I, for one, can't stand biographies, my friend hates fantasy. So yes, the reviewer didn't like the books, I disagree with her, end of. The big deal? No point fighting over a single person's review. Anyway, I liked the Revelations. I did find myself nearly doubled laughing at some points, so yes, they are enjoyable. Abut then, I came across this review trying to find out the type of sword Hadrian's massive inherited sword was after forgetting it, so hey! Who am I to talk? :D

Posted by MH at August 20, 2012 12:59 AM:

Oh, and I also just read all the rest of the comments. WOW. Lots of insulting and snapping at each other. Surprisingly entertaining to read, actually. And a censorship? High drama indeed! :)

Posted by Dean at September 4, 2012 2:32 PM:

I am curious what the reviewer's "broad experience" entails. I, for one, have probably only read a few hundred books in my life (I wouldn't hope to compete with a scholar in Classics), but I have certainly read a great many that are much worse than Theft of Swords.

Of course, it all depends on how we define "worse" and "better," but I found Mr. Sullivan's story fun and thoroughly entertaining, and I would easily rank it as one of my better reading experiences of the past several years.

Posted by MichaelWH at September 23, 2012 5:24 AM:

You know, I've had a policy of, where possible, using AdBlock+ (or equivalent browser plugins) to completely excise the public comments portion of any site that is foolish enough to provide for public comment. Friends of mine question this and think I'm too strident about it.

I think I will point them to this review as rebuttal. Thank you, "Five-Star Brigade" for so eloquently and succinctly proving my point for me. I'll send you some cheese to go along with your wine.

Posted by Li Renli at October 26, 2012 5:43 PM:

Am certainly going to take the advice of a reviewer with balls like Liz Bourke to run, not walk, in the opposite direction when I see a copy of "Theft of Swords" in my path. But I sincerely hope that she will continue to have a lack of discrimination in her reading choices so that I'll always have the selfish pleasure of reading her funny, incisive and, yes, ballsy reviews of badly written, badly edited, and thoroughly unprintable books.

Posted by Alasdair at December 7, 2012 12:49 PM:

Just come across this one and read through the comments. Great review - I can't say I've read the book, but based on what's said about here I can't imagine it being remotely worth reading. And it's a little sad that the legions of angry and disappointed fans commenting above will never get it. The fact that you like a book, or that it sells well, does not and will never make it a good book. There's nothing wrong with enjoying crap, but at least have the self-awareness to admit that it's crap you're enjoying.

Posted by Paul at December 20, 2012 9:37 AM:

You can't call it a great review if you haven't read the book in the first place. I have really enjoyed this book so far, it is very naive in places and the writing is basic but it is a fun book and would have been appropriately aimed at a young adult audience. It is certainly better than the rubbish terry goodkind continues to churn out with his major publishing deals.

Posted by Hans at January 21, 2013 5:26 PM:

I would just like to say that I am grateful to Miss Bourke for this review. I was unsure about whether or not I should purchase this book. I have decided against doing so. It seems that my time would not be well spent reading this book. I have read Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, about which I wrote a similar review. I am indebted to someone sparing me another such experience.

Posted by Henrik at March 15, 2013 4:29 PM:

Thanks for the review unfortunately I didn't find it before getting the book on Audible.

It is indeed a lame pile of pages trying to put together a story.

Cliche after cliche that makes me fume, but I still listen. That is how desperate I am for something :-(

Posted by James Vernon at July 15, 2013 10:42 AM:

To each their own...I totally disagree with the reviewer, but not everyone is going to like everything.

I thought Sullivan does a great job of presenting characters that you quickly grow interested and invested in, as I often continued to read on trying to find out what happens next. Some of the most frustrating things about stories of any genre that follow multiple view points is when there is that one character that kills the momentum of the story. In Theft of Swords, that problem never arises. I found all of the characters interesting to follow, including the brief view points of the "bad guys" on occasion, and never felt myself mentally groan when I started a chapter that switched view points. The conversations between the characters are also on point, mixing humor and depth especially between the two main characters.

The world that Sullivan created is equally as in-depth and full of history and quirks as the characters that live in it. Descriptions of locations and conversations about the history of the world between characters never feel like information dumps and help to paint a clear picture of the world that the characters are moving around and exploring. The author puts you in the cities, the country, and the other different locations by painting a clear picture of the locations through his description.

Overall, I highly enjoyed this story and look forward to the opportunity to see how these characters grow in the future novels and highly recommend it to others.

Posted by Emma at July 26, 2013 1:57 AM:

Great review! Disappointed to see all the bile from insecure fans. Why people feel the need to be nasty to reviewers they disagree with is beyond me. This sounds like a terrible book and I always appreciate honest and well-supported reviews such as this one.

Posted by ApacheTracker at August 26, 2013 10:40 AM:

Great review, Ms. Bourke! I'm absolutely behind you on a.) the terrible prose / grammar and b.) the stereotyped / sexualised presentation of the female characters.

To all the commenters that condemn the review or Ms. Bourke's style (especially Liviu): reviews like this are why SH is my favourite review site - here you get well-researched and phrased (critical) reviews that are "unbiased" and not trying to sell you the product.

Posted by Someone on earth at September 15, 2013 2:52 PM:

I think that the one who wrote this review wouldnt do half the good job as Sullivan did.....

Posted by Tyson at September 20, 2013 8:42 PM:

I disagree with the reviewer wholeheartedly; however, to each her own. That is the beauty of a review, it is the reviewer's prospective. I find this book to be a light-hearted read and enjoyed it that just added to the overall series The reviewer did not. I find the review very heavy-handed and to a large degree, very spiteful but I have to respect her opinion as I would hope she would respect my own. At the very least we would have a heated debate if we ever met.

Posted by Tyson at September 20, 2013 8:42 PM:

I disagree with the reviewer wholeheartedly; however, to each her own. That is the beauty of a review, it is the reviewer's prospective. I find this book to be a light-hearted read and enjoyed it that just added to the overall series The reviewer did not. I find the review very heavy-handed and to a large degree, very spiteful but I have to respect her opinion as I would hope she would respect my own. At the very least we would have a heated debate if we ever met.

Posted by Jeremy Daw at September 21, 2013 10:44 AM:

I liked the review. It was witty and thorough - and, perhaps most importantly, backed up with evidence from the text. Good job.

Posted by R. Kranzler at November 9, 2013 10:08 AM:

I was hooked shortly into this first book of the Riyria series, becoming increasingly impressed and captivated as I waded into the series. Sullivan sows the seeds of a comprehensive and intricate overall plot from the outset while
keeping me enthralled with the action of each individual novel in the series. There is pathos and humor and dynamic tension. His characters are fully fleshed throughout, so much so that I am now reading the prequels (Chronicles series) to
learn how they came to be the individuals they are. I can't say enough about the series except that it is extremely well executed. I admire Sullivan's ability to lay out the series with new and fresh ideas. As he says in his series introduction, he wrote the series because he wanted to write something that he would like to read himself. Me too!

Posted by MikeW at November 13, 2013 11:41 AM:

This product is high quality but it was hard to find it in google, i found it on 14 spot. You should add some social bookmarks and your website will hit google top10 very soon, then your traffic and sales will double or even triple. Search in google for - Insane google ranking boost - it helped my sites to rank

Posted by Manuj at December 26, 2013 1:25 PM:

I started looking for 'writing' reviews of Sullivan's work after reading some pages and becoming increasingly concerned about the way the book was written and where it's going. I bought this book after reading some good reviews online.
My impressions after the first 50 pages - the review is spot-on. The writing is sloppy and you are left wondering if it's medevial times or modern day America . Apart from the casual language, there is absolutely no depth to the writing. No character building, story building, plot etc. A huge let down! It's worse than David eddings and terry brooks

Posted by mnp at December 28, 2013 8:31 AM:

Huh, disagree. I've now read all 8 riyria books and while its not in any way deep its entertaining. But more so this is funny considering how both Arista and Thrace end up. A lot more agency let me say.

Posted by John Jameson at January 18, 2014 11:31 AM:

To each their own. The reviewer didn't like the book and you can cherry-pick bad lines out of any novel to "prove your point."

I read this book and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I've read hundreds of fantasy titles and this stands up among one of the best.

I will say that this author seems to have a reason for everything and the way the series wraps up is nothing short of amazing. There are some things he does early on that you really don't understand fully until you are done, a great example is Thrace who the reviewer didn't like that she became so despondent after her father's death. This is just one domino that sets up a story arc for her that is one of my favorite things about the series.

The reviewer didn't like the book...so big deal. Not every book is for everybody, but this in no way makes it a bad book. I suggest that before people jump on the bandwagon they read it for themselves to decide.

Posted by Robert at February 19, 2014 1:37 AM:

Ths gy sd t bst:

"Ms. Brke s pt nd s stdng clsscs t Trnty Cllg. S hr pnns n bk tht pntfcts tslf s bng wrttn b th nxt Chcr r Dnt wld b bth pprprt nd wlcmd. Bt wht m sng hr s lkn t sng smn whs tsts tnd twrd sbttld flms t Cnns dclrng tht th frst ndn Jns mv shld hv nvr bn md bcs thy fld t pprct th srlzd dvntr flms f th 1960's."

Ths wsn't mch rvw bt mr f bshng.

hv rd ll f th bks n ths srs nd thy re rlly grt. d nt thnk Mr. Sllvn ws crng t mch bt bng grmmr gd lk ths Lz chck wnts hm t b. nstd, h dlvrd wrld ws mmrsd n nd chrctrs tht grw t lve.

s fr ths nnsns n fml chrctrs, rst nd Thic hd dply nvlvd rls. vn th "hkr" y spk f, Gwn, ws wrttn t mk t sm lk vn th lwst f lw wmn cld hv wrth n hs strs.

Qut frnkly, wld tk wmn lk tht nydy vr prtnts btch tht Lz Brk cms ff s.

Gv ths bks rd, y wll b gld y dd.

Pc t.

Posted by Abigail at February 19, 2014 7:03 AM:

Editor's Note: Robert's comment has been disemvoweled. You clearly read the previous comments on this review, Robert, since you quote from one, so I can't imagine why you thought a comment that directs a gendered slur at the reviewer would be allowed to stand. In the future, if you want people to get to see what you've written, try saying it without the profanity. But do it somewhere else, because you're banned from commenting here again.

Posted by Alison at March 29, 2014 6:20 AM:

Wow, you really didn't like it did you. What has the author done to offend you?

I have to admit that this kind of vitriolic review is rather counter productive because it makes me all the more keen to read the book and judge for myself! I have been reading books for many decades now and have read some absolute stinkers, I sincerely doubt that this book comes anywhere near the worst of them.

Posted by Scott S at April 13, 2014 8:34 PM:

I liked the book, I've read a lot worse. I think the author "gets" what (some) fantasy readers are looking for more than most authors are looking for - a fun story with compelling characters and a sense of humor, cliches be damned. There are plenty of cliches in the books, but there's also a lot of good unique content.

Compared to most fantasy authors today, who shy away from well trodden fantasy tropes to the point where it's impossible to even understand what's going on until halfway into the book - and then you quickly forget - Michael J is a breath of fresh air (at least to me).


Liz Bourke is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Ideomancer and Tor.com.