Most of us could probably list a few fantasy or science fiction books we’d dub amazing, or add to our all-time favourites list. These are books that hook us, keep us drawn tight with suspense or fascination or wonder, tear us through to their endings, then leave us either in a state of catatonic awe, overflowing with enthusiasm or simply scrambling to get our hands on the next one in the series. If we’re lucky, these books come along often, and remind us how wonderful the experience of reading can be.
By the same token, we have probably all read a few good books too: well-crafted stories that entertained or fascinated us or made us think… but that we wouldn’t quite describe as amazing. These are by no means bad books, just ones that don’t seem to hit the same mark.
So, what is it that makes a fantasy or science fiction book amazing instead of simply good? Well, reading is a subjective experience, so I imagine it varies for everyone. However, for me personally there are several ways I know I am reading something that’ll go on the favourites shelf, as opposed to something that won’t:
Can’t… Stop… Reading
This is pretty obvious, and it’s my easiest marker for recognising a great book. Said simply: I have trouble putting it down. I stay up late and deprive myself of sleep to get through a few more pages, and I take more time out of my day than usual to read it. If it’s an audiobook, I find excuses to listen to it… “oh, I really should tidy the house (and listen to my audiobook) and maybe make dinner (and listen to my audiobook) and go for a walk (while listening to my audiobook)”. In short, the book is suspenseful and engaging. A few YA dystopian sci-fis come to mind here: Ready Player One, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and The Hunger Games.
If a book doesn’t have this effect – i.e. I read it or listen to it when the opportunity presents itself, but otherwise don’t think much about it or feel compelled to read it… well, it might just be a good book (or if I actively avoid it, a terrible one).
As someone who reads a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, this is a big one for me. If I feel like I’m reading another imitation of Lord of the Rings, or a lack-lustre paranormal romance with the same old vampires, werewolves, love triangles and no real newness, then it’s probably not going to end up as an all-time favourite. I might dub it “good”, depending on how well it pulls things off, but if it feels like a story I’ve already read before, it’s not going to thrill me.
On the other hand, if a books throws fantastic fresh concepts, worlds or magical systems at me, or handles old tropes in new and interesting ways, it’s much more likely to head into ‘amazing’ territory. Some fantasies I would put in this category are: The Final Empire, Sabriel and The Tombs of Atuan.
‘Oh Wow’ Moments
I guess if you found a cliché visualisation of this, it would be that moment where a reader slowly lowers a book, wide-eyed, and mumbles “whoa…” to an empty room. If a book throws something so unexpected, so fascinating, so horrifying or so awesome at me that I get chills or laugh or stop and think “wow!”, then I know I’m reading something special.
Yes, it is often a great reveal or plot twist (The Hyperion and Mistborn novels are full of these, and the final pages of Ender’s Game had me reeling!) but it doesn’t have to be… it can simply be something very clever or emotional, or a particularly poignant, well-timed sentence. I often appreciate a key line of dialogue that is rich with subtext, where a character is saying one thing but meaning something entirely different, and only we as the audience can see it. Inquisitor Glokta in The Blade Itself is a particularly good character for this kind of dialogue, and a good movie example would be the scene in The Truman Show where, with great emotion, Truman’s best friend Marlon says “and the last thing I would ever do, is lie to you” (I get chills just thinking about it!).
I love a good romance. If it’s compelling, convincing and well-crafted it will draw me right in, and if it develops well and ends well it will usually have me stamping a book firmly with the label ‘amazing’! For example Fire has a wonderful romance (among many other wonderful things), as does The Scorpio Races (a more understated romance but a great one).
Conversely, if a romance starts to feel cliché or boring or ridiculous, or the characters start making silly decisions, then I am more inclined to either dislike the book or just dub it “good” where it might have otherwise been amazing. I am particularly sick of self-sacrificing paranormal love interests who repeatedly throw themselves in harm’s way to save the heroine (who always needs saving), then shortly thereafter decide that the heroine will be better off without them.
For me to find a fantasy enjoyable, the world generally has to one I enjoy “being” in – i.e. one that is interesting and well-developed. However, when a fantasy world is truly captivating, fascinating and absorbing, to the point where I think wistfully about how great it would be to visit it, then we’re heading into “amazing” territory. Series that have me coming back not only for the characters, but for the feeling of being in that world (I would count Harry Potter as a forerunner among these), have truly succeeded in building something special.
Characters You Fall in Love With
(and Stay in Love With)
A book with characters so rich and well-crafted that I love them, or love to hate them, is generally well set up to become a favourite. The characters might have endearing qualities (skilled, kind, funny, clever, flawed) or just be so wonderfully evil that I can’t wait to see them defeated… either way, they help me fall in love with a book.
I add the “stay in love” because I’ve read several books or series where a character I at first liked starts to become whiney, annoying, unlikable or blatantly makes stupid decisions (a pet hate… I can’t respect or believe characters that make stupid decisions). I think this often happens in paranormal romances when the author throws obstacles between the lovers and adjusts their actions to suit plot rather than logic. I’ve also seen in happen in YA dystopias if the character starts getting overly angsty and self-hating (whether this is done so they appear more teenage or just to try and add some character development, I don’t know).
I include this point not because beautifully crafted prose alone will make me love a book, but because poor writing can keep an otherwise great book from going on my favourites shelf. I come across it rarely, as authors that can achieve the other things on this list are usually excellent wordsmiths too, but occasionally bad writing can really let a book down and turn me off it.
There are, however, a few books I’d still class as amazing even though the writing had flaws. For example, The Ill-Made Mute (Bitterbynde trilogy) is incredibly verbose, full of lists, and spends countless paragraphs describing every new setting… but it is a brilliant story and I love it (though I admit I got used to skipping the lists and the descriptive paragraphs).
By “thought-provoking”, I mean books that make me think about them for a long time after I’ve finished reading, or that have me mulling over the themes, emotions or ideas between reading sessions. People who don’t read fantasy and science fiction might believe these genres are shallow and not “thought-provoking”, but that’s not true. I have read many a fantasy or sci-fi novel that has explored the human condition in a truly interesting, unique or profound way that has left me thinking. And if they manage that, they often make it onto my favourites list!
Of course, it’s hard to quantify what makes a book great, as each story and reading experience is unique and there are so many factors at play. However, for me it usually boils down to the things listed above, and if I experience several of them, I’m usually reading an amazing book. Very occasionally a book might only achieve one of the above, but do it so well that it becomes a favourite anyway.
But those are just my key indicators. What does a book have to do to make it onto your favourites list?