Sometimes when I’ve absolutely adored a book and given it 5 stars, I do something a little counterintuitive. I go to Goodreads and I scroll down till I find a one star review and read it. Why? Because it has always fascinated me how much people’s taste in books can differ. I wonder how a book I thought was amazing has inspired someone else to launch into an angry rant, or vice versa.
When a friend and I have differing opinions on a movie, I love the escalating discussion as we both madly try to convince the other person they are wrong. I’ve had some fantastic arguments with friends about Birdman (I hated it) and Interstellar (I loved it).
So, with this in mind, I decided to invite a good friend of mine, Rohan, to try out a little oppositional-reviewing exercise for this post.
Rohan is a fellow fantasy nut and we regularly discuss books. While our opinions align on many reads, sometimes they hit opposite ends of the spectrum. So we chose three popular books to do a short review of: one that he loved (and me, not so much), one that I loved (him, not so much), and then one we both loved. Here is the result (which may include minor spoilers):
A Wizard of Earthsea
I know this is the first instalment of what has got to be one of the most popular fantasy series of all time – The Earthsea Cycle – but the story just didn’t do it for me. I absolutely adore the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan, and would list it as one of my all time favourites… but I can’t say the same for this one.
Maybe I just discovered this after its heyday, but I felt there were too many standard fantasy tropes: unknown poor boy has mentor, goes to magician school, learns magic, defeats evil. I’ll admit, the fact he’s battling an evil he himself summoned is a nice subversion, but not enough to make this fresh for me.
It was also hard to care about the main character, Ged, as I found him a little wooden and uninteresting (especially in comparison to other characters in the series, such as Arha in the Tombs of Atuan). The pace dragged a little at times, and I was pushing myself through the book, waiting for it to get better. In the end it just didn’t hit the note I was hoping for… perhaps my expectations were too high after everything I had heard about it. Ursula Le Guin has written many great books, but personally I just didn’t think this was one of them.
What really attracts me to this book is the profound personal journey that Ged experiences as he grows into adulthood. Certainly there are commonalities between this story and many high-fantasies set in magical worlds, but what distinguishes them is the fact that these clichés or common threads are of little relevance to the story. It is not about some great villain, king, or vengeful god that must be defeated in an epic war, and the world is not holding its breath for a hero to save them. Indeed the impression we get is that the world on the whole doesn’t know that Ged or his shadow even exist. And while Ged is uncommonly powerful, this great power is not relevant in the battle with his shadow; it is his growing wisdom and humility which win the day, which is fitting given the shadow was brought about by his arrogance and foolishness in the first place. The only thing that Ged truly needs to overcome is himself, his only reward is a little wisdom, and that is the story of the whole book.
The wild, unknowable and lonely world of Earthsea, where people are isolated from each other both geographically and emotionally, also speaks to my melancholy sense of reality. Because of this atmosphere I get an emotional payoff and am warmed each time Ged bridges these divides, even if it is to only a small degree.
Lastly, I can forgive the clichés present here because I would say they are dealt with sensitively and subtly, and also because Ursula Le Guin – as one of the forerunners of modern fantasy – is entitled to perhaps a little more rope than the rest of us.
This book had me hooked from the get-go, drawing me instantly into the character’s destroyed world. The romance also kicked off early, introducing a love interest so vastly different from the main character that I immediately wanted to see what would draw the two together. Most importantly, I’ve read plenty of paranormal romances where the protagonist sits around swooning and waiting to be saved and doing nothing of use. This protagonist had guts and determination, and she didn’t swoon at the first sign of a handsome dangerous supernatural being. She chains him up and mistrusts him completely!
I also liked how the character was driven in her plight to save her sister, and how this remained her most important goal throughout the novel in spite of her falling in love with an angel. I also enjoyed how the book kept the suspense, and how the romance was enthralling without being too clichéd or awkward. Oh, and happily, there were no love triangles! As I I’ve ranted about in a previous post, I’m not a fan of love triangles. So this one is a 5-star read for me.
The post-apocalyptic sub-genre has been one of my favourites ever since I read The Day of the Triffids, and I love books that play with the dynamic between anthropomorphic or divine/demonic characters and humans, so I was excited to begin this story. Unfortunately for me the two main characters felt a bit like repackaged versions of Bella and Edward (forgive me for the comparison), albeit with some humorous exchanges. It was the same old picture of a perfect being and a mere mortal girl caught up in the angsty struggle between their duty/family and the slow realisation of their secret love story. I felt like I knew what that story would be as soon as they met. While I was happily surprised from time to time, on the whole I found they didn’t differentiate themselves from the pattern I had anticipated. Pen’s mother was interesting, although occasionally she seemed more like a useful plot device than a character I could really believe.
I enjoyed the state of the world at the beginning, but was saddened when I realised it was just a platform for a guerrilla warfare story. I can easily imagine it working on screen, with people sneaking through broken concrete jungles and training at rebel encampments, but as a book it just felt a little too one-dimensional.
What I would have loved to see more of was the mythology which separates angels from humans. I love that their swords have a conscious relationship with their owners, and I would have been keen to hear more about the mythology of that, and what the home lives and rituals of the angels are like. Even a little of this spice would have added a lot to the story for me.
The Knife of Never Letting Go
This book just blew me away. The tone was so unusual, and the premise so compelling, that I couldn’t put it down. One mystery kept following another until I just had to know what was happening next. The premise alone – a planet where everyone can hear each other’s thoughts, except for women – is fascinating, and Patrick Ness spins it into an enthralling narrative. This story also comes with such an emotional punch: there were moments that surprised or angered me, and at one point it even brought me to tears. And the ending… well, I won’t give it away, but it had me reeling with shock. I can’t say I enjoyed the following novels in the series as much, but this one will remain one of my all time favourites.
This book captured my imagination immediately with both its premise and its delivery. I found the dialogue and characters both credible and engaging, with their accents rendered flawlessly from end to end – something that I haven’t always found successful in other books. The premise that your thoughts are always known upends the normal social dynamic so completely that I found myself endlessly intrigued by how the characters would act around each other. What is the nature of trust? And what does betrayal or deception mean when your every thought is known?
In addition to this excellent start, Ness creates a story with consistent pace and dramatic tension, without obvious or implausible solutions. The characters themselves were interesting, multifaceted beings whose responses were not always predictable but always appropriate. I loved them, and I felt for them when they were hurt.
As a science fiction novel, it left me in a social world I’ve never experienced in science fiction before. I can’t wait to read his next work.
So I guess the beauty of a book is truly in the eye of the beholder!
Have you ever had a heated argument with a friend over a book? Or been the only one to love (or hate) something at a book club meeting? Or just wondered why on earth people are queuing up to buy a book you couldn’t get into?