The Juice Boxes – Most Disappointing Book of the Year (2011)

Well, this is the one and only Juice Box Award you don’t want to win.  Although I suppose it speaks to an author’s or publisher’s cache that I’m putting them on the list, meaning the selection bias is going to be toward novels that have high expectations.  There either has to be a copious amount of buzz around a novel, and/or the author has produced high caliber work in the past.  My nominations include five novels — three of which are decidedly the latter given that they were written by the three best selling authors in fantasy today.  The other two were pushed heavily by their respective publishers, but failed to deliver on the promise in any meaningful way.  Without further ado, here are my five most disappointing novels of 2011, with the winner (loser?) at the bottom.

#5: Den of Thieves by David Chandler
There’s two primary reasons why this novel made the list.  First, it’s not very good.  The characters are shallow, the plot is boring, and the writing, if effective, doesn’t carry it.  Second, it’s one of the primary 2011 fantasy titles from Harper Voyager.  There have been literally dozens of novels about the thief/assassin archetype since Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora.  I’ve read nearly all of them and this is among the poorest of the bunch.

And God, that’s a bad cover.  Just a poorly packaged novel from front to back.  I expect a lot more from a big-6 house whether they’re committed to genre or not.

#4: Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
Unlike the previous one on this list, Alloy of Law isn’t a bad novel.  I had a bit of fun reading it.  Unfortunately, what makes Sanderson such a compelling, and best selling, author, is his inventiveness.  Magic systems, world building, and twisty plots are his strengths, compensating for his characters and prose usually come off archetypal and efficient.

Alloy of Law doesn’t do any of what he’s good at.  The magic system is no longer new, the world wasn’t nearly as interesting without Ruin, and the plot is tremendously straightforward.  What’s left is a fun little steampunk adventure romp.  The end result  is me bummed out and wanting more.  Bad? No. Disappointing? Absolutely.

#3: Robopocalyse by Daniel H. Wilson
Hype machine!  This was a big push novel from the first half of 2011 by Doubleday.  Again, not a bad novel, but after about 30 pages in I was pretty sure I’d read it before.  And I pretty much had, three years ago, when I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.  Wilson’s debut novel is a near copy of Brooks’s in terms of structure and theme.  Replace robot with zombie and we’d be looking at some odd form of fan fiction.

Of the two novels I read this year that had announced film deals prior to publication, I could not be more struck by the difference between them – Night Circus, one of my best novels of 2011 (see list later this week) and Robopocalypse, one of my most disappointing.  It goes to show that Hollywood isn’t exactly looking for the same things we are as readers.


#2: Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss’s debut, The Name of the Wind was a tremendous novel that cemented him as one of the most prominent authors in the genre.  I suspect that given the massive success of the first installment there was added pressure to get this one right.  No doubt that contributed to the extended timetable of its release schedule.  I fear it also contributed to an apparent paralysis in the novel’s progression.

Kvothe, the novel’s protagonist, wanders all over the world doing this and that, getting no closer to his ultimate goal.  He has sex, kills some baddies, and ends up back at school still pitted against his rival student Ambrose and confused about his relationship to a host of women.  Rothfuss continues to be an exceptional story teller and prose stylist, but without a direction, I just don’t know how this all going to come together.  I barely made it through Wise Man’s Fear and I’m concerned I won’t want to start the third novel at all.

#1: The Most Disappoint Novel of 2011…

A Dance With Dragons

George R.R. Martin

It is no coincidence that the last two novels on this list both spent some time at the top of the NY Times Bestseller List.  That only goes to show how much people wanted to read them.  The excitement around A Dance With Dragons was especially high on the heels of the HBO TV series.  My personal excitement was so high that I reread the first four installments in the weeks leading up to its release.  I was even refreshing my Kindle at 12:01 AM on release day hoping to squeeze in the prologue before bed (I did).  Obviously, this anticipation was only magnified by the continual delays in Martin’s release schedule for the past half dozen years.

That delay, to hear Martin tell it, was all about the  “Mereenese Knot.” This knot was tied when Dany decided to stay in Mereen and rule instead of continuing her march to the Seven Kingdoms. As the rest of Westeros became aware of Dany and her dragons, many different factions began to coalesce around her. How, why, and most importantly when all these factions arrive in Mereen is the knot Martin struggled to untie. Instead of choosing to cut the knot like Gordian and thus impeaching Dany’s character, he actually untied it. Well, tried to untie it.

This untying is why, as a novel, Dance is a failure. The book’s pace is abysmal with over half the chapters existing as travel logs. Tyrion on the ocean, Tyrion on a river barge, Tyrion on a horse! Several POVs are far longer than necessary and some exist for seemingly no reason. The timeline is convoluted with the first half of novel coinciding chronologically with the events in Feast. This leads to scenes being rewritten, word for word in some cases, in an alternate POV. All that aside, the most unfortunate part of the novel is that 1100 pages later Martin still has yet to bring all the disparate pieces together that compose his “Mereenese Knot.” For all the talk about the second half of Dance advancing the story beyond Feast, the plot only advances a few days with none of the promised conflicts among the King’s Landing crew coming to fruition.

Does my disappointment reek of reader entitlement? Maybe, except the fact remains this just isn’t a very fun book to read.  A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are the functional equivalent of the The Wheel of Time post Crown of Swords and pre-Sanderson takeover. Martin has thrown so many balls into the air that to keep any from dropping he’s got to painstakingly orchestrate all his chess pieces before he can go on the attack.  If I were a new reader, I’d want to make sure the pieces start moving before I invest in 5,000 pages of reading.
While I call Dance a failure as a novel, as a fifth installment I remain hopeful that it’ll be viewed as necessary component to a greater story.  A Song of Ice and Fire remains my favorite series of novels, and I’m very much looking forward to The Winds of Winter.
                              
Ok, fair readers.  Tell me what I screwed up.  Cast me down from my high horse of criticism!

###
If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I’m doing a series of awards. I’m going to call them the Juice Boxes. See if you can keep up here… so there are the Hugos. My name is Justin. Put those two words together and you get Jugos. Jugo in Spanish means Juice. The Juice Awards sounds like something O.J. Simpson would bestow on someone, so I added the box. After all, who doesn’t like Juice Boxes?
I’ll be doing a separate post for each category with a goal of having them all done before Christmas (we’ll see). My award categories are as follows:

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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Comments
  • Stefan Fergus December 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Is it just me, or do Voyager seem to be doing weird things of late? This year, as far as I could tell (and especially during the summer months), everything was subordinated to ADWD – it was next to impossible to get a response from anyone about anything that wasn't related to George R.R. Martin (even when I wasn't asking for free stuff!). This meant Mark Lawrence, Blake Charlton and others seemed to be subsumed by the ADWD push. I had a hell of a time finding any information Chandler's series, for example.

    As someone who hasn't read any of A Song of Ice and Fire, but very much enjoyed Prince of Thorns and both of Blake's books, this ticked me off a little. ADWD was going to sell bucketloads anyway, why not pay attention to your newer authors and give them a chance to get noticed? Mark at least enjoyed the “pre-order ADWD and get Prince of Thorns free” in the UK, but still… I ended up speaking to Tor US for info about Blake's “Spellbound” (who were also very kind to send me a copy).

    Slightly disappointed, and I can't see how any Voyager author would have been very happy about the situation. Unless I was just looking in completely the wrong places for information about their books…

  • Justin December 20, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I'm not sure what Voyager is up to these days. It was a brief topic of conversation at the SFFWorld forums as well. They're still publishing big stuff in the UK, but in the US? Almost nothing to speak of. Not sure what the end game is and why they killed Eos to go to a global imprint. And why if they're a global imprint they aren't publishing the same titles in both places. #confused

  • Mieneke December 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I think they're not selling the same things because not all authors/agents want to sell world rights to one publisher if they can get a better deal with different publishers?

    As for Voyager changing as an imprint; if I look at my shelves, most of the older books I have are Voyager, but in recent years it's changed to Orbit and Gollancz.

  • Cursed Armada December 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Sorry I can't read about ADWD, I'm about to start A Feast for Crows and then dive in… Sad to hear so many people were disappointed with this one :(

  • Spaz December 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I've only read The Alloy of Law, and Robopocalypse off of this list. Personally, Alloy didn't disappoint me. Obviously the magic system won't be new, he's already written in that world. And it worked as what it was. A fun adventure story with some insight into how the world of Scadrial has changed since the events of Mistborn. It was fun, and quick, and easy. It was never meant to be epic.

    On the other hand, I can't agree enough with how tired Robopocalypse was! And I haven't even read World War Z! It was just boring, and the mini intros to each chapter amounted to hand-holding by the author. Annoyed the heck out of me!

  • Stefan Fergus December 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    That's a good point, Mieneke – same for me (re: moving from Voyager to Orbit & Gollancz), with a growing smattering of Tor, Pyr and Night Shade in there, too.

  • Justin December 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    @Spaz

    I hear you with ALLOY. I think what I was getting at is that Sanderson's prose and characters aren't enough to overcome a retread of magic and a straight forward plot. Without those things, I just find the rest of it pedestrian. He's great at what he's great at, and average at what he's not.

  • Anonymous December 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I agree about Dance. Martin is such a gifted storyteller, but he long ago ceased to care about resolution or momentum. The introduction of the 'real' heir was an insult to all the time we had spent investing in the 'fake' leaders he had presented to us.

  • Elfy December 20, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    On the list I've only read Dance. A read of the back over blurb of Den of Thieves was enough to scare me away from it. I was never that enamoured of The Name of the Wind, so never picked up Wise Man's fear. I may when it makes it into mmpb, but at the moment no. I'm one of those rare few that actually liked Dance, so much so that it makes my top 5, but I also don't have a bottom 5.

  • RobB December 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Though I can't exactly agree with your list, one thing that (in general) makes me nervous about a genre book is when it is marketed to a more mainstream audience, like Robopocalyps. This was published under the general Doubleday Imprint, if I'm not mistaken, rather than RH's Del Rey or Spectra Imprint. I understand the publisher wants to get as wide an audience as possible, but the only book in my memory that received fairly wide acclaim that was published under a general imprint rather than genre specific was THE PASSAGE

    I haven't read Robopocalypse so I can't speak to the pages between the cover…

  • Justin December 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    LOW TOWN was also under Doubleday as was Durham's trilogy. It's an interesting choice when publishers like Penguin and RH use their different imprints. Ace/Roc vs. DAW vs. Viking (Grossman's stuff).

  • the_hound December 27, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Our tastes in books are so similar its scary, are you sure you are not a clone of me? Just more articulate?

  • Mia January 1, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Thank you for this post. Many reviews focus on beloved books and while I appreciate the reason behind it I do find constructive criticism very informative. The perfect book is rare, if at all even possible. On the other hand, scathing and judgmental reviews turn me off and have the opposite effect of making me eager to read a book to see if any of the highly negative statements are warranted. You've proven that you can express disappointment while remaining respectful of a writer's work.

    Alloy of Law was indeed enjoyable but far from Sanderson's best. The Wise Man's Fear, while it had its moments, is not as compelling a read as The Name of the Wind. ADWD did have redundant sections. I don't mind long books if the length is due to new content. I'm increasingly apprehensive that GRRM is juggling to many balls and would require even more books than the now planned 7 to catch them all. A Den of Thieves was aggressively promoted at NYCC so very glad to read your candid comments. Robocalypse was not on my radar and will likely remain so.

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