Admittedly, this is the Juice Box no one wants to drink. It’s like the equivalent of the Coastal Cooler Capri Sun. No eight year old should have to suffer that abomination in their lunchbox. By the same token, the books that make this short list really shouldn’t have been foisted on to unsuspecting genre fans. Nevertheless, here we are. Unlike our eight year old comparison points, it’s pretty hard to do a lunch room swap with a bad book.
But, this Juice Box Award isn’t for bad reads. No, sir! It’s for books that promised to be great and fell flat on their face. Sometimes that means an average book. Sometimes is just means it isn’t as good as it could be, which was surely the case with last year’s winner (er.. loser?) George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons. Regardless, onward!
I present the Most Disappointing Books of the Year:
#5) Railsea & Redshirts
Both of these novels clearly fall into the ‘not as good as they could be’ category because neither is particularly bad. I went into both with huge expectations though. For John Scalzi I’d been a big fan of his previous work on the Old Man’s War series and Fuzzy Nation. In Redshirts I was hoping for a Star Trek satire that had something to say about something. What I got was more John Scalzi, in a voice that sounded identical to previous novels and with characters I’d read before. It was a clever novel at times, but completely unraveled as the narrative progressed. Not bad. Just wholly uninspired.
The same is largely true of Railsea, although for a different reason entirely. China Miéville is always original and innovative. Railsea is no different, capitalizing on all the things that make Miéville a phenomenal talent. Unfortunately, he seems to know how talented he is and was more often than not simply too clever, or not clever enough, for his own good. I never felt a thread of connectivity between the first chapter and the last. I kept looking for a moment in which all the manipulation of the text would become meaningful. I never got there. Just like Redshirts, Railsea is a book that makes all kinds of promises and fails to deliver on them. The worst part is, and why both books make this list, I was desperately interested in seeing those promises fulfilled.
#4) The Pillars of Hercules
I pretty well eviscerated this Night Shade novel by David Constantine earlier this year. I would like to reiterate how very bad it is from top to bottom. It starts off reasonably interesting, but quickly devolves into a hot mess of anachronistic gobbledygook of Hades. Get it? Hades. I slay myself.
I also have a strong inclination to believe the book never saw an editor before it went to press. There’s a distinct lack of oversight throughout, reminding me of a major government procurement program, a bloated and unwieldily solution to a problem. In other words, ancient world steampunk remains a genre worth exploring. Frankly given the quality of Pillars of Hercules I’m still considering it entirely unexplored.
#3) Seven Princes
John Fultz was the early Orbit debut push of 2012. They threw a pretty solid marketing campaign behind what I consider one of the least interesting books in recent memory. Say what you will about the dreck that was The Pillars of Hercules, but at least it had an interesting premise. Seven Princes can basically be summed up as The Epic of Gilgamesh meets Dungeons and Dragons where everyone talks like Beowulf. In fact, both Gilgamesh and Beowulf helped me review it a while ago.
Truth be told the problem with Fultz’s novel was that it’s completely irrelevant to a modern fantasy reader. There’s a bunch of princes who have to fight against a big baddy, some of them die, some of them fight big monsters, one of them turns into a zombie prince of kick ass, another one rips the arm off something and beats it with it. That’s pretty much it. Coming from the publisher who puts Joe Abercrombie and Daniel Abraham on the shelves, when they lay an egg of the magnitude of Seven Princes what else can it be called but a massive disappointment?
Poor Daniel H. Wilson. I’ve now put him on my short list for most disappointing book two years in a row. Last year’s Robopocalypse was a victim of its own hype; fed in large part by Steven Spielberg purchasing the film rights before the book hit stores. In reality, Robopocalypse was very readable, and at times very entertaining, if incredibly derivative of Max Brooks’ World War Z. I went into Amped with an expectation that he would carry that readability forward into a new and more original execution. While I met the criteria of original (kinda), it was not well executed, falling into so many bad habits with regards to character and plot development that I could barely bring myself to finish it.
However, just like Robopocalypse, Amped has a lot of material with which to create good stories. Wilson just doesn’t seem to be the kind of writer capable of exploring all those nooks and crannies successfully. Wilson remains to me an example of a non-genre publisher (Doubleday) trying to dabble in the field and failing to properly capture what makes a successful book in it.
And the winner of the 2012 Juice Box Award for most disappointing novel. . .
This book is full of bad, but St. Martin’s Press really wants you to believe otherwise. If there was one book that came out in 2012 that attempted to pull the wool over the reading public’s eyes it was Stormdancer. A gorgeous cover, a huge marketing campaign, and a blurb from Patrick Rothfuss that most authors would lay down in traffic to get, all set expectations for Jay Kristoff’s book at sky high levels. I admit, I fell for it.
The novel begins with Yukiko, teenager daughter of the royal huntsman, fighting off a few demons with the help of an unknown beast. Kristoff quickly rewinds the story to weeks earlier when his protagonist has to drag her drunken father out of a card game. They spend the next several chapters walking (yes, just walking) to the palace where they’ll be meeting the Emperor to discuss his dream of capturing a griffon on which to ride in his conquest of the gaijin.
This long walk provides Kristoff with an incredibly boring (and lazy) opportunity to lay out his world. Rather than show it over the course of the narrative, Kristoff rams it home in the first hundred pages, demonstrating a complete lack of awareness when it comes to pacing and leaving absolutely no time whatsoever to develop the novel’s emotional center. That lack isn’t because Kristoff doesn’t want to have one, but because he invests no time in actually developing it. Instead, Stormdancer is so focused on the (extremely) heavy handed application of steampunk cum industrial revolution demonizing that it can’t see the forest for the trees (because they’ve all been cut down!).
Throw in the fact that he does a horrendous job of treating the Japenese source material with any kind of sensitivity makes Stormdancer a flop all around.
Sorry Mr. Kristoff. May your Juice Box not taste as bad as the Coastal Cooler Capri Sun.