My first edition of Pile O’ Shame was well received, even spurring a few other blogs to follow the trend and post their own Pile O’ Shame‘s. Prompted by my dissatisfaction for Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand, a novel that (based on the buzz) I was greatly looking forward to, I came up with an idea for the second edition of the feature: Books I should like, but don’t.

You know the type. The names get tossed around recklessly at every Internet forum: George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Tad Williams, Gene Wolfe, Robin Hobb, Jack Vance, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, Guy Gavriel Kay, Neal Stephenson. The list goes on and you start feeling that little niggling sense of guilt – you know you’re supposed to like them… but you just don’t!

So, to that end I’ve rounded up some of those authors that I know I’m supposed to like, but they just didn’t do it for me!

Before the complaints start rolling in, let me preface this by saying that I know that there’s no ‘should’ when it comes to something as subjective as taste. I’m no one’s expected to like anything, but the idea behind a list like this is to take some novels/authors who have a generally large and fervent fan base, that don’t necessarily grab me in the same way.

The Pile – Round Two

Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen DonaldsonStephen Donaldson

Lord Foul’s Bane (and the rest of the novels that follow it) are considered by many to be a defining work of Fantasy literature. Coming out right around the same time as Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, Donaldson’s effort was a dark, R-rated exploration of an area little explored since Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It hit an older demographic and showed readers that Fantasy could be provoking and dangerous and dirty.

Or at least that’s what I suppose must have happened when the novel was released (6 years before I was even born). My mom adores the series, several of my older friends love the series; because of those recommendations (none stronger) I gave Lord Foul’s Bane a shot, expecting greatness. To say it fell short is an understatement and there is one specific reason for this: the main character, Thomas Covenant.

Layers are good; emotional conflict is good. Thomas Covenant is full of these. It’s too bad that Covenant is a miserable piece of shit with absolutely no redeeming qualities at all. When I read a novel, I like to be able to root for the protagonist (even if s/he’s a complete bastard, see Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy), but I simply detested Covenant and everything he stood for. In no way could I relate to him, in no way could I understand his conflict, in no way could I agree with any decisions he was making.

And then I hit the rather infamous scene near the beginning of the novel. If you’ve read it, you know the one. I very nearly threw the novel in the fire (and I don’t even dog-ear shitty novels because I revere books so much) in a fit of outrage. I remembered the words of my mother, though, and forced myself through to the end of the novel, expecting some revelation where I would learn to love the novel. I didn’t. My mouth still tastes bitter with the experience.

Emotional reaction from a novel is a good thing and Lord Foul’s Bane had me bubblin’ mad for most of the way through. So maybe in that respect it was a success, but did I enjoy even a moment while reading it? Hell no.

Reaper's Gale by Steven EriksonSteven Erikson

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have read and enjoyed Erikson’s novels (the first two, at least), respect him immensely as a writer and have a good relationship with him. So why’s he on the list?

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I think Erikson’s world building is tremendous – no one can touch him in scope and ambition. I think his dialogue is great – natural, witty and full of character. He’s like Dungeons and Dragons on steroids.

So what’s the problem?

He’s like Dungeons and Dragons on steroids. Whenever I pick up one of his novels, I feel slightly emasculated, like I’m not quite man enough to consume and comprehend the multi-faceted story he’s telling. The novels intimidate me, causing me to crawl along with progress, only a few pages at a time, terrified that I’m going to miss some small (but important) nuance if I read too quickly.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen kicks my ass… and I’m not always sure I like it.

The Golden Compass by Phillip PullmanPhilip Pullman

A bullet point list describing Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy would indicate that it’s right up my alley:

  • Invincible Polar Bears
  • Witches
  • Adventure and Intrigue
  • Beautiful Landscapes
  • Daemon Familiars
  • Theological Underpinnings

It all sounds bloody awesome and Pullman manages to pull it off with aplomb. But, what seemed like it should have been a surefire hit fell short for me, and I have trouble pinpointing why.

A lot of it had to do with the way Pullman handled his Point of View characters. From what I remember, it seemed like the perspective flitted around between several characters, even mid-chapter, and because of this I had not only a hard time keeping track of everything, but also feeling like I could properly connect to any of them. I’m a huge supporter of the limited POV that authors like George R.R. Martin use, and have trouble adjusting to other styles.

I love the ideas behind His Dark Materials but something about the execution bumped it down from ‘Must-Read’ to ‘Mildly-Perplexing’. I finished The Golden Compass, but never really felt compelled to go on and finish the trilogy. Now that I think about it, my feelings toward The Golden Compass are similar to my recent feelings about The Ten Thousand – great ideas and story, but bogged down by a writing style that I just couldn’t get in to.

With the exception of Stephen Donaldson, I’m certain I’ll be revisiting each of these in the future (probably rather soon for Malazan, in fact) to give them that second, third or even fourth chance that they probably deserve. Hell, it took me no less than five read-throughs (both full and partial) of Tad William’s The Dragonbone Chair before I was finally caught up by the story – since then Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, of which The Dragonbone Chair is the first volume, has become one of my favourite works of Epic Fantasy. Sometimes, I suppose, it just takes some time to learn to love some series.

So, what’s on your Pile O’ Shame?

  • TK42ONE August 7, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    George R.R. Martin, Tolkien, and Scott Lynch are in my list. haven’t given up on Martin just yet, but I have yet to survive any of these authors’ novels. They just don’t “tickle my pickle” as it were.

  • Mark Chitty August 7, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Although not fantasy, my pile includes pretty much anything by Iain M Banks, I can just never get into his stuff not matter how hard I try. It’s got all the things I love in a story though, which makes it all the more frustrating…

  • aidan August 7, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Tk42One – I’m a huge fan of Martin and Lynch! Tolkien, too (though I find his writing a little dry.)Just goes to show how subjective taste is!

    Mark Chitty – Interesting, I’m just trying to get my hands on some of Banks’ books for my upcoming trip. Is there something in particular that keeps you from being able to get into his novels?

  • SQT August 7, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    OMG! I totally agree. I couldn’t finish any books by any of these authors– though I will probably try to give Malazan another chance.

    I feel so vindicated.

  • Kevin August 7, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    I agree with your take on the Golden Compass. I did make it through the whole trilogy but it was a chore and I was glad to be finished. As for Malazan, I am hooked – I drop everything for the latest release. Against most reviews, I really did not like Gaiman’s Ananasi Boys. This was another that I really trudged through.

  • Gabriele August 7, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    One of mine is Robin Hobb. And the reason is probably really stupid: I can’t stand her names. I can’t connect with characters named FitzChivalry or King Shrewd. It feels like reading an anthropological essay featuring archetypes.

    But too bad about your dislike of POV shifts. Because that’s what you’ll get from me, too. ;)

  • Mark August 8, 2008 at 12:04 am

    To be honest Aidan, I just can’t put my finger on it. I read The Algebraist and struggled through to the end. The story was good, the tech good, the aliens way cool and the bad guy sufficiently bad, but it felt like really hard work. I’ve also tried three of his other books (although the titles of those escape me at present) and get the same feeling. As I said, they have pretty much everything I ask for in a book and it’s not like they’re poorly written. Perhaps one day I’ll pick one up and it will just be the right time, I certainly won’t be giving up trying.

  • Tom Lloyd August 8, 2008 at 3:04 am

    Very interesting article! I agree with you on Donaldson, he left me cold for the same reason as I ditched Ghormeghast half-way through (complete lack of humanity in the characters) so I gave up after just fifty pages. Steph Swainston, The Year of Our War, just bugged me for a number of reasons, most of which I can’t even fully explain, while I just can’t be bothered to read book three of the Philip Pullman and don’t believe I ever will.

  • Bill Rawlinson August 8, 2008 at 5:31 am

    You mentioned him in passing in your lead in – Neal Stephenson is easily on my list of Authors I am supposed to like but don’t.

    He offers almost everything I should like in a book – sex, intrigue, technology, interesting characters, and a bunch of history. You would think it would be a slam dunk.

    Instead everytime I try to read one of his books I grow to like Neal Stephenson as a person even less; and I’ve never even met the guy. However, his writing style seems to include a huge ego and nearly every chapter seems like another opportunity for Stephenson to “show off” about how smart he is.

    Perhaps it is my background of rabid consumption of history and technology but it feels like Stephenson just includes some factoids and trivia or descriptions when he doesn’t have to – he just does so he can show you he knows this stuff. I end up skimming over huge chunks of the books so I can get back to the actual story.

    I’ve read Cryptonomicon (my favorite of his books) and the first two books of the Baroque Cycle and I felt the same way about all three. Cryptonomicon at least was unique enough in its scope that I could almost ignore his smugness – but once I was in the Baroque books it was almost too much. I bought the second book feeling guilty that I was pouring more money into him knowing full well I would get annoyed with him.

  • heather (errantdreams) August 8, 2008 at 7:41 am

    Ooooh, that whole ‘should’ is one of my big pet peeves, so I’m right with you. Quality in art is incredibly subjective.

    Can you tell you’ve found a sore spot?

    Here’s the ‘should’ that immediately came to mind for me: the second book of Glen Cook’s ‘Black Company’ trilogy, ‘Shadows Linger.’ I got ripped into for being kind of ‘meh’ on that one. I felt his writing style was rough and could have used some real polishing, and heaven forbid I say anything negative about the writing of someone’s hero. Sigh…

    Someone basically ended up telling me that, yes, you COULD objectively identify writers’ work as good or bad. I told them that if that were the case, we could feed a book into a computer and define it as good or bad, which we’ve yet to find a way to do.

  • Tom August 8, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Funny, I read all 6 of Donaldson’s books when I was 12-14 and it was what got me hooked on Fantasy. I recently went back to revisit them 25 years later and couldn’t get far at all with them. BTW, great to see the pic of the original PB cover I had back in the day!

    Neal Stephenson makes me want to pull my hair out. I have friends who’s lit opinions I trust and they swear that Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle are some of the greatest books ever written. I’ve tried Cryptonomicon twice, most recently getting to page 500 or so before I felt compelled to toss it in the back yard and let the dog pee on it. Snow Crash was a great, fun read. These others….ack.

    Erickson I think is worth the effort. I’ve gotten through the first 5 books and while some didn’t grab me as much as others (I thought books 3 and 5 were the best so far), it’s usually a worthwhile challenge. At the same time, I find myself asking where the hell this is all going.

    As for Tad WIlliams, I absolutely loved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I almost feel guilty that none of his other books have grabbed me in the same way.

  • Kevin August 8, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Tom – I agree with you on Tad William, I also liked MSaT. Generally you have to read at least 100 – 150 pages before they take off. I had started the Otherland series a couple of times before it pulled me in. It is a good sci-fi/fantasy and what let me to MSaT.

    Stephenson so far has never topped Snow Crash. I liked Cryptonomicon but it took forever to get through – I could not read more than 50 pages at a time. The Baroque Cycle never appealed to me at all though I am interested in Anathem.

    As stated before, I am a big Erikson fan. Memories of Ice is still my favorite after reading the first 7. As long as Fiddler makes it through the end, I will be happy.

  • J.Cormier August 8, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    With Pullman the adventure starts with the second novel. The thing about that trilogy is that it is overtly polemical in regard to organized religion, Catholicism in particular. In general it’s somewhat depressing and some may find it difficult to enjoy the story without having an instinctive reaction, one way or the other, to the author’s obviously strong opinions about faith. I say this as someone who enjoyed the books and who pretty much agrees with everything Pullman has to say on the subject.

    Tom, Kevin, et al: I loved Snow Crash, and Cryptonomicon is probably one of the best books written in recent years, but I just can’t get through the Baroque Cycle. I’ve started Quicksilver a couple of times now and haven’t been able to force myself through it. Maybe someday.

  • thrinidir August 9, 2008 at 1:56 am

    To comment on your picks:

    Covenant…amen to everything you said; Thomas is a prick and that’s all there is too it, no redeeming qualities at all – maybe I could stomach him, but the story is a watered-down tepid no-fun-at-all epic fantasy so no help from there. one exception: the rape was uncalled for and not really plausible, but it was the least of the things that bothered me about covenant (i hope that didn’t come out wrong :)).

    I agree with your comments on Malazan, it’s just that I felt differently about it (up until book 5 – now I’m tending to lean towards your view more and more).

    But Pullman; he is a total candy in my book – I love His Dark Materials, utterly :).

    To complement you pile o’shame: Richard Morgan’s much lauded Takeshi Kovacs trilogy didn’t do squat for me and neither did Pratchett. >

  • […] Aidan Moher asks an interesting question: what are books or authors you think you should like, but don’t? […]

  • pacamanca August 10, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Gabrielle, I’m with you there in the names thing. Silly names might well make me give up a book. I always did with Abercrombie’s series; I absolutely HATED all the names of pretty much everyone in the story. I mean, Ferro? That’s “iron” in a bunch of latin languages. “Jezal” sounds particularly corny to me. I guess when you start a book with such a bias it really becomes difficult to connect with the characters; you’re right.

    I’d just started the Malazan series but I’m pregnant and can’t concentrate enough, so I’ve put it back on its shelf and went back to some Spanish stuff that doesn’t force me to concentrate that hard to understand the plot.

  • Shane August 11, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Yeah, George R. R. Martin, Tad Williams, and much to my wife’s chagrin, Anne McCaffrey are all on my Pile ‘O Shame list. Actually, those are just three of the many authors that I’m apparently supposed to adore that I just can’t stand to read. I’ve read a full book by each one of them, and that’s pretty much enough for me. Oh, and not sure if this counts as fantasy really (though it could be argued), but I have a friend who is obsessed with Dan Brown. Frankly, I think he’s one of the worst writers I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading.

  • meese August 14, 2008 at 2:54 am

    Totally agree about Donaldson, but I still have the first six and the new one in hardback (guess I just feel that as a fan of the genre you have to like him.. so weird), my other entry for the pile of shame is (dare I say it)… Gene Wolfe, I just can’t get into his books, people bang on about ‘unreliable narrators’ and ‘lyrical prose’he just bores the pants of me.

  • gav (nextread) August 15, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Can’t stand Philip Pullman. There are quite a few books that I’ve tried and didn’t like but for the life of my I can’t remember what they are. I’d have to look at shelves to see if I’ve kept a copy.

    A lot of sci-fi bigwigs have put me off sci-fi for quite a while. But Pullman is overrated by ten-fold. I don’t care if it warms up in book 2. Book 1 was cold!

  • Linda Palapala August 19, 2008 at 11:01 am

    GRRM, GRRM, GRRM….have tried at least 5 times to like his books, to no avail, except that the first one was okay.

    Brasyl! Again, tried and tried to “get” why other reviewers are so ga-ga over this book. Did not like it at all.

  • […] Aidan over at A Dribble of Ink recently posted a new post regarding authors we should like, but don’t. […]