Goodreads’ “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2016” has 424 titles listed. “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2017″ lists 307 titles, while the list for 2018 names a whopping 491. Factor in all the SFF titles published Herover the past four to five decades, and you have more books than anyone could possibly read in a single lifetime, even if one had no other responsibilities beyond reading. In short, no one can read everything. Not only word of mouth from friends whose opinions we trust but online resources like Goodreads, LibraryThing, Tor.com, and The Illustrated Page can help us decide which books to put on our to-read list, which ones to move to the top of said list, and which ones we might just as well leave unread. It helps tremendously to have a “Yes!” List, characteristics in a book most likely to appeal to you, and a “No” List, qualities you find off-putting. My own personal “Yes!” and “No” Lists have helped me maintain control of my reading life, even if my to-read list is, dare I say, unwieldy.
I’ll get the negative out of the way first. If I hear or read the following, or some paraphrase of the following, in multiple reviews for a stand-alone book or a series, I probably won’t read it.
Women are either love interests or villains.
A Tor.com review/discussion of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child led by Emily Asher-Perrin points out that while the adult Hermione and even Ginny are given somewhat decent roles, the rising generation of female characters doesn’t include anyone who might be the next Hermione. “Practically all other women in the story are either fridged or irrelevant, except where they apply as love interests or villains,” the review tells us, and that tells me all I need to know. Cursed Child can win all the Tonys it wants, but I won’t be reading or seeing it. I’ll stick with Rowling’s original seven books, thanks, unless somebody wants to write a spin-off revolving around the adventures of the grown-up Luna Lovegood.
Few things put me off a story with a female protagonist, particularly in YA, faster than this phrase. This isn’t to say I can’t accept any scenario in which two female characters loathe each other. The mutual detestation between heroic grandmother Ista and monstrous “mother” Joen in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, for example, is very apropos. Yet for me, this enmity works partly because Bujold includes a strong friendship between Ista and the young courier Liss, so we see the unique female hero doesn’t view all other women as her natural enemies. If a book paints every interaction between a female protag and another female character as hostile, as if catty jealousy and suspicion were somehow the norm for relationships between girls and women, that’s a hard pass. I’ve read such books before, so I know from experience that my frustration with this kind of thing is bound to rage-blind me to whatever other virtues the book might have.
The female characters are the book’s weakest link.
There are two ways I spot this in reviews. The first is when positive reviews praise the male characters to the skies and decline to mention a female character even in passing, while negative reviews complain bitterly about how weakly the women are written. The second is when it’s stated outright, with words like, “I like this book, except for (insert female character’s name here),” or “If you can overlook the female characters, you’ll enjoy this book.” Since overlooking female representation is a little outside my skill set, I save myself the trouble and avoid the book in question.
I have read some excellent fantasy fiction centering on a victim of rape; Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, and Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld spring to mind at once. I acknowledge this kind of story may be (and dare I say it, needs to be) well told. But the term “rapey” in reviews of certain books gives a warning light, more often than not, to a phenomenon I’ve heard called “Rape as Wallpaper,” in which the prevalence of rape is baked into the world-building and instances of rape are so thick on the ground — the victims often being either minor characters in which we make no emotional investment or one-scene wonders who may as well be named “Rape Victim #44” — that readers cease to feel shocked or disturbed by them. Writers whose works are “rapey” like to claim their heavy use of rape is “realistic” in view of the historical period they’re drawing from in their built worlds. But in this case, I feel, realism is overrated.
In a story that features rape, what happens to the victim? Is she destroyed by the experience, either dying of her injuries, perishing of a broken heart, or going irretrievably mad? Or does she find a way to survive and make the slow, steady march toward recovery? I may not be very keen on rape plots in general, overused as they tend to be in fantasy fiction, but if the latter is the case (as it is in the titles I mention above) I may give it a shot, particularly if I admire the author. But the former is a deal-breaker, as such a thing often serves as a sign that the book as a whole holds out no hope to its characters or its readers.
I don’t mind stories with deeply flawed characters, or stories that veer into dark or even disturbing territory, but I will shun any book that depicts life as little or nothing but a continuous downward spiral, a long, pitch-dark tunnel with not a glimmer of light at the end. If I wanted to spend time in a world where kindness is viewed as weakness and compassion is all but unknown, I’d watch the evening news.
Coming Next: The “Yes!” List