The OF Blog: Trying to grasp a (somewhat) poorly-written review, part III

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Trying to grasp a (somewhat) poorly-written review, part III

In the name of fairness and because I said at one point that I'd point out something in his reviews if the situation merit it, this edition of "What annoys Larry about some of the reviews that he reads" will look at a just-published positive review, posted by Ken at Neth Space, of Joe Abercrombie's The Last Argument of Kings. I've known Ken for a while and while he and I occasionally have differences of opinion on books, it is always civil and what I'm going to say below will be equally civil. Besides, it's not as though I thought the entire review was rubbish (there were some good points made), but rather that the opening paragraph just was a bit jarring for me:

Last Argument of Kings (US, UK, Canada) is the closing argument of Joe Abercrombie’s answer to epic fantasy. Abercrombie embraces the cliché of fantasy, spins it around, turns it upside down, and covers it stinky, dark, sardonic wit – and then he surprised you. Not everyone believes he succeeds in these goals – often complaining that he still falls into same old traps – but I applaud his effort and the satiric success of it. In the Last Argument of Kings Abercrombie offers up more of the same from the previous two books and then adds some more with an ending that is simply brilliant.
Uh...where to begin? In reading this opening paragraph I chose to put aside any associations with Abercrombie's works (I have read and reviewed all three of them in 2008) and instead tried to think of this from a person who might be totally unfamiliar with his work. While Ken obviously has the very difficult task of balancing out what to reveal (as this is the closing volume in a trilogy) and what to conceal from readers who may or may not have read the first two volumes, his first two sentences make declarations without providing anything in the way of substance to them.

"Answer to epic fantasy"? Is epic fantasy some sort of monolithic entity all of the sudden? "Embraces the clichés of fantasy"? What clichés? If there are clichés, are they universal in all types of fantasy and not just epic fantasy (presuming that there is a monolithism to epic fantasy, as may be inferred from Ken's opening sentence)? Leaving aside the noun/pronoun needing to agree ("them," not "it" in reference to said clichés), I still have no clue at all (mind you, I'm thinking of this as someone who may have read a small part of his work or had just heard of him for the first time, not as someone who's read the first two books twice and the reviewed third one once) as to what he's referring to here. Way too vague. Sometimes, you just have to come out and say something like this: "Abercrombie takes a standard trope of epic fantasy, that of a guiding, mysterious wizard and a traveling troupe of miscreants and misfits and he tweaks the formula, creating a story in which the guiding wizard may be malicious and the miscreant troupe may not have a touching, Hallmark-worthy bonding moment." It gives enough of a hint as to what Abercrombie is up to, without spelling it out in laborious detail. Sometimes, you just have to provide something in the way of detail.

Since Last Argument of Kings is the third book in a trilogy, I’ll be light on the plot summary. The epic quest of Book 2, Before They Are Hanged (US, Uk, Canada), is complete and our adventures have returned. The war in the north continues, yet does come to an end while the central city of Adua becomes embroiled in issues regarding succession of the monarchy and a threat of invasion. Interesting and surprising things await the characters we’ve come to love (or hate) through the series.

Although personally I would have preferred a bit more in the way of recapitulating the plots of the first two books (presuming that the target reading audience is someone who wants to know if the third book is as good as the two prior works that possibly were read by this hypothetical reader), it is a difficult choice to make and while I disagree with it, I can understand Ken's reasoning here. After all, how does one balance covering works that may not have been read by a potential reader with the need to establish what specifically worked/didn't work in the concluding volume? I spent over a month trying to figure that out before I wrote my review of this book last year, so I know it isn't something that's easily done.

The most enjoyable aspect of The First Law trilogy is the way that Abercrombie plays with the tropes of epic fantasy – he fully embraces them while adding a satiric bite and unexpected outcomes. In my review of Before They Are Hanged I mentioned that this had lost the novelty of The Blade Itself – but I must say that Abercrombie rounds things out wonderfully in Last Argument of Kings. As the trilogy ends, the reader is finally let in on a bit of what’s been going on behind the scenes – and the end is decidedly not typical for epic fantasy. For experienced readers of the genre – basically, people who are in on the joke – the end will likely be something of a breath of fresh air. I imagine those that aren’t in on the joke (or don’t find it all that amusing) will simply think it stinks – or at least that it is not particularly satisfying in the way that people generally want things to end. I found it inspired as the mixed emotions rebelled against one another.
Again, I don't what to make of this "plays with the tropes of epic fantasy" without having a clear understanding of what Ken means here. Do agree on the loss of novelty in the second volume, however. As for the last half of this paragraph, it is again tied in to the difficult decision of what to include and what to withhold when reviewing a concluding volume to a multi-volume work. But it does sound a bit bland in a way, because there is nothing specific above that would give any smidgen of a hint of what this "joke" would be (I've read the book and I know it is in reference to how the character arcs unfold and how there isn't a nice, neat ending, but saying this is not by itself going to "spoil" anything. Sometimes, many reviewers are just too reluctant to delve into what it is that moved them in the first place about a story, with the end result being a review that is a bit too mushy in places).

Characterization remains a strong point – Inquisitor Glokta may be my favorite character in epic fantasy at the moment. The sardonic wit of his external and internal dialogue is priceless, while I can’t help but like this almost entirely unlikable person. Logen reveals his dark side and the Bloody Nine, Jezal grows as a character as he falls back to his roots, and that bastard Bayaz…. I was also pleased to find out that Abercrombie has indeed been keeping Ardee around for a reason – though her character is a little too witty and unconvincing.

While I would have considered using a quote here or there to support these assertions, at least there's something specific here being said about the characters and Ken's reactions to them. Just a little bit more explanation on the "whys" and I would have been satisfied, but this isn't bad at all. It would have made me want to read the third book if I hadn't already read it a year ago.

Series come to an end – and I’ve said before how it’s often a bitter-sweet kind of moment. With the Last Argument of Kings, Abercrombie seems to have poured on the bitter – which makes it all the more sweet. Abercrombie hasn’t been writing the standard epic fantasy trilogy – and the proof is in the ending. This series has overwhelmed many and under-whelmed more than few – but it something that fans of epic fantasy simply must read for themselves. 8.5/10

All in all, not a really "bad" review, but rather one that left me wishing that Ken had explored things more, as there just wasn't that "personal" connection between reviewer and book there that sometimes makes for a great review. Mind you, I myself have made just about all the mistakes that I note above, but hey, sometimes the point in critiquing another's review is to learn just what it is about your own that is lacking. Besides, diff'rent stroke, diff'rent folks, right? It's a review that'll work for many, even if it didn't work as well for me. Can't say he didn't engage the book, only that he didn't do it as well as perhaps some (me?) would have liked.

Now I hope others will do the same for mine...perhaps note how I quote too much on occasion, how I focus on theme to the detriment of plot/characterization analysis, and how I don't rip books to shreds as I perhaps ought to do, etc. Turnabout is fair play, no?

11 comments:

ThRiNiDiR said...

I've read Ken's review and your critique afterward and I must say while I agree with you on several points (the review is a bit vague and presumes that the reader is familiar with fantasy genre to the point that he knows what tropes etc. he is speaking of) I still believe you are a bit too harsh with the review. It obvious to me that you two have very different approaches to reviewing; you tend to deliver in-depth reviews, dissecting whatever (as you said it yourself) moves you about the novel, thus making the review as wholesome and personal as you can make it. Ken, on the other hand, writes shorter, more general reviews and it's obvious that he can't pack all the content you want him to into the format he chose. I don't think any of the above approaches to reviewing is superior per se. I myself sometimes curse you for taking too long at coming to conclusion whether the book in question is worth reading or not, but you don't give unambiguous answers and that's ok as well.

I'm not even sure what I'm trying to say here, only that Ken is by far not the only one who could be taken under your judging eye...if you took the standards with which you dissected Ken's review to the rest of the blogosphere it would be a bloody carnage out there :)

But I agree, we all have more than a little room to improve and reviewing shouldn't be taken lightly, I just hope that Ken doesn't take it the wrong way. :)

etrangere said...

Your series of criticising reviews continues being very interesting. I think the best advice I find in them is that statements must be justified/exampled, and vagueness avoided. Quotes are good. I really wish I had the reflex while i read to mark out quotes for future references (and iconing :))

Summaries are a bit more complicated issues IMHO, because people expect different things. As a reader I really don't care for summaries beyond getting a good grasp of what's the book's about, what kind of genre it is. So I'm annoyed when I find a review that insist on telling me more of the plot; while I want to skip to the "was it good or not" part.
So I try to keep myself to one line summaries when I do my own reviews (of course I don't do them in a blog as such, so I see them as pretty informal reviews :))

I do love indepth reviews, but to read after I've read the books myself, which is a whole other thing, and not a review proper. (The difficulty, then, is to find where the review was... especially when I often wait for a book to be in paperback to do so).

So for getting a quick idea of a book and thus decide what I will read, Neth's blog is actually one where I will most often read the reviews.

Then there's the balance of time/effort. I believe Neth writes much more reviews that you do :)

Joe Sherry said...

My review of Last Argument goes up on monday and I'm not entirely happy with it. I struggled with what to say, but I knew that if I waited a month to figure it out I wouldn't have posted anything.

So, I just wrote until I hit an ending. Turns out I'm a wordy bastard.

I know what you're talking about in terms of Ken's vagueness, but I guess I always felt like I knew what he was talking about.

Larry said...

Uroš,

I wouldn't have posted this if I didn't recall Ken saying that he didn't mind back a couple of months ago or so. But yes, I could indeed do this for many, but the reason why (besides the one I noted above) I did here is because it actually is something that could easily be adjusted without ruining that style of review. Vague generalities opening reviews are often not a good thing (although I'm guilty of this as well in the past - it's something I used to get marked up on early in my paper writing days). Sometimes, just biting the spoiler bullet and providing just something will help a lot of reviews. One doesn't have to go too far and reveal everything, but little hints can help a lot. Then again, I wonder how many people complain about all the "spoilers" I include in many of my reviews, even though most of those are thematic and not plot-specific.

Etrangere,

Good points on the balance/difficulty. True, I don't write many reviews anymore, since it can take me a week to think it out in my head and a couple of hours to write it. When I'm reading a book I plan on reviewing, I often do write down page numbers or at least commit those numbers to memory.

Joe,

Reviewing that book was difficult for me as well (took me two months, in fact) and come and think of it, I have another book, Lavinia, that I still have to sit down and struggle through that review. So yeah, I know what you're talking about and I understood many of Ken's choices there. I just wish reviewers in general would drop the marketing-like "twists, turns, grabs, etc. the tropes and..." lines, as those are meaningless without explanation. That was my main beef with that review.

Neth said...

Well, as Larry has mentioned, in his previous review critiques, I have said in the comments that he is free to do so to mine at any time - so this is pretty much a 'be careful of what you ask for' kind of moment.

Many of the critiques that are made stem form a different idea of reviewing books - I've alwasy said that I write the kind of review that I want to read. Basically, these are relatively short, lite on the plot summary, and not bogged down with quotes from the book. So, in that respect, the review succeeds.

Now I'm not going to claim that this review was my best ever (I only had about a week of reflection before putting pen to paper, I wrote the majority of it on the latter end of a few glasses of wine, and I posted almost immediately after writing rather than waiting a day or two like I usually do). But, I don't think it would have changed much.

My real struggles with writing the review came in two main areas: 1) this is the third book of a trilogy and 2) in the world of SFF review blogs, Abercrombie is very heavily reviewed.

To the first point - it's always difficult to write reviews for sequels and books in a series. In this case, I just made the blanket assumption that you're really not interested in this review if you are not already familiar with Abercrombie's writing. It may not have been a great assumption to make, but it made framing the review much easier.

To the second point - I struggled because I didn't have a whole lot to say that hasn't been said elsewhere already (and often better anyway). In that respect, it's not really a review that I wanted to write in the first place. I wrote it anyway, and part of the result of that attitude is that it was a bit briefer than I usually write these days and maybe a bit sloppier as well. I was also writing this review knowing that I intend to write something about the trilogy in its entirety where I will be more in depth about many of the areas that Larry wants more.

There are certainly some valuable critiscms here that I hope will help me better focus future reviews. So, while I'm on the verge of becoming that silly 'author' responding to a review of his work, I'll leave off here.

Larry said...

Ken,

Thanks for being a good sport about it. I thought your review was mostly fine for what you wanted to accomplish with mainly the first paragraph sticking out like a sore thumb to me. I certainly understand the difficulties in the process and how best to write something "new" about a book that many peers had already reviewed, so my only real complaint was that reference to tropes that never really was explained.

You'd have to write a lot worse than you usually do (as I usually enjoy reading your reviews, even when we have differences of opinion or thoughts on how to present those opinions) if I were to decide it was an out-and-out "bad" review. Those reviews I leave for the Harriet Klausners of the world - you're worlds better than her.

Now remember, anytime you want (or others reading this), same thing can be done to mine :D

Joe Sherry said...

"Those reviews I leave for the Harriet Klausners of the world - you're worlds better than her."

Oh, and that's not damning with faint praise, is it?

I just start with the base assumption that everybody is better than HK.

;)

Neth said...

Those reviews I leave for the Harriet Klausners of the world - you're worlds better than her.

Well, hell - now are damning me with faint praise ;)


Seriously though, thanks for the kind words.

Larry said...

No problem - was going to say worlds better than another as well, but I'm trying not to link/refer to his reviews here as much in 2009 as I did in 2008 :P Is that damning with less faint praise? ;)

Calibandar said...

I have to say I see great irony in you doing these extensive critiques of other people's reviews when you yourself are generally one who completely fails to bring across to me as the reader any sense of the book's actual contents. It's all about what a mindfuck of a book it is, how the themes and sensibilities appeal to you, but very little on content. Which to me makes reading some of Pat's reviews, or Ken's, more useful than your own high falutin stuff.

Larry said...

Nothing much to say other than I guess you didn't bother reading my review of Brian Evenson's Last Days. If that review doesn't spell out the type of book being reviewed, then something just isn't clicking between Text and Reader. The dozen or so "true" reviews I write a year now generally are much more specific than what many post for free, but yes, there are gaps. Still, I can't help but wonder if you're conflating my 1-3 sentence commentaries in with my actual reviews.

 
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