Reviewed: The Wheel of Time Companion

The long awaited The Wheel of Time Companion has finally reached a worldwide audience, and it is everything any true WoT fan could ask for.

The Wheel of Time Companion cover

Coming in at over 800-pages, this encyclopedic work is legitimately “the ultimate resource for the Wheel of Time, and unmissable reading for fans of this worldwide bestselling series.” Detailing the entire Wheel of Time world from A-to-Z, this book includes original material from Robert Jordan himself (who passed away in 2007, before he had a chance to finish the series as a whole), as well as material written subsequently by his widow, Harriet McDougal – who was also the editor of the series – and Robert Jordan’s writing assistants, Maria Simons and Alan Romanzcuk.

Specifically, the book includes:

  • An entry for each named character
  • An inclusive dictionary of the Old Tongue
  • New maps of the Last Battle
  • New portraits of many characters
  • Histories and customs of the nations of the world
  • The strength level of many channelers
  • Descriptions of the flora and fauna unique to the world
  • And a whole lot more!

Here is an excerpt from the book, published by back in July, for Serafelle Tansiloe:

“Serafelle Tanisloe”

A Murandian Aes Sedai of the Brown Ajah and the loyalist contingent, with a strength level of 23(11). Born in 862 NE, she went to the White Tower in 891 NE. After spending ten years as a novice and four years as Accepted, she was raised to the shawl in 905 NE. She was 5’4″ tall, and pretty in a plump fashion, with brown hair and large hazel eyes. Sometimes, especially when thinking, she had the physical mannerisms of a spoiled noblewoman, which she was. Serafelle was a wilder who slowed at age nineteen. She was married, but lost her husband and three children to a fever; she herself barely escaped death. Of the middle nobility, she was a pampered, self-indulgent woman, but after the deaths, she reassessed her life and decided to become Aes Sedai. At age twenty-nine, she lied about her age, claiming to be eighteen, in order to be allowed into the Tower. Two years passed before sisters discovered the truth, and by that time, she had to be allowed to continue. That lie, though, was possibly the reason she was not allowed to test for Accepted for ten years; she believed that, with some justification. She was a quick study and a fast learner—very observant, very intelligent and quick-witted. She would have be- come Yellow except that she possessed a minimal Talent for Healing. She accompanied Siuan to Fal Dara, and was part of the circle that Healed Mat of his connection to the Shadar Logoth dagger.

In the end, this book is an absolute must-have for any type of Wheel of Time reader – be it hardcore enthusiast who just wants some light reading before bed, or those of us who haven’t read in a while, and need a companion to help them make it through the many people, places, and names that populate the series as we try to finish.

Spotlight: CrossBack by Paul Proffet

This month’s book spotlight is on CrossBack by Paul Proffet.

A daemonic child-killer is on the loose, leaving dozens of shattered lives in its wake. After recovering from their mauling during the battle with The Pariah, Doyle and his companions are back in the hunt. Following the trail of supernatural destruction, they soon cross paths with a secretive warrior, lying in wait for her most hated enemy. Can they trust her? Or will her thirst for vengeance see them all dead?

CrossBack cover image
CrossBack cover image

You can find Paul Proffet on these channels

Crossback purchasing options

And you can purchase CrossBack from Amazon by clicking on the buttons below:

Reviewed: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

As a reviewer for a site like Fantasy Book Review, you can sometimes stretch your job description a little so that you can review something a little … left of centre, shall we say.

Which is why I get to talk to you about Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by the author of the hugely popular webcomic XKCD, Randall Munroe. Coming in the wake of his similarly brilliant What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Munroe’s new book delves into the minutia and details of absurdly scientific and nuanced issues, with his characteristic irreverence and intelligence.

The book’s premise is simple: Using only words from a list of “The Ten Hundred Words People Use The Most”, Randall Munroe details and explains everything from the International Space Station to washing machines, plate tectonics to a “sky boat with turning wings” (ie, a helicopter).

Each page bears a hugely intricate hand-drawing done in the traditional XKCD style for these things (in fact, the entire style of the book can be seen in prototype-form in the XKCD-comic ‘Up Goer Five’).

Whether you are vaguely interested in how things work, a fan of XKCD, a specific fan of geography or astronomy or any other science, or you just want to learn up on some things you’ll never really need to know about (in language you’ll never be able to repeat without breaking into a grin), then this book is absolutely for you.

It’s also for everyone else.

In short, this book is brilliant.

For more information on this book, visit the official website:

Ever wanted to own a house in Innsmouth?

Until now, the only way to visit the ancient town of Innsmouth was through Lovecraft’s fiction, but thanks to an innovative crowd-funding campaign you can now actually purchase property in horror’s most legendary town.

As part of a crowd-funding campaign for the graphic novel Beyond Lovecraft, multiple award winning artist Rob Moran is building a huge scale diorama of Innsmouth, based on extensive research. As one of the campaign’s perks, Rob will build a select group of contributors a scale model of a house at one of Innsmouth’s prime locations. The house will come complete with a fully illustrated sales brochure, a deed of sale and a special letter of thanks from the town’s leading realtor.

The Beyond Lovecraft Indiegogo Campaign starts on 10/5/2015 and can be found here:

Beyond Lovecraft is a portmanteau horror story that draws directly on the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Drawn by Rob Moran, and written by award winning horror writer Jasper Bark, Beyond Lovecraft is set in the apocalyptic aftermath of the return of the great god Cthulhu. A scattered band of survivors scratch a bare living, hiding in the shadows of their lost world. A tiny group of scientist from Miskatonic university find a way to access the fabled Library of the Yith. An alien archive that contains the entire history of the universe, first mentioned in Lovecraft’s novella: The Shadow Out of Time.

The scientists hope to find a way to stop humanity’s extinction and win back their planet from the Elder Gods. Instead they uncover four tales of cosmic terror, and personal loss, that will forever change the way you view the Cthulhu mythos.

Writer Jasper Bark, says: “I think the main thing that makes our campaign stand out, is that it belongs to whoever gets involved. So many readers feel they have a personal stake in the Cthulhu mythos because, from the very beginning, Lovecraft shared his mythology with other authors as well as his readers. We want to continue this in our approach to the campaign. Every perk we’re offering, is designed to put contributors at the heart of this campaign, to give them a sense of ownership. You know when you pick up a comic and think: ‘This was made just for me!’? If you’re a Lovecraft fan, that’s how we want you to feel about ‘Beyond Lovecraft’. We’re putting it together especially for you.”

Rob adds: “Apart from being a cracker of an idea, some wonderful new twists and insights on the classic Lovecraft stories by Jasper and, all modesty aside, probably the best art of my career, I think there is a great thirst for Lovecraft to be done properly. Can you imagine Lovecraft drawn by Bernie Wrightson or Frazetta or Jesus Blasco? That’s the kind of art I want on Lovecraft stories and I think a lot of Lovecraft purists might feel the same way.”

Reaction to opening chapters of The Shepherd’s Crown


What follows is the humdinger of all spoilers. DO NOT READ unless you have already read the opening chapter of Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown!

If you have decided to throw caution to the wind and are happy to read about a very large spoiler, welcome, you devil-may-care rebel you.

The introduction of the The Shepherd’s Crown is both poignant in its structure and magnificent in its execution. It opens with the knowledge coming to Granny Weatherwax that her time is almost up and she will soon die.  Yes, I know, a rather large shock.

So the moment arrives, the house is clean and the grave is dug and DEATH stand before Granny’s soul. The dialogue between the two is particularly touching and beautifully written. I don’t know if this was added after Terry’s passing but if he wrote it himself then all I can say it whoa.  If written or amended by his team than a hat tip to them.

DEATH informs Granny that she is a special case, that her life and actions have enriched the world around her and protected the people and land she loved. The wording conveys a feeling of passing and added meaning. I am not sure if I am just reading more into this than there is, but once you read if for yourself you can decide.

There is also one final message or item of note which passes through the book after Granny passes on and it’s that she is always around, in the land, root and hoof and as such will never leave those who remember her. Something I think Terry’s legacy of works will also attest to.

If you have read The Shepherd’s Crown what are your thoughts on the passing of Granny?

Spotlight: Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening: Book 1)

Winner 2015 CIPA EVVY awards for Fiction/Fantasy
Current finalist 2015 Writer’s Digest Self Published Book Awards for Genre Fiction
#1 Bestseller in Epic, Historical and Coming of Age Fantasy

Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw

When a high-ranking officer gallops into the quiet Mistyvales, he brings a warning that shakes the countryfolk to their roots. But for Aedan, a scruffy young adventurer with veins full of fire and a head full of ideas, this officer is not what he seems.

The events that follow propel Aedan on a journey that only the foolhardy or desperate would risk, leading him to the gates of the nation’s royal academy – a whole world of secrets in itself.

But this is only the beginning of his discoveries. Something is stirring in the land, something more ominous than the rising threat of hostile nations. Fearful travellers whisper of an ancient power breathing over Thirna, changing it, waking it. In the very heart of these stirrings, Aedan encounters that which defies belief, leaving him speechless with terror – and wonder.

You can purchase Dawn of Wonder from Amazon:

Jonathan Renshaw is a former high school English teacher and music producer who now writes full time. He is currently working on the epic fantasy series, The Wakening, launched in May 2015.

For more information on Jonathan Renshaw and his work, visit


To begin, I will discuss hamburgers. What has this to do with formulae in books? Well not a lot, I just felt like playing some hunger games.

Your basic burger has a few essential elements that exist for it to be a burger. You have the meat patty, the cheese, the bread bun, the sauce and probably some salad. You can get a burger with these elements from many different places. You might go to McDonalds or a similar fast food place and get a general, mass produced burger. Yes, the sauce was more likely made in a chemistry lab than a kitchen, and the patty’s content of actual beef is questionable, and the cheese is processed, and you will get the very same quality burger at pretty much every single instance of that fast food place (they don’t call them mass produced for nothing), but fundamentally there is nothing essentially wrong with this. You can eat it and enjoy it, and there are times when it might be very welcome indeed.

Of course, you could go to a more serious restaurant and get a more serious type of burger with the same elements, but with a massive shift in quality. You could have a patty made of prime steak, locally sauced farmhouse cheese, and handmade sauce on a fresh baked bun. If you’re used to this gourmet type of burger, you will probably think less of the mass produced, fast food variety, for all you might still enjoy them for what they are.

Of course, not all burgers come with just cheese and sauce. Even in McDonalds, you might have one with bacon, different sorts of relish, chicken or fish instead of beef. Some burgers might take the concept to whacky levels with jerk sauce, pickles, cream, maple syrup, and goodness knows what. Usually, the more experimental, crazier combinations will come with better quality individual ingredients, though not necessarily always, and of course some experiments might or might not be successful.

As you might have guessed, all this talk about burgers is a metaphor. What’s a meta for? Making people think you’re being clever when you’re actually just lying badly. The fantasy genre has always been full of formulae and archetypes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hopeless children with special powers, wizards with beards telling innocent peasants their destiny, or square jawed space captains rocketing into the unknown bravely travelling where nobody had previously travelled. Epic and high fantasy in particular is prey to such tropes and formulae, indeed pre-Tolkien most high fantasy was of the Conan the Barbarian, extremely mythological and archetypal sort. I have often thought in fact that aside from his amazing body of work Tolkien’s greatest gift to the fantasy genre as a whole was showing how an epic, high fantasy tale of good and evil, war and magic can also include human, flawed, and likeable characters.

To an extent, with the rise of role playing games these archetypes reappeared somewhat, since obviously for a role playing system people would need to choose a class or type of character to play, and such classes and types are now almost archetypes of their own from leather clad two weapon wielding rangers to effete, glass canon mages.

It’s not just in epic fantasy however that these character archetypes are used. Noire detectives chasing after a fem fatale, rogues with a heart of gold (and possibly the fastest ship in the galaxy), tough lady gunslingers or beautiful courtiers (of both genders) playing dangerous politics plus a host of others, indeed odds are if you can describe it coherently with a couple of adjectives and a noun and people know what you’re talking about, it’s a character archetype!

Neither do these archetypes have to be specifically character based either. An ending that returns to status quo, a huge battle in which the young protagonist’s family are slain leaving them free to journey into the wilds, a monster lurking in the dark, a young hero rescuing a beautiful and mysterious lady whom he falls instantly in love with, a magic MacGuffin which the evil forces are searching for to gain ultimate power, there are far too many of such tropes to list, indeed there is a large and extensive website devoted to just that endeavour.

I have often seen someone dismiss a book as “formulaic” or “just a typical example” but one question I have found myself wondering about is why is this a bad thing? After all, just as a person can enjoy a standard burger of the cheese and sauce and patty variety described above, surely a person can enjoy a formulaic book?

Some people directly equate formulae with sexist, racist, homophobic or other negative cultural stereotypes. This might be true for several formulae, although I believe myself the relationship between formulae and stereotypes is a little more complex (particularly since critics of this sort often concentrate on their favourite cultural stereotypes and completely forget many others) and unless a person really stretches the idea of harmful assumptions there are many formulae and tropes that fall outside them, particularly in a genre that can explore any and all other worlds, societies or circumstances. After all it’s a little difficult to claim how the idea of a school for teaching magic or an alien invasion is in itself racist or sexist.

For myself, the issue that really irritates me with formulae is very simply one of predictability, and how that predictability alienates me from the characters emotions and reactions to the plot.

It doesn’t matter how much Count Von Cloakenstache cackles as he ties Princess Pauline to the railway tracks if I know the actual chances of her being hit by the train are zero I feel no tension whatsoever. I have in fact been divorced from the action entirely.
This doesn’t even have to be about life or death situations, if I know two characters will end up together right from the boy sights girl moment, I have little investment in their growing romance because I can see where it will end. There is no use the boy thinking “does she love me” when I know simply from the fact their eyes have met across a crowded room that she does, and even if she is set to marry someone else that it will never actually happen and she’ll end up with the boy after all.

For some people this level of predictability makes for safety, but for me I prefer a world where characters are not safe, where bad things happen to good people, and where I simply do not know where the story will go, where what happens to the characters for the first time is also being read about for the first time by me.

Like the creators of the crazier types of burger mentioned above of course, some writers thrive on knocking formulae on their heads.

I’m pretty sure that not only would George R R Martin have Pauline squished by the train, but also he’d have Dan McDashing end up receiving a severe injury while trying to save her and then (just to mess with our minds even further) reveal that Pauline’s family had actually been involved in the bloody murder and torture of the Countess Von Cloakenstache, a fact Pauline was fully aware of.

However, I find it isn’t just a question of equating how good a book is with how much an author can divert from formulae, or indeed how nasty she/he can be to the characters in a book. Indeed some modern writers have made dark and depressing torment of their casts almost a formula in itself (I was greatly impressed when Patrick Rothfuss refused to follow this particular track in Name of the Wind).

After all, some experiments, like the above mentioned burgers with cream might simply not work, while on other occasions a book that is deeply formulaic and has a lot of standard tropes I might find I am completely emotionally invested in despite my ability to predict it’s plot.

This is because of the most major part of cooking or writing – ingredients! It doesn’t matter whether your cooking a classic burger or one that is wildly off track, if you start with low grade ingredients, however good your recipe or your idea, you’re not going to make it come out well. In the same way, if a book  stands out in its writing style and the portrayal of its characters, if an author can make me feel that sense of connection, tension and emotional investment with the characters even though I am fully aware what turns the plot will take, then the book will succeed despite the fact that it contains tropes or formulae.

A perfect example of this is the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels from the sixties. Sexist as heck, jingoistic in parts, racist, homophobic in places. Villains with world dominating plans, gadgets, a hero who is close to invincible and who always gets the girl, indeed the books and the accompanying films have inspired a whole genre and countless tropes in themselves. The problem? Fleming writes so dam well. I defy anyone to read the centipede scene in Doctor No and not get a creep on the skin, to not get a little romantic at James’s courtship of Tatiana on the Orient Express in From Russia with love, or not cheer James on during the underwater battle in Live and Let Die. The writing is exotic, exacting and colourful, indeed even though I largely gave up on spy fiction and action thrillers after my mid teens and switched to fantasy and science fiction full time, the James Bond novels are the only things from that period of my reading life I have re-read since.

So, formulae are like anything else (burgers included), fine if done well, occasionally fun to experiment with, but ultimately it all comes down to the ingredients. If a person just slaps something together out of pre created, low grade materials, like McDonalds, you’re probably going to end up with something sweet, none too satisfying and mass produced – okay if your mildly hungry but probably not something that will stick with you once it’s passed through your system.

Likewise, be your formula ever so creative, if your ingredients are bad, you’re not going to impress. However, for someone who can source the best quality ingredients, prime characters, high quality dialogue, a full, satisfying plot with a well paced flow, it doesn’t matter if they’re working to a classic theme or experimenting wildly, it’ll still come out as most tasty.

Our #SPFBO champion

Over the last few months Fergus and I have read steadily through our five short-listed Self-Published Fantasy Book-Off entries and we are pleased to announce that a winner has been chosen.

Before we announce the winner, here are our thoughts on the four other excellent short-listed titles.

Runner-up: Frotwoot’s Faerie Tales (The Unseelie Court #1) by Charlie Ward

Frotwoot's Faerie Tales coverThe Seelie and Unseelie Courts are at war. On one side: Noble knights, fighting for freedom. On the other: Not-so-noble terrorists, fighting for the right to rule. Caught in the middle: A very confused, very lost teenage boy. His name is Frotwoot Crossley. And he’s about to find out that, somehow, that’s not even the weirdest thing about him…

Our thoughts: We found this to be a charming and pleasantly irreverent story which both older children and teens should love. It is a very well-written story ideal for readers who have already enjoyed The Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis and The Chrestomanci series by Dianne Wynne Jones.

Runner-up: The Penitent Assassin by Shawn Wickersheim

The Penitent Assassin book coverThirty years ago, when Mallor was a child, he was the sole survivor of genocide. Five years ago, while pursuing his revenge he was ambushed and killed. His goddess offered him a chance to return on the condition he became her assassin. Mallor agreed. Now, he is back, in the dank city where it all began using an old identity to hunt down a list of old foes, but thirty-six hours before his revenge would be complete, he learns a couple of things; he has a daughter, she’s been kidnapped by a sadistic magic abuser and the price for her release would not only ruin all of his plans but also kill his goddess. Mallor is nobody’s hero, but can he sacrifice his daughter to save his goddess, or will he forsake his faith and his need for revenge to rescue her instead?

Our thoughts: We found that the darkness that lurked at the edges of this book added greatly to its appeal. The narrative constantly raised questions that we wanted answering, such as ‘who are the dark replicants?’ and ‘who is/was Mallor?’. Full of unexpected happenings, twists and turns this is a very good book with great anti-hero that Gemmell fans will enjoy.

Runner-up: Whill of Agora (Legends of Agora #1) by Michael James Ploof

Whill of Agora book coverIt is the year 5170 in the land Agora, where humans, dwarves, and elves have existed in peace for centuries. Now, however, the human King Addakon has invaded and waged war on neighboring Isladon. The once peaceful Kingdoms of Agora are on the brink of continental war. The Dark Elf Eadon, and his army of Dragon-Elf crossbreeds, the Draggard, threaten to conquer all kingdoms.
Enter young Whill, a nineteen-year-old ranger with battle savvy and untapped abilities. Having spent years roaming Agora and training with his mentor Abram, Whill has become a bright intellectual and a master of combat. What he seeks most, however, is the identity of his birth parents. Instead, he finds a tumultuous terrain and a prophecy placing him in the center of the struggle. Along the way, Whill encounters an equally inspired group of companions that are matched in skill and mission. These include Rhunis the Dragon Slayer, the young Tarren, the fearless Dwarf Roakore, the beguiling warrior Elf Avriel, and the powerful Zerafin. As Whill joins forces, he forges bonds far mightier than their escalating travails. With high adventure and fierce friendship, Whill of Agora will capture your imagination and grip your heart during every super-charged escapade that Agora’s bold and grinning brotherhood embraces.

Our thoughts: We both liked this one a lot, in fact we both thought it was the best-written of the five shortlisted. However, we also felt that lacked its own stamp of uniqueness, the individual elements and concepts that set a fantasy book out from the rest. The story had all the ingredients of a first-rate fantasy tale: a hidden hero, an oncoming war and old secrets long kept. Reading this book brought back memories of old stories we loved, in particular the Shannara and Wheel of Time novels. But in the end this is why it was not our winner. However, we would both heartily recommend Whill of Agora to anyone who is looking for classic fantasy in the vein of Jordan, Brooks and Eddings.

Runner-up: Paladin’s Redemption (Kingdom’s Forge #1) by Kade Derricks

Paladin's Redemption coverPaladin, Traitor, Outcast, Mercenary… Dain Gladstone has been all of these. From childhood he’s been groomed for battle and trained in the Light. When war came he was branded a traitor and exiled for a treasonous act of mercy. To make his way in the world Dain has sold his skills to the highest bidder. But now he’s grown tired of war, tired of fighting for causes not his own, and he’s got a plan. Galena… rumors fly of a great fortune there, one buried beneath the snow-covered mountains, one vast enough to purchase an entire kingdom. Dain isn’t the only one seeking Galena’s riches. Men and elves and orcs all have plans of their own. Fortune has a way of twisting fate and turning the finest of plans on their heads.

Our thoughts: This book begins very well with a grimness to the character, landscape and story which felt fresh. But as the narrative progressed it entered into more common fantasy areas with golden elves, brown elves, orcs etc. providing a fantasy brew of Tolkien, Feist and Word of Warcraft themes, which will appeal to many.

Winner: What Remains of Heroes (A Requim for Heroes #1) by David Benem

What Remains of Heroes book coverLannick deVeers used to be somebody. A hero, even. Then, he ran afoul of the kingdom’s most powerful general and the cost he paid was nearly too much to bear. In the years that followed, his grief turned him into a shadow of his former self, and he spent his days drowning his regrets in tankards of ale.
But now an unexpected encounter casts Lannick upon an unlikely path to revenge. If he can just find the strength to overcome the many mistakes of his past, he can seize the chance to become a hero once more. And with an ancient enemy lurking at the kingdom’s doorstep, he’d better…

Our thoughts: Surprisingly this was not the pick of the bunch after the first chapter. If the book has any flaws they are – in our opinion – found in the first chapter where a couple of major plot elements don’t quite feel right. But from chapter two onwards it was like reading a fantasy pro with years on experience and large publishing house behind them. We both bought into the characters and the story and that is really all it takes – once an author has achieved that with a reader much of the hard work is done. Added to this was a wry humour that worked really well and world building that felt, well, like a real world being described. The book strengthened with each page and was, we felt, the best book we read as part of the self-published fantasy blog-off.

And so there we are, What Remains of Hero is the book we are pleased to put forward to the next round of the competition where we would like to wish David Benem the very best of luck.

And to the four runner-ups: Thank you for submitting your work, we really enjoyed it and both Fergus and myself will be reading it to completion in our own time.
Lee and Fergus, July 2015

10 ratings to rate them all, what do the numbers mean?

With a culture of mass communications and ever larger businesses, star ratings have become a major part of everyday life. The fact that something received so many 5 or 10 (or whatever the maximum number is) star ratings is held up extremely proudly by anyone who  makes or manages or sells anything, from  hotels, to furniture to books.

Whether this huge use of counted numbers of star ratings is  truly a way for people to express an opinion, or just a way to reduce people down to the level of statistics, and whether indeed the results so expressed actually reflect the general consensus on a given issue or even if the general consensus has any claim to authority at all,  are some important questions that could be asked about the uses of star ratings, although right now I’m just concerned with the ratings used on this site and what they say about the quality of works of speculative fiction.

As any psychologist knows, one of the major problems in any experiment involving human assessment is subject bias. This is simply the fact that people tend to view the world and language differently, so though two people might give the same answer to the same question, what they mean is definitely not the same. For example, shelf stacker Sam and Indiana Jones might both claim they’re fully satisfied by their jobs, however where Indi definitely knows why his job is so awesome (nothing like dodging the big rolling ball and crushing ceilings to give a new meaning to the daily grind), poor old Sam might simply have never expected anything more from his job than days of endless repetitive toil, and so is “satisfied” that that is all he will get from his career.

When you introduce point scales things get even more complicated, since while someone who has always had a perfect life might claim that being un-friended on Facebook is the worst thing that has ever happened to them and thus give their happiness as 1/5, this is a very different 1/5 to say that of a person who has a debilitating medical condition.

As Douglas Adams famously said: “To summarize the summary of the summary, people are a problem.”

When we get into the business of this site, that of book reviewing, the issues of subject bias are still very much in effect, thus meaning a 10 from some people will probably not be the same as a 10 from others, both because some people are more inclined to be more or less miserly with the ratings, and because some people have different levels of reading experience over all to draw on, and this is even before we get into the tangled, monster filled Labyrinth of what “good literature” actually means anyway, (that’s one that Theseus would’ve needed more than a ball of string to find his way out of).

One other odd occurrence I’ve noticed with collections of reviews is the problem that one gamefaqs reviewer once called the 9-10 syndrome. Namely that with a scale out of 10, people have a tendency to mark things to the far ends of the scale and ignore the middle, thus meaning something is either “the best thing ever!” or “the worst thing ever!”, especially for things that are extremely popular or highly visible in the media, since there’s nothing like calling something a “classic” to start polarizing opinions at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

Of course, all of these are inevitable problems with any system of numeric ratings, and there really isn’t a way to solve them, because fundamentally different though individuals are, if you want any sort of consensus on a measurable numeric scale you can’t particularly allow for subject bias. After all it doesn’t matter whether someone is voting Conservative because they actually support the Conservatives or just to stop Labour getting in or heck just because they like the colour blue, the vote still counts equally.

In the interest of at least making my own subject biases the subject of scrutiny and thus a little less inscrutable, I thought I might explain how I personally come up with the numbers I do when writing a review, just to give people a clearer idea of my own perspective on how the scale works, and perhaps a suggestion of at least one method to anyone writing a reader review as to how to calculate their ratings.

First, I do not tend to try to assess the entire quality of a book and regard it either as universally one thing or another, either good or bad. Generally speaking in any book I read there will be things I like and things I do not. Why I like the bits I like or dislike the bits I don’t are matters I will try to explain in the review if I can, and explain relative to some sort of vaguely understandable criteria such as characterization, plot progression or style, not just “I liked it because it was good”.

I then try to achieve a rating by treating the scale as scales. That is I mentally imagine a balance with two pans, and I put the “likes” into one pan and the “dislikes” into another. If both pan’s balance out equally, I will have a dead centre rating of five, however more usually one pan will go up, and one down, and it’s the degrees that my mental weighing scale changes that generally determines my rating.

You might assume that if a book is standard, dull, or average, I would rank it as five, however generally this is not the case. The question of what makes good art or good literature is an extremely complicated one which has been debated since the time of Aristotle and which probably has as many answers as questions.  The more specific question of what makes good literature of a given genre, even the wide spectrum of speculative fiction is probably an even more complicated one with likely even more answers.

One very basic fact however, is that fiction should actually do something to the reader. Whether making a person think over puzzles, feel a variety of emotions, engage in speculation about the world, empathize with the characters  or whatever. For speculative fiction which deals with matters outside the course of reality, particularly often matters fraught with emotion, tension, horror, romance or intrigue, this seems even more true.

If however my response to a book is a resounding “meh!” then I’ve not really felt or thought or reacted to much of anything. Far from being a dead rating of five however, this would cause me to drop a couple of hefty weights onto the “dislikes” side of the balance.

Conversely however, when I find a book who’s principle elements all mesh together into an entire whole which needs to be appreciated absolutely, that rare quality of a book where the plot, the characters, the style cannot be separated out but all need to be assessed together into one over whelming experience, then that necessitates a great fist full of awesome going onto the “likes” side, indeed some of the few books I have rated as a perfect ten, and even many of those who earn a 9 or higher from me tend to have this quality.

While this is of course only my personal scale and method for achieving ratings, I do rather wonder if other reviewers use something of the same process, which would explain why so many ratings on this site (including my own), are around the 6-8 range. Manifestly, I like reading, indeed for me books go next to oxygen on my list of life necessities and if I do not read for at least half an hour each day (often a lot more) I actively feel something in my life is severely wrong. If I did not like reading I wouldn’t bother writing reviews of books. Therefore, since I am doing something I like anyway, i.e. reading, odds are I will be more likely to find things I like than things I do not, especially because I have a pathological inability to stop reading any book in the middle, however dire it might be so will always plough to the end (even if I choose to never read another book by that author or in that series again), and as such would be better picking on the good rather than bad elements.

Hopefully this explains at least a little of what my own numbers mean and why when I might give a book the rating I do. Of course, all this just applies to me, doubtless there are as many different weighing criteria for those scales of scale as there are people, but then again, things would be very boring if everyone did think the same way.

Terry Pratchett: Hidden Gems

I am a fan of Terry, a big one and have been from the moment I picked up my first Discworld book, Small Gods at 14.  So it was with some surprise this week I came across a few Pratchett short stories I had never known about.

It’s was like that feeling of having hiding away one of your Easter eggs so your greedy little brother or sister doesn’t steal them while your back is turned and finding it a month later or going through your jeans before putting them in the wash and pulling out a 20.  Joy, surprise and a little jig later, you know your day is going to be a good day.

I know, I am probably last to the party as many fans (is there a collective noun for Discwold fans, if not I clamm the naming of Pratchions or maybe Terrys, I do like the idea of a group of Terrys) probably already knew about these, but I didn’t and it made me one happy little camper.

I knew it was my Morporkian duty to let those like me who didn’t know, know, and the best thing is two of these shorts can be read online. Being only a page in length they are a great little Discworld fix as we wait for the release The Shepherd’s Crown.  The others I am afraid you will need to track down.

And Troll Bridge is coming to the big screen this October 2015, I can’t wait.