As the year winds down and we look ahead to a new year of trying to keep on top of our goodreads challenges and our ever growing TBR piles, I wanted to look back on some of this year’s reads that really didn’t work for me. Reading is always subjective and not all of these are bad books per se, they’re just books that, for one reason or another, I didn’t enjoy. Each of these books fell short of the coveted “good” rating of three stars or above on goodreads, making them my most disappointing books of 2019.
5. Slayer by Kiersten White
Perhaps my expectations were just too sky high, but as an older millennial who grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the announcement of a new series of Buffyverse novels written by Kiersten White, author of the much loved Conquerors Trilogy, filled me with joy. Slayer failed to live up to its potential though in this underwhelming, and frankly unnecessary, read. The dialogue didn’t sparkle in that infinitely quotable, pop culture-infused way that episodes of the TV show still do decades later, the plot was predictable and a little sloppy, the main characters lacked depth while the supporting characters were interchangeable, and trying to figure out the timeline of the novel gave me a migraine. As I expanded on in my full review, I hoped that White would give us a slayer for a new generation. Someone relevant to today’s issues, who would disrupt the white feminist slant of the show. Instead, I had trouble connecting with either timid Nina or her protective twin sister Artemis. There were things I liked about Slayer, such as the Easter eggs referencing minor characters from the series, the idea of a shared slayer dreamspace, and encounters with OG slayers Buffy and Faith, but ultimately the novel fell short in just about every way.
4. The Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
Another case of a critically lauded (in science-fiction circles, at least) book that just didn’t work for me. While I may have struggled with and not fully understood Ninefox Gambit, the first in Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire trilogy, I appreciated Lee’s ambition and the fascinating dynamic between the story’s two protagonists, Kel Cheris and Jedao, the dead, sociopathic tactician sharing her mind. Not allowing the reader into the mind of a character and forcing us to view them only through the biased eyes of supporting characters can be done to great effect (see The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett) but in The Raven Stratagem I just found myself missing Kel Cheris and Jedao. Lee takes a step back from the action to shift from a military perspective to a more political and personal story (again something I’ve seen done to great effect, in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword for example), but something about The Raven Stratagem didn’t click for me. Perhaps its the perspectives involved – the fact that the story is mostly told from the POV of those who have power rather than those who lack it and are effected as a result. Perhaps it’s that the cast of characters expanded for this novel but weren’t nearly as well developed as in the first book. Whatever the reason, I found The Raven Stratagem to be a challenge with limited rewards. I’m honestly not sure whether I’ll bother to read the concluding novel in this trilogy.
3. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
I can’t think of a better example of the subjective nature of reading than the fact that Night Boat to Tangier has appeared on multiple critics’ best of lists for the year (not to mention been longlisted for the Booker) while landing squarely on my list of the year’s most disappointing titles! Night Boat to Tangier should have been a slam dunk. I don’t always love literary fiction, but a darkly comic read about two aging Irish criminals reminiscing about their pasts while awaiting an estranged daughter’s arrival sounded right up my alley. However it took me more than a month, and a number of self pep talks, to slog through its mere 255 pages. Although the book has some lovely turns of phrase and had me sniggering a few times at its black humour, I need more than language to be invested in a book and that emotional attachment never materialized here. Its protagonists are nearly interchangeable and because I was not connected to the characters, I was left unaffected by their reminiscing. The plot is nearly non-existent and I often found myself struggling to focus on the pages. Admittedly I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d had the time to devote to reading it properly, rather than in fits and spurts over a long period of time, but not much more. Do Charlie and Maurice ever reunite with Dilly, the estranged daughter? Honestly, by the time I reached the end I just didn’t care one way or the other.
2.Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee
I’d be more inclined to go easy on self-published author Jonathan P. Brazee’s military science-fiction novella if he hadn’t played the voting system to garner a completely undeserved Nebula Award nomination earlier this year. In a field of imaginative, well-written nominees, Brazee’s tale of a plucky underdog stood out in all the wrong ways. Fire Ant is an amateur effort, as riddled with genre cliches as it is spelling and grammar errors. My eyes glazed over at the abundance of military procedures and space battles, yet there was woefully little in the way of characterization. Admittedly I’m not keen on the military sci-fi subgenre and I definitely wouldn’t have picked up Fire Ant if I hadn’t challenged myself to read all the Nebula nominated novels and novellas this year, but I confess that I have little sympathy when an author pushes to get their work nominated for a prestigious prize when it isn’t anywhere near the high caliber of writing showcased by fellow nominees in the category. Fire Ant is the novella equivalent of the umpteenth sequel to a popcorn movie. Blandly entertaining enough while you’re consuming it, but forgotten shortly thereafter.
1. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Leckie is the second author this year (along with Kiersten White) to appear on my most disappointing 2019 reads list after having one of my favourite reads in a previous year. I LOVED Leckie’s sci-fi Imperial Radch trilogy and her standalone set in the same universe (titled Provenance), so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her first foray into fantasy, but The Raven Tower‘s glacially slow pace made this one a challenge to get through. I continue to admire Leckie and respect her attempt to do something completely different with the genre, but the experimental nature of the novel (which is told from the perspective of a god who exists across time in the form of a rock) did not work for me at all. The distracting second person tense keeps readers at arms length from the characters so I was never able to connect with them and it’s about 250 pages longer than it should be. As a novella The Raven Tower could really have been something, but as a novel it’s just a snoozefest.
What were your most disappointing reads of 2019? Let me know in the comments!