Want some irony?

Poking around online, I discover that Barnes & Noble’s website actually lists the Kirkus review for MNC, which I didn’t realize had come out already.

I’m ending my day with one hell of a contrast:

A hardworking, sanitized Elizabethan backdrop frames a tortuously passive yarn populated by lifeless characters: Mediocre stuff at best.

It really just makes me boggle. Two people read a novel; one falls over praising it, while the other finds it a remedy for insomnia. Did they read the same book?

It’s hard to understand how radically subjective our reactions to things can be. You’d like to believe there’s some such thing as objective quality, that everybody can agree on the technical merits or flaws of something whether it’s to their taste or not . . . but the truth of the matter is that our reactions are often more informed by subtle factors of preference and mood and what we had for breakfast that morning than they are by any supposedly objective criteria.

And then you’re just tempted to throw your hands up in the air and say, screw it. There’s no such thing as quality, just taste, and you might as well throw darts at a board blindfolded; reactions will be just that scattershot, no matter what you do.

Then you have to sigh, shrug, and go back to working on your stories, in the belief that there is such a thing as quality, and you’ll achieve it (or at least get closer) if you just work hard enough. All the while knowing that some reviewers will fall over praising the result, and others will find it a remedy for insomnia, no matter what you do.

(Those, btw, are the closing lines of the review; I’m not quoting the full thing because the rest is just a summary of the plot, though without any terrible spoilers.)

0 Responses to “Want some irony?”

  1. d_aulnoy

    You know, I’m generally pretty objectively live-and-let-live about differences in opinion, but I feel pretty comfortable saying this with the weight of several hundred book reviews behind me: a quick summarization followed by a transitionless slam? Not a reliable review ….

  2. anima_mecanique

    Plot summary? Ugh. Nobody writes good reviews anymore.

    Also…I haven’t read your book yet, of course, but knowing you and hearing you talk about your progress and research over these many months…I’d think ‘sanitized’ would be the last criticism someone would throw out there.

    Ah well. Time to make a standard critic joke and move on, I guess. I, for one, am very much looking forward to reading the result of your hard work.

    • Marie Brennan

      I did spend some time pondering that, and wondering what the reviewer was looking for. Graphic descriptions of filth in the streets? Possibly they mean that nearly all of the characters are gentleman-rank or better, which is something I’ve actually questioned myself. But the plot necessitated characters in a position to interact with high-level politics, so there you go.

      Anyway. Moving on.

      • anima_mecanique

        Actually, it reminds me of a particular class of gamer who is convinced that if you aren’t constantly wallowing in how terrible the past was compared to now, you’re not really playing an ‘authentic’ historical game. Of course, the people in the actual past have no such basis for comparison — it’s not as though people were mucking through the street filth on their way across town and wishing someone would get off their ass and build a sewer.

  3. kateelliott

    That’s a classic Kirkus review. I think the reviewers there must have to audition for a certain level of smug off-putting snarkiness.

    But – yeah – the contrast between reading reactions always amazes me. I guess that’s what makes horse races?

    • Marie Brennan

      Ah! See, this brightens my day. I don’t think I got a Kirkus review for my previous books, so this is my first encounter with them.

      The snarkiness reminds me of the Dallas Morning News movie reviewer Philip Wuntch, who apparently has seen every movie on the planet and therefore can tell you with assurance that whatever you’re watching was done better in an obscure 1973 French film, or wasn’t worth doing in the first place.

  4. Anonymous

    There is nothing boggle-worthy in people feeling differently about the same book. Part of it is taste and part of it can be, for example, need to relate.

    The need to relate IS something the writer cannot make happen to ALL readers – often the characters come to life when something in their description or reaction to life touches the particular reader (“Oh, the her also loves blood sausages! I feel like we should go and defend our favorite food together from the stupid badmouthers! I LOVE the writer for creating such a life like character who loves blood sausages!”).

    So, the reader who felt the fictional characters did not come to life for her /him may just have been an unsuitable one for that particular book!

    • m_stiefvater

      Ditto — maybe they were someone who didn’t dig historicals or didn’t dig fantasies usually. I’ve found in my experience that good books tend to get very polarized reviews — bunches of five stars and more than their fair share of one stars. The bad books are the ones that get a bunch in the middle. Not even bad enough for anyone to hate them. πŸ˜‰

      • Marie Brennan

        Maybe the way to phrase it is that stronger books provoke more polarized reactions, and you can’t be good without being strong. It’s the weak, forgettable stuff that nobody bothers to love or hate.

        • m_stiefvater

          Yes, definitely a better way to put it. All the strong books that I’ve loved have had a ton of great reviews — and some reviews so scathing it hurt me to read them.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s kind of what I was thinking — that for whatever personal reason, the Enjoyment Bus failed to pick up that reader when it drove by during the book’s beginning, and left them sitting on their front step for the next hundred thousand words. The characters didn’t move them, the plot didn’t interest them, and it all happened from page one, not over the course of the book. It’s a valid reaction, but the sheer intensity of the opinion startled me, juxtaposed so closely to the glowing PW review.

  5. takrann

    I believe 1000% that there is such a thing as quality, swan_tower, that it isn’t all relative, merely a matter of taste – for which there is truly no accounting for! There are universals in the craft that can be grasped, matched, modified and even perhaps improved upon.

    The best writers are those who are constantly burrowing away in that tunnel, alone, with evidence of those who have gone before and echoes of other writers in their own caves, burrowing away, always towards that point of light and total illumination. You sound from all of your posts and published accomplishments so far that you are well on your way.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, I’m not going to stop burrowing. But it’s been pretty well-established in psychological studies that it takes about fifteen pieces of praise to counterbalance one criticism, so getting knocked off one’s stride like this does lead to pessimistic philosophizing — at least for a while.

  6. matociquala

    It’s Kirkus. They hate everything.

  7. takrann


    I write reviews and I write fiction. I would never want to write a review that had a word count stricture on it, or some trite house-style (and thereby inherently compromised) encapsulation. And I know this much: I strive to write a detailed and constructive critique of what I am reading. But truth be told, even a comprehensive review ultimately costs little in intellect and effort to do, no matter how well informed. The same can’t be said of writing fiction.

    Most reviewing, it costs nothing to pontificate like that. When something can be achieved so lightly very often, you have to question if much of it has any validity at all.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, it costs as little to take cheap shots at something as it does to gush uncritically about it. (As evidenced by many critique groups in the world.)

      I do think, though, that good reviewing does take some work — which is why I appreciate it when I see it. Especially when working for something like a print magazine, that must impose strict word counts, or else severely limit the number of titles it can cover.

  8. mrissa

    My standard reaction to wide variations in reaction is the proverb, “If we all liked the same thing, just think of the price of oatmeal,” but as much as I like oatmeal, it’s really rather risky to compare someone’s books to the stuff. Even that indirectly.

    General idea remains, though.

    • Marie Brennan

      Of course. And I don’t expect everybody to like the same thing. But sometimes I do pause and wonder how such divergent reactions can happen.

  9. kristine_smith

    It’s true–Kirkus is a well-known snark factory.

  10. faerie_writer

    Unreal! I don’t get it either how two people can have such disparate views on the same book. It makes me wonder if the reviewer is a fantasy-hater. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s reviewers who review genres they don’t like to begin with and then trash the book.

    • Marie Brennan

      Can’t tell what this person’s usual tastes are, alas.

      It’s one thing I like about non-professional online reviewing: you’re generally guaranteed the person is reviewing in a genre they at least like to begin with. As opposed to the bigger operations, where sometimes they stick a person on a project because they need someone to do it.

  11. scottakennedy

    You’re in good company with that Kirkus review:

    β€œβ€¦ and the quest is again an uneven one as Severian, now journeyman Torturer, plies his trade and continues his wanderings.”
    –Kirkus Reviews for The Claw of the Conciliator

    “Though this is a more shapely volume, hero Severian’s wanderings remain mere travelogue, with no true Quest.
    –Kirkus Reviews for The Sword of the Lictor

    β€œA largely colorless, stolidly explicatory finale for the epic travelogue The Book of the New Sun. Emotionless, robot-like hero Severian…”
    –Kirkus Reviews for The Citadel of the Autarch

    So between the rave you got yesterday, the SFBC selection, and the bad Kirkus review, I can only assume the book is fantastic.

  12. kendokamel

    It sounds as though that reviewer wants to impress us with multisyllabic words…

  13. unforth

    What a strange dichotomy. I’d say go with majority rule, though that’s hard to do until you get some more. So Ego-Stroking Monday gets followed by Ego -Crushing Tuesday. πŸ™

    • Marie Brennan

      Majority rule is definitely on the positive side, as it happens, from my publisher to random users on LibraryThing. Apparently (as I’m told up-thread) Kirkus just hates everything, and I should move on with my life.

      • anima_mecanique

        Readers and listeners praise my books —
        You swear they’re worse than a beginner’s.
        Who cares? I always plan my dinners
        To please the diners, not the cooks.

        Or so Martial says, anyway. He was kind of a dick, but he had a way with words.

  14. wldhrsjen3

    Bah. It *must* be a good book to provoke such widely extreme reactions. πŸ˜‰

    I still can’t wait to read it. History and fantasy? *Perfect!* It may not have been the preferred style for the reviewer, but I am quite certain I’m going to love it! πŸ™‚

  15. alethea_eastrid

    Catching up, and popping in to say…

    Kirkus is snarky, opinionated, and seems to be particularly bad on sci-fi/fantasy (about three reviews per bi-weekly mag. Almost never starred.) They’re fun as hell to read, though, at least since I’m a librarian and not an author. Sometimes you do get a sense of “wrong book for reader,” which I certainly picked up from your review!

    That said, I handed the starred PW review to the gal who does our buying with a note saying “yes!” I’m the library director, and I’ve pulled that exactly twice in the nine months I’ve had the job–she knows her stuff, and while I read the reviews to keep up I don’t want to micromanage.

    Looking forward very much to snagging it fresh out of the box–something I’ve also only done once…

Comments are closed.