I feel like I haven’t had a good rant in a while, so when I came across the following review of Theft of Swords on Strange Horizons and skimmed all of the comments in response to that review, I felt like I needed to get my rant on.
To review is to provide an opinion, an appraisal based on a set of criteria that is personal to the reviewer. I like books that are fun, set in strange places, and full of colourful characters. If you want to call a book garbage, you should provide evidence based on the criteria by which you judge a book. Similarly if you want to provide lavish praise of you new favourite book, tell me why you think it is deserving of your lavish praise.
In the Strange Horizons review, reviewer Liz Bourke says the book is rubbish and one of the worst books she has ever read. She then goes on to provide evidence of why she thinks it is one of the worst books she has ever read. And that should be fine with everyone, because if you apply her criteria for what makes a good book then you will see that Theft of Swords does not perform so well. If you apply my criteria for what makes a good book then you will see that Theft of Swords performs quite admirably. We are different people, we have different tastes, and it is differences like this that make us unique individuals, a quality that should be celebrated.
For reviewers like myself and Liz, writing a scathing review of a very popular book makes the fans of that book very angry. They take it as a personal affront, a well publicised article that calls them stupid for liking a book that they shouldn’t, and they come together from all corners of the internet to vent their fury via the comments section. Rarely do they try and understand the reviewer’s criteria or point of view, more often they accuse the reviewer of bias, accuse them of a failure to understand what the book is all about, or assert that because the reviewer does not like the given genre they are not qualified to have an opinion on the genre. They do not want to engage with the reviewer on the content of the review, they want the reviewer to change their core values so that they align with their own values.
For me the choice is easy, find a reviewer whose values you can relate to, and appreciate that other people have different values. Liz is well within her right to review the book, and for those share her values (ie. the regular readers of Strange Horizons) the review will act as a handy guide not to bother with that book. This is not a bad thing, and for the author Michael Sullivan, he now knows if he wants to appeal to the target audience that Liz is a member of, he will have to fix all the issues she identified with the book.
In the end I had a couple of problems with the review, not that she disagreed with me, but because of her not so subtle attack on a group of people based on their personal choice, and her lack of consistency. It can be hard for people to see past the emotion when they see something like “I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy”. In this case Liz has gone away from critiquing the book based on her own person criteria and has decided to take aim at a group of people because they dared to have a different opinion to her.
As for her lack of consistency, it appears that after reading a few of her previous reviews the criteria Liz used to judge Theft of Swords is not the same as what she has used to judge similar books in the past. Consistency is a very important part of being a reviewer as it demonstrates a level of competency and integrity, instilling a measure of worth in your reviews. If you are the sort of person who will change your criteria to give a book a bad review because you disliked it that much, how are people supposed to take stock in the words you write? You will find people quickly losing respect for your reviews, and to be honest how could you ever feel satisfied providing an opinion on something when absolutely nobody is willing to respect it?