My (probably) last post in the Judging Before Reading series! I wanted to end on a positive note, so today I’m talking about buzzwords, those words that, if they’re associated with a book, make me more likely to read a it.
All of these buzzwords are genre-specific. I wrote this post thinking about fantasy, science fiction and maybe contemporary fantasy/magical realism; I have no interest in any of these things in contemporary, with the exception of creepy forests and atmosphere (…every book should have an atmosphere, because I say so).
Fantasy books with weak and uninteresting villains? Boring.
It’s so much easier to write the villain as an unfeeling, flat person (who acts more like a thing) with whom the reader isn’t meant to empathize at all. The protagonist is never tempted to go down that path, and if they are it never feels genuine, and you know it’s not going to happen. The heroes are good, the villain is bad, and if the heroes aren’t good, then they’re still without a doubt better people than the villain. I want books that make me question that.
[I think one of the many reasons The Grisha is more polarizing than Six of Crows is that in Six of Crows there’s never any reason to doubt even for a moment that the villain might have a point.]
If I hear that a book has an interesting villain who is at the same time somewhat right but also very wrong, I want to read that book. If I hear that a book involves the hero questioning whether they should ally with the villain (or maybe they even do that! I love when that has terrible consequences), I want to read it. Especially if there’s a villain romance involved. Make them kiss and still try to kill each other, cowards.
Some of my favorite examples of villain romance are the Jayd/Rasida side of the love triangle in The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley, the Asmodeus/Thuan plotline in The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard, and the Darkling and Alina from The Grisha. Also, of course, a certain something from Ninefox Gambit, but I won’t spoil.
[If you know any villain romance books, please tell me. I know four, maybe five of them and I need more. I don’t care if they end up together or the villain remains a villain and gets killed, I like both options, I just want more]
I don’t know how many of you know, as I’ve talked about this on here before, but I have a very unlikely plant-related phobia and reading about creepy, eerie forests is my version of haunted houses or whatever people find really scary and fascinating in horror books (for me, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a horror book).
Even if it weren’t for my dendrophobia, I would probably love this. I like spooky books, especially atmospheric ones, and there are few things as atmospherics as forests. I remember After the Woods by Kim Savage not for its plot or its characters (even if I did like the main character) but because of the beautiful, mysterious descriptions of the woods. I also recently loved the forest from Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton.
…Anything Involving Plant Magic, Really
It doesn’t have to be scary! I’ll love it even more if it does, but anything involving plants and magic together is great. Botanical magic is a great concept and not enough books agree with me. The fact that I still haven’t read a witchy book in which the witches actually seem to know something about botany makes me sad.
One of the main reasons I loved Wild Beauty was the way the magic was tied to flowers, and in The Secret of a Heart Note, the main character uses plants to make magical perfumes and it’s one of the most beautiful and wholesome books I’ve ever read.
Women in Science
For all my life, I have cared about useless facts about marine animals just as much as I care about books, and I am the kind of person who can spend hours staring at tide pools trying to understand which species of blenny live there. I’m also an underwater photographer.
To see women who love science – it doesn’t have to be marine biology, I love reading books about magical female mathematicians even though I hate math – in SFF books means a lot to me. We aren’t just princesses or witches.
One of my favorite books I read this year is Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan McGuire, which is marine biology horror, featuring a bisexual marine biologist as one of the main characters. It has so many small details I loved – find another book that mentions carcinization! – and I didn’t even mind too much when it got things wrong. Another book I read and loved is Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, in which there’s a flashback scene following the main character as she stares at tide pools. This is relatable content, even though the biologist from Annihilation is probably the last person I’d want to find relatable, ever
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang follows a woman whose superpower is math, and while I didn’t love the book itself, I loved her and her magic a lot.
This is my #1 contemporary fantasy buzzwords. I just find this trope fascinating – I love books that get that kind of “liminal” atmosphere of forgotten places and almost-haunted houses without ending up in straight-up horror territory.
My all-time favorite example of this is The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz, a story that revolves around a building in which every person is the best version of themselves – and people can create the best art ever in it, but they can’t take any of that outside. It’s about fantasy and reality through a magical building metaphor, and I love it. Another magical building book is A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, which I read just because it involved this trope, and it had all the vaguely creepy atmosphere and mystery I wanted it to have.
Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter also counts for me, because most of it is set inside a forgotten, cursed store that walks around Brooklyn on chicken legs. And that’s not even the weirdest part – there’s resurrection of a dismembered body via soft drink in this book!
There’s something darkly fascinating about mass murderers in SFF. This is the kind of thing I would never want to read about in a contemporary book, but for some reason, I’m drawn to them in fantasy and sci-fi. Especially if the book at some point makes you wonder whether the murderer isn’t the worst person in the room. It’s just. I love it when books deal with morally messed up situations, a lot.
The first time I saw this trope was in Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, in which mass murder is just one of the many weapons one of the characters will use to maintain control after seeing so many magical users slaughtered just because of their powers. That character is wrong and what he does is horrible, but without them Ravka would have ended up like Fjerda, and would that have been better? It’s a really interesting discussion.
My favorite example of this is of course Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, which I read because its premise promised mass murder and extreme questionable morality. And did it deliver. If you like villain content and situations in which everyone is wrong and doing the “good” thing will make things worse (but in space!), read this. I love this mass murder magic math book.
I wrote a whole post on that! Magical schools are never boring. Even in books I disliked that had that aspect – like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang or Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko – I still ended up liking the magical school to some degree. I fell in love with this trope with Harry Potter and I have loved all the vaguely similar settings ever since.
Some of my favorite examples are the Little Palace from Shadow and Bone, the Sweet Mercy Convent from Red Sister, and the weirdest boarding school ever written, the Gabadamosi Preparatory from Temper by Nicky Drayden.
I read a lot. Many books feel the same after a while. But weird books? They’re the best. I love nonsense and I love when SFF breaks tropes and boundaries. Even when I end up not liking the book because it was too weird even for me (Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko is an example) I am still glad I read it.
Some of the weirdest books I’ve ever read that I haven’t already mentioned in this post are: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente, a “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” told through transcribed fragments of films; The Wicker King by K. Ancrum, a maybe-not-so-contemporary book about messy teens and a broken reality; and Too Like the Ligthning by Ada Palmer. The last one is what happens when your novel is 90% worldbuilding and basically the book equivalent of a 18th century philosophy shitpost.
They make no sense. Please read them.
Why should I read something if I end up having no sense of setting? I’m not here to read a book that feels as if it were floating in blank space. That’s my main problem with more than half of American contemporary books: they assume I already know how the setting looks like and don’t bother describing it.
Anyway, I love when I feel as if I were there with the characters, when the world feels alive and not just a barely sketched background. I’m more likely to read a fantasy book if it’s described as atmospheric, because I’m willing to forgive a lot if the writing and descriptions are nice enough.
Some of my favorite atmospheric books are The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, a novel set in a mysterious kingdom inspired by Hindu mythology, and When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, young adult magical realism at its best. And one of the main reasons the Tensorate series worked for me is that – at least during the first two books – the setting is always really vivid and beautiful.
Do you know any books involving some of these? (Especially quality villain content, I always need that). Are any of these some of your buzzwords/anti-buzzwords?