Sometimes negative reviews are the most instructive. So that seems like as good a reason as any to bash on all your favorites sci-fi and fantasy classics, right? More seriously, everything on this list has something to recommend it, and me not liking it doesn’t mean that it won’t work for you. And because all taste is at least somewhat idiosyncratic, I’m bound to dislike books that you like. But if you find that I dislike several classic titles for similar reasons to you, perhaps that’s a sign that our tastes are reasonably aligned, and books I like may work for you. And if I’m rejecting books you love, hopefully that will illustrate areas where you might take my reviews with a grain of salt. Either way, here are some well-loved titles that didn’t hit for me.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
Probably the best-known adult fantasy this century, and there’s good reason. The character-writing is excellent, we get inside the heads of people who may be villains in another story (or perhaps in this one), there’s plenty of intricate political plotting, and the willingness to kill prominent characters gives the plot some real uncertainty. So what’s the problem? As the series progresses, it starts to feel like shocking readers with deaths or fakeout deaths has become an end and not a means, and the story starts to meander in ways that make me doubt as if the author is going to be able to pull it back together. I liked The Wheel of Time, so I can handle meandering. But when it starts to feel like meandering to no end, that’s when I start questioning the investment. The series also does a really awful job portraying any cultures other than the British-inspired ones, and the content warning list is pretty much: all of it. There’s still some quality here, and I wouldn’t discourage someone from starting the series, but only if they’re prepared for what is likely to be a disappointing (or non-existent) finish.
Sabriel by Garth Nix
I’m going to make myself feel old by calling this 1995 novel a work of classic YA, but it’s pre-Harry Potter, so it is what it is. It’s loved for a female protagonist that actually *starts* competent and powerful, plus a snarky animal companion. It probably felt fresh when it came out, but reading it 25 years later, I just feel like the main character gets dragged around by the plot and doesn’t get to do much shaping of events. Plus snarky animal companions aren’t really my thing. Your mileage may vary.
Dune by Frank Herbert
It’s a space fantasy classic, with some really fun concepts and a fantastic desert setting that has influenced genre classics from Star Wars to The Wheel of Time. It’s also the first novel I remember reading where the prose was stilted enough to pull me out of the story. If you read a sample and find the style works for you, I’d recommend giving it a shot, but it didn’t work for me.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I’ve seen this described as an atheist Chronicles of Narnia, and like Narnia, it starts strong before fizzling out at the end. But unlike Narnia, the series has an overarching plot, which makes it hard to just pretend the last book doesn’t exist. This is a much-loved trilogy that appears on “best of” lists all the time, so lots of people read it differently. But I think the last book loses the actual story and devolves into a preachy mess.
The Left Hand of Darkness or A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
A sci-fi feminist classic that drew wide acclaim outside of genre fiction and a classic coming-of-age fantasy. And yet neither really clicked for me. I can see the author’s skill as I read, but they’re written in a style that makes me feel distant from the story and the characters. LeGuin is another author where I might recommend reading a sample chapter and seeing what you make of it. She’s good at what she does, but I have trouble connecting to her style.
The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle
My criticism of this is essentially the same as my criticism of LeGuin, which makes me think that I should just not try anymore genre classics written in the 1960s and lauded for their prose.
I will always appreciate the work he did to finish The Wheel of Time, but at the same time, I remain frustrated by his misreading of a couple key characters. He’s known for his development of magic systems and not for his character writing, which puts him outside of my preferences anyway, but his immense popularity was enough for me to try some of his solo work regardless. It was fine, but unexceptional outside of the magic system. I don’t plan to read more.
The Black Company by Glen Cook
A classic of dark, military fantasy that I read because it was a classic and not because I especially love military fantasy. The episodic structure made it really hard to follow the overarching story, and some of the famous personalities within the titular mercenary band didn’t really shine through in the first book. I felt things were improving towards the end, and I’ve heard that they continue to improve as the initial trilogy continues, but my enjoyment at the end of book one wasn’t high enough to keep going.