I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I’m reviewing books and I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m harping on the same thing over and over again, which leads me to the idea that there are a few central tenants to what makes a book amazing and what makes a book fall flat. With that thought in mind, I’m going to change the rating system, here at The Extravagant Platypus to reflect the things that strike me as most important. Everything will still get an overall rating of ink bottles with the maximum being five, but to allow for more flexibility, I’m going to allow myself half ratings, i.e. 4.5 ink bottles. I’ve had the inclination periodically to do that in the past, but for some reason stopped myself. No more of that, I say, we will have halvsies! Although the individual rating of the important things listed below have a bearing on the overall rating, it’s not strictly mathematical. For example, it doesn’t matter how beautifully written your book is, if your characters are flat then the overall rating is still going to be low. However, on the other side of that coin, if your characters are amazingly written, then a slightly lower score on language is more forgivable because it’s the characters that drive the story.
As to the things that I think are most important, here they are with my reasons for why I think this:
- Character believability: If I don’t believe the characters then getting through the book is going to be a slog, no ifs, ands, or buts. To be measured in Buffys, with a maximum of 5. It would have been so easy to make Buffy into an unbelievable character, but they never strayed. She remained hauntingly human until the bitter end
- Character investibility: I’ve separated this out because it’s possible to have a believable character who isn’t investible (see almost every character from The Flame Alphabet). Character investibility is one of the most important aspects of every book. If I’ve fully invested in the character, if I care deeply whether they live or die or see their dreamsfulfilled, then the book is a success. To be measured in Doctors, with a maximum of 5. Why Doctors, you ask? Because Doctor Who is one of the most investible characters I’ve ever had the privilege of laying my eyes upon. You need him to win. Every time. If he doesn’t win then the very nature of the universe has gone horribly awry.
- Pace/Urgency/Tension: all combined into one because although they’re slightly different they exist in the same realm. Pacing matters. If you question this, go read Eragon, then go read Cinder. They’re totally different genre-wise, but it’s the pacing that really sets them apart. To be measured in Dresdens, with a maximum of 5. Jim Butcher is thirteen books into the Dresden Files and they’ve all been filled with urgency and tension. He is the king of pacing.
- Worldbuilding: I’m talking about this in the broadest sense of the word. Whether it’s sci fi or fantasy, the worldbuilding has to be there or the story falls flat. If I can’t believe the world or if the author hasn’t put in the time necessary to truly make it come to life, then the whole book falls over in a clumsy flail. To be measured in Snyders, with a maximum of 5. Maria V. Snyder is a master of worldbuilding. She does it in such an effortless way that you don’t even notice it until you force yourself to stop and think about it.
- Language: I’m not talking about using one dollar words here. I’m talking about people who use the exact right language for their story. When the words illustrate a vividly wrought world and disappear allowing you to watch the story unfold before you instead of simply following shapeless words across bland white pages. To be measured in Feegles, with a maximum of 5. Terry Pratchett is a master of this. His language holds a richness that most people can only dream in. Few authors can make a book disappear as easily as Pratchett does.
- Mystery: regardless of genre, it seems to me that there’s always a hint of mystery to every plot line. Some question that goes unanswered until the very last page. It disappoints me to no end when I’ve guessed it in the first few pages. Therefore, the higher rating in this category is the author’s ability to keep me in the dark. If I’m left saying that I didn’t see that coming then the book is an utter success. To be measured in Sherlocks, with a maximum of 5. I can’t help it, Sherlock will always be my favorite detective. That shouldn’t need expounding upon.
I might add more to this list later. A few more options are swirling around in my head, but for now these are the major points I want to hit. For those who are busy, this should work as reasonable shorthand to find out some of the internal mechanics of the book if you don’t have time to read the full review. I’ll work on adding this system to all of the reviews I have the in the backlog. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Update: I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding for a week now, ever since I posted this little thesis on ratings, and I think my thoughts have finally percolated into something resembling cogency. Traditionally worldbuilding is seen as the process through which an author goes wherein they literally build a science fiction or fantasy world out of nothing more than their imaginations. Now, I don’t want to take away from the the sci fi/fantasy authors because I know how much time and effort goes into building a world from scratch. It’s daunting and mind numbing, to say the least. However, I do think that the concept of worldbuilding, and therefore it’s utilization as a rating system can be generalized to other genres, i.e., nearly all of them. You see, regardless of whether you’re reading a memoir or a mystery, the author created a world in which the story exists. I’ll give you an example. I’ve never been to Oxford, so I have no frame of reference in which to place the setting for part of Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles. Even if I had visited Oxford before, it wouldn’t have been during Fry’s tenure there. Therefore I am entirely reliant upon him to build Oxford for me out of thin air. This is why you will see me begin to apply worldbuilding to more and more genres. If I feel that the author has to conjure up a world for me, whether it be a bedroom in fifteenth century London or the world of a serial killer, they will get a rating. Let me know what you think in the comments.