I gave up on Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan this morning. This isn’t the first good book I just haven’t felt compelled to finish, and it got me thinking about WHY that is. What’s turning me off?
It’s certainly not bad prose, poor grammar, unappealing voice (a lot of the things that turn me off of books). It’s not 2 dimensional characters or Mary Suing or some other form of simplistic, lazy storytelling.
So what is it? What’s turning me off of otherwise good books?
A part of me would like to chalk it up to mood. Reading, for me, is very mood specific, and sometimes I’ll pick up something that’s just NOT what I’m in the mood to read. But in this particular case, that wasn’t it.
I’ve been listening to Leviathan in audio and the narrator is Alan Cumming, who’s wonderful. The worldbuilding in this book was marvelous, and I found myself very intrigued by the pitting of Darwinist fabrications against the Clanker technology. The set up of the two main characters held room for plenty of conflict. Prince on the run. Girl pretending to be a boy in the British military. And then the war started, the Germans attacked the Leviathan, a bunch of poor animals were killed because they were used as weapons, and I…did not feel compelled to find out if the dude that got shot was going to make it. Maybe a third of the way into the book (if that…maybe only a quarter), and I just didn’t feel the need to keep going.
So what went wrong? Well quite apart from the fact that this isn’t a romance (it’s not intended to be, so I’m not demonizing it for not being something it wasn’t supposed to be), I just…didn’t connect. I’m not invested in the characters. I like Deryn. I find Alek to be spoiled (to be expected of a previously pampered prince) and annoying. But while the worldbuilding was amazing, it felt…kind of thin on plot. I couldn’t readily identify what the FPP was, couldn’t really tell what was being worked toward, didn’t know how long I was going to have to wait for the two mains to be brought into the same storyline (probably this is my desire for romance, but I can only tolerate two independent storylines for so long before I expect them to merge). Probably this was about to happen sometime after I quit as the Leviathan was attacked over Switzerland and Alek and company were crossing INTO Switzerland last I checked, but…meh. I didn’t care. It got to the point where I felt like the book was all worldbuilding and little else. Doesn’t mean this is a bad book. Just wasn’t right for me.
Another book I started and haven’t finished is Days of Blood and Starlight, the much anticipated sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I adored. The prose is exquisite. The worldbuilding, again, rich and glorious. The characters 3 dimensional and interesting. I think what went wrong for me here is that it’s suffering from Second Book Syndrome. It’s the second book in a trilogy, which means the author has to MESS EVERYTHING UP ROYALLY (because this is what you do in a second book in a trilogy) and the fact that I know this is happening and I have to wait another YEAR for resolution just…made me not want to finish it. I’ll probably go back after book 3 is out and I can push through the whole thing.
There are others…trilogies I started and got through the first or second book and never got around to the third. Looking back at most of them, the culprit in almost every case is a focus on worldbuilding to the…not really the exclusion of plot and character but without strong enough plot and character to balance it. The worldbuilding is expected to carry everything and, for me, that just doesn’t fly. For a lot of people it does. A lot of these books are hella popular. But it’s something I think is worth thinking about as a writer.
Worldbuilding is important. No question about that. But it isn’t a substitute for plot. It isn’t a substitute for thin character development. They’re all sides of a necessary story triangle and they need to be equally developed to successfully carry the load of the narrative. Not saying I’m awesome at these things, just that they’re something I look for in what I read, what I finish. I think everyone has preferences. Some people really READ for worldbuilding and these sorts of books would work for them. For me, I read for character, so I’m more apt to let thin worldbuilding or a thinner plot slide if I really dig the characters. To each their own.
What makes YOU stop reading an otherwise good book?