How to Review Books the EBR Way

Posted: June 12, 2012 in Editorial Tags: Elitist University
How to Review Books the EBR Way

I get asked on a weekly basis about my method for reviewing. Why? Heck if I know, but I like to think that all the questions mean I’m doing something right.

Recently, a friend of mine sent me an email detailing his thoughts on a book he had read based on an old review I’d written – SERVANT OF A DARK GOD by John Brown. Obviously, since he is an intelligent chap, he agreed with the review. One of his acquaintances, however, didn’t. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. Amazingly enough, people don’t agree on everything – a shocker, I know. I don’t have a problem with people not agreeing with me. Usually. Where my problem resides is when people think they are among the best of literary critics, and slam (or praise) a novel in defiance of any logical thought.

The disagreeable acquaintance – let’s call him… Terry? –  did a few things in his “review” that no reviewer should ever resort to (with very rare exception). I’ve learned a lot since I began seriously reviewing novels. I think I’m rather good at it, but all snark aside I recognize I have problems as well. Because I was whipped into a murderous frenzy over Terry’s “review,” I decided I should put down some rules that I (mostly) follow. Do with this what you will. If this helps the masses become elitist-level reviewers, awesomesauce. If not… uh… fine. Be that way. These rules are not laid out in any sort of order of importance. It was just as they came to me. Enjoy.

Rule #1: Regarding Contemporary Terms in Fantasy and SF
When authors write stuff, they often use words that are common and contemporary. It’s just easier. I’m talking about everything from profanity to slang to completely modern terms. Guys like Martin and Abercrombie get fingers pointed at them for using our modern profanity in their works.

Terry Example: Terry had issue with a character using the phrase “breaking and entering” in SERVANT, which is a fantasy novel.

Good Reviewer Logic: When reviewing a novel, complaining about contemporary terms really only matters in novels set on our present world, or in our world’s future or past. In other words, how do you know that the language in the fake, made-up universe of the novel you are reading didn’t evolve to use the profanity/terms you are reading? Did you grow up there? No. By this rule, all fantasy set on our earth should be written in Old-English. You want to be really technical and in theme? OK. The fictitious novel you are reading is obviously translated from elvish or Malazan so that we can understand it. That’s why we have similar terms. I can’t believe I even went there…

Exception: Now, if you are reading a novel set in historical England, and the author used the term “I can’t wait till I have a spaceship and fly to outside of our galaxy,” yeah, that’s a problem. Otherwise, deal with it.

Rule #2: Apples vs Oranges
Before this article continues,  I feel I should mention that I am not going to post the full review that Terry wrote. Why? Because that just feels classless, and that individual doesn’t know that it was shared with me.

Moving on.

You’ve heard the term before, correct? Apples Vs Oranges? Comparing two completely different things does not a good argument make.

Terry Example: To make matters worse, after Terry made reference to a fairly innocent term – “breaking and entering” – in a fantasy novel, he then compared its usage to Firefly. Because Firefly did it right. Or something.

Good Reviewer Logic: I love Firefly. To death. But what does a made-up SF TV show set in our world’s faaaar future have to do with a fantasy novel in a made-up world? Good grief. “The fantasy novel should have used Firefly’s method for terminology!” Uh huh. Instead, how about not condemning the fantasy novel for not using the phrase in your favorite TV show?

Terry Example #2: To take it further, Terry provided a grading scale.

SERVANT OF A DARK GOD got a C. Why? Because not only was it not GOING POSTAL, it wasn’t LOTR either. I’m not making this up.

Good Reviewer Logic #2: I have an idea. How about we compare similar genre/sub-genre novels to each other, not to stuff that isn’t even really in the same genre/sub-genre? Don’t ever say, “I didn’t like this novel because it wasn’t done by my favorite author.” Seriously, don’t compare Pratchett’s GOING POSTAL to any fantasy novel. It’s Apples vs Oranges. You may as well be saying, “I didn’t like Orson Scott Card because he wasn’t Jane Austin.”

Exception: If you are going to compare across genres/sub-genres, you have to be extremely specific. Write specifically about character development. Dialogue. You get the point.

Rule #3: The Author vs. the Novel Itself
Are we feeling like maybe Terry (whose name was change to prevent you all from grabbing torches and pitchforks) has done everything bad possible yet? I’m afraid it only gets worse.

Terry Example: Terry mentioned in the review I was sent (on the sly) that he did research on the author, John Brown. Looked up the author’s website. Looked up interviews. Terry apparently became very frustrated because the author never elaborated on where his inspiration came from beyond in general terms. He said his opinion of SERVANT OF A DARK GOD was lowered because of this. Right, because John Brown is obligated to write an epistle to Terry (because of how special he is) detailing his (Brown’s) every motivating factor when writing a novel.

In the words of the ESPN Football Commentators, “C’mon man!”

Good Reviewer Logic: 95% of the time, the author’s life should have nothing to do with your opinion of the novel. His life isn’t your business. His thought process isn’t your business. Where he gets his ideas (one of the STUPIDEST questions you can EVER ask an author) is… wait for it… NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. If he/she chooses to share that information, it will happen. Until then, stop being a tool.

Exceptions: I once witnessed a Big Name Author scream at the kid behind me in line at a signing. The kid (probably 12 years of age) purchased eight-to-ten books at the bookstore, then got in line for the author to sign them. Mr. Big Name Author began screaming, because how dare a young fan expect him to sign so many books (never mind Big Name Author had said at the start of the event that he would sign as many books as you brought). I left my copy of a just-signed novel on the table the author sat at and walked out. I don’t read stuff by him anymore

Sometimes you can’t help but bring the author into a review. But try not to unless you are making a strong point. Does the book represent the author selling out? Does the book make the author a complete hypocrite? But don’t bring simple crap in and say it made the book worse for you.

Rule #4: The Larry Correia Pet Peeve Rule
No strong Terry Example here, though I suppose it relates back very lightly to Rule #2. This was one of the many “other” rules that occurred to me while writing my rant. Plus I sit next to Larry Correia every day at work, so I hear this constantly.

Example (That I’m Sure Terry Is Guilty Of Somewhere): Don’t ever say the author should have written it the way you wanted. If you think the novel would have been better with flying squirrels and giant robots, great. Yay for you. But don’t say the author is crap for not doing what you wanted, your way. If you want a novel with that stuff in it, chances are you can find one. Or, go write one your-freaking-self.

Good Reviewer Logic: It’s one thing to say you could have used more description in the setting, and that the novel was hard to follow do to that lack of detail. It’s quite another to act like you could easily have done better. Right, because you are published where? No, Facebook status updates don’t make you a good writer.

Rule #5: Judge Each Book on its Own Merits
This is a really hard one to not trip up on. I do it all the time.

Example (That I’m Positive Terry Is Guilty Of Somewhere): Look at it this way: the last book you read was awesome. Now the current novel you are reading gets judged harsher for not living up to the last, unrelated novel’s awesomeness. The reverse also happens. The last book you read was bad on a Dan Brown level. Now your current reading material seems completely great in comparison. There’s a little of Rule #2 in here.

Good Reviewer Logic: If you fall into this trap, your review won’t be accurate. It happens. The best advice I can give is to write the review for a novel as soon as you’ve finished it, and before you read the next novel. Use the review to close off your experience with that book. This works for me 90% of the time, but it may not for you.

Rule #6: Careful With the Negativity
Example (That I’m Pretending Terry Is Totally Guilty Of Somewhere): It is easy to pick out where a book sucks. It really is. Steven Erikson is my favorite author, and even in my fanboy blindness it is easy to find things I hate. It is much harder to really judge a novel and find the good things in it that will appeal to different audiences. Remember, different strokes for different folks.

Good Reviewer Logic:  I don’t like KJ Parker at all, but I can see why other people do. Instead of saying I hate it, I’ll either upgrade it to mediocre, or let a person who appreciates KJ Parker read and review further novels by her. Are you the target audience of the novel? If not, maybe you shouldn’t review that book. If you have to review it, you should write your review with the target audience in mind. Who knows, maybe you’ll gain a new-found respect for that author.

One thing I learned when Joshua Bilmes (head of JABerwocky Literary Agency) was showing me how being an agent works, was that it’s easy to be overly critical. It’s hard to identify real promise.

Rule #7: Read the Whole Book – The Rule
Example (That Terry MUST Have Made At Some Point): Don’t ever, EVER write a review on a novel if you haven’t finished it. It doesn’t matter how much you loved or hated it. If you didn’t finish the book, you aren’t allowed to review it. Period. You can’t review the way a car drives just by looking at it. Imagine someone reviewing the movie Memento without seeing the ending. How stupid would you feel if you said how much you loved a novel, only to discover you hated the ending you hadn’t reached yet.

You could also call this the Rule.

Good Reviewer Logic: Didn’t finish the novel? Then you can’t comment on plot progression or character development. Likewise, don’t say everything an author does is awful based on a first novel of theirs that you didn’t finish. A common occurrence with Steven Erikson’s novels. Authors DO typically get better. You may have noticed that here at EBR we usually give authors a few novels before we quit on them. And we always finish the novel, no matter how much we hate it. True story: I quit on PERDIDO STREET STATION the first time I tried to read it. My tastes have changed over time, so I picked it up again and discovered I loved it. Until I’d actually finished it, I kept my mouth shut.


Those are the rules I typically live by. They get broken on occasion both by accident and on purpose. I feel slightly bad… oh whatever, I don’t feel bad at all… for using “Terry” as target practice. Hopefully “Terry” learns from his stupidity. I don’t care if he doesn’t agree with me, I just want him to not be a complete idiot. Guys like him make the rest of us look bad. If Cthulhu judges us all by him (Rule #2!!) the apocalypse will be coming any day…

Are these rules absolute law? Heck no. This is an opinion based blog. We write whatever we feel like and leave the rest up to you.

Steve Diamond
EBR Founder, Lead-Reviewer and Head-Editor


  • Bryce L. says:

    Nice list and great advice. I'll definitely be bookmarking this to keep myself in check.

    I agree with the rule up to a point – I feel like you can still “review” (really just comment), but you're right that you're not really allowed to comment on plot progression, etc. You can say why you put it down. For instance – PSS goes absolutely nowhere for the first 200 pages hence why I put it down. 😀

  • ediFanoB says:

    Your rules are helpful. I checked some of my reviews by using your rules and fortunately I follow most of your rules.

    I never review books which I did not finish. But I add comments to my blog or over at GOODREADS where I explain why I did not finish a book.

  • Woohoo! A great list. I agree on (almost) all points.

    As for the “not finishing a book and not being allowed to review it”… I don't quite agree. Sure, you can't say anything about the bits you haven't read. That should be obvious.
    But I believe if you say you haven't finished it and explain why, it will help other potential readers decide if they would find the book better.

    For example: If I say, the protagonist was a huge bitch and I couldn't take her supferficial character, that doesn't say the book is bad. That just lets the readers of my review know that I perceived the protagonist as a bitch. There are people who love reading about that kind of character and others who may be as put off as I was.
    So I think there should be an exception to that rule as well. Because you can tell after half a book if the writing style is to your liking or not. And depending on how far you get, you can make a somewhat fair judgement if the style is going to change.
    (I've only reviewed one book I haven't finished and I might actually pick that one up again… because despite what I just wrote, I do feel slightly guilty. Damn you, good reviewer conscience!)

  • guessingo says:

    I like your reviews because I can generally tell whether I have a good chance of liking a book irregardless of whether you liked it or not.
    I remember Roger Ebert saying he reviews films based on whether they do what they are trying to do. So if someone makes a zombie movie, Ebert may not like Zombie movies, but will give it a thumbs up if he thinks that it is a good Zombie movie and people who like Zombie movies will like it.

    I am guilty of the 'I wish the author wrote the book this way' thinking. I think it is human nature to do that. I understand that this is not appropriate in a book review. However, it just happens automatically. When I read the Hunger Games I kept thinking 'I really don't like teen books, I wish this was a dark adult book with more gritty detail'. I also realized that isn't what the author wanted to do and the book I would have liked would not be nearly as successful, but it would have made me happy.

    BTW, the one book you guys have reviewed that you raved about and I thought I would like from the review and did not is Garden of the Moon. I can't really put my finger on why I didn't like it. I really had to struggle to get through it, I did not find the characters really interesting or the story compelling. I just can't say why exactly.

  • guessingo says:

    When the Game of Thrones series came out last year, the New York Times had a really negative review of the series and the reviewer started with 'I don't like fantasy'. So even major publications screw up reviews.

  • @guess – That's our goal here. Give you a good idea as to whether you'll like a book or not. But even then, sometimes our picks won't jive with your personal tastes. That's what makes the variety in the word so awesome.

    As far as Gardens of the Moon goes, yeah, it's a tough read. My views on its awesomeness are more rooted in looking back at it after having read the series. I'd say give books 2 and 3 a shot before giving up on Erikson.

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