Sunday, June 18, 2006

Reviews of historical fiction, Part II

Continuing the topic of historical fiction reviewing, here are 5 of my pet peeves, in no particular order.

1 - Spoilers. I admit it, I take spoilers personally (probably a weakness on my part). I consider myself a potential reader for many novels whose reviews I read, and if there's something there that destroys rather than enhances my future reading experience, I get upset. In cases when I'm unlikely to read a novel myself, I put myself in the shoes of potential readers and guess what their reaction would be.

An example - I once received a review of a 20th century war novel that said the brilliant, heroic protagonist would die in a fiery plane crash on the very last page. Sometimes these things are foreshadowed in the novel's introduction, but this one wasn't. Most spoilers are not so blatantly obvious, but it's always better to blur the details. In this case, it would've been better to say that the dramatic finale would shock readers, or something similar. The reviews in Kirkus occasionally give away major plot developments, so I'm wary about reading them if I think I might read the book later on.

With historical fiction, well-known historical facts aren't spoilers... people generally know what happened to Anne Boleyn, the Donner Party, etc. With lesser-known or fictional characters, I'm much more careful.

(Sometimes, I admit, I do sneak peeks at a novel's ending, either because I'm curious or because I'm bored and want a reason to keep reading. But that's my decision.)

2 - Overly pedantic reviews. One reader's historically sensitive review (see previous post, point #3) is another reader's pedantry; historical inaccuracies that bother one person may not bother another. It depends on the reader's own historical background, how forgiving s/he is toward errors, and how big the errors are. As I've said, I appreciate reviews that point out major historical blunders, ones big enough to draw a reader out of the story. (Insert disclaimers here about the many different ways history can be interpreted, the presence of authors' notes that explain how an author diverged from history, etc., etc.)

But with regard to errors in particular, let's not go too far, especially in reviews restricted by length. I don't expect reviewers to read with a specialized dictionary in hand, in the hopes of catching the author in a mistake. Pomposity in reviews often has me siding with the poor beleaguered author.

3 - Too much personal information, either about the reviewer or the author. Again, most reviews have limited space. It's helpful for readers to know, for example, that Innocent Traitor is Alison Weir's first work of fiction after writing many historical biographies. It's not as helpful to know that Joe Author retired from his longtime insurance job and discovered a 2nd career as a novelist while living on his houseboat in the Florida Keys.

4 - Reviewers with an axe to grind, or other obvious mismatches between reviewers and books. The New York Times (as well as other broadsheets) knows that the former often results in entertaining reviews. And so it does. But as a reviews editor, I try to avoid these situations - when I know about them, that is. I don't want to send feminist biblical reimaginings to reviewers who are religious purists, because I want the book to get a fair reading. The Booklist Online blog - take a look at the June 8th entry - has a really interesting piece on the art of matching books to reviewers.

5. - Reviews that demonstrate that the reviewer didn't "get" the book. I'm continually surprised, for instance, at the number of reviews from Publishers Weekly that review mainstream historical novels as if they were historical romances. Examples (which lead to the Amazon pages with the PW reviews): James C. Martin's Push Not the River and Anne Easter Smith's A Rose for the Crown. Both have romantic elements but are not genre romances. The overall review of the latter wasn't bad, but no novel about Richard III's relationship with his mistress will have a happily-ever-after ending; is this any big shock? The PNTR review got several other facts wrong, including the author's gender (noted by bracketed text in the Amazon version).

OK, whining mode off. Questions: what bugs you in reviews of historical fiction? Would the factors I listed above be turnoffs for you as well?


  1. I agree with you on all five. i think my greatest dislike is the content-free review - those that just repeat the blurb, or that say either "Wow, fab, five stars, couldn't put it down!" or "Really boring, don't waste your money on this" without saying why.

    I hope I manage to avoid these pet peeves when writing reviews!

  2. Yes, I don't like those types of reviews either (wouldn't dignify them with the name "review," either). When I see them on Amazon, I always wonder if those people are either personal friends or enemies of the author. I enjoy all of your reviews!

  3. I also agree with all five-- especially as to reviews where the reviewer spends a great deal of time talking about himself or herself. I don't often see these types of reviews in regard to historical fiction, but they do seem to crop up fairly often in newspaper book review columns.

    Somewhat along the same lines are reviews where the reviewer spends so much time going on about other topics that there's nary a word about the book supposedly being reviewed.

  4. You've pretty much highlighted my main beefs with historical novel reviews. Just hope I haven't violated any of these, especially your point about pedantry. I've been known to lean that way a couple of times, though I do try to eliminate it from any reviews I write.

  5. Nope, I don't think so. But sometimes I've read reviewers who act like they're officers on the anachronism police force. Not talking about HNR in particular!

  6. Just to assuage any worries that I was referring to anyone in particular (esp. HNR reviewers) with my remarks on pedantic behavior, here's an example of what I meant. There's are several negative reader reviews on Amazon for Amanda Elyot's The Memoirs of Helen of Troy (which I thought was a fun read) that appear to have been written by nit-picky academics*. One reviewer gets all huffy and complains that the novel was historically inaccurate because the author gets the mythology wrong. Well then! Another gives up on the novel at the prologue because "since the Mycenaeans of that time only used Linear B script to make inventory lists, Helen could not have written the story of her life."

    This is pedantry. You can see the noses in the air. I don't know why these people read historical fiction in the first place.

    *As an academic myself, I can research with the best of 'em, but save it for your peer-reviewed journals, people.

  7. Ah, I see your point now :-) And yes, the bit about Linear B is going waaaaay too far. But I think if you're going to use mythology in a novel, you should try to get it right - otherwise you're just ASKING for academics to stick their noses in the air!

  8. Thing is, with regard to Helen, there are several versions of the mythology, and she's not exactly a historical character. It's fair to say that Elyot's interpretation is nontraditional, but some of the Amazon reviews take it much further than that. Reviews that equate adherence to Homer with historical accuracy don't really fly in my book. :)

  9. Since the Mycenaeans of that time only used Linear B script to make inventory lists, Helen could not have written the story of her life."

    Oh dear, that's wrong even on an academic level. We've only found inventory lists so far, but that doesn't mean there could not have been other texts as well. Every archaeologist and historian should know how damn incomplete the material is.

    *says she and goes back to the incomplete lists of Roman officers stationed at the Wall*

    I can make some up, though. :p