As usual, these books are presented in ascending order of their stinkiness.
- Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (review)
This was one of the three books I read in preparation for my review of the Hugo-nominated novels. I wasn't hopeful about this endeavor, but Saturn's Children, a parody of Heinlein's Friday in which a sexbot tries to find a reason for her existence after humanity's demise, still managed to sucker-punch me. This is an unholy mess of a book, bloated well past the point of being even vaguely recognizable as a novel by a relentless litany of information that lacks even the elegance of a common infodump and drowns out its plot and characters. Either an unfunny comedy or an absurd and unbelievable straight-faced story, Saturn's Children squats in the uncanny valley between these two modes, making for a punishing, seemingly interminable, and utterly inert reading experience.
- Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (review)
I expected to dislike Little Brother on the grounds of its well-publicized didacticism, but found to my surprise that it actually holds together as a work of fiction, and that though Doctorow lacks Neal Stephenson's skill of making infodumps interesting, he has at least made the ones in Little Brother easily skippable. No, what makes Little Brother one of the worst books I've read this year is its appalling message. The book's premise--teenager Marcus Yallow is imprisoned and tortured by Homeland Security for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and vows revenge--comes off like a self-satisfied, self-congratulatory fantasy of suffering in the name of a good cause, but it's Doctorow's choice to use that premise, and the very real abuses it riffs off, as the means of achieving the self-actualization of a privileged, middle class white kid that truly rankles, and it's Marcus's obvious prioritization of revenge on the people who have humiliated him over the well-being of the friend whom they still hold in custody that turns Little Brother into a morally bankrupt novel. It is mind-boggling to me that anyone thinks this book has a valuable message for children.
- The Magicians by Lev Grossman (review)
It's interesting to note that the further we go down this list, the better written the books on it become. On a technical level, The Magicians is quite readable, and in its first half even enjoyable. I confess that had Grossman not leveraged the book's publication into a series of statements and essays about literature and genre that made him sound like a pompous ass, I might not have named The Magicians the year's very worst book. But it still would have ended up on this list, on the strength of its complete and total lack of strength. The Magicians is a novel that rests on the shoulders of giants and pretends to have climbed Everest. Whether he's mimicking C.S. Lewis in his creation of a Narnia analogue with which the book's characters become obsessed (and leaving out that series's religious component, which is essentially to render it meaningless) or writing a Harry Potter pastiche when he describes the magical school at which they live (and ignores even the flawed and partial gestures towards social realism that peppered Rowling's novels) or following in the footsteps of authors like Susanna Clarke, China Miéville, and most of all M. John Harrison when he tries to imagine the meeting of the magical and the mundane (which he parlays into an excuse for his characters to feel sorry for themselves despite the fact that they are young, beautiful, powerful and rich) Grossman seems blissfully oblivious of how far short he's falling of the works he's chosen to emulate. That obliviousness permeates the novel itself, which is so smugly satisfied with itself for positing a meeting between Harry Potter and the drugs-and-sex college experience that it fails to notice that nothing comes of that meeting. The novel's cowardly ending, which sells out what little gravitas it had accumulated by introducing a consolatory escape hatch from reality, is the final twist of the knife that makes The Magicians a complete waste of the reader's time and energy.
- Benighted by Kit Whitfield
- Just After Sunset by Stephen King
- The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington