It occurs to me that I haven’t established any metrics or official expectations that I hold books to on Down the Stacks. Time to fix that.
What does C.T. Vulpin expect from a book? What makes a book “good” in my opinion?
It should be Genre Fiction. Whenever I go to a public library, I immediately seek out the Science Fiction / Fantasy section. Given the books I’ve written about on Down the Stacks, this should be obvious. When I read a book, I want it to take me to a place that’s wholly unlike my own reality, not relate events that could actually happen. Fantasy stories fill my need the best, with Science Fiction at a close second, provided the Sci-Fi is imaginative enough. Include magic or technology that stretches the known bounds of modern science, and I’ll read just about any story.
The Plot must be coherent. Elements of magic and fantastic science are not an excuse to throw narrative logic out the window. Above all else, a book’s story must make sense: the events must fit together with logical cause-and-effect (although they need not be presented strictly in order), characters must react to events in ways that are consistent with their knowledge, abilities, prejudices, etc., and the climax and resolution must not come out of left field. Surprises are great, but the origin of the surprise must tie back to some detail earlier in the story. Most books that get published manage to get this right, at the least.
The Characters must grow. Nothing spoils a good story like a main character that doesn’t learn a lesson, undergo and overcome serious loss, or at least end up stronger and smarter by the end. A character that doesn’t grow needs to be perfectly capable of handling the climax of the conflict from page one, and if that’s the case then every page between the start and the climax is wasted paper. Characters that grow, or even those that end up collapsing, are people I can potentially get invested in, and their arc of change can pull me through an otherwise bland plot.
The World needs to live. And I need to see that world at work. The daily comings and goings, rich contextual clues to social structures, trade, military traditions, racial and international relations, and so forth, give so much depth and potential for incidental details that help flesh out scenes. I love worldbuilding in a story, but if push comes to shove I can get along without too much so long as the Plot and Characters are good enough. What frustrates me more is if I sense a deep, interesting world in a story’s subtext, only to see the story mostly ignore the fascinating details.
The Magic or Sci-fi Tech should influence the World. If you’re going to use some kind of magic, fantastic technology, or other unreal elements in your story, then those elements had better be an integral part of how the world works. A system of magic that is highly prevalent in a society will lead to things like magic-based markets, an elite social class of mages, a religion- or government-sanctioned oppression of magic, or anything that will make me believe I’m reading about a society where magic is real and has real effects on the world. Fantastic elements that are just slapped onto an otherwise perfectly mundane world will only feel out of place.
Any three of the above conditions done well can compensate for shortcomings in the other areas. For instance, neither Horatio Hornblower nor Jeeves and Wooster have a lick of magic in them, but the characters and engaging plots set in fitting worlds make up for them being historical and realistic Fiction, respectively.
That said, a truly horrid and inconsistent plot can tear down an entire book no matter how likable the characters or intriguing the Fantasy elements.