Here’s the thing about having been a reader for over fifty years, one sees a lot of patterns. It’s tough to take me by surprise any more. And that’s okay. Some patterns are pleasurable. I see them, and that sparks anticipation. But there are some patterns, or tropes, that have done their duty, and I pass them by.
This is NOT to say “these things are bad.” Or that readers who like them are knuckle-dragging cromuloids. For purposes of discussion only, here are ten things that don’t get me to pick up a book. If you agree, great, and if you don’t, I am always open to suggestions that will convince me to make another try.
1. Monsters. I just don’t care about monsters. Never have. Giant apes? Yawn. I never saw Jurassic Park, and never will. Monsters bore me right out of the room. They are probably smelly, definitely ugly, and they have no social grace, or they wouldn’t be monsters. I skim all monster fighting scenes, figuring in most stories Our Heroes come out fine, and if a redshirt croaks, okay, I didn’t need the details anyway, because monsters never munch with grace.
2. Serial Killers. Maybe this should be part of monsters, except that these ones wear clothes and talk. I don’t get the current thing for serial killers. Are they a result of consumers’ wish for even more, better, nastier shock and gore? Serial killers bore me because they aren’t about anything else but serial killing. You know what they’re going to do. In a really gross story, you know what they’re going to eat. All I want out of a serial killer story is the last page, when the killer is dead. I don’t want to read anything before it, especially (as happens way too often) their victims are helpless females. Even less do I want to watch TV about them: I loved Heroes until the end of the first season, when they didn’t get rid of that boring serial killer. I would watch Criminal Minds if the storyline was about those clever, driven people NOT talking about serial killers.
3. Destiny. Especially as a motivation for heroes. A title that has Destiny or Fate in it is kind of like a spoiler, because doesn’t “destiny” not only supersede any normal human emotion, it gives away the ending? Of course you can have a villain who feels it’s their destiny to conquer the world, and there are some other twists on the whole destiny trope, but most of the time it seems a convenient excuse to get quest tales going. I suspect that quest tales are mainly for the young, as they are so visceral a metaphor for venturing out into the world to make one’s place. I certainly loved quest tales when I was young, but these days, about the only one I still reread is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and that’s because I keep finding hidden pockets of wisdom in the corners alongside the quest.
4. Elder gods. Immortal elder gods cause me to skim when they pretty much act like humans, with human interests, views of time and love and hate and fashion. They have all those powers that they use in unimaginative, essentially human ways. Especially if one of them is a lurky, mean, sneering jerk for no particular reason who everyone gangs together to lock in a closet for a few thousand years, so when he pops out in the Prologue he’s really, really pissed and bent on single-minded vengeance. By then his secret name is Toast–it’ll just take 600 pages apiece in three volumes to crisp him–and I am not his reader. However, there are some elder gods whose depictions do catch and hold my interest, like those in Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series.
5. One-channel magic. So magic exists in this world, but what does it do after all those years of study? Throw fireballs at the enemy, and maybe pop up some monsters if you’re an Evil Mage. That’s it? Oh yes, withering fire, maybe a tsunami that drowns the enemy army. That’s it? After years of study? Does it fix the roof? No. Does it get shoes for all those peasants in their picturesque hovels just below the Mage Tower? No. How about a reddi-meal, even a crappy one that at least keeps you and horsey going? No? A spell to ease your gut if you eat too many pickled eels? No, you say, fireballs only? Next channel, please.
6. Kings who don’t king. I like kings and queens. They’re decorative and interesting. They’re supposed to be decorative and interesting, isn’t that part of kingship? But the other part is actually being king. That means if they aren’t putting in some serious king-time, I want to know who’s holding up the throne. Kings who languish around all day moping after their sweeties aren’t really kings, they’re figureheads. Show me who’s ruling, because that’s probably where the story really lies.
7. Evial Red Priests. I get it that a lot of writers hate organized religion. But I’ve gotten it for forty years. It’s not news, nor is it shocking or edgy. There are far too many books in which the entire purpose of the church is oppression and nothing else–no liturgy, poetry, music, art, plays, debate, no social services, however rudimentary. No sense that there are good or indifferent priests, creative ones, visionary ones, savvy ones, conflicted ones–they all seem to be child-molesting, racist, sexist, narrow-minded nasties. And our heroes are heroes because they are postmodern determinists. I particularly dislike that trope in historical novels: the heroes are all enlightened postmoderns, and the villains believe in that particular era’s paradigm.
8. Primitive Utopias. I am totally behind environmental awareness. I completely agree that consumerism as an end in itself is a crazed lifestyle not conducive to happiness. But. When I read books wherein the young heroine (it’s usually women) find a totem animal and become a shamaness in a primitive village, and the story is imbued with how equal everyone is, how simple and perfect and wise this world is just because everyone is in tune with nature, I wonder who hasn’t been out of the easy chair in months, maybe years? Primitive life isn’t comfortable, it’s maybe a step above basic survival. Primitive life means it’s hard to keep clean, hard to keep warm, hard to stay fed without something really nasty getting in your innards, and then you really wish the facilities weren’t primitive. A realistic primitive life story might gain more of my respect–but not my interest. I have to admit my interests lie with art and with evolving civilization.
9. Elves. It’s a rare book whose elves cam make me forget the elves in Tolkien, Warner, Pratchett, and Elizabeth Marie Pope, the latter of whose elves seem to have inspired a lot of the current urban fantasy elves one and two generations back. The lack of interest also goes for the Sidhe, if all they are is pretty but petty. I saw enough of that in high school.
10. Special Animal Companions. I loved these stories when I was a kid, but when I realized that despite their wisdom, powers, kindness, compassion, and overall goodness these Companions never actually got to have lives, I lost interest. When their every waking moment is devoted to the emotional as well as physical welfare of their human mate, isn’t that a working definition of slavery?