The Worst of 2020

Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… And here we’ll focus on the worst 😉 Or, to be more fair, just on the most disappointing for us personally, for as you will see, most of the works mentioned below enjoyed quite a lot of acclaim and following.

To be true to our title, we should probably start and stop this post at COVID-19, the wellspring of our woes (though there are a few hopeful signs along the way, from the evidence of effective and efficient trust-based cooperation above the national level to the human-caused limitation of greenhouse gases emissions). But as this is predominantly a book blog, with a small but significant addition of comics, TV series and movies, we feel we need to elaborate a bit and avoid easy finger-pointing.

As in the previous summary post, we wanted to divide our choices into a few categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Comics, TV Series; but as Non-fiction this year proved to be a major hit without any misses (YAY!), we’ll omit this category.

Ola’s Worst of 2020 in Fiction

Here the choices are easy, at least for me – though for many might seem quite controversial, as some of these books seem to have become fan favorites ;). But what can I say? By now you really shouldn’t be surprised by any of this 😛 So without further ado, here it is:

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

That’s the only book on this list that I wrote a review of; I felt this instant favorite of the bookish community deserved a critique, and whether I achieved the goal of making it measured and not just scathing, it’s for you to judge. So let me just quote the crux of my review here:

Nanking Massacre was a truly horrible event, an atrocity for which there can be no excuse. The world should learn more about it, so that it stops being a footnote in history books. But using it in a fantasy book as a plot device designed to further the main character’s evolution into a vessel for a demonic/demigod entity and as a rationale for her own acts of genocide seems beyond bad taste.

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass (2017)

Yet another fan favorite, a tale overflowing with djinns, magical cities, flying carpets, destiny, one spunky immensely irritating heroine (yes, her character is quite capable of overflowing basically anything with her consummate levels of stupidity and fullness of herself), a terribly boring and possibly rather distasteful romantic triangle (to be clear, I’m talking about incest or near-incest and not djinn-human relations)… What else could you want for? Did I mention it’s YA? It’s a tiny teeny fact I was not aware of before reaching for this book, so I guess I’m at least partly to blame, the contemporary YA is just decidedly NOT my cuppa.

I didn’t write a review, as I couldn’t find anything positive to say about The City of Brass, and the whole thing would be me alternating between frothing at the mouth and yawning with boredom. I believe djinns deserve a better treatment and I’m very curious about P. Djèlí Clark’s series.

John Gwynne, Malice (2012)

This book seemed to have everything going in its favor: the love of the blogging community (with the notable exception of Bookstooge, but I carefully read his reasons and concluded I should be fine ;)), the main theme (nephilim! angels! demons! fantasy alt-Medieval society! swords and sorcery! war!) Alas, to quote my Goodreads very short review,

Not for me. Maybe it’s get better later on, but at 190 pages I felt like reading an encyclopedia of most-overused fantasy tropes. The weirdly dualist religious setup didn’t help, either. Reading this book evoked in me a premonition of a horrible reading slump; I’m pretty sure that had I continued, I’d have a grandfather of all slumps on my hands – thankfully, Bradbury’s short stories came to my rescue. It wasn’t awful; just uninteresting, plodding, and very clunky. Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series seems like a clear inspiration – and it’s better than Malice in terms of character development and writing.

As I mentioned in the review, I might give it another chance – but not soon. And I’d change that lead line to one a bit more appropriate in my case: Even the avid will slumber…

Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)

A horrible, terrible, nauseatingly unoriginal Sherlock Holmes fanfic with angels. Need I say more?

Well, if you insist: a nearly scene-by-scene rewrite of The Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Sign of the Four (plus the author’s own sad musings on Jack the Ripper) where Sherlock Holmes is an angel, who depending on the author’s mood alternates between female and non-gendered, while Watson is a regular, most likely lesbian, female, and a hell-hound, who likes to dress as a male. Moriarty is a female too, and a vampire to boot, because why not? And all that queerness is totally irrelevant and brings nothing to the table because, firstly, you cannot improve Doyle even if you’re a great wordsmith (and this lies miles away from any wordsmithing, let me tell you), and secondly, if you want to create a believable fantastical Victorian London, you must put some effort into it beside just mashing up a bunch of old, tattered tropes.

As I wrote in a very short GR review (which I wrote for the purposes of the NetGalley agreement),

Interesting only as a case study for social anthropology research with its blanket gender reversal roles and zealous socio-political anachronism.

Ola’s Worst of 2020 in Comics

Oh, I’ve got quite a list here ;). Even though I lowered my expectations quite a bit when it comes to comics, I’m still surprised sometimes how bad they can be. I know, I know, when you need to write and draw a story every freaking month it takes lots and lots of nearly superhuman effort and a virtually unending source of creativity, so it figures that not every story can be good (if you want a glaring irrefutable proof of the slow painful suicide of certain comic books, just read Tom King’s run of Batman :P).

But even taking the above into account, some comics are worse than I at my most lenient and pessimistic could predict. Here’s the chosen few:

Benjamin Percy, Otto Schmidt, Juan Ferreyra, Green Arrow: The Death and Life of Oliver Queen (2017)

Green Arrow’s reboot is three things: meaningless, redundant, dumbed-down. The art clearly indicates that the age of the target reader group had been taken down a notch or two – and the storyline confirms it. I was never a big fan of Green Arrow, I’m of an opinion that Robin Hood deserves a better treatment than this weird modernized DC version, but even the DC’s Green Arrow had his good moments. Here – nothing of the good remains.

Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski, Bernie Wrightson, Pat Lee, Marvel Knights The Punisher: Purgatory (1998)

Those of you who know my comic book/popculture tastes know that I am partial to Marvel’s extremely violent antihero; his story has surprisingly deep foundations, from Greek myths to war trauma, and I’m always intrigued how his portrayal reveals certain aspects of American culture. But Punisher suffers incessantly, if not from the villains, then from his own creators. This story is a particularly illuminating example of the latter, in which Frank Castle, endowed with angelic powers, needs to fight not only with Hell’s most wicked servants but also with some mutant lethal abominations – or not? The story is painfully predictable, and the art is actually even worse; looks exactly like something dragged screaming from the dark ages of comics of the late nineties. I’ll be frank, Frank: you’d be much better off erasing this particular story from human memory.

Guillaume Dorison, Jean-Baptiste Hostache, Assassin’s Creed: Conspiracies (2018)

Truly terrible art, utterly redundant and truly unbelievably idiotic story – in short, a total waste of time. But if you want to see how not to draw or write comics, this is a perfect choice.

Simon Oliver’s run of Hellblazer (2017)

Constatine meets Sartre: Hell is other people, especially Simon Oliver. What did poor Hellblazer do to Oliver is anyone’s guess. But what Oliver did to John Constantine is a crime for all to see. I’d go as far as to say that Oliver outright castrated Delano’s troubled anti/hero, rendering him impotent, painfully boring and somehow incredibly stupid at the same time. I dragged myself through the first two issues and had to stop. If you want to really meet John Constantine, start with Delano’s original run: not all comics are good, but at least all of them have a dose of creativity, originality, and ambition.

Piotrek’s Worst of 2020 in Fiction

Well, there was nothing awful among my 2020 reads… with the possible exception of Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever, a book I disliked so much it mobilized me to write a review after a long break 😉 But I’m not discouraged, I’m going to read more space operas in 2021, and I’m going to finish Gladstone’s Craft Sequence one day.

I’ve read several Warhammer books this year, and they were generally decent fun. It was mostly Warhammer Fantasy, but also the first Commisar Cain novel that I really enjoyed. One thing was a disappointment though, and it should not be a surprise that it was a book inspired by a Warhammer RPG campaign I played twenty years ago – or so I thought, actually its title was the only connection. Richard Lee Byers’ The Enemy Within was just so boring and trope-ish, it did feel like a poor novelisation of a RPG campaign. In comparison with the other books I’ve read in 2020 – a waste of time.

The final part of my Bottom Three Reads of 2020 is a Polish novel, accessible to wider audiences in a form of HBO TV series. Blinded by the Lights was written by Jakub Żulczyk and its adaptation gathered some of our best actors. I haven’t seen it, because I read the book first – and lost what enthusiasm I had earlier. It seems interesting, being a story of a cocaine dealer in a dynamic, unforgiving capital of a country devastated by predatory capitalism. It was… too full of existential musings of the protagonist, a rather typical anti-hero at once evil and sentimental. The show might be better, simply because they probably had to cut most of the monologues.

Piotrek’s Worst of 2020 in TV Series

As far as the visual media goes, I managed to only watch stuff that was at least good. I’m careful with my time. There was one thing so bad it made me angry, especially as it destroyed really good source material – material already adapted into computer games. But Witcher TV shows sucks, and is way worse than the books and games alike.

So… I’m likely to carefully choose my distractions in 2021, because this approach seems to work :)!

Ola: I second that opinion, unfortunately. Being very picky in choosing my TV series this year paid off and my only real disappointment of 2020 was Netflix’s The Witcher. I still hope they’ll improve with the next season, but that hope is rather feeble and might not survive the clash with reality ;).

So, here it is. Our biggest disappointments of 2020 might yet turn into your favorites, so hopefully this post will serve in more than the one capacity of letting us spit and hiss and sharpen our claws ;). Though that was a bit of fun, too! 😀

80 thoughts on “The Worst of 2020

  1. Lol at “Reading this book evoked in me a premonition of a horrible reading slump.”
    And, oh man, sucks that Assassin’s Creed comic didn’t work out, like neither the writing or the art was good, smh.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah well, reviewing these gave me a measure of satisfaction I didn’t get by reading them so all’s well that ends well 😁

      There are some good AC comics too, so it seem that only this one is just such a bad egg 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, lots of well-reviewed books and series on your list. I haven’t read or watched them so I’ll take your word for it. I was thinking about picking up John Gwynne at one point in the future and maybe the Witcher books. Hopefully they are better than the series.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s why we chose them in the first place – because they were so well-reviewed 😁

      Gwynne has got many enthusiastic reviews so you might easily enjoy it more than me – I was simply disappointed that it was unoriginal and redundant. It made me almost fall asleep every time I picked it up! 😂

      And the Witcher books are much much better than the series, that’s for sure – we have a sort-of-review for the books if you’re interested!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh, wow, thank you for warning me off these. SciFi and Fantasy aren‘t exactly my go-to genres, but “City of Brass“ had been looking moderately tempting due to its setting, even though it came with several warning bells attached (hype, YA, romance — my record with all these, particularly in combination, is pretty dismal). But incest or near-incest … seriously?? AND in a YA book at that? Fie.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well, City of Brass had certainly been one of my biggest disappointments this year. There is a very weird, slightly sexual relationship between a much older male who was the female protagonist’s mother’s or grandmother’s love interest (he’s a djinn, so according to the author his abusive, violent and manipulative character is all part of the package) and the young female protagonist herself. It might not be crossing entirely into the incest territory but is straddling the line IMO. It is not helped by the fact the the protagonist exhibits some unbelievably stupid behavior and I found her nearly impossible to like and fully impossible to relate to. It all reads like a weird exhibitionist adolescent fantasy, and I didn’t find any saving grace moments, sorry to report!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Don‘t be sorry. Your reaction is exactly the same as mine to most YA Fantasy, too. Many of the female protagonists come across like resurrections of the worst of the Golden Age mystery / thriller TSTL “woman in distress“ heroines … as if the authors had gone straight from there to today‘s YA Fantasy, completely bypassing Women‘s Lib — as well as authors who wrote about self-determined women even then (like Sayers and Christie, to stay w/in the mystery context) and of course large parts of fiction, literary and otherwise, ever since. And it p*sses me off that more often than not it‘s *women* who are perpetrating this muck … I mean, [male] misogyny is bad enough and as Austen noted almost exactly 200 years ago, we‘re already up against centuries of baggage there; do we really have to pile onto this ourselves and reinforce every gosh-darned anti-woman cliché out there — even (or especially) in the guise of heroines who are *supposed* to come across as strong and independent?

        :: Deep breath. ::

        Sorry. (In turn.) — :: TA steps off Soap box. ::

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yeah! (fist pump)
          Exactly. I don’t even mind the “woman in distress” trope provided there’s a bit of subversion or gender-blindness in it… “Human in distress” is after all quite a common occurence 😉 It’s all the accompanying stereotypes that drive me mad.
          I feel like often women do this to themselves as a kind of pop-culturally fueled fantasy – the traditional, conservative trend in pop culture is still going strong, and the emphasis on traditional division of gender roles is something widely seen from the early, even preschool age.

          What irritates me most is the purportedly “strong” heroines who more often than not are simply abrasive, dumb, have a chip on their shoulder the size of Texas and usually are b*tches for the sake of it. That’t not strength, that’s just being a bully.

          More TA on the soap box, please! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hah. Be careful what you wish for … 😀

            And you’re right in that women characters are still (or again?!) way too often off the chart on both extreme ends of the spectrum … either pathetic little TSTL weasels that can‘t walk a step of their own without a man holding their hand, or presented as strong and self-determined but in reality just cardboard bullies with an emotional range that would amply fit in between the nearest wall and its wallpaper. And it‘s really disturbing that so much of this is to be found in YA Fantasy, one of the most popular YA genres … *these* are supposed to be the role models that teenagers and young women are supposed to strive to emulate?? God help us.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Oh, I’m so happy I’m not the only one who thinks that!
              I mean, I also think that you can’t have female empowerment without a hair-raising female villain, but that requires ambiguity and not paper-thin one-dimensional characters we seem to get. Gimme Octavia Lecter! Ms Moriarty! Actually, Irene Adler was such a character and she was created about 150 years ago, so that seems to say something rather unpleasant about our times 😂

              But yes, the worst part is that’s YA – basically the only books the majority of young generations read nowadays 🤯

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Well, let‘s face it, that‘s why Irene Adler, Harriet Vane, Austen‘s and the Brontes‘ heroines — and, for that matter, Miss Marple! — have survived … I doubt (m)any of today‘s YA / Fantasy heroines will. Let‘s hope they at least get replaced by a more threedimensional crop …

                Liked by 1 person

    1. Since I don’t write too many scathing reviews, preferring to write the good ones instead, I feel that once a year I can alert others to books I really really didn’t like 😉 Especially because there are so many fave reviews out there for these books, sometimes it’s good to see a more critical one to get a more balanced view 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, these are the CORRECT reasons, Bookstooge, even if not for you 😂😂😂
      But yes – vindicated indeed. I think the only one author we really don’t see eye to eye about is Roger Zelazny – the rest seems to be within a broad limit from “totally right” to “don’t care one way or another” 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Hahaha are you trying to make me feel old? Not gonna happen, mister 😁
          Besides, I think it’s better to focus on what we have in common than on those few differences of taste… 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  4. You didn’t like Whitcher? I thought it was oke ish, but then again i have only read the one book as well as being translated pretty badly… it good to see lists like this, it makes me aware how full of shit people can be by giving books glowing reviews that do not deserve it. Ill be sure to walk past these. Great post guys🤘🏻

    Liked by 3 people

    1. piotrek

      Thanks! Well, we consider the Witcher books to be really good (most of them, anyway 😉 ), if difficult to translate – so Netflix hit us where it hurts… it’s probably better if you have no attachment to Sapkowski’s prose.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. We really like the books, the show – not so much ;). Yeah, the translation is an issue here, certainly. Sorry about that!

      Thanks, Dawie! I feel the same – there are so many enthusiastic reviews for these that we felt we need to redress the balance by posting a bit more critical reviews 😁 You might still enjoy these more than we did, but now at least you know it’s not all rainbows and unicorns!! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a new to me but very interesting theme: giving space to the year’s disappointments. Even though they are far less than the successes in our reading – and watching – schedules, they deserve their space, if nothing else to give us further room to vent our displeasure… 😉 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Venting displeasure, yes! (energetically nods)
      But also a bit more balance, hopefully 😁 Sometimes when a book is almost universally praised it’s good to see a more critical review to get a more nuanced perspective – hype can be a pleasure killer, too! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I never ‘got’ Green Arrow when I was into DC comics in the 60s and 70s—even more than Batman always having the exact gizmo in his utility belt needed for any occasion, GA’s quiver full of bulky boxing glove or grappling- or explosive-arrows seemed entirely implausible, and I was entirely uninterested in his origins or secret identity (which his mask and then Robin Hood hat at a jaunty angle never really disguised).

    But enough of teenage nostalgia, back to this year! Unlike both of you I’ve few if any grumbles about what I’ve read. Having recently subscribed to Netflix I had a quick glance at a Witcher episode but rapidly decided I’d rather get on with the next volume in the book series…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Same here, Chris! GA is not among my favorite heroes, not by a long shot – still, I feel he was badly mistreated here, and a hero fighting for justice should get some 😁

      Yes, definitely – especially Witcher short stories are great (and the fourth tome, but that’s a long way ahead 😁)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I liked Henry Cavill in The Witcher tv series. It’s a shame he was a guest star in his own show 🤔 It felt like it should’ve been called the Yennifer Show 😉 I have only read one Witcher book and I’ve never played the games, so I don’t know the characters or setting very well. That sword fighting scene in the first (?) episode was pretty incredible, imho.

    Agree 100% with your take on Oliver’s Hellblazer run. It read like very poor fan fiction to me.😠

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hah, you’re totally right! And the Yennefer episodes were really not that great. But that fight scene was indeed very well made. I had hoped for more like this, alas – maybe in the next season.

      I can wholeheartedly recommend Witcher short stories – they’re really great. Though with the caveat that the translation according to most reliable sources sucks big time 😕

      Ah, Hellblazer, poor guy. Do you have a favorite run?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the recommendation😀. More Henry Cavill and more Witcher action can only be a good thing in Season 2.

        For Hellblazer, if you can get hold of Simon Spurrier’s recent 12-issue run, I recommend that one. A return to the dark, gritty, Delano-esque Constantine, while also shot through with moments of laugh-out-loud humour!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. piotrek

      The sword fight is taken from one of the best short stories, this subplot really deserved to be a whole episode, one of the things I really hate in the show is how they try to combine three totally different plots (and not equally interesting ones) in a confusing way…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The series was confusing, but I thought it was just me🙄 I read Sword of Destiny and enjoyed it. I don’t know if the translation was good or not… Do you recommend any of the other books?

        Liked by 2 people

        1. piotrek

          Oh, I recommend all the books, even if I’m not a huge fan of the final one… way less confusing than the show. Short stories do a great job of introducing us to the world and characters, and the big events of the novels are only on the horizon… I really like the pacing Sapkowski chose here.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. These days I go to Goodreads and filter for one of two star reviews immediately after reading reviews of friends. If there are enough well written and thoughtfull reviews then, it’s usually a no, and I often friend such a reviewer too. I have zero interest in the typical fandom reviewer.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I’ve just written a 2 star review for a book and it was the only review with such low rating… All the rest is almost uniformly 4 or 5 stars, and just a few 3-star ones. And I know I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still astounded, as this book is just not good. I was this close to giving it 1 star but the ending slightly redeemed it and gave more clarity to the author’s purpose, so I was ok with bumping it up, but man. I feel weird when my review is the only negative one 😅

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Yeah it’s baffling sometimes. Part of it is the attitude that some reviewers have to simply not write negative reviews, out of some sense of respect. Another factor is the fact that some reviewers don’t want to review DNFs out of principle. That tilts reviews to the positive side.

            Another thing might be (just a feeling) that lots of early readers are uncritical fans part of a fandom that just likes about anything with the label SF of fantasy, as for these readers it is more a matter of identity and not literature. Especially all the politically correct SF that has come out the last 5, 10 years seems to confirm that. If you reading is the act of a culture war soldier rather than the act of a lover of culture, that kind of tribalism gets you into cheering more easily too rather than being critical.

            Another factor, more specific to book blogging, are ARCs: people tend to be more positive about these, out of a misplaced thankfulness/respect and out of fear of not getting anymore in the future. This tendency also skews early reviews to the positive side.

            And obviously: Sturgeon’s law also applies to reviews themselves.

            Now that I’m writing this, I might do a post on this.

            Liked by 4 people

            1. A good idea! I’d be very interested in reading your whole post about this. I think all of these apply, but also I don’t see too much critical reception of any kind of cultural artifacts lately – as if their only purpose was escapist entertainment and whatever crosses that bar is just fantastic and no questions asked.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. For sure, entertainment first indeed. I guess a full post wouldn’t be much more contentwise than what I posted here, just more words 🙂 I might take a stab at it tomorrow, it’s been bugging me for years.

                Liked by 1 person

            2. piotrek

              It is a problem, sure, but my view on this is shaped by how the situation looks in Poland. Fantasy/SF here, with some exceptions, is quite right wing, and rather explicitly. One of the reasons I don’t read much of the local stuff – it’s poorly written and pisses me off. Imagine what you described, but in reverse 😉

              Last year, when the biggest Polish genre magazine published an overtly homophobic short story, the repercussions went beyond our country, when Jeff VanderMeer declared he won’t allow them to publish his works any more.


              One of the reason is that the traditions of Polish sf were largely born during the communist era and being rebel meant going to the right back then. Another – the largest target of fantasy were teenage boys and they tend to be, on average, more right wing than, say, women, or middle aged readers. It changes, and that could be interesting, but most of the names involved are completely unknown outside Poland, so there’s probably no reason to write a post. And I’m not reading enough Polish genre lit to consider myself an expert. But I might be tempted one day, maybe in response to your post when you get around to writing it 🙂

              Liked by 2 people

              1. All of a sudden my schedule for the day was unexpectedly cleared, so I’m in the middle of writing now.

                Interesting what you say about politics. The same thing is happening over here to, by the way. Lots of youngsters are clinging to the far right, and my guess is indeed that it has to do with rebellion: as most teachers, media, and mainstream political institutions have been more or less progressive the last 3 decades, it makes sense for youngsters to vote for racism & fascism again.

                Liked by 2 people

  8. I have all Ola’s books on my list, and even if this help me make a clearer picture of them, I am still curious to read them all. The only one I have read is The Angel of the Crows, but I enjoyed it quite a lot, so there is hope I would enjoy the others too! Also, I have enjoyed the Witcher. To be honest I am not a fan of Yennefer, especially in the TV show, and here it was more about her than Geralt, but in the end I enjoyed the show. It helped that I started watching it because I was curious but I was expecting to not like it, because usually I have high expectations for fantasy shows and I never enjoy them… So maybe low expectations helped here!

    Liked by 2 people

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