Book Review System

Author: Janea A. Schimmel

Ed by: Gayle Cottrill

Here at The Speculative Post, we have a fairly rigorous system of reviewing and rating books. (At least, we’d like to think so.) We’ve been going for a bit now, and it occurs to me (Janea, the editor-in-chief/main-monkey-wrangler, who apologies about being a ghost for the past two months (more on that some other day)) that we’ve never actually told our readers what our criteria are. We show you a breakdown of the star rating, but you never actually see how we come up with those ratings, and we’ve only mentioned once that there are actual numbers behind those star ratings. So, below you’ll find an explanation of our system. This is what SP Staff has used to rate books since the very beginning of our site, and we use it for every book that gets a review on our site. This system is related to, and loosely based on, the systems for rating books used by The Ranting Dragon, a website several of us worked on before founding The Speculative Post.

Each overall rating has five sections, each made up of five questions. The reviewer rates the book in response to each question on a basis of 1-10 for score (10 being better than 1), for a total of 50 points per section. Each section generates a star rating viewable to our readers when a review is opened.

  • 5 Stars = 46-50 points scored in that section
  • 4 ½ Stars = 41-45 pts
  • 4 Stars = 35-40 pts
  • 3 ½ Stars = 30-34 pts
  • 3 Stars = 25-29 pts
  • 2 ½ Stars = 20-24 pts
  • 2 Stars = 15-19 pts
  • 1 ½ Stars = 10-14 pts
  • 1 Star = 5-9 pts

Each section rating is then aggregated into an overall star rating. This is the main star rating seen on the Front Page, with the other ratings viewable when the review is opened.

  • 5 Stars = 226-250 pts
  • 4 ½ Stars = 201-225 pts
  • 4 Stars = 176-200 pts
  • 3 ½ Stars = 151-175 pts
  • 3 Stars = 126-150 pts
  • 2 ½ Stars = 101-125 pts
  • 2 Stars = 75-100 pts
  • 1 ½ Stars = 50-74 pts
  • 1 Star = 25-49 pts

Now, the five sections, as well as the questions for those sections, are below, along with a brief description about what each section talks about in general.

Rating Questionnaire

The setting of the book relates to the place/time/world the book is set in. If the book is not set in the world we live in, setting also relates to the worldbuilding of the author. This can also be thought of, does the book feel more like a sparsely dressed stage play, or an all encompassing blockbuster film (such as The Lord of the Rings)? Moreover, does that style of setting fit with the book itself?

  1. How do you rate the overall effectiveness of the setting? (1-10)
  2. How do you rate the originality of the setting? (1-10)
  3. How do you rate the execution of the concept? (1-10)
  4. How well does the setting of the book inform characterization? (1-10)
  5. How well does the setting of the book inform the plot? (1-10)
  6. Total score for setting: (out of 50 possible)

Characters are central to a book’s story. Characterization is the ability of the author to effectively communicate a character’s personality, passions, and choices within the book.

  1. How do you rate the overall characterizations in the book? Are the actions of the character consistent with the information presented about them? (1-10)
  2. How would you rate your ability to relate to the protagonist? (1-10)
  3. How would you rate the effectiveness of the characterization of secondary characters? (1-10)
  4. How would you rate the effectiveness of the characterization of the antagonist? (1-10)
  5. How well do the characters’ personalities inform the plot? (1-10)
  6. Total score for setting: (out of 50 possible)

The plot is the series of events the characters interact with/cause. Ideally, the plot is paced to provide the characters and reader ample opportunity to react to new events and information while not leaving the reader time to disengage from the story while waiting for new events and information.

  1. How do you rate the overall effectiveness of the plot? (1-10)
  2. How well would you rate the plot’s pacing? Did you stay engaged, or were there slumps in activity? (1-10)
  3. How original was the plot? Or, if using a standard plot style (example, murder mystery), how would you rate the ingenuity of the style’s use? (1-10)
  4. How would you rate the author’s ability to present new information? Was it predictable, or did things catch you off guard? (1-10)
  5. How well did the author use foreshadowing? (1-10)
  6. Total score for setting: (out of 50 possible)

Writing Mechanics deal with the author’s prose, overall grammar and sentence structure, and voice. This section can also be thought of as ‘on what an English major would rate the book.’

  1. How would you rate the author’s overall writing style and skill? (1-10)
  2. How would you rate the author voice? Was it compelling and suitable to the characters, setting, and plot? (1-10)
  3. How appropriate is the author’s language to the book’s target audience? Is it an adult book written with juvenile vocabulary, or a juvenile book with adult language? (1-10)
  4. How well does the author handle the balance between dialog and prose? (1-10)
  5. How effective is the author’s dialog? (1-10)
  6. Total score for setting: (out of 50 possible)
Genre refers to the genres and/or sub-genres the book falls into. Each genre and subgenre has certain requirements, as well as standard elements (or tropes).
  1. How well does the book fit into its genre or subgenre? (1-10)
  2. How well did the book use genre standard plot devices, characters, story elements, and/or other tropes? (1-10)
  3. How well were genre elements such as magic, technology, or non-human creatures used? (1-10)
  4. How well did the Setting, Characters, Plot, and Mechanics inform the genre? (1-10)
  5. Does this book expand its genre and/or does it add something (depth, new elements, quality of work, etc) to the genre that was not previously there? (1-10)
  6. Total score for setting: (out of 50 possible)

Total Score for the book: (out of 250 possible points). This is what you see before you open a review.

As you can see, this is a fairly intensive questionnaire, and the detail and depth of the questions do mean that some books that are very good will fall short on at least one category. It’s also possible to fall short on multiple categories and still maintain a four star review. We publish the expanded star ratings so that readers can better understand the overall rating. For example, Station Eleven received four stars overall, but did strike out on the Genre and Characterization sections. On that same edition, Undercity also received a four star review, but did so by scoring much more evenly across the rating system. It should also be noted that while a three or a three and a half starred book scores 50-70% of all possible points, we rarely hand out 5 star reviews (which score at least 90%). In fact, I believe there are less than 10 of them on the site. For the most part our star reviews do boil down to what Goodreads has: 3 is liked it, 4 is really liked it, 5 is loved it.

Spellstorm

Author: Ed Greenwood

Series: Forgotten Realms

Subgenre: Fantasy

Spellstorm is the latest novel in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting by its creator, local (to me) author Ed Greenwood, and pushes the iconic character Elminster of Shadowdale into what amounts to a murder mystery party against the backdrop of powerful mages vying for control of a mythical magic spell. Sadly, Spellstorm was not at all up to the standard of entertaining story I’ve come to expect from Greenwood. Silly plot contrivances, really bad logic even for fantasy, and a compulsive need to keep trotting out the same characters year after year work against what might have otherwise been an entertaining little story. My crushed hopes and dreams ahead.

Rumors race around Cormyr regarding the mythical Lost Spell, a powerful enchantment designed centuries ago by the presumed dead god of spells—a spell long thought lost to the ages. Found by some magic-less merchant, rumor has it the Lost Spell is to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

It is a powerful lure, and archwizards of every stripe descend upon the merchant, only to be trapped with him inside his manor by a vicious spellstorm—escape impossible, and their magic useless with the interference from the storm.

Moreover—they find themselves faced with the infamous Elminster of Shadowdale, who claims he’s just there to decide who gets the Lost Spell, but who clearly has an agenda of his own.

But before Elminster can put whatever plan he has in motion, archwizards start dying.

The Speculative Post's Review

Setting

Characters

Plot

Writing Mechanics

Genre

I feel like the Forgotten Realms are in trouble. The world has been around so long, and have so many pieces of media set there. Wikipedia lists over 300 novels and short story collections, and 49 computer and console video games set in the Realms. With that kind of weight behind it, it’s a wonder it has made it this long without collapsing. Any shared fantasy setting like this is going to have a number of iconic characters. Recurring heroes and villains keep a sense of space around the world and makes it feel more real instead of just a set of rules and some vague geography all these authors can exploit. Elminster of Shadowdale is probably second only to Drizzt Do’Urden for being the most well-known character. The problem is that after around 30 years of work being set there, the timeline has necessarily advanced quite a bit. Normally this would be fine. You start with the ‘the next generation’ stuff, with kids of previous major characters, or heavens forfend, create some new ones entirely. Instead, we’re just finding new and exciting ways to prolong the life of the existing characters. Elminster, being a chosen of Mystra, the Goddess of magic, is already going to be living a really long time, and his supporting cast of folks like former Lord of Waterdeep, Mirt the Moneylender, and villainous wizard Manshoon of Zhentil Keep have all their own ways to still be the main characters decades later.

While Greenwood hasn’t quite gone to the lengths that R.A. Salvatore has, and actually had his whole main cast die and then just bring them back from the dead to keep them going in the advanced timeline, it sure would be great if every single Realms book wasn’t the same couple dudes. But forgetting that for now, lets look at the actual story here. There’s a rumour of a thing called ‘the Lost Spell’ which theoretically just makes whoever knows it super powerful. The best I could tell from the exposition is that it would let them largely bypass the usual ‘learn your spells in the morning, and when they’re gone they’re gone’ limit on wizardly power. So anyway, this merchant has the spell and plans to auction it off, so all these wizards from everywhere show up to try and convince him to sell to them. But wait! There’s a plot contrived magical storm around the guy’s house that magic-users can’t go through. This gives Elminster the chance to plot with Mystra to basically get all the wizards inside, therefore trapping them in there with him. It just so happens that this house is a place where magic is screwy and doesn’t work properly, thus mostly turning all these archwizards into a house full of random men and women who I guess have to just chill out?”

This whole thing is so McGuffiny that it hurts. It was just known information on the side of the good guys that this storm thing only lasts a couple days when it starts up, so why nobody just waits it out makes little sense. And then once inside, everybody is obviously hostile, uninterested in any sort of civil cohabitation. Given that we know Mystra’s whole plan here is to try and shove all these archwizards into a room in the hopes that they will come to an accord about how to coexist and care more about magic than their own ends (You know, that thing you do in really bad movies where you lock two bickering people in a room and then with no choice but to talk, hash out their differences and come to a mutual understanding?) one point that Spellstorm gets in its favour is that right out of the gate, people just start turning up dead instead. That’s about the only realistic thing in this whole story. Why all those wizards would have been chilling outside this magical storm that makes wizards braindead instead of just waiting until after the weekend when it went away, or why none of them have, you know, a sword or a knife they could be using to stab people when the magic shuts off, or why all the good wizards are just totally fine with Mystra’s position that all magic is great even when you’re using magic to slaughter people and be a tyrant.

I suppose what it boils down to is that this was not a good mystery novel, and the only thing it was that could have been any good was a mystery novel. Watching Elminster pat himself on the back for the nth time was not exciting. Watching a bunch of wizards posture and threaten without anything to back it up wasn’t exciting. Trying to get my head around the asinine plan that a bunch of good and evil wizards would all decide to get along if you made them sit in a room together long enough was, in fact, asinine. It is important to note though, that in spite of not being very good, this book didn’t suck. Ed Greenwood still puts together the odd clever turn of phrase, and Manshoon remains one of the better Realms villains, so seeing him around is always fun, but I think the Forgotten Realms has sort of been outpaced by the development of Fantasy as a genre. Fantasy characters and stories are becoming a little more complex, a little more about shades of grey than the super black-and-white ‘all goblins are evil because it says so in the Dungeons and Dragons rule book’ setting that is the Forgotten Realms. I think the real problem I had with Spellstorm was that it just really highlights for me that I think Greenwood is capable of a lot more than he can possibly do writing Forgotten Realms for Wizards of the Coast with their need to stay on-brand all the time. It’s time to put Elminster and the Realms to bed, and spend the rest of the night drinking whiskey and telling dirty jokes. It seems like that’s what he really wants to be doing anyway.

Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this novel from Wizards of the Coast via Netgalley



© 2013 - 2015