There’s no such thing as a perfect book — but some books feel as though they could be just about perfect, if they didn’t have one nagging problem. And sometimes, the most wonderful books have the most glaring shortfalls. Here are 10 amazing novels that are each marred by a fatal flaw.
Top image: Hobbit book cover by WretchedSpawn
To assemble this list, we asked some of our favourite authors and book nerds to name their own favourite brilliant-but-flawed novels. And everybody had at least one.
“I’ve always loved reading flawed novels, perhaps because I’ve written so many of them,” says author Elizabeth Hand (Generation Loss). “I’m far more likely to track down a novel that’s reviewed as ‘brilliant yet flawed’ or the like, than something that’s supposed to be uncompromisingly good. As Leonard Cohen says, there’s a crack in everything: that’s where the light gets in.”
So here are 10 wondrous books, that each have a major flaw:
1) It by Stephen King
“[This book is] by far my favourite of his works and one I’ve reread numerous times.
“The only part of the book that I can’t stand, and that I think is fatal, is the group-sex-in-the-sewers scene. Every other person in the Loser’s Club gets their moment to shine and to lead, but when it comes time for Beverley to step up into her leadership position after Bill and Ben and everyone else is exhausted, she’s reduced to an orifice. I would love that book even more than I already do if King hadn’t taken that easy way out, and let Beverly cement them together and lead them in a different way, in one of the ways women lead and form groups every day out in the real world and even during disasters. I was eleven when I first read IT, and I can remember feeling cheated by Beverly’s treatment in that scene more than any other, even the menace from her abusive father.
“It’s the only thing that damages my enjoyment of the book as a whole. I’ve also heard from fellow readers that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials holds a similar sexualization of a young girl, and it stopped me from reading past The Golden Compass, because I can’t stand the thought of Lyra being treated that way.”
2) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Hobbit is my favourite novel. It wrenched from science fiction’s arms as a child and set me on a path through the many wondrous worlds that secondary world fantasy offers. It shaped me as a reader and a writer, but, dammit if Tolkien didn’t leave a big female-shaped hole in that novel. It feels like there’s a cast of thousands (thirteen dwarfs, one hobbit, and a wizard, actually), but Tolkien’s story about a merry band of dwarfs adventuring to slay a dragon and save their home was a sausugefest through and through. You can discount it as a product of its time, but, as we all know, women have always fought. You can be sure that when I’m reading The Hobbit to my daughter in a few years, eight or nine of those dwarfs are going to switch gender — and I’ll have a lot of fun explaining to her that dwarf women have beards, too!
(This is actually one of the few instance where I applaud Peter Jackson’s ham-fisted adaptation of the novel. He may have stomped on the spirit of the book, but introducing several female characters was an important evolution for a 21st century narrative.)”
— Aidan Moher (A Dribble of Ink)
3) Ariosto by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
“Ariosto has storylines of an alternate 15th century Florence and of a Mannerist fantasy world based on the real one. Quinn blends these strands into a complex, wonderful whole. Which she then throws abruptly into the dumper. I don’t insist on happy endings (read my own horror and military SF if you want evidence of that), but these are bolts from the blue and are not organic to the story.”
4) Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
“It’s an undeniably brilliant novel: Banks is working at the height of his powers; the ambivalence about the Culture that characterises all his books is perfectly balanced; the characters are well-drawn and the novel’s odd structure is extremely compelling. But it’s all leading up to a twist that is, unfortunately, laughable. The moment at which we find out why the novel’s protagonist suffers from a crippling fear of chairs (already a red flag) should be the climax of a grand tragedy of good intentions and impossible choices. Instead it’s ridiculous and implausible. It doesn’t destroy the book for me, but it’s a darling that should have been killed – the book would have worked just fine without it.”
— Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions)
5) Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford
“My writing style has changed a lot over the years. It’s more stripped-down than when I started, and Barry Gifford is one of the writers responsible for that. I found his novel, Wild at Heart, a year or so before David Lynch turned it into a movie. The book is a crazy, picaresque sprint through an American south that’s violent, surreal, and — in its own twisted way — romantic.
But the end of the novel feels…false. Gifford clearly wanted to write a tragic love story, but there’s nothing ithat leads up to Sailor leaving Lula at the end of the book. It simply happens (Lynch later fixed the novel’s ending in the film version using perhaps the biggest, silliest, and funniest Deus Ex Machina of all time). Still, even with its frustrating finale, Wild at Heart is one of my favourite books. The story is great and Gifford’s spare, graceful prose was one long, beautiful writing class for me.”
— Richard Kadrey (Killing Pretty)
6) City of Stairs by Robert J. Bennett
“[This is] one of my favourite high fantasy novels of recent years… It’s got amazing world-building that wrestles with colonization, the characters are amazingly three dimensional and the history of the world is intriguing and feels fresh. I love books that make me read like I’m a new reader again, with all the wonder and excitement of my first encounter with fantasy and this book definitely does that for me. He deals with people and politics unflinchingly which I always appreciate.
That being said the problem I have with this book is a personal one for me. I’ve grown up my whole life looking at the dead queer in every media that I devoured, books, TV, movies, plays, musicals so I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the one solitary LGBTQ character who has a tragic plot line and then is either killed or takes their own life. I’m tired of it. It would be different if there was more than one or if this wasn’t the trope that so many LGBTQ characters in media still suffer from. As it is, it’s the fatal flaw I always mention to people when recommending the book.”
— Na’amen Tilahun (Words from the Center, Words from the Edge)
7) Silverlock by John Myers Myers
“A cynic from Chicago shipwrecks near the Commonwealth, an island where the classics of literature are real — where you can fall in love with Rosalind, fight with Robin Hood, and ride to Canterbury with Emma Watson. Shandon does all these things and many, many more, in a sweeping, enchanting adventure that never fails to delight me, even as it infuriates me.
“Because really, once I tell you about Emma and Rosalind, I have mentioned many of the women in the book. That’s not entirely his fault: the Commonwealth of letters that he is drawing from is full of tragic victimized pathetic women, and who want to adventure with Tess of the D’Urbervilles?”
— Kij Johnson (At the Mouth of the River of Bees)
8) The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
“Do I love these books? Yes, indeed! My kids were nearly the same age as the characters in Harry Potter. They grew up along with Harry as the books were released. I read all the volumes, most of them more than once, and greatly enjoyed them along the way — except for that one thing.
“I wouldn’t call it a fatal flaw, but what consistently bothered me in the early part of the series was the willingness of adults close to Harry to knowingly return him to an abusive home at the end of the school year. I couldn’t understand it. Harry, of course, engaged in all sorts of life-threatening, not-child-safe adventures as terrific fictional characters tend to do, and I had no problem with that. But the seemingly negligent behaviour of the wizarding adults early on and their failure to protect Harry from an abusive home life — that felt wrong to me. So I was pleased to see the issue addressed in later books.”
— Linda Nagata (The Red)
9) The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
” A lifelong favourite novel — I think I first read it when about ten — is G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Endless witty talk, radiant landscape descriptions and genuinely chilling paranoia as the world is apparently overrun by forces of nihilism. Then a strange eucatastrophe and it all turns out to be … well, the subtitle was indeed A Nightmare.”
— Dave Langford (Ansible)
10) True Detective Season 1
This isn’t really a novel, of course, but “I’ve come to regard the superior end of HBO drama as, above all, novelistic,” says Richard K. Morgan. “And True Detective‘s first season delivers at that level as never before, with a grace and complexity to both narrative and character that puts the bulk of the prose novels I’ve read in the last couple of years to shame.”
“There’s a thematic brilliance to the juxtaposition of burnt-out, soul-destroyed but stubbornly ethical Rust Cohle with church-going family man and utter moral hypocrite Marty Hart, an interplay of painful self-knowledge versus delusion and denial, a violent demolition of the various comforting lies American society tells itself to keep a threadbare blanket of faith wrapped tight against the cold. What you’ve got here could almost be the Great American Novel for the millenial generation. Everything about True Detective, from the directorial imagery and tone to the thin thread of black humour that runs through and relieves an otherwise almost unbearably bleak fictionscape, is heavyweight novel class.
“Apart, of course, from that fatally flawed last fifteen minutes.
“Why and how (and at the behest of which behind-the-scenes influence) we manage to drop from those heights of dark novelistic brilliance into something so cheap and plastic it looks like it was borrowed in from an episode of T J Hooker or The Dukes of Hazzard is beyond me, but the decompression is extreme. Oh sure, you can just about argue that the words and actions of the characters in those final scenes are not inconceivable, given a near-death experience and mutual salvation, but that isn’t really the point. What’s blown apart and gone is the whole tone of the piece, the pyrrhic and incomplete victory, the pervading sense of time and loss, the wounds that never heal – in other words, the substance of the text. All that gets swept away in a buddy movie finale that wouldn’t look amiss in one of the later and not-so-great Lethal Weapon sequels; you might as well bring on a line of high-kicking chorus girls at the end of a performance of King Lear. You might as well stick a dewy-eyed lover’s honeymoon drive through sunlit pines on the end of Bladerunner‘s grimly closing elevator doors…….
“Should have killed it at the flare, guys. Should have killed it at the flare.
“I’ve seen True Detective end-to-end at least three times; I’ll probably see it again. It is a work of dark brilliance. But if the phone goes fifteen minutes from the end of that last episode, I’ll likely turn it off, and go make coffee when I’m done with the call”