How I Review

Okay, so here’s the deal.

Over the life of this blog – it’ll be a year in April – I’ve used three different grading systems. It’s probably worth briefly describing these for older reviews. I also want to quickly touch on what I, personally, am looking for when I read.

First, grading systems. The first grading system was a star system, based on Goodreads. ⭐️, ⭐️⭐️, ⭐️⭐️⭐️, ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, and ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️. Pretty self-explanatory.

At a certain point I decided I wanted a bit more granularity in my review grades, and so I decided to adopt a letter rating system. Roughly speaking, 5 stars = A or A-, 4 stars = B+, B, or B-, and so on. In this way, my ratings on Goodreads still mostly correlated with my ratings here.

And then, eventually, I realized I didn’t actually like letter grades that much. I kept looking at old grades and feeling the urge to adjust them – for instance, what’s really the difference between a B+ and. B, or a B and a B-? It was unlikely that I’d feel the urge to turn an A into a C, but small differences were more ambiguous.

Plus, I’d started writing what I call “the upshot” – a quick summary of my overall impression of the book, including strengths and weaknesses. So really, the letter grade felt almost superfluous. And isn’t grading art a weird thing to do, anyway? It’s not like I’m grading an essay for class or something.

So I decided to adopt something closer to the Publishers Weekly strategy. Every book gets a review and and upshot, but really really good books get a special designation: 🌟. This is the equivalent of 5 stars, or an A grade. If you see it, the book gets my highest recommendation. I’ll also tag these books starburst.

As for what I’m looking for when I read: I love most varieties of sci-fi and fantasy, but in general I prefer invented worlds, as opposed to books set in “this one but different.” And I like those worlds to be richly imagined and absorbing. I like books with rich themes that are connected to character and plot – give me something to chew on. I like disaster protagonists, you know, those flawed folks who keep making the wrong choices but you root for them anyway. But I want those choices to feel honestly motivated – I don’t want to see the hand of the author pushing characters in certain directions just because that’s what the outline says they do next. I like smooth writing that doesn’t call attention to itself, either through purple prose or clunky turns of phrase. I like books to be queer and inclusive – just because you set your book in a fantasy world doesn’t mean you have to replicate all the hangups of this one. Most of all, I like books that transport me for a little while somewhere I never could have imagined.

In my reviews, I’ll usually summarize the book quickly, talk about the themes I picked up on, and then discuss strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, by the end of a review, you know how I felt about a book – and get a sense of how you might feel about it. I also hope that even if you’ve read it, my reviews can offer some insight into how it could be interpreted.

Also, yes, even though the blog is “Sean Reads Sci-Fi” I mostly read fantasy. What can I say, I’m a sucker for alliteration.