Best & Worst SPN books

Well it’s that time of year again.  The long winter weeks suffering with family until our beloved show returns.  Sure we could pop in the discs or pull down the old episodes on netflix but what if you’re jonsing for something new?  Enter the novel run: an episode packed into a processed wood pulp form!  Of course I’ve already reviewed all the books and haven’t yet gotten a copy of The Roads Not Taken but I also know I’ve picked up a few new readers since joining the family business so with 6 books now in both the Kripke and post-Kripke eras, I thought it would be a good time to rank the books.  Of course I won’t discourage anyone from buying even the “worst” books on the list, but I also know money can be tight this time of year so think of it as a buying aid in case you can only afford one or two. (and if you do purchase, feel free to do so through the links so the family business or myself can get a bit of change to fund our addictions – to the show)  Also, let me warn you about something: the back covers of the books (the ones that are supposed to tantalize you into buying them), they either outright LIE on a few, or spoil things that shouldn’t be.  So I highly advise you do NOT read the back covers or plot summaries of these.

Also a note on judging.  Each book will be ranked according to:

  1. General quality. (how well written)
  2. Canon fidelity. (how much it violates from the show)
  3. Spirit fidelity. (how much it feels like the show)

So let’s start with:

the Kripke Years

If you were to rank the books on a bell curve, these six would be the two ends of it.  The worst books and the best ones.

#6. The Unholy Cause – I’ll be honest, I wanted to like this book and there are some fascinating moments in it, but at the end of the day, it’s just a mess.  There’s a way you can tie a rope into a knot to create demons?  Or do you summon demons with it?  How is Hell not recruiting Boy Scouts to be their shock troops if that was the case?  Normally I’d be worried about spoilers but since I couldn’t tell you what happened in this book now (much less who or what they defeat in it), I don’t think I can.  If you do read this or have read it and you figure out what’s going on, please let us know in the comments.  Maybe I should give it a second chance and reread it but… I kind of dread that.  It was probably a sign that while every other book has a specific mention of where it is (between X & Y episode) this one did not.

#5. Witch’s Canyon – Originally this one had a major issue with canon as it involved the boys having an adventure in the Grand Canyon (which Dean later said – after this book is supposed to take place – that he never visited) but after the show itself broke that bit of canon, this violation is greatly lessened.  It’s not bad in quality and some of the characters are good, but it does have a problem with the spirit of the show.  Some aspects of what happened I still couldn’t tell you why they did.  There’s a ghost wolf that has some connection to it all but only bothers one person for some reason… and you can apparently shoot ghosts if you just tweak the bullet a bit… It feels less like SPN and more like someone took a story set in a similar style universe (Buffy, Sleepy Hollow, etc) and slapped the names of Sam & Dean into it.

#4. Nevermore – Keith R. A. DeCandido wrote half the books that fill this area and all 3 were pretty darn good in quality and with canon + spirit.  So fair warning you’re going to see a lot of him now.  This was the first book of the show released and surprisingly still holds up.  As of all the novels currently, this can still fit smoothly into the canon of the show with no stretches or tweaks to anything else.  However given that and it is the first, this book can end up a bit dull at times.  It’s a monster of the week book where some reader may find the monster a clever twist, and some may be angry or find it a letdown.

#3. Bone Key – DeCandido’s 2nd book, while it is a bit shakier on canon grounds but has a clever idea for a monster and an entertaining solution.  This is one of the books that really takes advantage of the novel format that the show cannot: new locations and awesome spectacle.  It’s this pushing the envelope of what the show could be (were money no object) that drags this one just above the previous entry.

#2. War of the Sons – I’ll be honest up front: the ending of this novel is a mess.  Character motivations end up going in random directions and even the solution shouldn’t work by lines established earlier in the book (yes, the book ends up violating its own canon).  How well it fits into the wider SPN lore is… debatable.  It doesn’t outright contradict anything but trying to fit it into what we know can get a bit challenging at times.  So with all these flaws why am I placing this book at the #2 slot?  Because EVERYTHING else in it way covers over those flaws.  I mean, 2 words: Time Travel.  And they don’t overplay it or risk messing things up like in some SPN TT stories.  No this has less to do with the past of the boys and more just putting them in a new setting for adventures.  The mcguffin and challenge in this book is very clever and makes a lot of sense.  Finally, the book’s just funny at times.  Flaws?  Sure, but the ideas and pure spectacle on display so make up for them.  Highly recommended.

#1. Heart of the Dragon – And with half this list taken up by him, it’s only natural Keith R. A. DeCandido winds up earning the #1 spot.  Why?  Because if there’s any flaw to this book, it’s that there’s not enough of it.  The story could have easily been split up into a modest trilogy.  The premise is simple, yet beautiful in its simplicity: what if there was a hunt that stretched across all 3 generations of hunters?  From grandpa Campbell, to John, to Sam & Dean.  Even better, it’s only a tangent to the wider myth arc.  Meaning that this challenge they face has little to do with Lucifer or Micheal, it’s really just a monster of the week stretched out over generations.  It ends up working really well and makes you wish we could see more threads connecting the lines of ancestors and decedents that are woven not because of some plot by heaven or hell, but just because of who these people are and what they do.  Is it perfect?  No, I would have love to seen more from John’s segment of the adventure, but even novels have time limits.  Regardless, for being brilliant in its simplicity, and for leaving us wanting more, this SPN novel rightfully earns it’s #1 pick of the Kripke era.

Post Kripke

Remember how I brought up a bell curve above?  This would be the middle of it.  Covering the post-Kripke years of the show (so far), these six novels are not as bad as the worst above, but not quite as great as the best, either.  This list was a lot harder to rank and ask me again tomorrow, I’ll probably reorder it again.  I’ll also admit that this is a lot more subject to personal taste so feel free to disagree with me here. 😉

#6. One Year Gone – The book covering the “year” between S5 and S6, why does this end up at the bottom?  First, it doesn’t cover the whole year, but just one incident that occurs during it, so it ends up explaining some things, but not everything.  Second, half of the book is dedicated (obviously) to the point of view of Soulless Sam who is just a drag on the narrative.  It really brings home how they needed to utilize Grandpa more to fill in the emotional gaps in the story that Sam’s condition opened up.  Except they don’t, so the book also reminds you of all they wasted in S6.  Finally, what really pushes this to the bottom (through no real fault of the author) is that later seasons have completely broken the canon of this book.  If you want to know how, just read the sentence pair I quoted on the book’s wiki page.  In summary, the problems with season 6 in general infect this book too much for it to rise above last place.  Which is a shame, had a lot of the plot and structure been placed elsewhere in canon, it might have worked really well.

#5. Night Terror – John Passarella wrote this and another book book in this era.  Like the show, if you read a lot of these books you’ll realize that the authors have certain tendencies just like script writers and directors.  Some may emphasize the mystery of a hunt, while others the growing horror.  Mr Passarella is part of the group that likes the emphasize the gore. (how do you do that in a book? he can)  If you like that aspect of SPN, then you’ll definitely like this book.  The other big problem with this book (and something these shows have to be careful of) is that the monster in it is almost too powerful and too easily summoned to the point that it seems worse than Satan.  It’s not the boys winning that I object to, but that their victory is so close, one wonders how this thing didn’t take over the world in centuries past.  So the strain on credibility and the gore push this down to #5 for me, but if you like the bloodier episodes of SPN, then move it up two slots on your buying choices.

#4. Fresh Meat – This one is… a lot of fun (and not just because I have an appreciation for the outdoors) and really hard to describe without spoilers.  What’s the downsides to this one?  First, sometimes the action gets kind of nebulous, meaning either the setting seems to change at will or some things happen which don’t make sense.  For example, they utilize a whip at one point in the story that, by my estimation, has to be anywhere from twenty to fifty feet long.  Yet it’s described as being pulled out of a pocket.  Hint: rope that long is going to get heavy and cumbersome.  Second, the book repeatedly describes vampires as having silver eyes.  Which they don’t in SPN canon.  So while the book has only two faults, it’s two faults repeatedly used throughout pushing this one down to number 4.

#3. Coyote’s Kiss – This story… like every other novel on this list this story introduces us to new characters to adventure with Sam and Dean so we might be in suspense on whether those characters survive since we know S&D have to.  It’s a traditional technique in these “licensed fanfic” tales and an expected and acceptable one.  After all it’s not like the boys can die or the world be destroyed since we see both in the episode following the book!  But what’s the biggest danger to fanfics licensed or not?  Mary. Sue.  This book introduces us to a female hunter.  Is she a Mary Sue?  Oh hell yeah, to argue otherwise is to argue against the ocean being wet.  Worse (or better, depending on your perspective) she’s a Mary Sue that’s all over Dean (so hardcore Destial fans beware).  Why then did I put this book so high on the list when it sounds like it should be lower?  Well they do go for broke on the threat and climax, giving us a showdown that I don’t think even a movie screen could convey.  But, and this cannot be overstated, they actually found a use for Robo!Sam.  I mean a really clever, really useful purpose for Sam without a soul.  A use so good, it almost makes you feel like all the shenanigans with Sam in season 6 were worth it.  That… that is a feat worthy of heroic ballads right there.  That and the book also gave one of my favorite handwaves for why some things happen in the SPN verse the way they do.  For those curious but uninterested in the book, you can find out from the quote I put on the wiki page.

#2. Rite of Passage – John Passarella’s second SPN book ends up here in the number 2 spot for being… well just about perfect as a tie-in book.  The MotW in it is new and interesting while not quite having the overpowered problem of the opponent in Night Terrors.  He uses the medium of novelization to set up events and spectacles we never could have in another while the canon remains airtight.  Heck you even end up caring about a lot of the people the boys run into on this hunt and a few tears might even be pulled from your eyes.  There is still some gore in this one though I don’t think it’s as bad as his first book.  This is definitely one of the best examples of the purpose these tie-ins serve and I highly recommend it.

#1. Carved in Flesh – What makes this one number 1?  Take everything I said above and apply it here +1.  Suitably creepy moments, new characters that you actually care about, a MotW that you love to hate…  If you could only afford to get one SPN book, I’d still recommend you get Heart of the Dragon, but if you could afford two, THIS would be the next one I recommend.  The canon works and it really feels like an episode of the show.  Heck if you think that reading these books is pointless, give those two a try and see if they change your mind about getting a fix.

Well, that’s my totally scientific and not at all random rankings.  What’s yours?

(crossposted @ http://thewinchesterfamilybusiness.com/)

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4 thoughts on “Best & Worst SPN books

    • Hah, my suspicions vindicated!

      Actually with all the past stuff we’ve seen since then, especially the Men of Letters, Samuel Colt, and Eliot Ness, they could do a four, five book saga of a hunt spanning more than three generations. (Star Trek did that with some arcs spanning all the series and I thought they were some of the best tie-in books they ever did.)

      Somebody get several authors together and get on that.

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