Apparently, 2020 is the year where I’m not letting the things that bother me go.
The topic of narrative style is something I’m becoming more and more passionate about. I feel like it’s my subconscious way of flexing my editor’s brain to keep active. But more this year than any year before, I’ve been disappointed by a number of books that could have been so much better, and well deserving of their hype, if the author just changed one little thing: their narrative style. I think I’ve already made myself clear on what I think of which narrative fits what genre, and that stance was solidified by these books in question.
Do I believe all of these five books were bad? No, I don’t. But I also don’t believe they were particularly good or met their full potential, either. Again, some of these books come down to a matter of taste but part of me can’t help but wonder if I would’ve enjoyed them infinitely better if they were simply written differently (and correctly).
1. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
To be clear, I did end up enjoying Shadow and Bone and the rest of the trilogy, but not as much as I enjoyed Six of Crows. And the biggest difference between those two series is the narrative style. For some reason, Leigh Bardugo had written Shadow and Bone in first person and I’m guessing it was because of the assumption that that was how you wrote a YA book in the early 2010s. But never again has she written in first person and if that’s not a clear indicator of my argument then I don’t know what is. The vast improvement in Bardugo’s writing between the two series is so clear and I believe it’s because she realized how much better of a handle she had on her world, and characters, if she wrote in third person. The world building in Shadow and Bone was fine, but it wasn’t great; the characters were fine, but they weren’t great; the plot was fine, but it wasn’t great. Contrast that with any of her other works, you really see what the weak link is in her career. You can call me crazy, but the evidence doesn’t lie.
2. The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu
This book was a mess for many reasons, in my opinion, but I feel like Lu made a mistake by trying to write a historical fiction in first person. Rather than feeling like you’re reading a part of history it felt like you were just reading a bad headcanon fanfic. The narrative voice of Nannerl lacked the strength you’d expect to see in a historical fiction and it made me wonder if that strength would’ve been found in a third person narrative. I personally think the story really would’ve benefitted from more of a third party objective voice rather than the simplicity of what we assumed to be the voice of a 12 year old telling a muddled story of a make believe fantasy world. I understand what Lu wanted to with this book but I truly think she made a mistake with the first person narrative.
3. Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin
Again, another book I didn’t like for a multitude of reasons but the biggest was that Mahurin couldn’t decide what audience she was writing for: the Young Adult audience or the New Adult audience. It was like the content was for an older reader but the narrative voice was for a younger reader and it didn’t mesh. I understand that, if this was originally intended for a NA audience, the first person narrative is assumed to be more common but if she’s trying to world build and complicate things with a magic system, a third person voice would’ve worked infinitely better. With the narrative Mahurin went with, I barely understood the magic system she attempted to create and the world building was borderline nonexistent; two things that a fantasy-type novel needs to be successful. I get that the focal point is the romance, which a first person works fine for, but looking at the big picture it was a massive writing mistake.
4. This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith
This book was actually pretty good compared to the others on this list, and interestingly enough is the only book on this list written in third person, but part of me wonders what it would’ve read like if written in first. I didn’t have much issue with Smith’s writing but a lot of the time it felt like it was originally written in first person and someone made her change to third person. I don’t particularly hate third person for contemporary stories, but it’s an instance where I prefer to be in the character’s mind so I can feel and understand them better. Again, this book was fine with its current narrative style but I feel it was a little awkward in parts. I just want to see what it would’ve looked like in a first person narrative and see if it would’ve worked just a bit better.
5. From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout
This is the book that started this entire conversation for me. I’m not going to sugar coat it: Jennifer L. Armentrout absolutely messed up with this book. She wanted to try something new and different but in the long run, she barely made any effort. This book was meant to be a high fantasy story but with such a whiny, indecisive character providing the first person narrative it didn’t work. Armentrout has, for most of her career, written stories with paranormal realism that had a contemporary narrative feel, but she cannot do that with high fantasy. She needed to use a third party voice to properly world build and establish what exactly she wanted to do with this book but instead kept her contemporary style of writing and it failed her. I guarantee if this was written in third person I would’ve liked it better, and it probably would’ve made eons of more sense. But like with Serpent and Dove, the focal point wasn’t the actual story or the world building (you know, the pillars of a fantasy or high fantasy novel); instead it was a romance that wasn’t all that great to being with, either. Every time I think of this book I am filled with frustration at what we could’ve had if Armentrout made the effort to use the proper narrative style and it sucks. But it is what it is.
To reiterate, these are all my own personal thoughts and opinions. If you enjoyed these books as they are then that’s great; I would never want to change your mind, much like I’d never want someone to change my own. All I intend to do is start a conversation and push you to really think about why you didn’t like a book and constructively figure out how it could be better. This is me starting my campaign for better written books in 2020 and onward.