Narration styles

Last week, I happened to read two YA fantasy novels that I enjoyed very much: A Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (in the Chronicles of Narnia) and The Rise of Nine by “Pittacus Lore” (in the Lorien Legaices series).  But after finishing them in succession I was struck by how different their narrative styles are.

A Horse and His Boy is my favorite of the Narnia books (it is currently #3 in order).  I have read it literally dozens of times.  Most people tend to overlook it in the series because it does not fit directly in the over-arching plotline of the English characters; some have also accused it of racism.  I think the book has any number of great elements–exotic locations and culture, a strong female character in Aravis, talking horses, intrigue, fanciful language, a little action and just a hint of romance.  It also has a wonderful narrator.

The narrator is not one of the protagonists of the story; possibly he is the author, as he mentions another book in the series by name.  He tells the story in 3rd person past tense, but often makes asides directly to the reader that greatly enhance the entertainment value of the book.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Aravis immediately began, sitting quite still and using a rather different tone and style from her usual one.  For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing.  The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays. –Chapter 2

During his reign, and to his face, he was called Rabadash the Peacemaker, but after his death and behind his back he was called Rabadash the Ridiculous, and if you look him up in a good History of Calormen (try the local library) you will find him under that name.  And to this day in Calormene schools, if you do anything unusually stupid, you are very likely to be called “a second Rabadash.” –Chapter 15

I think the narration works for several reasons.  Because the timeline of the series spans many years (centuries in Narnian time!) it is helpful to have a narrator outside the story to provide continuity.  Also, the style of the narration is reminiscent of an adult telling a bedtime story to a child (think Princess Bride).  Because the target audience of these books is fairly young, mainly elementary and middle schoolers, readers would respond well to this familiar style.

The Rise of Nine, on the other hand, is written in the currently-trendy 1st person present tense, like Hunger Games and many others.  Personally, I am not a fan of this trend and will probably never be able to write in this tense.  It can be confusing to the reader if done badly, but I think it is done pretty well in Rise of Nine.  This book is for older, teenaged readers, and I think they appreciate the immediacy of this narration.  Teenagers are nothing if not dramatic–everything is happening RIGHT NOW and it is LIFE OR DEATH–so I think that 1st person present tense really helps them get into the book because it feels very real to them.

This installation is split between 3 narrators, Numbers Four (John Smith), Six, and Seven (Marina).  My main problem with this was that I was frequently unable to tell who was speaking until I read at least a page; I was especially unable to differentiate between the girls.  The name is not listed at the start of the chapter a la “A Song of Ice and Fire;” you have to tell who’s speaking based on the font.  I found the Six and Seven fonts hard to distinguish, and the characters were often in the same place together so the context was similar.  Ironically, their personalities are radically different, so the fact that I had a hard time telling them apart does not speak well for the quality of writing/character development.

I think Rise of Nine is a nice addition to the Lorien Legacies series, fleshing out some of the new Garde characters and giving plenty of action (although there is virtually no falling action after the climactic battle).  I am looking forward to continuing the series–hopefully the next one will have more of Sam and less of Sarah.

3 thoughts on “Narration styles

  1. the20somethingexistentialcrisis June 28, 2017 / 2:18 pm

    I know this is an old post, but I found it on your review of The Handmaid’s Tale.

    You pretty much put into words my epic loathing of first person stories. I just can’t. I couldn’t do Twilight, I’ve struggled through the Hunger Games. I’m sure if Harry Potter was in first person, it wouldn’t have been so successful. To me, it feels lazy and cliche. Unless you are using it as a plot tool to deliberately create an unreliable narrator, I just can’t. lol.

    Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mei-Mei June 28, 2017 / 11:21 pm

      Yeah, I didn’t mind it too much in Hunger Games, but pretty much everything else that came after it…nope.
      In the hands of a good author, I think it can work, but I agree it feels really cliche at this point. I’d love to see some more variation, especially in YA.

      Liked by 1 person

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