If you're a devoted reader, but your life is chock full of responsibilities from dusk to dawn with nary a moment to just sit down and relax without fear of interruption, then you undoubtedly have already discovered the value of audiobooks. They're wonderful. Yes, they're a little pricier than print or e-versions, but the convenience that comes with them is well worth the premium price. And thankfully, vendors like Audible have subscription programs that put them within much easier reach.
And did I mention, they're convenient? I can't tell you how many miles I've logged in my car, either traveling for work or pleasure or just heading out for some local stops in my hometown, all the while listening to the next few scenes in whatever story I've downloaded to my phone. It's like having a good friend along for the ride, and one with absolutely no reliance on my input! Yes, just keep talking, and keep it interesting, will you? Alright, we're on the same page then, so to speak. We love audiobooks. Or rather, we love what audiobooks can be. But unfortunately, not all of them reach their promised potential.
In my own quest for good audiobook "reads," I have had rather mixed success finding books worth listening to. Let me take that back. I've found plenty of books whose stories were certainly worth reading, but whose narration left me utterly empty, due to vacuous, plastic-sounding readers. Sure, they might be able to articulate every word with surgical precision, but for some their ability to inhabit a story is...well...less than I'd hoped for. This seems a great place for an example or two. Agree or disagree with my assessments here, either is fine. My intent is NOT to bash any writer or narrator, but nonetheless, I will be as honest and kind as I know how to be. So there's that.
My audiobook journey had great beginnings, with books narrated by some truly talented voices. First was my venture into the Banished Lands of John Gwynne's, with Malice from The Faithful and the Fallen series, narrated by Damian Lynch. Lynch is a gifted narrator, though some might fault him for a somewhat brisk pace. I listened through the entire 4-book series, and was ready for more! In later books, though, the producers of Gwynne's audiobook series departed from Lynch in favor of Colin Mace, and for the first real moment in my listening experience, I realized I had a personal standard for narration quality that I could not compromise.
Now, I'm a follower of numerous author groups and fantasy/sci-fi reader groups, and I've heard much praise of Mace as a narrator. Personally, I found he lacked something. Whether it was the slower delivery, the less convincing character voicing, or perhaps the (forgive me, Colin) emotionless monotone of much of the reading, I just couldn't get into it. Imagine my disappointment! I loved Gwynne's works up to that point and had no doubt the story would have been equal to or surpassed his previous ones in story quality. But the notion of hearing even the most brilliant of stories through Mace's voice was akin to asking some AI reader program to "text-to-speech" it for me. Yes, I returned The Shadow of the Gods audiobook, and hope someday to have the time and leisure to read it in print form. I'm a little salty, still, that Audible doesn't allow reviews of returned audiobooks, but that's a different gripe.
Onward in my search for an audiobook escape, I decided to look into Joe Abercrombie's works, beginning with the First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself. The narrator for this series, Steven Pacey, is without a doubt an inspired reader and actor. From the first word, I was hooked. When he began voicing characters such as Glokta, with his broken, toothless lisp, I was enraptured. He truly brought the characters to life! I couldn't get enough of Abercrombie's works, so long as Pacey was the one telling the story! His normal voice was a very easy-on-the-ears British RP, very similar to Anthony Hopkins in many ways, and his voice characterizations were brilliant. As a side note, in a later book of Abercrombie's there was one particular character, a witch who had suffered a near-fatal axe blow to the head which had left her face crudely stitched back together but misaligned. Imagine having your face and head nearly cloven in half, then pieced together by a farmhand with baling wire. Though it took me a moment or two to realize it, Pacey's voicing of her dialogue embraced that disfigurement by mimicking the difficulty of speaking through lips that had been fundamentally damaged from that devastating wound. I think he did this by holding a finger to his lips as he spoke, giving her a slurred and strained manner of enunciation. The effect was beautifully chilling, and it only deepened my admiration for Pacey as a narrator and storyteller.
Later, I discovered the immutable talents of Andy Serkis (the actor who portrays Gollum) in his narration of Tolkien's works, and was beyond thrilled to listen to The Hobbit and the entire 70 hours of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as told by this master, with absolutely nothing critical to say whatsoever. There is no one--no one--who could have done more honor to Tolkien's works than Serkis.
But here's where the conundrum lies. Does the good story make the audiobook, or rather is it the storyteller? I loved the audiobooks presented by Lynch, Pacey, and Serkis, each and every one. Even works of other authors, with stories in the "yeah-it-was-decent-fantasy" category, were made fuller and richer by Pacey's genius. But I could not stand to listen to the books narrated by Mace, or others such as John Keating (Abercrombie's later works) and those who narrate Brandon Sanderson's works, Kate Reading and Michael Kramer. And I only barely got through the first of Jonathan French's The Lot Lands series, The Grey Bastards, narrated by Will Damron. (More about that one in specific later.) The point is, there are many print readers out there who were completely unimpressed by Gwynnes' works, and Abercrombie's, which begs the question for me: Did I enjoy them because of their gifted storytelling, or their inspired narration? Likewise, there are numerous books out there, Sanderson's for example, which readers praise and laud endlessly, but which despite their claims of epic storytelling, I could not suffer to listen to in audiobook format.
I'm an analytical kind of person. I like to figure out why things work or don't work, and apply those to my life in a practical sense. So as an author myself, I began to wonder if it wasn't in fact the narrator's inspiration drawn from the story that gives life to their storytelling. I mean, if the narrator isn't into it, that would certainly play out in the reading, right? So by that logic, what about books narrated by their authors? They should be brilliant, shouldn't they? Who could be more excited, more passionate, or more intimately familiar with all the characters, their mannerisms, their fears and desires, strengths and flaws, than their creator? Again, though, diving in to test my theory produced mixed results. Abercrombie himself features as a guest voice in one of his works, Sharp Ends. I bought the audiobook, listened gratefully to the portions voiced by Pacey, all the while eagerly anticipating Abercrombie's cameo. When it came, my theory about the author being by default a prime narrator of his works was, simply, debunked. Joe's strength is the brilliance of his stories.
Now somewhere in the middle of this morass of an experiment of mine lies the formerly-mentioned The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French. The narrator, Damron, was a deviation from my preferred style as he had a very basic West Coast American diction. No accent, really, just what we all might call a "normal American guy." Not bad, so I listened. When he began speaking the dialogue of the half-orcs who form the primary culture the story centers around, his voicing of them was neither guttural nor coarse as one would expect. Nor were they given any kind of accent at all, but just read in his presumedly normal voice. I was taken aback. Definitely a blinking hard moment. But I kept listening. The story was interesting to me because it struck a chord with my love of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPG). I wanted to learn more about how his world worked, all the races and lands and worldbuilding within it. The story itself was enjoyable, and after a while, the narration wasn't so much of a detraction from it. I listened to the whole book but decided at that point I was OK with not going on to book 2. There were a handful of reasons which I explain in my Goodreads review of The Grey Bastards here. Oddly, though, the narration quality wasn't one of them. Damron is a good narrator. There are better IMHO, but if the story is decent, I'll listen to more by him.
So what's the magic formula for a great audiobook? Does it have to be a brilliant story to begin with? No, not really. Not for me anyway. A passably well-written story can be brought to vivid life by a gifted reader. Does it have to be told by the author? Definitely not. While there are surely many authors who make excellent narrators, this is not always the case and I could give numerous examples where this proved true for me. Does it require that the narrator have a background in acting, capable of producing twenty or thirty unique-sounding character voices, in varied accents and dialects in order to be captivating? It certainly helps, but as I hope I've shown (at least for me), the answer here is "no" as well. In my end analysis, a truly enjoyable audiobook fantasy requires a mix of good-to-great story basics, coupled with an inspired narrator. And I would weigh this mix more heavily toward the skills of the narrator, without any doubt. Conversely, even the best of stories can be irrevocably destroyed by uninspired reading.
What about you? What makes the best audiobook experience? Have you run across any whose stories saved the day in the face of mediocre narration? Or whose narrators turned a lackluster story into a work of art? Have you been so turned off by one or the other that you couldn't soldier through the rest of the book? Or alternatively, were you rescued from what would have been a disappointing return-and-refund experience by the craft of either author or narrator?
Tell us about your audiobook experiences! We'd love to chat with you! Feel free to comment here, or in whatever forum this article appears.
Thanks for reading, and safe adventures, traveler.
Legends of Cyrradon
Jason is not only a consumer of audiobooks but an aspiring narrator, currently recording the audiobook version of "The Call." You can hear free samples from his recording sessions on the "Previews" page of their website. Also, be sure to join Jason as he presents live readings through the Storm's Rising series on Sundays via Facebook Live. Event details can be found on the LOC Facebook fan page.
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Jason and Rose Bishop are the founders of Legends of Cyrradon, and authors of the Storm's Rising epic fantasy series. Together, they craft original stories with unique and complex characters and epic plotlines. They write the stories they would enjoy reading, and delight in sharing them with you.