My love for audiobooks continues to increase, especially as my life gets busier with work and expanding interests. I want to read all the things (my to-read pile is at 638 on Goodreads, and I probably actually have about half of those books on my physical book shelf, in piles in my room, loaded onto my tablet or phone…), but sometimes it’s just not feasible. Audiobooks are my life savers. Some people might consider it “cheating” to listen to someone read a book rather than read it myself, but isn’t that how many of learned how to read in the first place?
One obvious element that makes audiobooks so good is the narrator. A good narrator can make a not so great book so much better. They can add just the right amount of depth and emotion to get me through huge books that, given my other commitments, I may never have considered reading at all, like Brandon Sanderson’s new fantasy epic, The Way of Kings, which boasts a whopping 400,000 or so words. Personally speaking, I can barely make it through a chapter before my jaw starts complaining when reading to my daughters at bedtime, so I have the utmost praise for what audiobook narrators do. Now that I’ve discovered the joy of audiobooks, I am always recommending them, and will recommend books based on the narrator alone because they are just that good. Here are a few to keep an ear out for:
Simon Vance is at the top of my list. Neil Gaiman calls him “the gold standard of narrators” and he has won numerous awards for his voice work. He has narrated more than 700 different books, and I had the honour of interviewing him last year to learn a bit about how his daily life as a narrator works. His voice is crisp and clean and his rhythm and cadence is soothing when it needs to be, harsh when it needs to be, and always… classy. Learning that he is narrating a particular book almost makes it an automatic purchase for me, and I have even purchased audiobooks of books I’ve already read just to hear his interpretation of the characters (he makes them sound much better than they do in my head).
I have loved Claudia Black since I first met her as Aeryn Sun in Farscape. I’ve since seen her in many other acting roles, and regularly listen to her in many of my favourite video games as amazing characters like Morrigan, the Witch of the Wilds in Dragon Age or Admiral Xen, Matriarch Aethyta in Mass Effect. Her audiobook repertoire is not quite as vast as her video game and live action acting resume, but she managed to literally have me on the edge of my seat while listening to Lian Tanner’s Museum of Thieves. The depth of emotion that made me laugh and cry in Farscape is just as strong in her narration and it sweeps me away every time I hear her.
When I first heard Will Patton’s voice narrating the first book in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, I did not like it. The main character was a young girl named Blue, who was surrounded by a family of talented women. Not that I have any issue with men narrating female characters, or vice versa, but it seemed odd to me that a book that had so many female characters would feature a male narrator. But as I continued on and the Raven Boys of the prestigious Aglionby private school introduced themselves, I slowly came to appreciate Patton’s interpretation of all the characters, especially Ronan Lynch. Patton captures Lynch’s razer sharp personality perfectly with a gravely, dangerous inflection.
Marc Thompson has an advantage in the books he narrates: they are all Star Wars books, including the latest addition to the universe, The Force Awakens. Thompson is a skilled narrator, able to handle a cast full of characters, even when they appear all within the same scene as they do in Star Wars: Scoundrels, an Ocean’s Eleven-like space caper where I had to do a check my ear phones when I Lando Calrissian appeared. Nope, it wasn’t the esteemed Billy Dee Williams. It was Thomspon doing an expertly mimicked version of the swash buckling con man, along with Han Solo. I don’t think he voices Chewbacca’s growls and warbles, though. The Star Wars audiobooks also come complete with sound effects and excerpts from the classic John Williams score.
Representation means so much. Being able to see someone who looks like you on screen is so important, but so too is hearing voices and dialects that reflect your own culture. Mile’s Recorded Books profile reads: “One of Robin’s special talents as a narrator and voiceover artist is her chameleon-like ability to recreate accents and speech patterns from all corners of the globe.” I have listened to Robin Miles read two books now, The Good House by Tananarive Due and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. From Creole to African dialects, to aliens in outer space, Miles moves smoothly from one character to the next as if all of these cultures were first nature to her.
Say “Kun-kabynalti osu fuir’is!” five times fast. Can’t do it? Justine Eyre probably can. Sometimes it takes just one book or series to make me fall in love with a narrator. That was the case with Eyre’s reading of Patrick Weekes’ The Palace Job and The Prophecy Con and I eagerly await the next book, just so that I can hear Eyre’s take on the motley team of thieves and brigands. While I am utterly smitten with her work on this series, the classically trained actress has nearly 300 others audiobooks under her belt. I have a lot of catching up to do.
As an actress, Jennifer Mendenhall has performed in many different stage shows that I have never seen, but I can certainly recognize her voice as Kate Reading when she often takes on roles involving older female protagonists. The latter is not too common in speculative fiction, which is why I love reading such books, but it certainly helps too that Reading brings the necessary gravitas and maturity to these women, balanced with their frustration, exhaustion, and self-doubt. Of the books I’ve listened to now, Ista of Louis McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls is my absolute favourite, followed closely by Marie Brennan’s Memoirs by Lady Trent series. She does narrate stories with younger protagonists, but it is the older women that make me love Reading’s narrations best.
There was a little bit of celebrity crush going on when I decided to listen to a book narrated by James Marsters, formerly known as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s done a few audiobooks that I have not yet partaken of, but the first books I listened to were from Jim Butcher’s series about a wizard detective named Harry Dresden. While the Dresden Files did appear in a television, listening to Marsters’ version of Harry quickly erased the few episodes that I did watch (Sorry Paul Blackthorne).
I’m familiar with Gideon Emery’s sexy voice as the tormented elf, Fenris, in Dragon Age II. I love listening to him in game, so picking up his rendition of Charles Stross’ Atrocity Archives was an impulsive purchase. While his voice work as Krampus in the movie might not be as sexy as what I’m used to, he plays Bob, the I.T. guy very well — and that’s not just my bias talking.
Dick Hill’s voice is rich and deep, which works well for many of his male characters, but he also voices Anne Macaffrey’s dragonrider, Lessa, in the Pern series, and the young sisters of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia series. I’ve only listened to two books narrated by him, one from each series mentioned, I’m confident that his Audie and Earphone awards are well-earned, particularly when it comes to presenting stories on as epic a scale as Acacia, with its various locations and cultures.
I recommend each of these narrators on their own, but I also recommend cast readings. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile was a treat, though I didn’t recognize the voice actors. Alternately, I am quite interested in Joe Hill’s Locke & Key graphic novel, read by a cast that includes Tatiana Maslany and Kate Mulgrew, and I loved the BBC radio recording of the Twilight Zone tales.
If you haven’t tried audiobooks yet, or haven’t listened to these particular narrators, I promise that they will make your listening experience even better!