I love a book with a unique narrative style. Books that incorporate how the story is told into the message and ideas of the book often become my favorite and most recommended stories. It’s a clever and deep technique that can elevate a story and drive the messages and themes to a much stronger degree when done right. Unfortunately, the often hidden nature of these narratives means that several books that have brilliant narrative structures often go unnoticed by the general populace because you can’t talk about them. So, I have come up with a list of a few of my favorite examples of unique narrative styles to recommend that I can talk about. Let’s dive in.
1) Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Let’s start easy with a short story that is easy to understand and recommend. I think Elder Race is categorically my favorite novella of all time. The execution of its narrative concept and how it ties into the themes is literally perfect.
The core premise is a two-POV short story told by a scientist (Nyr) from a technologically advanced Earth and an evolved human (Lynesse) who no longer recognizes the science of their ancestors. When the story is seen from the scientist’s POV, the narrative is heavily based on science and technology. When the story is told from the descendant’s POV, everything is told from the lens of magic and mysticism. It is an extremely creative idea and it makes use of Tchaikovsky’s dual talent for both science fiction and fantasy, as well as his knack for telling two stories that explicitly foil one another. The insight into the old adage that ‘sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’ is delightful.
It’s a story that pits a science fiction and fantasy lens against one another and then slowly overlaps them in some sort of delicious metaphorical bifocal. It is an utterly unique way to tell a story and fabulous for anyone who likes both science fiction and fantasy. It’s also criminally underread, something I will also say a lot here, so go read it.
2) The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky – If you want to get weirder, we have the novella The Seventh Perfection. This story is told in the second person, so we never actually get to hear our protagonist (Manet) think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet, and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing.
The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is, and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me. This story shows how taking things away from the narrative can actually be additive. It’s a delight to read and another unique journey.
3) The Siege by K.J. Parker – Dialing back the strange for a minute we have The Siege, a set of three pseudo-standalone books that tell three separate stories in a shared world of unorthodox individuals defending their home from attack in unique ways. Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City tells the story of an engineer, How To Rule An Empire And Get Away With It tells the story of an actor, and A Practical Guide To Conquering The World focuses on a translator. Each of these books tells very unique stories about untraditional heroes using their strange skills to defeat armies. It’s comedic, extremely well-paced, full of bright memorable characters, and stuffed with twists that defied tropes and delighted me.
And, all of these stories are told through the lens of the protagonists’ jobs. The engineer’s perspective is full of math and analysis. The actor lies, bends the narrative, and has a taste for dramatic reveals. The translator is a conduit to marry cultures and peoples and lives in the space between others and shows the power of connection. Each book tells a similar story, but the lens that they use to take on the events presents a very different experience and helps you as the reader draw different conclusions about the stories, some in concordance and some conflicting. All in all, the entire series is a lot of fun both to read and to think about. Highly recommend.
4) Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Honestly, almost any book that Tchaikovsky has written could probably be on this list, so I consider it a sign of great restraint that I have limited it to just two. Children of Time is a book where the narrative tool that makes things weird is the concept of time itself. The story is about sentient spiders that evolve to parallel humans, and humans that find their way to their planet. But the story is told over the course of tens of thousands of years—a super fun idea.
At the end of each human chapter (which takes place on an arc ship flying through space) the POV characters hop into cryostasis chambers that put them back to sleep for thousands of years. Wrapping your head around this structure can take a moment as there are tons of implications you will likely not have grappled with. Examples include things like as you sleep, everyone you know on the outside will die because 1,000 years might pass or that science has evolved while they slept to the point where their skills need to be completely rehauled.
At the same time, we have the spider chapters, which tell the story of generations of spiders as they slowly evolve toward sentience. Each chapter shows challenges that the spiders face at times in their evolutionary path. Then you jump forward and see how those challenges shaped their evolution. It’s rad. Both halves of the story build time into the narrative at a molecular level and it presents a narrative I have no comparison for. I cannot recommend it enough, it’s one of our universal QTL top picks.
5) The Black Company by Glen Cook – My experience in my early 20s with The Black Company, and its shifting narrative, reignited my love of reading and was what inspired me to start The Quill To Live. It tells the story of a villainous mercenary group working for the bad guys in a Tolkienesque quest fantasy with a number of dark elements thrown in. The mercenary group eventually decides that they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, so then they try to break their contracts. What follows is a quest for their mysterious origins as their past deeds rush to catch up to them. It has one of the best endings to a series I have read and is 10 books long with a number of contained narratives inside.
On the unique narrative front, The Black Company has two interesting elements going for it. The first is it’s a war story by someone who knows how awful war has been. The book is designed to favor helping the reader experience the confusion, terror, and horror of war over a straightforward story. This means that information is scattered, the reader is often in the dark, the narrator is unreliable, and lots of things need to be pieced together in hindsight. A good portion of this is helped by our protagonist and POV, the company historian. We experience all of this through their eyes and their personality and temperament have a large effect on what you read. But, BUT, the group historian changes a number of times throughout the series and we stick with the job, not the character. Each historian has a completely different lens on the events they are experiencing, and it results in a series that feels like it was written by different authors with a ton of cohesion. Historians disagree on how events played out, contradict each other in the text, and reframe your opinions on characters (because one person’s friend is another’s enemy). It’s a strange and magical story and one of my favorites of all time.
6) The Locked Tomb by Tamsyn Muir – The Locked Tomb is a story about lesbian necromancers in space killing a god emperor of humanity through riddles and mysteries, but we aren’t here to talk about how awesome the concept is. The series, specifically book two (Harrow the Ninth) has some absolutely wild narrative styles that are both upsetting and fun. All of the books are told by individuals who are experiencing memory issues, but how those issues manifest in the text differs from person to person.
Harrow in particular is told from the perspective of someone who has had a lobotomy. This means that the way they process experiences is scrambled. Many times the character’s brain is simply unable to make connections between events or experiences moments through clouds of fog or strange sensations. The book can be literally painful to read sometimes, in a good way (surprisingly). Harrow the Ninth is less about telling a coherent narrative and much more about watching a character claw her way back to sanity—and at this, it succeeds magnificently. It is a really interesting way to tell a story and I definitely recommend the series.
7) Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames – If you are looking for a less jarring and more subtle narrative spin, you might want to try Kings of the Wyld. Kings’ premise is a classic quest fantasy reimaged through the lens of rock bands. It takes place in a world where fantasy adventuring parties function like modern-day rock bands and follows a group of retired rockstars from a famous band who do a reunion tour to save the frontman’s daughter. If you are a fan of music, rock in particular, this should be at the top of your list.
The book is a lot of fun. It has an emphasis on humor that makes it a great and upbeat read, while also taking itself pretty seriously so that it has a lot of immersion. The band theme works out really well with various members of the party filling out roles in a traditional band from bass player to a booking agent. The world is also designed very well to the point where the existence of bands of adventurers feels natural. The book also has a soundscape that Eames put up on his site that adds entirely new dimensions to the reading experience. With matched songs for each chapter, it is an entirely new way to experience a book. I have to say I have always felt lukewarm about Led Zeppelin, but thanks to the soundscape I have had them on repeat for a month. As I mentioned, the book is very funny and feels like it was written with the goal of entertaining. Despite this, I found the book to be surprisingly impactful in many instances. Check it out.
Other books worth your time – I have a ton of other recommendations up my sleeve, but many of them are hard to recommend without spoiling things. So, if you like the idea of unique narratives and need more recommendations than the seven above, here are five more that you are just going to have to trust me on: