I’m a picky reader when it comes to entertainment, and if I don’t like the first 50 pages of a novel I rarely continue. The most recent casualty of this policy is a book I was very kindly given by Birger Johansson, Rob Thurman’s The Grimrose Path (2010). Its a modern urban fantasy with angels and demons and tricksters, and it failed to interest me much. Usually I don’t review stuff I don’t like here, since I prefer to offer the Dear Reader recommendations. But this book suffers from an interesting weakness that I can’t remember coming across before, and I thought I might say something about that.
We’re all very used to reading fiction told in the past tense. “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” And we’re all very used to reading fiction told in the first person: “I’ll tell you everything I can, there’s little to relate”. Quite often the two are combined, “I am old now, but I was once young, and this is the story of my first love. She was as fair as the moon as she came tiptoeing through the tulips on bright May morning…”.
The Grimrose Path is told in the first person, past tense. Nothing unusual with that. But the narrator shows no sign of residing at any point in time later than that of which she speaks. Our narrator is not reminiscing, she doesn’t know yet what’s going to happen next: she’s just right here, right now and unable to use the present tense. And this makes for some pretty strange and clunky exposition. After all, she needs to tell us a lot about her fictional world that is true in a general sense: “There are angels and demons and tricksters in the world”, but she tells it all in the past tense as if it were no longer true.
At a few points she slips up: on page 52 Thurman writes, “If they [an organisation named Eden House] had any idea what Griffin [an ex-demon] had been and what Zeke [an ex-angel] had abandoned, they would’ve done their level best to kill them both.” Since the narrator is speaking consistently in the past tense, this should have been “If they had had any idea … they would’ve” etc.
So my free advice to fiction writers on this point is this. If you’re writing in the first person, past tense, decide when your narrator is speaking about his past, and make sure to communicate this to your reader. And any general timeless information about your world, you impart in the first person, present tense. Because even in your narrator’s old age, there are still two moons in the sky just like in the adventurous days of his youth.
Now I’m hitting the Charles Stross novel Birger sent me. I like Stross a lot and I haven’t read this one before.