Rob Thurman Gets Her Tenses Wrong

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.


  1. #1 Deborah
    April 10, 2011

    Unless one of them exploded/explodes/will explode at the end of the book.

  2. #2 Chrisj
    April 10, 2011

    The Stross is “Halting State”, yes? Second-person present tense. Very odd to read, but it does work well if you can cope with it. I didn’t like it as much as the excellent Laundry books, but it’s pretty good.

  3. #3 Tom
    April 10, 2011

    I would like to suggest the “people” series by Kathleen O’neal Gear and Michael Gear. The author seems to blend archeology and fiction pretty well, although I admit I am not an archeologist by any means.

  4. #4 OmegaMom
    April 10, 2011

    There’s a fantasy author whose name I can’t remember, but s/he has a similar problem when her characters are “thinking”: they think in past tense about something that’s happening to the character right now. This *really* bothers me…I find myself dissecting the thinking as I’m reading, and it distances me from the story.

    Example (sort of): “He knew that I was suspicious of him, so I had to be very careful!”, when it’s a case of the character standing right in front of the narrator, and should be “He knows that I’m suspicious of him, so I have to be very careful!”

  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    April 10, 2011

    Aaargh! I hadn’t read that particular book by her! I picked it because it had a character related to Loki (an idea that worked well when Neil Gaiman used it in “American Gods”).
    Re. Charles Stross, he is one of several remarkable SF authors in Britain, especially up north in bonnie Scotland. Something in the water causing lake monsters and SF authors?

    “if I don’t like the first 50 pages of a novel I rarely continue”
    -A good rule. The only time it might backfire is when reading “Lord Of The Rings”. The first 60-70 pages were slooow.

    Deborah: The confusion about tense might be justified if the protagonist is inside a time loop, but then you have ruined the “wilful suspension of disbelief” with a bucketload of paradoxes 🙂

    Re. Archaeology; Jack McDevitt wrote a novel involving an archaeological dig on a world where the intelligent inhabitants had died out recently enough for some artefacts to be salvageable. I forgot the title, it was not his best.

  6. #6 Jonathan Lubin
    April 11, 2011

    Thurman needed nothing more than a responsible and diligent editor.

  7. #7 Martin R
    April 11, 2011

    Haha, yeah, I agreed, she did!

  8. #8 IanW
    April 12, 2011

    “Now I’m hitting the Charles Stross novel Birger sent me. I like Stross a lot and I haven’t read this one before.”

    Then why are you hitting it? Why not just sit down instead, and read it? Who knows – maybe you’ll get along!

  9. #9 Kaleberg
    April 14, 2011

    I know that both English and French writers can use the present tense, in any person, when writing about the past, but the general rule of thumb is that it is tricky and easy to do poorly. It sounds like Thurman does a pretty good job, with a few minor slips. As they say, even Homer nods.

  10. #10 Martin R
    April 15, 2011

    Other way around, Seth. Thurman writes about the present in the past tense.

  11. #11 Dr M
    April 16, 2011

    The Grimrose Path is told in the first person, past tense. […] But the narrator shows no sign of residing at any point in time later than that of which she speaks.

    This is exactly my problem with 90% of all fiction written in the first person. Interestingly, most such books have this problem, even when the author starts out with some remark to effect that we are being told a story of events that have already unfolded from the character’s point of view. It isn’t usually a huge problem, and I have enjoyed a lot of first-person fiction despite it, but it is something that has always bothered me.

    I haven’t The Grimrose Path, and maybe the problem is particularly egregious there, and not helped by the occasional slip-up, but it surprises me a bit that you appear not to have run into this problem before.

  12. #12 Martin R
    April 16, 2011

    OK, I guess I’ll have to come clean. I hadn’t actually tried reading a book before.

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