Fractured Fantasy - Too Many Damn POVs

I feel like I can’t pick up a fantasy book these days without getting smacked in the face with multiple POVs, narrative skipping around like a jackrabbit on PCP, annoying characters taking up too much space, storytelling losing cohesion as the pot gets stirred in seemingly arbitrary fashion, etc.

Multiple POVs, in the hands of a master writer, when the technique fits the story and setting, can be good. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy had multiple but limited POVs and was incredibly good. ASoIaF was the ur-example (although I feel the POVs were getting out of control as the series progressed).

And now, the technique is everywhere. In the hands of writers who don’t have a damn clue how to do it, crapping all over otherwise potentially interesting fantasy works.

Gah. It must stop.

There are so many potential downsides and pitfalls:

Narrative cohesion: you have to be a truly great writer to weave any kind of complex plot into coherence with multiple POVs. It’s so easy for the plot to wander, stagger, develop gaps and inconsistencies with multiple POVs.

Annoying characters: you better hope every single POV character is both interesting and not too annoying b/c pretty soon I’m gonna be skipping chapters and that often leads to just putting down the book.

Loss of interest: if you get me really interested in something and then cut away, you better by god be getting back to it soon with a proper payoff or I’m just gonna stop caring.

And on and on. I have had enough. Until we figure out what’s going on, we need a moratorium on multiple POV fantasy.

This is really just a complaint about good vs. poor writing, I think. The writers who mishandle multiple POV would probably be equally uninteresting working with just a single POV.

What I find jarring are the writers who mix first- and third-person, usually segregated by chapter breaks, but still it’s just weird to me.

Whaaaa? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this. First or 3rd person is just something that has to be consistent. What books do this, out of curiosity?

Sharpe: I haven’t read as much Fantasy, but the first author I read that did this a lot was David Brin in his Uplift series. I read Startide Rising First, and then the Uplift War. He always switches back and forth between multiple characters, always ending any particular POV chapter with a cliff hanger so you really, really didn’t want to switch characters at that moment. Of course, I was pretty young back then and didn’t realize this method of story-telling.

I only became conscious of it years later when he wrote a sequel (Brightness Reef). He does it again in that book, and he does it a LOT. So much so that I finally became aware of it.

David Brin and GRRM are the two authors that did it that come to mind. They both did it well, GRRM less so in his later books, like you said. By the time Brightness Reef ended, I was kind of in awe of David Brin’s ability to do it so each Chapter always ended in an exciting cliff hanger, always interesting. What a great writer.

Barry Eisler uses it in his John Rain books, at least one I read. I encountered it somewhere else too, but I don’t remember where now.

Ann Leckie mixes first and second person in The Raven Tower, as discussed in The Book Thread. I found it to be both jarring and ambitious and ultimately it worked for me.

I have two more thoughts on this:

One thing that really bothers is that Amazon does a very poor job of letting me know ahead of time if the book is going to feature multiple POVs. Sometimes the book description makes it obvious by describing various different characters. Other times the book description will make it sound like a single-protagonist story and then when you start reading there’s a bunch of POVs. I hate that.

Second, although I agree this is an instance of bad writing, it’s a very particular form of bad writing. Many of these books seem to have interesting stories, or interesting worlds or interesting characters, or all three, but the structure of the story just kills it for me.

It boils to down to overuse of the multiple-POV technique in fantasy, IMO.


One of the earlier works that popularized the split first/third was probably Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. The first book was a single first POV, but the other books added additional POVs in third person.

I still need to check out that series. Time travel to the past doesn’t interest me much in theory, but I loved reading Connie Willis’ books on the subject, so I need to check out the Outlander series to see if it will scratch the same itch. Connie Willis’ books also had a bit of romance mixed in places too and it worked well.

I read—tried to read—Blackout, and it was guilty of everything you were complaining about. Too many characters (made doubly so because these were people adopting personas because of traveling through time), too much skipping around, nothing of interest happening.

I made it to the scene where they were trying to fake the tanks being out in the field and when the fog lifted three separate times in the span of a page, I damn near threw the book across the plane. Perhaps the most poorly edited book I’ve ever seen. Haven’t read any of her others, though.

I haven’t read Blackout or All Clear yet, so I can’t comment on those. I would highly recommend Doomsday Book and to a slightly lesser extent To Say Nothing of the Dog.

I’m still waiting for a sale on Blackout/All Clear.

Do you ever try the samples they let you look at on Kindle? I’ve been downloading them like crazy the last two weeks, and sometimes (not always) you can suss some of that stuff from the sample. The samples include the entire chapter list, and for instance, so I can tell The Raven Tower switches back and forth between 2 main POVs.

Do booksellers other than Amazon somehow do a better job? I would think that the book description is provided by the publisher or author. I’d be surprised if Amazon went through and somehow read/reviewed each of the books to write a description. So if you’re having a hard time identifying this issue (which I will admit, isn’t as much of a pet peeve for me), I don’t think it’s necessarily an Amazon-specific thing.

Robert Jordan did it before either in The Wheel of Time. It is a relatively old literary device. GRRM is more obvious about it in terms of his title chapters, but it’s a worm’s eye view of the world, allowing for a confined inner voice.

They are excellent, though I think that Blackout is overly long and perhaps self-indulgent in that respect. It could have been 2/3rds that length and just as good. Yes, POV chapters with an inner voice.

Still, they are her best in the Oxford Time Travellers series. No doubt that. Pretty awesome social history of England during WWII disguised as a SF series. I enjoyed The Domesday Book ,too, but it’s weak sauce compared to Blackout/All Clear. I consumed them as Audio Books - and thought they were very well done. My wife enjoyed them as well.

Robert Jordan is a weird case. It’s the only instance I know where I know fans of the author, and they all told me not to read his series.

At one point in the series’ publication arc, that view prevailed among a good chunk of the readers – and it was perhaps justified, too. Jordan lost a good chunk of his readers around Volume 6.

The justification for that view ended when the series was completed in an extremely satisfactory way. Brandon Sanderson finished the series faithful to the characters and on a high note, too.

The Wheel of Time is not for everybody, but excepting Book 10 (which is simply a poor novel), the series is great and rewards readers with a deep dive into High Fantasy.

The audio books are particularly well done. If you have a chunk of time you are prepared to just check out of the real world and transport yourself to fantasy land, it’s well worth it.

I’ve done the “full listen” to The Wheel of Time once before and I just started listening to the final 14th volume last night to complete my second full tour. Volume 14, in particular, is an amazing payoff.

I would recommend The Wheel of Time to any fan of high fantasy. It is one of the best selling fantasy series of all time for a good reason.