Sometimes I get irritated with my own reading preferences. And I don’t mean my doomed search for smart plots about time travel physics or aliens subtly shaping human culture. I mean the actual narrative structures that drive me batty. See, I have a real problem getting lost in books with alternating POVs. I really like to get deeply invested in the inner lives of characters, and there’s nothing that pulls me out of that like a new chapter from someone else’s point of view. What’s worse than alternating point of view is unpredictably alternating POV – where one chapter, it’s character A, the next it’s character B, the next it’s character A again, but then we meet character X, who’s in a completely different plot. The absolute worst is sudden point of view shift in the middle of a chapter, with no discernible indication that we’ve shifted into another character’s brain – I’m reading along about pirates and suddenly I’m seeing the world from the eyes of a magic lizard.
Which is what happened last night when I hit roughly the first quarter of Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic. I really want to like this book. There are all sorts of elements about it that mean I should like it: living ships made of magic wood, complicated family dynamics, the aforementioned magic lizards. But I can’t get past the point of view shifts. Just as I’m getting invested in Althea and her story, we switch to the point of view of the captain she’s been railing against. From Althea’s brother-in-law’s point of view, his story seems perfectly reasonable and Althea seems completely wrong. What I’m left with is confusion – about who I’m supposed to care about, whose side of the story I’m supposed to believe. I see the benefit of hearing the same story twice from both sides – two sides of the same coin and all that – but what happens is I end up caring less about everyone’s story when I should care more about just one person.
I need a touchstone when I read a book. Most of the time, I need one character who I’m supposed to hang on to. Some authors can pull it off, and paint a rich enough picture of the shared worlds of multiple character POVs to carry me alone (see Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) but Robin Hobb isn’t doing it for me. I’m getting bored with how bogged down the plot is getting having events told from one character to another covering every single second like the narrative is a game of tag, and I don’t really care about anyone, because we either see to little of them or have their side of the story immediately juxtyaposed with someone else whose version of evenets seems perfectly reasonable and sympathetic. And it’s all my fault, because I tried to read another book with alternating POVs and I should have known better, magic lizards or no.