Second person

At, this post: 12 SFF Stories Told From Second-Person Perspective

Interesting! I have to be in just the right mood to want to read something in second person … it is such a self-conscious mode! It screams: Pay attention to the craft of this story! Do not even think about being emotionally engaged! Emotional engagement is not the point! Or so it seems to me, at least.

Twelve! That’s a long list for this particular category of SFF stories. Let’s just take a look …

1.Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

2. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie — oh, yes, I remember now, starting this book and thinking OH NO and closing it again.

“I first saw you when you rode out of the forest, past the cluster of tall, bulge-eyed offering stakes, your horse at a walk. You rode beside Mawat …”

I believe that’s as far as I got. Not in the mood! Do not know when I will be in the mood, if ever.

Would you call that second person, though? I’d call that … what? … interior monologue first person. It’s still incredibly contrived and self-conscious.

3. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

4. “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods” by Maria Dahvana Headley — this is a short story. A shorter form that’s using second person is MUCH more approachable for me than a novel. I’m much more willing to put up with the form if I know going in that the story is not that big a commitment.

5. Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North — oh, now, that’s just cheating. This is a fun choose-your-own-adventure . . . thing. Book. Book-like thing. Not a novel or a story. Lots of tiny little stories embedded in this . . . thing. Fun, though.

6. Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin

7. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold

8. The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera — I have this one on my TBR shelves. Hmm. It says here that most of the novel, or a large part of it, is in the form of a letter someone is reading, so … let me see … okay, like this:

Shizuka, my Shizuka. If Grandmother Sky is good, this finds you sitting on your throne, eating far too many sweets, and complaining about all the meetings you must attend.

My apologies for the awful calligraphy. I know you are shaking your head even as you read this, saying something about my brushstrokes not being decisive enough.

That starts a few pages from the actual beginning of the story. Actually . . . this is a good technique. At least, for me it seems to counter some of the immediate recoil I otherwise experience when faced with second person, or monologue first person addressed to the reader, or whatever you’d call this. The point is, the conceit of putting the story into a letter that’s read after the fact does work better for me than not having this kind of framing. Interesting! I didn’t realize adding a frame would help me accept this style, but apparently it might.

Let’s see, what else —

9. This is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar

10. Redshirts by John Scalzi — the codas at the end. True. I’d forgotten about those.

11. Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

12. You by Austin Grossman

A few of these sound sort of interesting. I’ve heard a lot about the Gladstone/El-Mohtar book, but (a) time travel is somewhat to moderately repellent to me as a trope, and now (b) self-conscious choices of second-person or second-person-adjacent styles are moderately to very repellent as a style, so … if any of you have read this book and love it, let me know. Otherwise no matter how much people rave about it, I’m unlikely to try it myself.

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10 thoughts on “Second person”

  1. Warchild by Karin Lowachee starts in second person perspective. It’s almost a device the narrator uses to distance himself from a traumatic event. It’s initially disconcerting as a reader but on consideration becomes organic. The story also moves between present and past tense as the narrator accommodates and learns to deal with life in extreme situations. In outline, the story seems very dark but the characters are very compelling and the culture is fascinating.

  2. This is How You Lose the Time War is not a second-person novel! It’s a third-person novel with many letters between the two protagonists. The time-travel aspect isn’t dwelled upon. I don’t want to give details, since I think much of the joy lies in discovery. It’s a lovely book, and I think you’d enjoy it very much.

  3. Time War is much more about the characters and their relationship than it is about the plot, so the time travel stuff is really mostly window dressing – I don’t think it should be a dealbreaker. The writing style and vocabulary are a lot of fun. But, it isn’t 2nd person, except for the letters they exchange.

  4. I’ll third the comments about Time War — the you stuff is all in letters to each other, so it’s not so grating. It’s a strange, but weirdly lovely novella.

    I’m bummed that Harrow is in second person because I loved the first book… But I’m having a hard time reading more than a few pages of Harrow at a go. Second person is so irritating…

  5. Thank you for your comments! Letters! If I had read the post more carefully, maybe that was clear, I’m not sure. Well, that sounds much better. That’s a lot like the Tiger’s Daughter, obviously, and I guess that post was being VERY broad in defining “second person” — too broad, honestly.

    I like epistolary novels just fine. Given your comments, I’m picking up a sample now, so I will try it eventually.

    Mary, I read Warchild, but I actually had some problems with the story. I just did not really connect with the characters — now I wonder if that might have been an effect of the second-person beginning. Plus as the story unfolded, I thought it was extremely obvious that the bad guy was the bad guy and I kept wanting the good guys to realize it, or even more, I wanted the author to go a different direction with that part of the plot. I did like the detailed day-to-day life, though. That was really the aspect of the book that worked best for me.

  6. I actually quite liked The Raven Tower once I figured out that it’s actually more first-person than second-person—the narrator is a key character in the story, although for part of the novel the narrator is addressing another character, perhaps attempting to explain the narrator’s choices and actions. But yes, it’s very consciously stylized.

    The one I don’t get at all is Harrow. The first book in the series was in tight third person—I’m not used to a series changing narrative structure midway through! (And I’m not quite sure I can forgive it for the end of Gideon, though I’m trying to reserve judgment until I actually read Harrow.)

  7. I will just mention that MWT absolutely does major person shifts in the Queen’s Thief series. There, it works, so it can be done.

  8. The only really effective use of it I’ve seen was a story where a woman was cloning her sister and recounting the story of her sister’s life as she did so, to the clone.

    It concluded with her making a decision about the process based on her sister’s lifestory.

  9. It’s been awhile since I read Code Name Verity but I seem to remember some of it was in second person.

  10. I thought The Raven Tower was quite brilliant in the way it used second person: you figure out fairly quickly who the “you” is, and then you wonder who is addressing “you,” and why, and then you find out and it kind of blows the story wide open. Seems clever and contrived at first but it totally works with the themes and characterization.

    Is it the second Queen’s Thief book(?) that’s first person being told to someone, and it changes everything just a bit when you find out who the story is being told to. I think that’s similar to what happens in Code Name Verity (it’s been a while since I’ve read it). The frame is everything when it comes to unconventional POVs.

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