Voice is a tricky thing. It’s one of those writing qualities where you know when you see it, but it can’t be easily described or defined. Yet you hear it talked about all the time, particularly from critics… “A fresh new voice.” “An original and unique voice.” But rarely does anyone ever qualify what voice is—because, in a way, you can’t. Not in the same way you can describe, say, the machinations of a plot, a system of magic, or an imagined sci-fi universe. Voice can’t be taught, and it can’t be replicated. And yet, it’s one of the most crucial aspects of fiction.
To me, voice is point of view. It’s the character of the person telling the story—maybe the writer, maybe the narrator, maybe a blending of the two. The point is, you get a sense that there’s a distinct vision, personality, or both behind the work. For example: Guillermo del Toro has a distinct voice; you know what his films are going to look and feel like. You recognize the consistency of the ideas driving his stories. Megan Abbott has a tremendous voice—if you’re familiar with her writing, you can be given one of her books, not know she wrote it, and likely guess it’s her work.
Voice, you can say, is where craft and an artist’s life collide. It’s the marriage of what they’ve learned as a writer, director, etc. and what they’ve experienced as a human being.
When I set out to write Barbaric—my comic series about a barbarian (Owen) cursed to always do the right thing, whose moral compass is a sentient axe (Axe) who gets drunk on blood—my top priority was to get my voice into the story. I wanted to get my way of looking at life—a gaze that’s cynical yet loving, humorous, and thoroughly over all the bullshit—into Owen’s story. Barbaric isn’t about me, but it’s told in a way only I can tell it. Which is one of the most vital aspects of voice—the reality is, most every story has been told. Rare is the storyteller that tells a story that hasn’t been recorded, in some form or variation, at some point in the past. That’s why it’s oftentimes not only the story itself that draws us in; it’s about how the story is told.
That’s where my mind was focused with Barbaric. Because, look, I know what this story is: It’s a sword and sorcery riff. It’s Conan the Barbarian with a twist. The trick was telling the Conan story in a new way; telling it in a way that I thought only I could tell it. Which is how I came to Owen: This guy who’s past his prime and can no longer do the cool shit he used to do. He’s weary, he’s sardonic, and he’s got this axe with him all the time, always telling him what to do and screaming at him to feed him blood (I have two kids, and the similarities between them and a bloodthirsty axe are remarkably similar).
Also, I wanted to tell a story that’s fun—fun to read and fun for me to tell. I’m the kind of guy who likes turning the dial up to 11; I unironically like Mötley Crüe; I think Michael Bay, in proper doses, can be all right. I’d had the idea for a cursed barbarian for a long time, but I could never get myself excited to tell Owen’s story in your typical fantasy genre way. I didn’t want to build a big, crazy world; I didn’t want to craft a complicated mythology. I just wanted to focus on Owen, cursed and miserable, and his shit-talking, bloodthirsty companion, and see what happened with them as they went around the land, forced to be the last thing either of them really wants to be—good.
And I had some inspiration along the way. When I think about unique fantasy stories that have wildly unique and compelling voices driving them, I think of these six authors…
We all know Abercrombie as one of the godfathers of grimdark, and that reputation isn’t wrong. You can point to The Blade Itself and see how it became a kind of blueprint for many fantasy novels to come. But what I think often gets confused in discussions about Abercrombie’s work is that he’s not dark in the way you’d expect. His books aren’t considered grim just because, as they say, none of his characters are safe. The darkness in Abercrombie’s work stem from his moral and philosophical complexities. He’s constantly putting characters in positions where they have to choose one awful thing or another, or do something that’ll be beneficial to them but awful for everyone else.
He’s like Cormac McCarthy blended with Robert Jordan. Not only that, but Abercrombie—at least to me—is hilarious. In all the obsidian waters he forces his character to wade through, he regularly manages to find some kind of unexpected—and usually bleak—humor.
In one of the opening chapters of Eames’s sterling debut novel Kings of the Wyld, the story’s protagonist, Clay, has decided to help one of his old friends in what is likely to be a suicide mission into a deadly battle. We know Clay was once the leader of a band—a group of badasses traveling the realm, slaying monsters, quelling evil, and wowing townspeople with their heroic escapades—and the life he used to live wasn’t exactly a noble one. But that was a long time ago. Clay’s different now. He’s got a family and a lousy post in a small village.
The magic trick that Eames pulls, though, is how he balances so much in a short space—enough to distinguish himself as tremendous new voice in fantasy. Sure, Clay’s life was violent, and there’s a lot of humor in his reunion with his former bandmate. But there’s also sorrow there. Regret, too. And I dare anyone to just try to keep their eyes dry when Clay has to say goodbye to a certain someone that’s dear to him. Eames’ writing doesn’t put a premium on worldbuilding or mythology—it’s all character and voice, and it’s a masterpiece because of it.
It’s impossible not to talk about fantasy voices without mentioning Hobb’s work. It’s funny, because her voice has almost become the standard, as it has been mimicked so often over the years. It makes you almost forget just how powerful and unique her work has always been, from The Farseer Trilogy all the way to her most recent work. Her combination of worldbuilding, wit, and absolutely gorgeous prose has influenced an entire generation of writers, and beyond. And few fantasy writers bring as much nuance to the genre as Hobb—in her world, just because a character has claimed victory, that doesn’t mean they’ve won.
As with Eames, everything you need to know about Buehlman’s stunning fantasy novel The Blacktongue Thief is in its opening salvo. You’re introduced to Kinch, the blacktongue thief himself, who relates his tale with colorful narration and a whole lot of style. In just a few short pages, Buehlman sets the stage for a story that’s told in a way that’s richly its own and features an unforgettable cast of characters.
Not to mention moments that had me laughing out loud—a rarity for me—while reading. Like in the first chapter when, after Kinch’s band of thieves try and fail to rob someone more powerful than them and one of them gets her hand cut off, Buehlman writes: “Spear had picked up her lost hand and run into the forest like she knew a sewer-on of hands whose shop closed soon.” That is simply priceless.
You know, I’ve mentioned before how I don’t put all that much stock into worldbuilding, and that’s true. And while some authors manage to excel at one or the other, voice or world, not many can do both. James, though, is the exception. His first novel in the Dark Star Trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, presents a rich and intricate fantasy world, steeped in history and myth. It’s truly stunning. And his voice, so clear, complex, and oftentimes brutal, practically leaps off the page. James’s book is epic, and feels like every choice he makes—in the story and in how it’s told—was considered down to the most granular level. This book is raw, powerful, and though it’s often been compared to Game of Thrones, I, personally, don’t think that’s apt. James’s story, and his voice, are all his own—I completely fell into this novel. Or, better yet, James pulled me in.
Speaking of books that announce themselves, thoroughly, within mere pages: French’s The Grey Bastards grabs you by the lapels right from the start and never lets go. I think there’s a blurb on the cover that likens this book to the show Sons of Anarchy, and that’s absolutely accurate. French’s story packs in plenty of darkly humorous moments, but he’s also unafraid to up the mayhem, much like SoA, resulting in some truly grueling moments and dark twists.
French turns the fantasy genre inside-out by dropping the tropes we all know into something like prestige TV; he’s constantly twisting the screws on his characters, upping the ante, all while crafting an unforgettable band of gritty characters. Also, a group or orcs who ride literal hogs like motorcycles is just too good of a concept to not fall in love with. This book is bloody, it’s fun, and French writes in a way that’s all his own.
Michael Moreci is a screenwriter and bestselling comics author. His debut feature film, Revealer (which he wrote and executive produced), will premiere later this year. In the comics space, Michael is the co-creator of the existential space opera Wasted Space, the gothic horror series The Plot, the werewolf drama Curse, and the sword-and-sorcery series Barbaric, which Entertainment Weekly, Thrillist, and many others called one of the best comics of 2021. He’s also written for numerous legendary characters and properties, including Star Wars, Stranger Things, and Batman. Michael currently lives outside Chicago with his wife and kids.