Most of the time we take storytellers for granted, trusting their version of events—even though they might be biased or telling only a part of the truth or distorting facts to win the reader’s heart. Sometimes, their point of view might be severely limited, and the readers have to read between the lines to figure out what really happened.
From Edgar Alan Poe’s Gothic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” to Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller Gone Girl, there are several kinds of unreliable narrators. Sometimes, the narrator may misunderstand events entirely and may not even realize that they are unreliable, such as the unnamed protagonist of Rebecca. Thus, unreliable narrators force the reader to play a more active role, questioning not just the events of the story but the credibility of the narrators themselves, turning the text into a puzzle to be solved.
Below are some fascinating speculative fiction books with unreliable narrators to grab your attention right away.
Our Favorite Unreliable Narrators
The Unreliable Narrator: Eugenides (Gen)
Turner’s 1996 YA novel, The Thief introduced readers to Gen, a thief who claims he can steal anything. Indeed, by the end of the book, he’s managed to steal an ancient treasure which sets the stage for more court intrigue and drama to follow.
The sequel, The Queen of Attolia, delves into the repercussions of Gen’s theft as the countries find themselves on the brink of war. But somewhat halfway through the book, the readers may find an even more staggering revelation, making them rethink the motives of the main characters.
The Tale of the Body Thief
The Unreliable Narrator: Lestat
Anne Rice certainly had a lot of fun with her unreliable vampire narrators. The Interview with the Vampire, which kicked off The Vampire Chronicles, narrates the autobiography of Louis, a brooding, melancholic vampire and his vendetta with the villainous Lestat. But the follow-up novel, The Vampire Lestat, gives us a different version of events even as Lestat establishes himself as a charismatic figure with a flair for the dramatic.
The Tale of the Body Thief, the fourth entry in the series, continues Lestat’s story as he is briefly turned mortal again. By now, the readers love him and they know that Lestat wants them to love him, so when he’s about to do something unforgiveable near the end of the book, he advises his readers to either stop reading or not blame him for what comes next.
Shadow & Claw
The Unreliable Narrator: Severian
Wolfe’s works are widely regarded as classics of the genre but he is also known for his unreliable narrators.
All four books in his celebrated Book of the New Sun series have unreliable narration as we follow Severian, an apprentice and journeyman torturer on his adventures across a far-future Earth. Since Severian is narrating his experiences several years after they took place, the actual events and his memories of them are somewhat different.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant
The Unreliable Narrator: Baru Cormorant
Dickinson plays around with the unreliable narrator trope by writing an extremely engaging and complicated protagonist in Baru Cormorant, who remains on some level unknowable to the reader.
The book delves into the consequences of colonialism, especially with foreign belief systems being forced upon the natives at the cost of their own traditions. Baru who is determined to survive and exact revenge on the Empire begins to play a long game to win their trust and makes some extraordinarily difficult decisions, especially at the climax of the first novel.
The Name of the Wind
Kvothe, the charismatic protagonist and master storyteller of The Name of the Wind (the first novel in The Kingkiller Chronicle) is certainly somewhat of a Gary Stu, but very deliberately so.
Now living a quiet life as an innkeeper, he regales the reader with a compelling coming-of-age tale, beginning with his humble origins as a member of a traveling troupe whose entire family was murdered, wandering for years as a master pickpocket, attending a university for magical education and getting banned from a vast library called the Archives. But even as he styles himself as the perfect hero on a quest for revenge, readers sense that he’s offering a revised version of events since he is the storyteller.
A Clockwork Orange
The Unreliable Narrator: Alex
A Clockwork Orange is a classic of dystopian literature. Written in a satirical vein, this black comedy is set in a near future, punctuated by extreme violence.
The story is narrated by the fifteen-year-old Alex who is a liar and a sociopath, with no desire to change his behavior. He also thinks he knows what’s best for his people, further alienating him from the reader, making the whole book a rather unsettling but riveting experience.
The Drowning Girl
The Unreliable Narrator: India Morgan Phelps
While some unreliable narrators deliberately mislead the reader, there are cases where the protagonist has amnesia or limited information or even a mental illness that alters their perception to a great deal.
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl features a protagonist with schizophrenia who struggles to tell part reality from delusions. The novel is basically a fictionalized memoir of one India Morgan Phelps, recounting the strange experiences she’s had.
How much of the story is inflected by the supernatural and how much is real is left to the reader’s imagination. This eerie little book is perfect for dark fantasy and horror enthusiasts.
The Raven Tower
The Unreliable Narrator: Mawat
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie is an utterly wondrous novel with an unreliable narrator who must always speak the truth. In a way, it’s a retelling of Hamlet, following the journey of Mawat who seeks to overthrow his usurper uncle.
With an inventive magic system and detailed lore about the gods and the limits of their powers, The Raven Tower makes for a very strange and satisfying read.