What makes an audiobook great? It’s the narrator, hands down. Sure, the content plays a heavy role in the equation, but it is the narrator that transforms the book and makes it a performance. So, when thinking about the best audiobook narrators, I thought a lot about what would make a narrator great beyond the usual: content and voice. Here is what I think.
A great audiobook narrator, besides delivering words on a page, must be able to distinguish between character voices. Often times a full-cast production of an audiobook is quite expensive, and so when a book gets a narrator that can do the work of many, they go to the hall of fame as one of the best.
Another great mark of the best audiobook narrators is how immersed they are able to keep you in the story through variations in their voice, tone, or style. This also nicely complements the third mark of a great narrator: how closely they keep up with the pacing of the work. Surely you do not want levity at a time when an intense psychological thriller is coming to its climax.
Keeping all this in mind, here are some of the best audiobook narrators, who in my opinion, have been able to achieve all of the above. This is an entirely subjective list broken down by genre.
The Best Audiobook Narrators: Literary Fiction
One of my all-time favorite narrators is Julia Whelan. After tuning into her audiobooks for 8+ years, I have found that literary fiction is where she shines. The genre of literary fiction is an ambiguous one; you never know what you are walking into. Whelan’s narration helps take some of that ambiguity away by molding her narration to what the book requires of her.
A few of my favorites by her include Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. One where I think her voice really does a service to the book is Chouette by Claire Oshetsky. It is a novel about a woman pregnant with her baby with her owl lover. When the baby is born tiny and broken-winged, her husband is adamant about fixing the baby, but the protagonist’s commitment to her kid remains steadfast. As bizarre as this story sounds, Whelan makes it all land.
Something I have often seen male narrators do is be incredibly generic about the voices of women and children. I am never sure if this is intentional or if the narrator does not know better. Pittu does not fall into this trap.
His narration is matter-of-fact in a way where he uses one voice for all his characters but somehow punctuates it with the feeling our character must be feeling. Some of their great works by him include The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides, For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing, and my personal favorite, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. When I tell you that only Pittu could make me do this hair-clenching read of 32 hours, I mean it. His narration still resounds in my ear three years after finished it.
Best Audiobook Narrators: Historical Fiction & Nonfiction
I don’t in any way feel that historical fiction and nonfiction are interchangeable genres, but both to an extent are about truly recreating a time, a space, a story. That is why I loosely lumped these two together, because the narrators I have in mind accomplish just that.
I have a rule of thumb in my life that has not let me down: if Robin Miles narrates it, then I am going to read it. Her narration transforms whatever she narrates. From historical fiction to nonfiction, there is little that she can read and not succeed at holding us all still.
Some of my favorite works include her rendition of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, where she makes you feel like you are in the presence of royalty. Or, The Personal Librarian, where she recreates the story of another woman defying odds against her time. One of the standout performances in my opinion was Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson, where she is able to deliver the grimness of our protagonist’s fate when it comes to her freedom, but doesn’t cage us as the listener in it. We sense the ferocity of Pheby in Miles’s voice and we keep rooting for her.
I am not fond of moss. But, if Juliet Stevenson is telling me a story about a woman who made it her life’s passion to know all things moss, then I am here for it.
That is the true power of Juliet Stevenson as a narrator. Everything is fair game, from hefty classics like Middlemarch by George Eliot to historical fiction tomes like The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. There have been reads like Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield, that I previously had no interest in reading, and Stevenson’s narration has made me give up my life to finish the book in one day.
Best Audiobook Narrators: Mystery
My beloved genre comes with its shares of challenges when it comes to audiobooks. How do you manage the pacing, characterization, and the big reveal? It is a hard feat for narrators (even authors, sometimes), and when you find one that accomplishes that, you hold them close.
As a seasoned actor, you can be sure that Hoffman knows what he is doing. But, it will still take you by surprise when you begin an audiobook narrated by him. His voice is suave and how I imagine how very classy cologne would talk…if it could talk.
His narration of Deacon King Kong by James McBride was truly exceptional, making you feel like you are watching a movie without having to turn on the TV. He has also narrated works by Eric Jerome Dickey and Yaa Gyasi.
A narrator who has made her mark in the mystery genre is Cassandra Campbell. She is another narrator who does not play around with different voices for different characters but instead varies the depth of her voice to differentiate characters and different milestones in the plot.
Some of my favorites by her include Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. Where she truly shines, though, is in her narration of Turnout by Megan Abbott. Abbott’s works are 90% tense, and there is no one better to make it hop off the page than Campbell’s voice.
Best Audiobook Narrators: Romance
This genre is a fickle mistress. It is complicated to narrate romance, in my opinion, because so much of what people get from it depends on what they want to get out of it — and what an impossible standard to meet.
A narrator I discovered in my year of Austen, basically every year of my life, is Rosalyn Landor. Her narration’s superior quality is the timing and style. It is a must to maintain a level of composure when you are reading about someone professing their eternal love, to keep one’s emotions out of it so a reader can inject their own. Landor does this exceptionally.
Her narration of works like Persuasion by Jane Austen is superb, but one that I am excited to read are the Bridgerton novels. From what I have sampled, her narration is fantastic, and I cannot wait to hear more to corroborate this.
Telling horror stories around a fire is a tradition that goes far back in time, so naturally, this should be a piece of cake. Wrong. It turns out narrating horror is harder than reading it. It is intense, often gets gory and all the while you cannot let the beads of sweat creep into your narration.
I have found one such narrator for you all. January LaVoy with her narration of The Diviners by Libba Bray made me abandon all that is good in my life and chain myself to this series.
Her narration is whimsical but measured. She definitely does different voices for different characters and does an excellent job at it. Her narration for The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper has hints of horror to it (don’t all honest books about motherhood?) and lo and behold, January LaVoy is there to narrate it.
Best Audiobook Narrators: Fantasy/Sci-fi
I lump these two genres not as a disservice to either, but for the fact that both genres require a level of suspension of disbelief to fully enjoy them. That is an expectation from the reader, sure, but never hurts when it is reinforced.
Emily Woo Zeller
Zeller is a narrator who does just that. Her narration carries a story. Whether she is telling you about mythology, map-making, or simply taking you to the streets of San Francisco, her voice truly transports and fortunate are the titles that get to feature her voice.
One of my recent favorites by her is The Cartographers, in which Zeller is part of a multi-cast production. The story is about a daughter and her estranged relationship with her late father and her journey to getting to the bottom of how he died. It has heavy details around cartography and map-making and Zeller’s narration is spectacular in making you remember all the details.
Best Audiobook Narrators: YA
A prerequisite to narrating this category is making sure to take it seriously. Oftentimes, it is adults narrating books about problems that they have (hopefully) overcome, and having a dismissive or ironic tone does not help matters.
One of the narrators that have accomplished this in my opinion is Kate Rudd. She becomes the character she narrates and her dedication to the character shines through.
From narrating John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a story about existential angst if there was any, to Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series, about murderers and serial killings, nothing is off the table.
A good narrator can make or break a story for the reader, and with many exceptional narrators, the yardstick for what constitutes best is sure to expand. Until then, you have this list to peruse to get your next great read. Just use Audible? Check out our list for the best audiobook narrators on Audible!