I have two confessions to make.
The first is that I am an audiobook addict.
The second is that I really am a terrible reviewer. Sometimes I get lost in my work.
Many moons ago, my most feared and esteemed of overlords, Cat, the Grand Poobah and Chief Warlock of the Green Man Review, gave me an assignment: to review some of the fine offerings from Graphic Audio, “a unique audio entertainment experience that features a full cast of actors, sound effects, and cinematic music.” In short, an audiobook publisher that produces full-length “movies in your mind.”
Founded in 2004, Graphic Audio spun out of the work done by The Cutting Corporation, a Maryland-based audio production company that does pretty much everything in house. Their products are aimed at those who need more than the usual one guy droning into a microphone for hours on end, with an eye towards supplying truck drivers and those on the road a lot with something that’ll keep them occupied. Most of what they do falls into several genres: Westerns, such as William M. Johnstone’s Last Gunfighter series or Elmer Kelton’s Texas Rangers; Adventures, like Stony Man, Mack Bolan, The Deathlands, or The Destroyer; Science Fiction & Fantasy, including Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker and Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy. They’ve also adapted a number of books based on DC Comics events. There’s not a subtle, quiet, unassuming title to the bunch, and that’s just the way they like it.
Smaller books tend to be produced as one or two installments of 5-7 hours apiece, available for download or as CDs. Longer books might take three or more installments. Some of the older items in their catalog, like the first few in the sprawling Deathstalker saga, are split into four or five installments of just a few hours. The average item runs you about $13 for download. That’s $13 for anywhere from three to eight hours of good, solid entertainment. Sure, this means you’re dropping upwards of $40 on a full book at times, but let me tell you this: If you like audiobooks, this isn’t just reasonable, it’s a damned good price for the value you’re getting. As I learned to my detriment when I started this assignment….
I started off easily enough with some of the Simon R. Green works. I loaded up the first of the Deathstalker episodes, and was immediately blown away. Instead of the rather sedate introduction I was used to in an audiobook, this one charged in like a bull. A deep, authoritative voice informed me that I was listening to Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker, He was accompanied by a dramatic, exuberant, powerful score that wouldn’t have been out of place on the big screen, giving John Williams something to think about. After a brief listing of the primary performers–names I’d soon grow to know and look forward to–the narration began. Here was a voice that meant business, both commanding and reassuring, confident and knowing. This was a narrator who truly dug what he was doing, and he was to become my constant companion for quite some time to come.
As the story progressed from introduction to action, new voices joined the narrator. Voices to represent the characters, the resident Artificial Intelligences, the heroes, the villains. Rough and grating, cool and in control, playful and lilting, exasperated and aristocratic, each one different and unique. Like radio stars of old or cartoon voice actors, these were top-notch professionals who embraced their roles.
And the sound effects. Explosions, lasers, reverberations, clomping boot-steps and pounding hearts. Harsh buzzing to represent a cyborg, low growling to represent a reptilian alien. As I listened, the story really did unfold in my mind, more alive and more intense than any audiobook I’d ever enjoyed before. And from that first experience, I was hooked.
My original assignment was just to review the Graphic Audio version of the Deathstalker series. My editor supplied me with review copies of the full saga–some eight lengthy tomes in total, spanning well over a hundred hours–and told me to have fun. (If you’ve never experienced the Deathstalker saga, shame on you. It’s glorious, shameless, untamed space opera in all its wild glory. I’ve reviewed some of it over the years.) Sadly, my addiction got the best of me. I vanished down the rabbit hole of Graphic Audio’s catalog, spiraling into an excess of awesome unlike any I’d ever imagined.
After Deathstalker, there were the other Simon R Green offerings: Blue Moon Rising, Hawk and Fisher, Beyond the Blue Moon, Down Among the Dead Men, Blood and Honor. I exhausted those offerings, before moving on to other authors. Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy and The Black Prism. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris and Warbreaker. Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk. The Warded Man by Peter Britt. At times, I was only limited by my budget and my listening time.
I found excuses to listen to audiobooks. Driving pointlessly. Performing menial, mindless tasks at home. Staying up late. Any excuse to savor these adventures just a little longer. They kept me company on road trips. They alternately reassured and unnerved me as I painted the kitchen late at night. They distracted me while cleaning the house. Already excellent books made all the better because they were transformed, elevated, amplified by Graphic Audio’s peerless production standards.
In fact, the only reason I stopped buying things from Graphic Audio is because I ran out of things I liked, and couldn’t decide what to try next. (Westerns? Adventures? R.A. Salavatore’s Demon Wars? Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine? E.E. Knight’s Vampire Earth?) The problem wasn’t a lack of supply, it was an inability to make a decision. That’s when I decided to take a short break, reevaluate my life, and, oh yeah, write that review I’d been meaning to do for months now.
But what was I to do? I’d far exceeded my mandate. I’d gone so far off the review reservation that there weren’t even words for how lost I’d become. There was only one logical choice: Review Graphic Audio as a whole, rather than any specific work.
In my opinion, there simply is no better audiobook company operating in the business today. (Okay, that’s my opinion. I have much respect for all of them, especially Listening Library and Full Cast Audio, but I’m afraid I just can’t go back to “normal” audiobooks, no matter how good. Sorry, Jim Dale. Apologies, Samantha Mathis. Farewell, adios, sayonara, to all of you faithful readers with your clever accents and vast character repertoires.)
The first thing you have to appreciate about Graphic Audio is their cast of performers. Sunny Laskey, Colleen Delaney, Terence Aselford, Mort Shelby, Nanette Savard, David Coyne, M.B. Van Dorn, James Konicek and Richard Rohan are among the most common names to turn up in any cast list, with some of them playing multiple parts as needed, and others providing primary voices. And they swap around with great frequency between titles, leading to an odd sense of familiarity and a jarring moment of recognition, when you realize that the heroine of one book is now the villain of another, that one guy has played multiple members of a family, that the narrator has been promoted to protagonist, or vice-versa. Sometimes, the recognition is instant, sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell. (And for some reason, there are a lot of British accents in the future…) (For what’s worth, my favorite narrators are definitely Richard Rohan and Terence Aselford, though I’ve never had a bad narrator in what I’ve sampled thus far.) Talented and versatile, these performers bring their roles to life.
The musical scores play a heavy role as well. While no one person can be held responsible for the music playing throughout, underneath, and after every book, they’re uniformly strong. After a while, you begin to recognize certain motifs and pieces, associated by mood or setting, character or atmosphere. Triumphant fanfares, bold flourishes, light touches. Musical scores worthy of a summer blockbuster, lending vibrancy and urgency and drama to battle scenes, tenderness to love scenes, grief to moments of loss and tragedy. Graphic Audio’s motto is “a movie in your mind,” and they live up to that with the high-quality sound production that goes into everything. Not bad, considering it’s a audio medium.
The material they adapt is edited somewhat for the sake of fluidity and performance. Normally, I won’t even go near audiobooks that have been abridged or altered from the original text (because I demand the full story!), but after comparing the source material to the end product, I’m satisfied that nothing essential is left out here, altering for the sake of story rather than abridging for time or cost. Things are altered to eliminate redundancy, where a sound effect can take the place of a door slamming, where a change in voices can signal a different character speaking. When you actually hear someone being punched, or swords being drawn, it’s not always necessary to reference it in the narration. In the case of Simon Green’s sprawling epics, featuring immense casts and numerous scene changes, some sequences are swapped around to provide longer, more cohesive scenes and unified installments. Rather than being read out loud like so many audiobooks are, these truly are performed like radio dramas of old, only taking full advantage of modern technology.
From the acting to the music, the sound effects to the production quality, there’s rarely a flaw to be found in Graphic Audio’s catalog. You might be able to blame the material itself if you don’t like something–I tried Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party and was less than thrilled, but that was more a case of the book not really being my cup of tea–but you can’t fault the good people at Graphic Audio for putting their all into every performance.
After listening to hundreds of hours worth of their product, spread over dozens of books from a number of authors, after giving them an appalling amount of my own money on top of the review copies, I can safely say that the only problem with this company is that they can’t produce more of what I want as quickly as I want it. Their style may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you enjoy audiobooks and you haven’t given them a shot, you might just be missing out on an experience that will change the way you listen.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time I started a new book. I’ll be back…eventually.
If you’re intrigued by this, there are many ways to purchase Graphic Audio products. The first, of course, is to visit their website. There, you can order CDs, box sets, and download them directly to your computer. You can also visit Audible.com for more product, as well as a huge assortment of titles from other publishers. Finally, you can download some of them from iTunes. (Oddly enough, the first few Deathstalkers, the ones which got me hooked, don’t seem to be available from the Graphic Audio website, only downloadable through Audible or iTunes.) I still haven’t found a way to download things directly into my brain, but all of these options have their merits, so take your pick.