So over the weekend, Charlotte of Charlotte’s library posted this review of The King Must Die by Mary Renault — a book I, like Charlotte, have read many times. But I really noticed this bit of her review:
…Crete rules the seas, and demands from Athens a tribute of young men and women, destined to be bull-dancers in the palace of Minos. Theseus casts his lot into tribute, and sets off for Crete… At this point the book becomes truly excellent, in my opinion. Theseus molds the other 13 in the tribute into a team in which distinctions of Minyan and Hellene are meaningless, and they become bull dancers of extraordinary renown…. I adore detailed fictional descriptions of characters mastering obscure crafts, and the bull dancing is no exception to this. (In my re-reading, I would often skip the early parts and cut right to this section…).
Because I always do the exact same thing with this book — skim the first part until Theseus and the other young people board the ship for Crete, and then start actually reading the story. And for the same reason, too: I also love detailed descriptions of characters mastering obscure crafts. (This is why I especially loved Sherwood Smith’s A Stranger To Command, too.)
But anyway, what I started thinking about was, which other books do I consistently skip the beginning of? And what, if anything, does this say about those books?
Like Gillian Bradshaw’s The Beacon at Alexandria. The first part of the story is perfectly all right, but when I re-read it, I start at the point when Charis arrives in Alexandria.
Or Cherryh’s Cyteen. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book, but I always skip to the part where young Ari is about five and start from there.
Does this mean that Renault and Bradshaw and Cherryh should all have started those books later in the action? That Renault was wrong to include Theseus’ childhood and his journey through Greece, that Bradshaw didn’t need to include in detail the scenes detailing Charis’ being driven to leave her home, that Cherryh could have just skipped Justin’s early life and the murder of the original Arienne Emory?
I think . . . I think . . . I think that in every case, the beginning is necessary to set up the “real story.” Plus, in Renault’s case, she was kind of compelled to stick to the Theseus story, right? But . . . I would sure hate to think of writing a hundred pages or more just to get to the good part. Though you could argue that’s par for the course for Cherryh (there are exceptions, but I’d say that’s the rule for her).
It’s interesting to look at books where this doesn’t happen at all. Like, take McKinley’s The Blue Sword, which I just re-read — I have no idea how many times I’ve read it. A lot. But I enjoy it right from the first sentence. It’s not just that McKinley has a way with words or with setting the scene or with introducing an immediately appealing character. Bradshaw did all of that with Beacon. So what makes the difference?
I don’t have an answer for this one; just posing the question as something to mull over.