Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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A close look at five first pages

So, at the moment, I’ve read four works I’d consider nominating for awards this year: Ancillary Mercy, The Country of Ice Cream Star, Uprooted, and Bone Gap. These comprise one space opera, one near-future dystopia, one fairy tale-style fantasy, and one contemporary fantasy that weaves mythology in with contemporary setting. All have excellent worldbuilding in their different fashions, and all have excellent writing; I mean, obviously. That’s why they’re on my current short list. Other than that, it’s a disparate group, that’s for sure.

At this point, I have six more award-eligible novels on my Kindle – I mean novels that have gotten a fair amount of attention and that I’m thinking might have a reasonable shot at getting nominated for awards this year. These are:

Karen Memory, by Bear, which I’m about halfway through and like a lot.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Wilson, which Martha Wells recommended, and which won the 2016 Crawford Award, and which was available inexpensively for Kindle.

Persona, by Valentine, an author whose previous work I’ve seen recommended and which I picked up last year when it was a Kindle daily deal.

The Grace of Kings, by Liu, which was $2.99 on Kindle when I went to get a sample.

Silver on the Road, by Gilman, same as the above, and

The Lie Tree, by Hardinge, which I notice won the Costa Book of the Year award recently and which I was willing to pay more for because Cuckoo Song was fantastic and I’m now a Hardinge fan.

I also have samples of eight more eligible novels on my Kindle, and let me just point out to any interested publisher that the reason I don’t have the full books on there is because they’re priced way higher than, say, The Grace of Kings, or even The Lie Tree.

Anyway, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the five novels I have right here but haven’t started yet (I’ll post comments about Karen Memory in a few days, probably). So, in no particular order:

1. Kai Ashante Wilson, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

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The merchants and burdened camels went on ahead into the station at Mother of Waters. The guardsmen waited outside. Tufts of rough grass broke from the parched earth, nothing else green nearby. Demane squinted at the oasis. Palm trees and lush growth surrounded the lake, dazzle reflecting from the steely surface. Just look at her, Mother of Waters; was anything in the world more beautiful –?

“Sorcerer,” said the captain, tapping Demane’s arm. He got out of the way. Tall and thin, Captain escorted the caravanmaster to the front of the gathered brothers.

Earthy and round, the little man hopped up on a rock. “Your choices, gentlemen.” Master Suresh l’Merquerim broke it down for them. “Leave us; and join some other group of saltmen going straight back north. Do so, and you go home beggars. Three silver half-weights are what you’ll get from me, and not a whoring penny more. But permit me to ask: Who here has balls? That man I invite to press on with us! Hard men will be required on the road down past Mother of Waters, when we come to the Wildeeps, and later reach the wide prairies north of the great lady herself, Olorum City. Such men of courage as are among you, they shall know a rich reward once we arrive in Olorum. Loot, and more loot, I say! In Olorum, I shall open up a heavy bag. You will stick a greedy hand down into it, and grab out just as much silver as one fat filthy fist can hold.”

Nor had the caravanmaster quite finished. “We stay in Mother of Waters only for one night: tonight. Tomorrow dawn, this caravan hits the fucking road again.” Suresh really could stand to slow down on the cussing. While it was true that most brothers showed purer descent from that half of the mulatto north supposedly more blessed with brawn than brains, and for the merchants it was the other way around – brighter of complexion (and intellect?) – did it necessarily follow that one group deserved fine speech, while the other should get nasty words sprinkled on every single sentence?

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Comments:

If you’re considering picking this one up, let me just mention that the Kindle version has appallingly annoying paragraphing, with neither indentation nor skipped lines to show where one paragraph ends and the next begins. I’ve never seen that before and don’t know if it’s fixable. I’m not sure yet whether I’m going to find the book readable as-is.

Also, I may be biased by the paragraphing, but nothing about that beginning looks especially noteworthy. I don’t think it’s all that catchy, actually. Well, to be honest, it’s another paragraphing issue that’s bothering me – I don’t think Wilson is paragraphing between characters as he should. I don’t know whether this might be another weird formatting thing or whether it’s part of Wilson’s style, but I don’t like it.

And the last sentence I quoted above is maybe a little clunky and confusing.

Let’s see what Goodreads says:

Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors’ artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.

The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.

The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

Hmm. I sure don’t get any hint of that from the first page. I see this book has a rating of 3.76 and 130 reviews right now.

Well, I’ll go on with this one, at least to the end of the sample, because after all, Martha Wells recommends it. And it did win that award. If I think it’s worth going on with, I will consider getting a paper copy because of this stupid paragraphing issue.

Next:

2. Genevieve Valentine, Persona

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The International Assembly audience hall was half-empty – too empty, Suyana might have said, in her first year there, when she was still surprised by the distance between good public relations and good politics. Now, looking across so many empty seats just made her heavy to the bones.

“Georgia,” the proctor called. “Germany. Ghana. Gibraltar.”

Missed opportunity, Suyana thought, every time the proctor’s eyes fell on an empty chair. An open vote was one of the rare times Faces pretended at politics. You were voting the way you were told, but even pretending was something and she couldn’t imagine giving it up.

The rest of your life was photo shoots and PSAs and school visits and saying what your handler told you to say, and going to parties where you tried desperately to look like you belonged amid a sea of other Faces who were higher on the guest list than you were.

Suyana put up with the rest of it because three or four times a year, she got to raise her hand and be counted. And today was a vote, and only half were here.

Some – the ones who ranked above her on guest lists – didn’t bother. Some feared what would happen if they did the wrong thing in front of the Big Nine, and their handlers had advised them to steer clear.

Her stomach twisted.

“They might as well just decide without us and inform us how we voted by mail,” she muttered.

Magnus said without looking over, “Try and sound professional, please, on the incredibly slim chance a reporter has a camera on you.”

No chance. The United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation had only been interesting three years ago, when the outpost got blown to pieces. Cameras had watched her for six weeks, until some other story broke.

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What do you think? Sounds . . . I’m not sure. The idea of having to sit through day-to-day corrupt politics where the fix is in, well, it’s incredibly off-putting. Suyana as a protagonist seems to have a life that I would run the other way from. I mean, I would run a literal marathon in the other direction if someone wanted me to take this woman’s place. And I am definitely not a fan of jogging, so that’s saying something.

I assume Suyana is torn away from her ordinary life, though. Let’s see, here’s what Goodreads says about Persona:

An acerbic thriller from a Nebula award finalist, set against the backdrop of a near-future world of celebrity ambassadors and assassins who manipulate the media to the point where the only truth seekers left are the paparazzi.

When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, secretly meets Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expects is an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway-turned-paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Just like that, Suyana and Daniel are now in the game of Faces. And if they lose, they’ll die.

Yeah, not sounding like anything I would particularly go out of my way to read. It has a rating of 3.42 and 90 reviews at the moment.

Moving on:

3. Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings

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A white bird hung still in the clear western sky and flapped its wings sporadically.

Perhaps it was a raptor that had left its nest on one of the soaring peaks of the Er-Mé Mountains a few miles away in search of prey. But this was not a good day for hunting – a raptor’s usual domain, this sun-parched section of the Porin Plains, had been taken over by people.

Thousands of spectators lined both sides of the wide road out of Zudi; they paid the bird no attention. They were here for the Imperial Procession.

They had gasped in awe as a fleet of giant Imperial airships had passed overhead, shifting gracefully from one elegant formation to another. They had gawped in respectful silence as the heavy battle-carts rolled before them, thick bundles of ox sinew draping from the stone-throwing arms. They had praised the emperor’s foresight and generosity as his engineers sprayed the crowd with perfumed water from ice wagons, cool and refreshing in the hot sun and dusty air of northern Cocru. They had clapped and cheered the best dancers the six conquered Tiro states had to offer: five hundred Faca maidens who gyrated seductively in the veil dance, a sight once reserved for the royal court in Boama; four hundred Cocru sword twirlers who spun their blades into bright chrysanthemums of cold light that melded martial glory with lyrical grace; dozens of elegant, stately elephants from wild, sparsely settled Écofi Island, painted with the colors of the Seven States – the largest male draped in the white flag of Xana, as one would expect, while the others wore the rainbow colors of the conquered lands.

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And so on. Actually, Le Guin had an opening a lot like this in The Left Hand of Darkness, which as you know I read recently. I mean: not an Imperial Procession, of course. But a ritual filled with pomp and spectacle. I find this kind of scene vastly more inviting than the political minutia of Persona, no question about that, but I also can’t help but think: Le Guin did it better. Her prose was just more graceful. This is serviceable, I’ve got a picture of the scene, and yet. Well, Le Guin does set a high bar as a prose stylist, I think.

It’s five more pages before we meet the two boys that I presume will be protagonists. I don’t mind that, but I expect that some readers will look at this and declare that the book is too slow. This is a really long book, though, so it seems fine to me to take some time setting the scene.

Goodreads says:

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Well, that seems like it is kind of a set up for tragedy. I see it has a rating of 3.76 and 500 reviews. Maybe I will read some of the reviews before deciding whether to go on with it.

4. Laura Anne Gilman, Silver on the Road

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Izzy leaned against the railing and watched the sun rise over the far end of town. Flood wasn’t much to look at, she’d admit. Sun-greyed planks and local stone: there wasn’t much point in prettifying with paint when the wind and sun would only beat you back down to plain again.

The way the story’d been told her when she was younger, a gospel sharp had ridden into town befor there was much of a town at all, just the saloon and a couple-three homesteads, looked around, and pronounced that they’d be the first washed away, come the Flood. The name’d stuck. But the sharp had been wrong about the important thing: Flood had dug its roots in deep and stuck, too. In addition to the saloon, there were a dozen storefronts now, and a bank, and thirty families living within town limits. “Thirty pieces of silver,” the boss called them, and would shake his head and laugh, and say they’d gotten that story all wrong, too.

The boss had a sense of humor, Izzy thought. Not a man could say he didn’t.

The sun was stretching higher over the rooftops now, and the town was beginning to stir; she could hear Missus Wallace calling to her chickens, and then the blacksmith’s hammer rang out, a pause followed by a series of steady blows. Hiram was always the first to work each morning, and his forge never cooled entirely, the scent of brimstone and hot metal always in the air. Izzy breathed in, letting the familiar stink settle in her chest. Her bare toes curled and relaxed against the dry wood of the verandah, the morning sun touching her upturned face.

Winters were bad, dry and cold, and in summer, the sun got hot and the ground got hotter and mostly folk stayed under shade if they could. Just now, though, Flood was nearly perfect.

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Okay, I like this. The voice is clear and distinctive and helps to set the scene. So far, just based on the first page, this is definitely the one I would be most inclined to go on with. Of course I have always kind of liked western settings, and we never have gotten too many stories with this kind of setting. This book has been on my radar since before it was published, actually, so I was pleased to see the ebook price set so low. It’s a Saga title, and I did mention they were (sensibly, imo) going to be playing with low ebook prices this spring.

Anyway, let’s see what Goodreads says:

On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel makes the choice to work for the devil in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and makes sure they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in.

This one has a rating of 4.06 stars — that’s definitely promising — and 115 reviews so far.

All right, and the last one for now:

5. Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree

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The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth. The islands just visible through the mist also looked like teeth, Faith decided. Not fine, clean Dover teeth, but jaded, broken teeth, jutting crookedly amid the wash of the choppy grey sea. The mailboat chugged its dogged way through the waves greasing the sky with smoke.

“Osprey,” said Faith through chattering teeth, and pointed.

Her six-year-old brother Howard twisted round, too slow to see the great bird, as its pale body and dark-fringed wings vanished into the mist. Faith winced as he shifted his eight on her lap. At least he had stopped demanding his nursemaid.

“Is that where we are going?” Howard squinted at the ghostly islands ahead.

“Yes, How.” Rain thudded against the thin wooden roof above their heads. The cold wind blew in from the deck, stinging Faith’s face.

In spite of the noise around her, Faith was sure that she could hear faint sounds coming from the crate on which she sat. Rasps of movement, breathy slithers of scale on scale. It pained Faith to think of her father’s little Chinese snake inside, weak with the cold, coiling and uncoiling itself in panic with every tilt of the deck.

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Oh, I’m right there with Faith! I also feel sorry for the poor snake. Did I ever mention that I really like snakes? I admire the big guys, the boas and so on, but I used to have a couple of little corn snakes. Then for a brief while I had a lot of corn snakes, as the female laid eggs. (I sold the babies eventually, because no one really needs that many snakes in one apartment.)

Anyway, I’d call that an engaging opening. Well, I have confidence in Hardinge. Everyone else here is new to me, or at least pretty new. I’ve read a couple of Liu’s shorter works, but that’s it. I don’t know anything about The Lie Tree, I just bought it because of the author, so let’s see what Goodreads has to say about this one:

When Faith’s father is found dead under mysterious circumstances, she is determined to untangle the truth from the lies. Searching through his belongings for clues she discovers a strange tree. A tree that feeds off whispered lies and bears fruit that reveals hidden secrets. The bigger the lie, the more people who believe it, the bigger the truth that is uncovered.

The girl realizes that she is good at lying and that the tree might hold the key to her father’s murder, so she begins to spread untruths far and wide across her small island community. But as her tales spiral out of control, she discovers that where lies seduce, truths shatter. . . .

Wow, creepy. This one has a raiting of 4.28 and nearly 180 reviews.

To put all these in perspective, Seveneves, which I haven’t read, has 3700 reviews and Uprooted has 5600. So I’m not sure that any of the titles above has a prayer of making it onto, say, the Hugo short list. Perhaps of getting a Nebula nomination, though, or a nod for the World Fantasy Award list.

Anyway, do any of those catch your eye? As always, if you’ve read these, comments are welcome!

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7 Comments A close look at five first pages

  1. Rachel

    Whew! Good to hear. Okay, fine, I will plan to give it a try, though for me Silver on the Road definitely comes first.

  2. elaine t

    The Wilson sample looks ok in my Kindle for PC. maybe try a download to transfer via USB? The writing… I guess it’s fine but the voice puts me off.

    Gilman’s voice draws me in. I also like the ‘western’ tone.

    in that last one, if it’s cold shouldn’t the snake be dormant, not moving around? I’d start nitpicking, I think, which ruins the reading.

  3. Rachel

    If the snake had just been packed up, it’d probably be unhappy rather than dormant. Perhaps you can tell yourself that, firmly, and silence the little voice that’s being nitpicky.

    Thanks for the suggestion re Wilson’s book! I will try putting the book into my Calibre library and then putting it back on my Kindle, and then see how it looks. Also, if it’s okay for you, the Amazon people may be able to suggest a fix for me.

  4. Cheryl L

    The Lie Tree is quite dark. I didn’t find Faith as instantly likable as Triss from Cuckoo Song, but I really admired her strength and single-mindedness. I found the novel extremely readable and have thought about it often since finishing it.
    Apart from the Costa Award, it also won the best novel award in the 2015 British Fantasy Awards.

    P.S. You might also consider looking at The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. It was my favourite novel of last year. Unusually, all three of the main characters are introverts. It’s a steampunk novel which emphasises character over action.

  5. Macsbrains

    I haven’t heard of any of these, but I’d pass on #1 on prose alone, unless someone whose taste I trusted convinced me that the substance was worth overlooking the style.

    #2 reads YA to me (don’t know if it is), and I know this is presuming a lot based on basically no information, but the sample makes me feel like there’s going to be a romantic subplot that will be of the kind that will absolutely not work for me. What can I say, first impressions are not logical and I don’t know what mixture of vocabulary and sentence structure is triggering that response from my brain.

    #3 doesn’t grab me on the prose level, and the summary worries me. It makes me wonder if half the book is going to be buddy action adventures and the other half is going to be Professor X/Magneto-style conflict. The pacing of a tonal shift like that is critical, and many long books don’t inspire faith in the pacing department…

    #4 is intriguing because I also love western settings (frontiers and deserts!) and the voice hooked me immediately! But without doing more research I’m wary because I have very little tolerance for historical fiction. The speculative aspect has to be very high for me. If you read it I’ll long-list it and wait to hear what you have to say in that regard. :-)

    For the last one the prose read mostly neutral, and it didn’t really grab me, but the summary sounds like my kind of thing. I love liars in fiction; they’re like storytellers. So this book also goes on the long list, awaiting a few more clues for its mystery vs spec level.

  6. JJ

    I think you’ll like how Sorcerer of the Wildeeps handles the ‘magic’.
    It reminded me of your Black Dog system as I was reading it.

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