So, I tried a new-to-me author last night. I read the first chapter and then deleted the sample. Here is the book:
Here is what Sharon Shinn’s blurb says about it:
“A vivid, violent, and marvelously detailed historical fantasy set in the perilous world that is medieval England in the middle of a war. Elisha Barber wades through blood and battle in his pursuit of arcane knowledge—forbidden love—and dangerous magic.”
Here’s what DB Jackson says about it:
“Blending magic and history, strong characters and gripping action, E.C. Ambrose brings a startlingly unique voice to our genre. Part epic fantasy, part medical thriller, part historical novel, Elisha Barber is at once dark, powerful, redemptive, and ultimately deeply satisfying.”
Here’s why I couldn’t bear to go on with it, even though all this sounds so promising (warning, the next paragraph will consist of spoilers for the first chapter of the book):
In the first chapter, Elisha’s estranged brother come to him for help because his, the brother’s, wife is suffering through a terrible delivery. Elisha finds the baby is breech and also the baby is already dead. In order to save his brother’s wife, despite the horror of this kind of surgery, Elisha cuts the dead baby into pieces and delivers the body that way. Despite his efforts, the wife dies. His brother commits suicide. End of chapter.
Now, tell me, assuming the book is well written and the (extremely gritty) setting well-drawn, would you keep going? Of course you can’t answer that without actually reading the first chapter for yourself. If you want to do that, here is the link to the book on Amazon.
However, this is the sort of beginning that I find practically unbearable, no matter how admirable a man Elisha is.
Is there anything that could have made this work for me?
Actually, there is:
Drop all that into the backstory. Don’t tell it as a prologue, just leave it a dark mystery in a tragic past. Jump ahead a couple of decades, or at least a couple of years, or at the very least a couple of months. Start the story wherever seems advisable. Move ahead with the action. Gradually reveal the tragic backstory as you tell the rest of the story.
That, in case you are curious, is how to keep a horrible, horrible incident without causing readers like me to recoil violently and then either delete your book or give it away. The distance gained by putting the tragedy in the past makes it far more tolerable to read about, particularly if the protagonist has managed to come somewhat to terms with the horrible incident.
Not that everyone should always handle a tragic backstory that way. Of course not. “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!”
I’m just mentioning this as a way to make it work for readers who otherwise might not get past the tragedy and into the real story.