Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Fifteen Opening Scenes

So, that recent post on some of Gene Wolfe’s opening sentences has put me in the mood for a First Sentence post. Plus I happen to have accumulated fifteen new books and samples on my Kindle, one of which is actually by Gene Wolfe himself. Let’s take a look, starting with that one.

Some of these I acquired because of BookBub ads, by the way; and you may remember others cropping up in the comments of one fairly recent post or another. About a third are samples; the rest I have the whole book. I’m not going to mention which are which, especially as this doesn’t reflect how enthusiastic or hopeful I feel about the novel; it’s more a simple reflection of price. Those BookBub sales are often so good that I just pick up the book outright rather than opting for a sample.

I tried initially to limit myself to just the first sentences, but so often if you just go on for a bit, you get a much better look at the opening. These are mostly the first paragraph, or several paragraphs if the paragraphs are short:

1. Pandora, by Holly Hollander, by Gene Wolfe

The German 88 mm gun was undoubtedly the most famous artillery piece of World War II. It fired a 22 lb shell and could pick off a tank a mile away. The Germans called it the “Gun Flak;” it weighted 5.5 tons, it had an extreme range of nine miles, and it killed thousands of Russian, British, and American soldiers.

I got all that out of a book.

A shell from a German 88 almost killed my father, twice. I didn’t get that from the book – he told me about it the first time.

Okay, I have to say, I think this is definitely an engaging opening. I can hardly imagine a reader getting just this far and not turning the page.

2. Liberty, by Alasdair Shaw

The suns reflected off her mirrored glasses as she walked across the dry grassland. A scarf covered her face against the dust whipped up by the occasional gust of wind. Her grey robe parted with every step, revealing glimpses of the black firmsuit underneath. She carried no weapons; they wouldn’t help her this time.

You see how the author tries to establish tension right away. I think this is pretty effective.

3. A Thousand Nights by EK Johnston

We do not know why we came from the sea to this hard and dusty earth, but we know that we are better than it.

The creatures that live here crawl beneath a crippling sun, eking what living they can from the sand before they are returned to it, as food for the sand-crows or worse. We are not troubled by the sun, and sand is but a source of momentary discomfort to us. We are stronger, hardier, and better suited to life. Yet we struggled here, when first we came.

All this is italicized in the original. I suspect we might be listening in on a story here rather than actually starting the real novel. Or this might be a prologue. I like it, either way. It’s got poetry and rhythm.

4. To Journey in the Year of the Tiger, by H Leighton Dickson

It was hard to believe that a man could see twenty-three winters before he began to live. It is harder even to believe that his life began all at once, on one night, with the occurring of three obscure and apparently random things: the death of a bird, the flash of golden eyes, and the first of One Hundred Steps. But for Kirin Wynegarde-Grey, it did happen, just this way. His life began, as all great and terrible things do, in the Year of the Tiger.

I like the last sentence quoted above. I am less keen on the way the author starts so many independent clauses with “It” – that’s a weak way to begin a sentence imo – and also not super-keen on the repeated use of the word “things.” If a student brought me an English paper with these features, I would suggest that many instructors don’t care for fake subjects like “it” or for vague nouns like “things.” Looking at student papers may have left me over-sensitized to stuff instructors dislike, though. What do you think? On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best, how well does this opening work for you?

5. The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitaka through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism back from India to China.

Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame. Son of a Tibetan salt trader and a Mongol innkeeper and spirit woman, and thus a traveler from before the day of his birth, up and down and back and forth, over mountains and rivers, across deserts and steppes, crisscrossing always the heartland of the world.

I’m biased here because I think the concept for this novel is neat and because I think KSR is a fine writer, especially for setting and plot, if not necessarily for characters that are powerfully engaging. Anyway, I like this. I like the artistic fragment this selection ends with.

6. Mansfield Park Revisited, by Joan Aiken

The sudden and unexpected death of Sir Thomas Bertram, while abroad engaged on business relating to his various properties in the West Indies, could be a cause of nothing but sorrow, dismay, and consternation to the baronet’s friends in England.

You remember the post about “sequels” by authors other than the original author of the series. The next several entries came from that post and its comments. All I can say at this point is that Aiken seems to me to have captured Austen’s style with sentences.

7. Thrones, Dominions: A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Jill Paton Walsh

”I do not,” said Monsieur Théophile Daumier, “understand the English.”

“Nor does anybody,” replied Mr. Paul Delagardie, “themselves least of all.”

We’ll just have to see. I would have really liked Sayers to write more Peter Wimsey novels after Lord Peter’s marriage to Harriet. I would be very happy to like this novel, but who knows?

8. Fair Winds and Homeward Sail: Sophy Croft’s Story, by Sherwood Smith

Miss Sophia Wentworth shivered, her back pressed against the empty fireplace in what had once been her family’s little sitting room. It was nearly empty of furniture, forcing the mourners to stand.

A fresh gust of wind caused the steady rain to tap at the fogging windows, but it was not the emptiness, the damp, or the bitter November air that had so thoroughly banished all the cheer fro the once-cozy chamber. That was entirely due to those gathered inside.

Sherwood Smith occasionally writes a post at Book View Café about Regencies and other historicals, or about Jane Austen, or about some related topic. If anybody can write an Austen sequel, surely she can. I look forward to trying this one.

9. Beginner’s Luck by Kate Clayborn

They never could remember whose idea it had been, finally, to buy the ticket.

This was frustrating for them all, not because any one of them wanted to have special claim on the ticket – whatever else they’d forgotten about the night, none of them ever questioned the fact that the ticket had been for all three of them, that they’d split the winnings on the off-chance they won. It was frustrating because it seemed so unlike all of them to even think of buying a lottery ticket.

I remember nothing about why I picked up a sample or the whole book for this one, but I do find this quite charming and engaging.

10. Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien

You know in the movies when someone says, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” … maybe don’t do that in real life. Unless you don’t mind working as a server in your parents’ Chinese restaurant for the rest of your life.

A cozy mystery, obviously. I hope I like it, but from this opening I get the impression that the protagonist is probably young, impulsive, overly dramatic, and not really someone I will appreciate. We’ll see how the story looks a few pages or a chapter further in.

11. Death Came in Through the Kitchen by Teresa Dovalpage

The Cuban customs officer lifted an eyebrow at the bridal gown – a white satin bodice with tulle appliqués, sheer sleeves, and a two-foot train – and took a long, suspicious look at the couple.

I remember a bit about the description of this mystery. I’m certain to go on with it because of the interesting setting

12. A Kiss Before the Apocalypse by Thomas E Sniegoski

It was an unusual warm mid-September day in Boston. The kind of day that made one forget that the oft-harsh New England winter was on its way, just waiting around the corner, licking its lips and ready to pounce.

Remy Chandler sat in his car at the far end of the Sunbeam Motor Lodge parking lot, sipping his fourth cup of coffee and wishing he had a fifth.

I have no idea why I picked this up. It seems okay, I guess? I’ll just have to go on with it and see how it unfolds over the next few pages.

13. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

The new client sat in the chair reserved for customers, levelly gazing at The Shadow’s Child – hands apart, legs crossed under the jade-green fabric of her tunic. The tunic itself had been high quality once, displaying elegant, coordinated patterns, but it was patched, and the patterns were five years old at least, the stuff that got laughed at even in a provincial backwater such as the Scattered Pearls belt. Her skin was dark, her nose aquiline. When she spoke, her accent was flawlessly Inner Habitats. “My name is Long Chau. You have a good reputation as a brewer of serenity. I want to use your services.”

Now, this one, I know why I picked up. I’ve heard a good deal about it. I’ve only read a little of Aliette de Bodard’s work so far – Red Station Drifting – which I didn’t really like because I didn’t like any of the characters. I love this opening, though. A brewer of serenity! That makes this opening for me.

14. Strangehold by Rene Sears

Water slapped against the side of the boat. Matthew pulled the oars hard, pulse beating in his throat. The boat rocked into shore, bottom catching on sand. Matthew pulled in his breath and waited. He needed to set foot on the shore, but he couldn’t make himself. He hovered, hands clenched on the boat’s edge, then pushed himself out.

His foot splashed into shallow water. No one died. He stepped onto land.

No matter what happened next, it was a sweet step.

This neither appeals to me nor turns me off. It’s another where I’ll just have to go on for a bit and see how it unfolds.

15. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennen

So far, magic school was total rubbish.

Elliot sat on the fence bisecting two fields and brooded tragically over his wrongs.

He had been plucked from geography class, one of his most interesting classes, to take some kind of scholarship test out in the wild. Elliot and three other kids from his class had been packed into a van by their harassed-looking French teacher and driven outside the city. Elliot objected because after an hour in a moving vehicle he would be violently sick. The other kids objected because after an hour in a moving vehicle, they would be violently sick of Elliot.

Elliot ignored the other kids and hung his head out of the window. In a disdainful way.

What a total twit Elliot seems! But Sarah Rees Brennen is playing that up for all its worth and I get the feeling the pov might turn out to be fun. Also, this beginning is so artful. I especially like the fragment that ends this selection. That’s just wonderful.

Okay, which of these fifteen selections catches your eye in a good way (or a bad way)?

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6 Comments Fifteen Opening Scenes

  1. Elaine T

    Just the ones that caught my attention one way or another:
    #1 Pandora You get personality and setting clues here, I’m interested.

    #2 Liberty – maybe it’s being up against #1, but it’s coming off very flat. No rythmn, no personality not much setting/worldbuilding. Not interested.

    #3 I’ve read this book, and recommended it. No comments other than I hope you like it.

    #4 I like the list, but would prefer a bit more specificity (what kind of bird?) Agree on the weakness. OTOH, the author clearly has something in mind and has dropped in some worldbuilding nicely. Working against the snippet is the fact that a favorite childhood book was The Great and Terrible Quest so the last sentence is fighting memories of that.

    #13 Tea Master and Personality and worldbuilding. And ‘brewer of serenity’. Would give it a chance.

    #14 Strangehold I’d read on for a bit to see if Matthew setting foot on the land really should/could have caused people to die and why. When I check out the book, the blurb is all about someone not named Matthew so I’m disappointed and not inclined to look further.

    #15 In Other Lands Oh, I laughed at this one. If the voice stays like this, I’d probably tire of it quickly, but I’ll give the sample a chance.

  2. Louise

    Out of all these, “Strangehold” is the one that catches my attention right off the bat. I also find the opening to “In Other Worlds” utterly charming, but I can’t be unbiased about that one because I read the original version as it unfolded on SRB’s blog and so am already acquainted with Elliot.

    Regarding Thrones, Dominions: Because this was a book begun by DLS but left unfinished at her death, and JPW only wove the pieces together and brought it to a conclusion, it still has a fairly authentic “Lord Peter” flavor to it. The further along the continued series gets, alas, the less it reads like the genuine article. But I have a hard time with continuations in general, so I’m probably not the most impartial judge. (Having said that, I am thoroughly intrigued by the opening to Joan Aiken’s MP sequel and will probably have to pick that up at the library to see how it goes. Joan Aiken & Jane Austen seems like a delightful combination.)

  3. Madscientistnz

    I really enjoyed Strangehold. I think it took a bit to get in to the book, but I rated it highly by the end. (Plus a 40 something female lead is unusual).
    I also had trouble with A Red Station Drifting, because I couldn’t like the characters, it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone there. I have liked some of her previous work, so I shall persist.
    This seems like an appropiate post to pass on a reccommendation for Halls of Law by V M Escalada – it has a griffin!

  4. Elaine T

    The Escalada sounds interesting but the pricing is not. Still I’ve downloaded a sample to try in case DAW ever gets its pricing act together.

    If we’re recommending things, I’ll throw in Graydon Saunder’s The Human Dress which I haven’t gotten through yet, but is unique in my experience. And unlike his other stuff, available as a Kindle book on Amazon. Opening line “I will not help you kill the King.”

  5. Rachel

    Sure, by all means let’s recommend things! I’m with Elaine on pricing. I’ll pay top dollar for ebooks mainly if I really want to read that particular book right that minute. Otherwise, probably I’ll just keep it on my radar — or keep an eye on prices for used paper copies. Big Pub *really* needs to understand that if they price their ebooks way up high, they *will* lose sales. I particularly wish they would understand that when it came to pricing my books …

    I should add, so far Saga has more sense that way than the rest.

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