Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Novel openings: recent acquisitions

So, that recent post on abandoning novels to the DNF pile made me realize it’s been some time since I looked over the books and samples recently added to the TBR file on my Kindle. There’ve been a bunch, a bit ironic considering how few new-to-me novels I’ve been reading this year. Big year for re-reads, and the books I have read for the first time have mostly been additions to series I started a year or two (or more) ago. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! About time I finished Brennan’s Lady Trent series, for example.) (Though I did read, and very much enjoyed, Sabrina Chase’s space opera Sequoyah trilogy.)

Still, despite having no idea when I might get to them, I’ve added a good many books and some samples to the pile. Let’s take a look at some of those:

1. The Dragons of Esternes by Steve Turnbull. This is one of those from the SPFBO book sale, which I mentioned a couple days ago. Here’s how it opens:

The floorboards trembled beneath her and she came awake with a jerk.

The air in the eyrie was cold against her skin, and the light of the smaller moon, Colimar, shone red through the arched window in the tower’s stone wall. It was still deepest night.

Must have been a dream, thought Kantees, as she re-adjusted the thin blanket and tried to burrow deeper into the pricking straw. The boards beneath her shifted again, and there was a quiet grumble. Oh, by the mother’s milk. What now? Stupid animal.

—–

Okay, this is perfectly fine, if not very interesting. I read the next few pages and nothing much happens for a bit. Then enemies invade, or at least attack, and I expect the story picks up at that point. So far the story seems okay, but not much above okay. We were mostly in agreement that the protagonist needs to be likeable or at least not boring, and right off the bat Kantees’ voice is not that catchy, though her situation – a servant girl taking care of a racing dragon – is intrinsically interesting. I’d certainly go on at least for a chapter or two and see how the story unfolds.

Next:

2. Heart of Dragons by Meg Cowley:

The gigantic trees of the living forest rustled and contorted, but there was no wind to move them. It was as if the very trees themselves were angry. Aedon knew it to be true. The forest was furious.

He dashed across the rope bridge walkways that soared above the forest floor, clinging on for dear life. The living trees, the dhiran, buckled their limbs around him, sending the walkways swinging like ribbons in the wind.

Aedon was lucky he had always been a nimble elf. Even so, he struggled to keep his footing. He ducked and wove as branches tore at him, their leaves razor sharp. Every knobby arm of wood stabbed at him like a sword, leaving his skin peppered with nicks and grazes.

Still, it was better than descending to the forest floor. If he did, Aedon had no doubt he would be eaten by the forest itself – or at least strangled in the writhing roots of the trees that strained to rip themselves free from the earth in their determination to grasp and punish him.

Tir-na-Alathea was a special place. No one left if the forest did not wish it. Luckily, Aedon had a better plan.

—–

And then we learn that a couple other elves are pursuing Aedon; that Aedon apparently stole something of theirs.

This is another of the SPFBO novels. Although this opening is certainly more lively than the first one and I don’t actually dislike it, I do see some problems here. I should add that reading just the opening like this puts me in super-picky mode. Still, it seems to me there are a lot of clichés in these few sentences. “Clinging on for dear life.” “Ducked and wove.” “Leaves razor sharp.” “Stabbed like a sword.” Plus there are other slightly awkward word-choices:

The gigantic trees of the living forest rustled and contorted, but there was no wind to move them.

Shouldn’t it be “though there was no wind”?

And, “living forest” and “living trees”? Aren’t most trees living? I get that this is a special use of the word, but this usage still struck me as a little peculiar.

No one left if the forest did not wish it. Luckily, Aedon had a better plan.

Better than what? Shouldn’t it just be: “Aedon had a plan”?

Still, quibbles aside, I’d go on for a bit and see how the story looks after a chapter or so. But I’m not too hopeful right up front.

Okay, moving on:

3. Eyrie by K Vale Nagle

Thirty feet up a tree that reached twice that height into the forest canopy, Zeph clung beak-down and surveyed the forest floor. Several large, flightless ground parrots pecked at crushed berries. Violet stains covered their green plumage. The berries were casualties of a conflict much higher up. Two flying squirrels fighting on the sunny tree tops had dropped them, splashing Zeph with juice when the berries landed. While the rush of sugar the berries offered was tempting, that was short-term thinking. Instead, he groomed the juice from his feathered face, left the area, climbed one of the many massive redwoods, and glided back to a good vantage point. The local ground parrots had become wary of the fresh scratches on trees that marked the climbing habits of gryphons. …

—–

And then we get a little hunting scene in which Zeph kills a couple of these giant parrots, during the hunt he happens to spot a scene of earlier minor carnage, and the story goes on from there. This is a story where all the characters are gryphons of one type or another, and in fact there are quite good line drawings of radically different types of gryphons at the beginning of the book. The types are so different I want to say “species,” but apparently they can and do interbreed quite freely, so perhaps that term is not the best.

Anyway, this seems to be more of a slice-of-life beginning. The “minor carnage” involves the slaughter of livestock – capybaras! – rather than people. There’s potential for conflict between different groups of gryphons, but so far, in the first chapters, conflict seems more potential than active. The writing’s decent, though so far Zeph isn’t doing enough or thinking enough to be all that interesting as a protagonist. The setting may carry this story forward until the plot gets going, because hey, different types of gryphons are intrinsically fun. I’d go on with all these books, at least for a chapter or so, but so far this one is more appealing than the first two.

4. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Mehr woke up to a soft voice calling her name. Without thought, she reached a hand beneath her pillow and closed her fingers carefully around the hilt of her dagger. She could feel the smoothness of the large opal embedded in the hilt, and its familiar weight beneath her fingertips calmed her. She sat up and pushed back the layer of gauze surrounding her divan.

“Who is it?” she called out.

The room was dark apart from one wavering light. As the light approached, Mehr realized it was an oil lantern, held aloft by a maidservant whom Mehr knew by sight but not by name. Through the glare of the lit flame, the maidservant’s features looked distorted, her eyes wide with nervousness.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, my lady,” the maid said. “But your sister is asking for you.”

—–

I think the three above were self-published, while this one is from Orbit. I picked it up because of a recommendation on Twitter that made it sound appealing. This opening is okay, I think. The servant wants Mehr to come comfort her baby sister, who has been frightened by a spirit that came out of the desert – these spirits might have been much more powerful in the past, I gather. It’s well written and in fact I’ve read about a third of the book so far. For me it’s just okay, but I have mentioned that new-to-me fiction has an uphill battle to appeal to me this year, right? This story has an arranged-marriage plotline, which works for me because I know (from the Twitter recommendation) that the romance component of the story has a Happily Ever After ending. That’s important because at the moment, the protagonist and her new husband are in a pretty dire situation.

I expect I’ll go on with this story pretty soon, though I interrupted it to re-read the entire Valor series by Tanya Huff. So at least I finally finished that series; I’d been waiting for the final book to come out and finally realized it had.

5. Blade and Rose by Miranda Honfleur

Out the fifth-story window, or not at all.

It was her only chance to sneak out unnoticed. Rielle sprang from the bed and grabbed a coat, white wool with the master mage’s four-bar chevron, and fastened the double rows of buttons from neck to hip.

Gloves next. No glow of spellcasting to give her away. She slipped her hands into the wool-lined leather and flexed her fingers. A new pair. The heat of her pyromancy last mission had ruined the previous set.

With a flick of her wrist, she extinguished the fireplace and every candle in the room, willing the flames away until only darkness and the faint glow of the gibbous moon remained.

She tossed her braid over her shoulders and opened the window latch. Her boot perched on the sill, she peered at the ground. Dark. Quiet. Empty.

Farther away from the Tower, torches illuminated the walls of the inner bailey, dotted the outer bailey and the gates. Beyond them, white pines challenged the midnight sky, their peaks silvered by the moon. The forest – that was her destination.

—–

Okay, now we’re talking! I so admire artistic use of fragments. This is another one from the SPFBO sale. I’m glad I picked it up, because this is a promising start. Most definitely going on with this one, and crossing my fingers that the story will prove as strong as it continues as this beginning suggests.

6. The Songweaver’s Vow by Laura Vanarendonk Bough

The attack came at down.

Euthalia woke to the terse, worried voices of men, and she crawled into the dawn light. “What is it?” she asked, only half-expecting an answer.

But Miloslav stopped mid-sentence to turn toward her. “Get back!” he snapped. “Hide yourself!”

Euthalia swept her eyes across the camp, seeing men picking up weapons and looking up the river, where she saw a dragon.

Its head rose from the water and curled upward, glaring down upon the surface in disdain. The river barely rippled around its sinuous neck. Its body was long and narrow, and she saw now oars protruded from either side, launching it across the river. Behind it came other boats, also bearing beast heads, but somehow – because she had seen it first, or because it was the nearest, or because for just a moment it had been a real sea serpent in her mind – the first one seemed the most frightening.

Pirates, she realized. Terrifying, horrific men who went a-viking to prey on traders.

—–

The last of the books I picked up from the SPFBO sale. This is a promising opening. A lot to like about it. Nice cover, too.

Historical fantasy, obviously. That’s a subgenre that appeals to me very much, so I’ll look forward to going on with this one.

7. His Own Good Sword by Amanda McGrina

In truth, he’d rather not go to Vessy.

He’d considered just sending a letter from the post-station at Chaelor. That would be the easiest thing for himself and his father both. Certainly for his mother. But if he didn’t go now, there was no telling when he’d have the chance to go again and it was two years already since he’d last been home. No – better to go, to break the news in person. Harder, maybe, but he owed them that much. This was the last time in what would probably be a very long time he’d see either of them. Harder, in person, but it was the right thing to do.

At the crossroads at Chaelor, where most of the big roads in this northern part of the province came together, he took Risun onto the eastward road leading to Vessy. The road ran close along the shore of Lake Morin and for most of the way it went on pilings because the ground was reed beds and soft green marshland that flooded in the springtime. Vessy itself, the ancient Cesino capital, was built on a hillside above the lake. The oldest part of the city was at the base of the hill, below the causeway: fishermen’s huts and ships’ housing and rows and rows of mossy weathered mooring stones. The younger part, above, was Vareno-built, and the buildings stood out starkly from the old Cesino buildings below – walls of white marble rather than flagstone, roofs of clay tile instead of straw thatch.

The villa of the Risti sat on the very crown of the hill because Torien Risto, Tyren’s father, was the most powerful man in Cesin, and one of the more powerful men in the Empire.

—–

Okay! I think that is a good first sentence, followed by way too much description wrapped around too little story. I should add that the next pages go on in the same vein. I am a fan of good description, and this description is mostly quite good, but the author has fallen into textbook mode. Let me tell you about the setting rather than the protagonist really existing within the setting. Story and setting really need to be integrated, and here, after the first sentence, it seems to me that the author has paused the story to do an extended stop-action scene where she pans the camera sloooowly around to show the reader the scenery. That’s not the impression the reader should get in the first pages.

The biggest problem, or at least one big problem for me here, is the names. There are lots and none of them mean anything to the reader. Is Risun the name of the protagonist’s horse? Can’t tell, though that is my tentative conclusion. Is Tyren Risto the protagonist of the story? Can’t tell that either, not for sure. This is one of the dangers of starting off the story with a pronoun rather than a name. While it’s true that people don’t think of themselves by name, it’s also true that the reader needs to know the name of the protagonist. This should be crystal clear. Here, it’s really not.

However … the description is good. I do plan to go on for a chapter or two.                                  

8. As the Crow Flies by Robyn Lythgoe

I am called Crow, and I am a thief. The name and the profession go hand in hand and, like the bird, I am not at all opposed to appropriating what pleases me. I am good at it. Crows are smart and clever. Black of hair, dark of eye, and dusky of skin, I am as like that much-maligned bird as any man can be. My nimble fingers and quick mind have guaranteed me the most profitable jobs and a comfortable place in the annals of history.

I always work alone. Most of my life has been spent alone, a situation I never felt inclined to alter until, in my thirty-first spring, I fell in love. Ah, Tarsha, my beautiful jewel …

It was for her sake that I perched on the ledge of a arrow window in Baron Metin Duzayan’s residence more than three stories above the churning waters of the Zenn River.

The din of pursuit clattered down the hall behind me. Which way would the guardsmen most likely look for me? Down. Down was the easy way to go, the quick way, but any fool can leap to his death in a raging river, and I am no fool. With vengeful Winter tramping through the land, it would be bitterly cold, too. I would rather fly than take a wetting, so up it was.

—–

Voice is particularly important in first-person narratives, and this guy immediately strikes me as a jerk. I often like arrogant protagonists, as long as they are in fact (nearly) as competent as they think they are, but I’m not sure I like them as much in first-person narratives as third.

Well, we’ll see. I liked the back-cover description of this book, so I’ll go on and see how the story unfolds. I believe the protagonist is going to find himself in a tough spot very shortly, which might not knock the arrogance back a touch, but perhaps it will.

9. Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

“My lady.” The voice was urgent. “My lady, please – please wake up.”

Marian swam up out of dreamless sleep, her mind groggy and confused. It was dark, but as her eyes adjusted, the light of a candle came into view. Behind it she could see a familiar face, drawn and frightened.

“Elena,” she croaked, dragging herself upright. “What is it?”

Her maid swallowed, the candlelight bobbing and swaying with the trembling of her hand. “It’s my brother, my Lady. They’ve got him – they’ve arrested him and they’re going to kill him at dawn. Please, my Lady, I don’t know what to do.”

Marian was on her feet before she could think, reaching for yesterday’s dress handing over her changing screen. She threw it on over her shift, ignoring the trailing laces at its back. “Where is my cloak?” she demanded, quick and curt.

—–

Kind of funny that this opening is so similar to Empire of Sand, above! I wonder how many stories in the world open with someone saying, My lady, wake up!

This is a Robin Hood story. There’s a prologue in which Robin himself, fighting in the Holy Land with the king, is killed. Then we start here at Chapter One with Marian. You can probably imagine how the story unfolds after this, as Marian is determined to keep the story of Robin Hood alive even though Robin himself is dead. I’m looking forward to it. For one thing, this version of the Robin Hood story simply cannot suffer from the common weakness of Robin Hood retellings, which is a weak ending. They all have a weak ending. But in a sense this one gets that over with right at the beginning – Robin Hood is dead! – so the author should be able to take this story in a very different direction at the end.

Okay, one more:

10. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit? I’ve never understood why people phrase it as a question, because of course you remember. I was in the mountains with Nathaniel. He had inherited this cabin from his father and we used to go up there for stargazing. By which I mean: sex. Oh, don’t pretend that you’re shocked. Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids.

If I had known how long the stars were going to be hidden, I would have spent a lot more time outside with the telescope.

We were lying in the bed with the covers in a tangled mess around us. The morning light filtered through silver snowfall and did nothing to warm the room. We’d been awake for hours, but hadn’t gotten out of bed yet for obvious reasons. Nathaniel had his leg thrown over me and was snuggled up against my side, tracing a finger along my collarbone in time with the music on our little battery-powered transistor radio. …

… I pulled the covers up over myself and turned on my side to watch him. He was lean, and only his time in the Army during World War II kept him from being scrawny. I loved watching the muscles play under his skin as he pulled wood off the pile under the big picture window. The snow framed him beautifully, its silver light just catching in the strands of his blond hair.

And then the world outside lit up.

—–

I wanted to get to the meteor hitting, so I cut a bit out of the first pages. However, here you go, this is basically the opening to The Calculating Stars, which as you all know won the Hugo a few days ago. A bit like cheating to include it with a bunch of random books picked up partly because they were on sale! But it’s fun to compare. I don’t think I’m biased when I say that Kowal brings an assurance to her writing that’s lacking in most of the selections above. Great first line. Clearly established first-person voice. Protagonist and story effortlessly integrated with the setting.

As far as I’m concerned, the two obvious standouts from this set of ten are The Calculating Stars and Blade and Rose. What do you all think?

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18 Comments Novel openings: recent acquisitions

  1. Pete Mack

    Living trees should probably be ‘sentient’. I won’t be buying that one: when one uses a lot of adjectives, word choice really matters.

  2. Elaine T

    How do redwood trees and capybaras grow in the same environment? If the author (or back cover copy) didn’t swiftly imply a modern-ish world of trade & animal/plant importation all over I’d drop it fast.

    What is it with opening with females waking up? Seeing so many is striking.

    That first one isn’t bad – it establishes important bits of setting without wasting words. The second is trying too hard, while the fifth I think (the mage escaping) was doing fine, for a bit, then it tried too hard as well. I think it was the ‘boot perching’ bit that triggered that reaction.

  3. Rachel

    I have to admit, I was not crazy about the “boot perching” phrase. But if you were reading the book in an ordinary way, rather than critically looking at the opening, would you notice? I kind of think I’d have skimmed past that without noticing.

    I was amused by a) redwoods; b) berries; c) capybaras; and d) ground parrots all mixed together. It struck me as cluttered-for-fun rather than author-has-no-clue-about-ecology. But I could be wrong! But one of the griffin species is PEACOCK-based! Which is just so amusing to me and helps me not take the setting too seriously.

  4. Kim Aippersbach

    Most of these are so wordy! My fingers are quivering for a red pencil to slash through half the sentences and another half of the words. Assured writing like Kowal’s trusts the reader more, so it isn’t so explainy and describey.

    I thought Sherwood was admirably concise and to the point; gets right into the action, too. Hers was also traditionally published, I think?

    In general that’s the biggest problem I have with self-published books: they desperately need an editor. (And I don’t think I’m just saying that because I’m an editor!)

    (You and Andrea Höst are among the few self-published writers I can read—you’re both experienced enough to trust your readers and only say what needs to be said. Also you have great voice; I can read a lot of extraneous stuff if it’s in a great voice.)

  5. Rachel

    Well, I was traditionally published years before I self-published. Though come to think of it, I’ve never had any editor take a red pencil to my sentences.

    Yes, looks like Sherwood came out from Harper Collins. How about Empire of Sand? Did that one seem wordy to you?

  6. Mike S.

    “Living forest” reminds me of the currently commonplace phrasing “lived experience”. (As opposed to what?)

  7. Alison

    I just read a very interesting book, “Sirens Unbound” by Laura Engelhardt. Very different. Pretty good. Not on your SPFBO site, but free on Amazon Kindle Prime.

  8. Rachel

    Thanks for the tip, Alison!

    Amazon’s description for anyone interested:

    Dr. Amy Bant faces the challenge of her career – developing a cure for magical blindness that is sought by mages, the military, and powerful forces she does not yet understand. In pursuit of the medical answer, Amy will uncover truths that have been hidden from humans by mages, fae, and even her own family. Actions have consequences, and the decisions made by the Bant family will herald the start of what could be the most destructive war the world has ever seen.

    I’ll try a sample and see how it goes!

  9. Hanneke

    The Miranda Honfleur one looked interesting enough that I looked it up, but alas it is only available on Kindle, as the first of a six-book series (5&6 still to be written).
    I really try not to feed Amazon’s voracious monopolist & monopsonist tendencies, so I haven’t bought it yet. The only ones for whom I’ve broken my “don’t feed the monopolist” rule are the Penric novellas by Bujold, as I am a completist regarding her work. But if ever a collection of those gets distributed to other ebook sellers or published as a paper collection, I’ll buy that too (the paper collector’s editions at $15+ for each novella are beyond my value-for-money budget).
    I don’t think I’ll break that rule for this unknown; I’m hoping it will get distributed to other stores once the series is finished.

  10. Elaine T

    ” How about Empire of Sand? Did that one seem wordy to you?”

    A bit, all that detail about the dagger, but it wasn’t coming off as too much, just world building a trifle clumsily. But on the page would I have noticed, instead isolated like this? Don’t know. If it was right after something else that was too wordy in just the wrong way I probably would have.

    ” was amused by a) redwoods; b) berries; c) capybaras; and d) ground parrots all mixed together. It struck me as cluttered-for-fun rather than author-has-no-clue-about-ecology” Ok, if it’s clearly going for fun and humor I can live with that.
    We have redwood, berries and parrots (went feral and bred, I believe) around here, although not usually quite so close together, so those elements didn’t jump out as needing an explanation for the combo.

  11. Rachel

    If it were me, I’d feel compelled to make it clear that the berries were from a VINE climbing in the canopy of the trees, not from the redwoods themselves. But probably no one else would care if the author implies that redwood trees produce berries…

  12. Pete Mack

    The only–oxymoronic!–conifers with berries are yews (red) and junipers (blue), as far as I know. Write about redwoods with berries, and you could drop the ‘oxy’.

  13. Pete Mack

    I am reading calculating stars. And things went a bit off the rails with this:
    ‘… you can see further down the occasion, 12.8e9 G of thrust.’
    This is gibberish. Really gibberish. Thrust is a unit of force. g (not G!) is a unit of acceleration, and in any case, 10^2 g is enough to crush a human. 10^9 g is more than enough to make a black hole. (G is the universal constant for gravity, and is ridiculously small; even 10^9 G is a tiny number–solar sail magnitude.) And in any case, neither of these is a measure of thrust.

    If you are going to talk the details of real physics, get it proofread by someone who knows the basics, or better, get someone to teach you the basics. The bare bones stuff isn’t complex–mostly unit analysis and definitions.

  14. Rachel

    I just finished Calculating Stars, liked it a lot, and (of course!) did not notice the mistake. In the afterward, she says she did run everything past a … I don’t remember exactly … physicist or astrophysicist or rocket scientist or something like that. I guess that person missed this mistake, which must be embarrassing for them both, but Kowal apparently did take that step.

  15. Rachel

    Good, but I don’t know whether those reports actually go anywhere. I have never once seen any such report on any of my books.

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