Okay, I’ve picked up a good many samples recently, plus some full novels or series. They range from something that sounded potentially good, through a bunch of author recommendations you all offered here, to a new(ish) Mercy Thompson novel. That last is Storm Cursed, not the most recent novel in that series but the one before that, which I realized I hadn’t yet read and which came down in price when the newest installment came out. A wide variety, mostly secondary-world fantasy and historical fantasy and romance. Let’s take a look:
1. The Horn by J Kathleen Cheney
This trilogy actually starts with an author’s note which explains the backstory and political context. That, in my opinion, is a terrible way to open a secondary-world fantasy. It’s exactly like opening with a backstory prologue that explains the political history of the world; it’s like trying to have that kind of prologue without using the word “prologue.” Ugh. I can’t express how little I care about the political backstory or the history of the world. If the story is good, maybe I will care later, but at the beginning, no.
Here’s the actual beginning:
The tent was empty. Amal knelt to peer farther inside, her heavy overcoat bunching about her heels in the snow. The tent was easily large enough for a few people, but a single pack rested against the tent wall next to a pile of clothing, neatly stacked. Atop that lay a leather book. She pushed into the tent and, holding the flap open with one foot, grabbed the book.
Whoever had set up the tent here was trespassing. She was within her rights to seize everything.
She backed out of the tent into the chill air. The story had passed, leaving the late spring sky brilliant and the snow blinding. If not for the wind, it would be beautiful.
While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this opening, it’s not what I would call grabby. I read a little farther, but I didn’t get very interested and wound up deleting this sample.
2. Magic and the Shinigarni Detective by, um, it says Honor Raconteur.
I can’t say I am impressed by the author’s pseudonym. But fine, let’s look at the way the novel opens.
Emulating a breathing statue, I kept my eyes at half-mast, my body still. I’d learned over the time in this dank, bat-infested cave that stillness was best. She didn’t question stillness. She sometimes forgot her victims were even there.
Well, victim, now. That other poor man had died this morning, leaving me as the lone survivor. She’d captured six of us in the beginning, all from different worlds, as we’d barely been able to communicate with each other, even with the potions and language spells she heaped upon us. We’d lost the first man within a week, his body too different, his spirit too easily crushed.
The witch even now poured over her notes – flitting about the huge and scarred worktable, picking up different vials, sketches of magical designs – only to put them down again with foul oaths. Her thin lips twisted as she snarled the words, making her narrow face even more pinched.
Okay, no, I don’t think so. What here doesn’t work? Let me see. The first paragraph is good. The second is, like an author’s note or a prologue, handing the reader some backstory. It’s too heavy-handed imo. I raised an eyebrow at “from different worlds.” Really. And this witch “heaped” potions and language spells on her captives, for some reason. And they tried to communicate with each other, even though they were also learning to be quiet and not draw attention to themselves. Well, I don’t believe it and I’m not impressed by a phrase that includes “heaping” potions. The third paragraph is enough. I don’t care for the writing style here.
3. From Kiss to Queen by Janet Chapman
The sharp, roaring shrill of a powerful engine shattered the slumberous quiet of the deep Maine woods. Birds scattered, chipmunks scurried for cover, and Jane Abbot instinctively ducked when a fast-moving aircraft shot overhead just above the treetops. Deciding someone was doing a bit of illegal scouting for next week’s moose hunt, Jane frowned when she noticed the wing flaps of the floatplane were set for landing. Except that didn’t make sense, since the closest lake big enough to land a plane that size on was at least twenty miles away.
Surely the pilot wasn’t eyeing the pond she’d just passed.
Jane actually screamed when another plane roared overhead, this one smooth-bellied instead of rigged with floats. Her shotgun hanging forgotten at her side, she stood in the center of the old tote road and watched the sleek, twin-engine Cessna sharply bank after the first plane like a metallic hawk trying to drive its pretty to ground.
What in holy heaven was going on?
I’m not going to delete it just yet – I am more forgiving with fluffy contemporary romance than secondary-world fantasy – but I don’t think of “roaring” and “shrill” in the same breath myself. I’ve heard lions roar and howler monkeys roar and engines roar and I wouldn’t say “shrill” fit any of those. Plus, you don’t decide something and then notice something. Do you? Doesn’t deciding take a second? Wouldn’t you notice the contradictory thing before you have a chance to decide anything? Wouldn’t this be more like, “Jane’s first fleeting thought was thus and so, but the plane’s wing-flaps were set for landing. Frowning, Jane …”
However, as I said, I’m more forgiving when the novel is meant to be fluffy, which I imagine this one probably is. But you know, the first paragraphs are super important and I’m not sure these particular first paragraphs are as good as they could be. Still, I’m interested. What in holy heaven IS going on?
4. Wild Mountain Thyme by Rosamunda Pilcher
Once, before the bypass had been built, the main road ran through the heart of the village, a constant stream of heavy traffic that threatened to rattle the heart out of the gracious Queen Anne houses and the small shops with their bulging windows. Woodbridge had been, not such a long time ago, simply a place you drove through in order to reach some other places.
But since the opening of the bypass, things had changed. For the better, said the residents. For the worse, said the shopkeepers and the garage proprietors and the man who had run the lorry-drivers’ restaurant.
Good writing. But a slow opening. Two more paragraphs, one quite long, before the novel begins as a young man drives into town and looks at it and parks in front of a house and looks at the house. I don’t mean to sound too negative. I don’t necessarily mind a slow opening with plenty of description. But this is certainly a quite slow opening with definitely plenty of description. It’s an interesting contrast to the many, many novels that open by blowing something up or setting something on fire or stabbing someone with a sword or whatever. The implication is that the whole novel will be slower paced, that the overall atmosphere will be quiet and leisurely. The reader who is in the mood for that will be drawn in, perhaps, while anyone wanting a more lively story would probably prefer a plane crash.
All right, let’s see the next one.
5. Evil Genius: Family Genius Mysteries by Patricia Rice
My name is Ana, and I’m a doormat.
I’m also one of the best virtual assistants in the world, if you’ll pardon my modesty. Being a virtual assistant and a wuss often go hand in hand. Most of us are introverts who prefer to work in cyberspace because human nature is messy and unpredictable and computers aren’t. My excuse is that my family is messier than most and so far beyond volatile as to establish whole new spectrums of the definition, so being their doormat involves a great deal of mud and muddle that I couldn’t take anymore.
So four years ago, I left my family halfway around the world, and I never had reason to believe they had interest in finding me until the day my doorbell rang.
So, first person voice is clear already. Nothing wrong with this opening. Good writing. I’m not a particular fan of doormat protagonists, though of course it turns out that viewed from another angle, Ana is just good at quietly organizing things. Her relatives are indeed wacky, with unusual skill-sets. I sort of liked the sample, which I read all of, but I didn’t immediately feel like grabbing the whole novel and going on with the story.
I’ve got a lot more samples and novels here, but I’m out of time, so I’ll add just one more to this post: the third book of the Joanna Bourne Spymaster romance series. This one I definitely expect to like, since I very much enjoyed the first two books in this series.
6. My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne
Once you get a taste for thievery, you never lose it. Papa used to say that, clouting her on the side of the head a bit to let her know who he was talking about.
She missed picking pockets. Missed the cool, stealthy slide of fingers into a coat. Slithering away with a purse, wise and secret. She missed the best part – jingling the coins out on the cobbles, squatting down with her mates, and counting out the take. She’d learned to keep accounts, working out a fair cut.
Respectable was flat beer compared to that. Maybe that was why she’d talked herself into running this rig. She was so damn tired of being respectable.
Well, that’s a fine opening. After the five above, I particularly appreciate the neat, unobtrusive way backstory is alluded to without anything heavy-handed. Clean, smooth writing too, with no odd word choices or whatever.