Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Novel beginnings

So, recently I posted a quick snippet of the beginnings of seven recently acquired samples just to take a look at them. I do also have a good number of recently acquired full books near the top of the (vast) unread-book section of my Kindle, so I’ve pulled the ten nearest the top and taken a look at those as well. Here they are – let’s see which seem most appealing right off the cuff:

1. Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire

The called Missos the month of flowers. It was the first really hot month of the year, and the poppy anemones, clover, and waterclasp coated the slopes of the Erastes Valley with yellow, white, and red blooms – and, incidentally, set at least of the quarter of the population of Agatos to fits of sneezing and streaming eyes. It was also the month when, traditionally, the young people of Agatos headed out into the valley for picnics, sports, and a whole lot of frantic, unfulfilling sex.

Things were different for me. For the third night in a row, I was shut in a sweltering, dusty kitchen pantry watching out for ghosts that I was pretty sure didn’t exist.

Okay, full disclosure, I don’t exactly know Patrick, but I’m slightly acquainted with his wife, Stephanie Burgis, via Twitter and Facebook. You remember, she’s writing those delightful MG Dragon With A Chocolate Heart stories, among other things. Also, Patrick’s book is an entry this year in Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO, though it wasn’t assigned to the same initial blogger as TUYO, fortunately, because that would be weird.

This is the only SPFBO entry that I’ve actually taken a real look at so far. I’m about a fifth of the way into it, so I can say with assurance that this is a well-written, low fantasy story with a definite gritty-humor tone. The protagonist is pretty much a complete loser when the story opens. He’s a low-powered mage, he lives in a scuzzy apartment, he’s friends with a lowlife thief, he lets himself be persuaded to help out in a ridiculously risky theft, and things do not go well. That’s the basic setup. Oh, by the way, the sources of magic in this world are the rotting bodies of dead gods. Just throwing that out there.

I’m having a hard time imagining trying to judge the SPFBO contest now, because, well, let’s consider this book and Tuyo as two entries that a judge is trying to choose between. So, there you are: you are the judge and you have hit two entirely different well-written fantasy novels that might as well be in different genres and … where do you go from there? I expect that most people would probably have no trouble picking out five or so novels that were well written and then it would be largely a matter of taste and mood. What do you happen to prefer in general and/or feel like at the moment: high fantasy, low fantasy, male protagonist, female protagonist, one pov, large pov cast, adventure story, quiet slice-of-life story, third person, first person … what a toss-up that final decision has to be. That’s got to be the case even if the judge then moves into an analytical process and considers thoughtful questions about pacing and character arcs and the hero’s journey and whatever else in order to make a nod to objective quality right at the end of the decision.

Anyway, moving on:

2. The Initiate by James Cambias

“It wasn’t a bear, was it?” The voice on Samuel Arquero’s phone was reedy and precise. Whoever it was hung up before he could answer. Sam tried to call back, but got a recorded voice telling him the number was not in service. He tried again with the same results. Then he just sat there in the dark living room, looking at the fire in the wood stove. A half-empty pitcher of Bloody Marys stood on the coffee table in front of him.

That was how Sam spent most of his evenings, trying to drink himself to sleep without incurring a crippling hangover. He made his Bloody Marys with V8 juice, so they were almost good for him.

This book is definitely fantasy, you can tell because of the back cover copy, but it sure looks contemporary when it opens, doesn’t it? Also, this is not remotely the kind of protagonist who appeals to me right off. Guys who spend their evenings trying to drink themselves to sleep do not instantly strike me as sympathetic, just pathetic, full stop. However, the clear awareness that I have liked all of Cambias’ other work will definitely keep me reading past this point. Also, mild curiosity about the thing that wasn’t a bear.

3. Mercury Retrograde by Laura Bickle

No matter how decent Petra Dee’s intentions were, things always went to shit.

Sweat dribbled down the back of her neck, sliding down her shoulder blades and congealing between her skin and the Tyvek biohazard suit. The legs of the suit made a zip-zip sound, snagging on bits of prickly pear as she walked through the underbrush of Yellowstone National Park. She clutched her tool bag tightly in her gloved grip, the plastic of the suit rustling over the hiss of the respirator in her ears. Her breath fogged the scuffed clear mask of the suit, softening the edge of the land before her with a dreamlike filter.

“You don’t have to do this,” Mike said.

“Consider it a professional favor, okay?” she said. “And you said it was weird. Now I’m curious.”

This is actually the second book of a beautifully written, rather creepy weird contemporary-western trilogy. I liked the first book, recently realized I’d never gone on with the trilogy, and here we are. Not a bad beginning at all! What is the weird thing going to be? Practically anybody would turn the page, I expect.

4. Mindtouch by MCA Hogarth

“I’m here for my room assignment, please,” Jahir said.

The woman behind the registration desk glanced at him and barely concealed her surprise. He supposed not many people stood tall enough to look over the desk at her. Either that or it was because he was Eldritch.

Oh, right, this one. I remember why I picked it up. Yes, actually, this is exactly the kind of book I’m in the mood for, so this is the one I’m planning to actually come back to and read next, like actually next. I’ll start it tonight. With luck it will be calm, quiet, easy to read, pleasant, slice-of-life rather than exciting – I have lots of stuff I’m working on and do not really want anything too tense or exciting. Yes, I bet this will be just the ticket. Glad I picked it up. If all goes well, I’ll write a review for it in a couple of days.

5. Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine

The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

You pay your admission to a man who looks like he could knock out a steer, but it is a slight young man who hands you your ticket, printed on thick, clean paper, one corner embossed in gold ink with a griffin whose mechanical wings shine in the shivering mirrorlight.

TRESAUTI, it says, and underneath, Circus Mechanique, which is even more showy than the posters. Their bulbs are bare; who do they think they are?

Wow, that’s super-literary. I will be in the mood for something like this eventually, but definitely not right now. I don’t expect the whole thing is in a sort of near-second-person, but if so, even more definitely not right now. Present tense is also by no means my favorite thing. I have to decide to tolerate it and then read enough of the book to get used to it.

6. Singapore Sapphire by AM Stuart

“Hello,” she called, her voice vanishing into the dark bowels of the house. “Sir Oswald? Are you home?

“Damn it,” she swore under her breath. She needed the typewriter.

If no one was at home, perhaps she could retrieve her property and be gone, leaving a note of apology for her intrusion.

She stepped over the threshold, and as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she caught her breath. Furniture had been overturned, cushions torn apart and valuable porcelain lay shattered on the rugs.

I have no real impression of this book yet. This opening suggests certain things about the style – short paragraphs – and the situation. Nothing particularly noteworthy in this first little bit.

7. Murder in G Major by Alexia Gordon

Gethsemane Brown leaned closer to the windshield. She could just make out a thatched cottage through the gray curtain of rain pounding southwestern Ireland’s coast. The whitewashed house perched a few hundred yards from an ominous cliff. Farther up the road a lighthouse stood sentry over the rocky landscape. She rested her head on the window’s cool glass, trying to ignore the sound of tires skidding on wet gravel, and reconsidered her any-job-is-better-than-no-job philosophy.

Very typical setup for what I presume is going to be a cozy mystery. Good writing. Great name for the protagonist. Now I’m regretting I’ve never had a chance to name a dog “Gethsemane.” I like this tidbit fine, though there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it either.

8. The Last Dragonhealer by HS Skinner

Not much could jolt her out of the cloud of pain and fatigue she existed in, but the exuberate cry of Dragons! had her staggering to a halt and trying to look up. Almost overbalancing with the effort, planting one hand firmly against the nearest wall, she stopped and scanned the skies just in time to see dragons swoop low and then disappear behind a line of mudbrick buildings

At last! Dragons!

Dragons are generally a good element. Who wouldn’t turn the page with an opening like this?

9. Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

They came from all around the broken world to pay Vivian Liao homage on her birthday.

Oligarchs and video stars and billionaires and their daughters, princesses and actresses hoping for her notice, fresh-faced tech circuit darlings hungry to stand where Viv now stood but with only the vaguest sense of what that meant, people she’d sent invitations and people she’d let bribe or beg their way onto the guest list, they came. The Saint Kitts airport had hummed with Gessnas and Gulfstreams and Tesla Aeros for days before the party, and the long black glistening cars that wound up the driveway of the beach-front mansion might have been a funeral processions save for the passengers’ brightly colored plumage. A funeral, maybe, for a tyrant.

I am one hundred percent uninterested in celebrity culture in the real world. I expect this is partly because I don’t recognize most celebrities all that easily – moderately face-blind, remember – and it’s hard to care about celebrities when your first response to 99% of them is “Who is this again?” Also, there’s just nothing appealing about the celebrity-worship aspect of modern societies. Why do people care about the opinions of actors and singers and people who are famous for being famous? I honestly do not understand it.

So … I have heard lots of good things about Max Gladstone. Perhaps I should have tried a sample of a different book first, because I’m not remotely interested in Vivian or any of her hangers-on. In fact, I’m immediately somewhat repelled by this opening.

10. Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

It’s time to get to work.

I move quickly, losing myself among the crumbling tenement blocks of the Sixteenth Ward. The streets smell of saltwater and rotting fish, piss and misery. Huddled shapes crowd against the pitted brick, fearful faces staring. This is my Kahnzoka, my filthy, stinking city, and these are my people.

I walk a complex route, to make sure I’m not followed. When I’m convinced there’s no one on my tail, I head to the building that houses my current bolthole and climb to the fourth floor.

I’m a big fan of Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series. I wouldn’t say it’s flawless, but I would say it’s easily one of the top ten epic fantasies I’ve read in the past decade. That will be a good thing to keep in mind as I read the first chapter of this book, because this beginning would put me solidly off if the author were someone I had never read before. First person present tense plus too gritty. If the author mentions piss and filth and misery in the first paragraph, well, that is not a great sign for the tone of the story.

Okay! Which if any of these beginnings especially appeal / do not appeal to you all?

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10 Comments Novel beginnings

  1. Robert

    I’ve read Empress of Forever, and it is a crazy, fun book. The protagonist is about to seriously leave all that celebrity culture behind, for reasons both planned and unplanned. Don’t be put off by the opening paragraphs. It gets weird fast.

  2. Kim Aippersbach

    The Laura Bickle series looks a lot grittier than you usually like: someone compared it to X-Files crossed with Dexter, which would give it a huge miss for me, except that you liked it …

    I really enjoyed Patrick Samphire’s middle-grade adventure set on Mars, and am still planning to read the second one of that (though I probably have to reread the first one by now). I would try his adult book, if it has more going for it than just gritty humour, which I enjoy if there’s a depth behind it.

    Mindtouch is exactly what you hope it will be: not remotely gritty! I just finished the third book in the series, which I enjoyed, though it’s even slower with less incident. Will probably save the fourth for a more stressful time when that’s what I need out of a book.

  3. Rachel

    Kim, the first book of Laura Bickle’s series was juuuust about too dark for me, but not quite. So we’ll see about the second. One reason I’m inclined to go one with this trilogy is that I would like to see some of the characters from the first book wind up, eventually, in a better place. If they don’t, well, I will have to write off Bickle as too dark for me.

  4. Jo in OKC

    For me, Mindtouch and The Last Dragonhealer are the ones whose openings intrigue me.

    I would also try Shadow of a Dead God because of the Stephanie Burgis connection.

  5. Megan

    I just wanted to comment that fantasy has become such a BROAD category it does feel unfair to have one award/list covering “fantasy” instead of starting to break out some of the major categories. Because someone who likes epic fantasy may not be interested in urban or steampunk, and the conventions of each subgenre can be wildly different.

  6. Hanneke

    Rachel and Kim, the Mindtouch quartet by MCA Hogarth are just as you said, calm, quiet, easy to read, pleasant, slice-of-life rather than exciting.
    I read the series because it was recommended (here, I think, or maybe at BookViewCafé) as a gentle “pastoral” type story based around a friendship rather than a romance, showing the friends going through college and internships and starting out on life.

    It is all that, which made me inclined to take up the other series written by M.C.A. Hogarth in this universe. Be warned: none of them are as gentle as these four, and most of the other books, as far as I’ve read or sampled, go some or much darker. I haven’t read all of them, but am now hesitating over trying the last, as I found none of the ones I’ve read as attractive as the Mindtouch quartet, and some of them contained quite off-putting elements. I don’t like rape, slavery, BDSM, or making a primary character murder 300 unknown new sentients because she’s too stubborn to discuss her problems and ask for help.

    There’s one where they’ve even compiled a synopsis of the series for those who don’t want to read about so much rape (for at least 4 out of 5 books, according to the synopsis), but do want to get the set-up regarding the intervening war before reading the later, nicer books – I did that and will definitely not be reading that series, but even the following, kinder books made me feel I’d rather not have seen that change in a main character due to his wartime experiences.

    So I can heartily recommend the Mindhealer quartet, but also recommend that you stop there, if you want to keep that pleasant aftertaste and not go on to something decidedly more stressful.

  7. Rachel

    Hanneke, thank you. I think you or someone else said something much like this before. I’m inclined to stop with just this series, at least for now.

  8. Jeanine

    I second Robert’s comments about Empress of Forever. It morphs into a freewheeling buddy caper across space and time. I enjoyed it.

    I also really liked the Bookburners series edited by Gladstone. That’s more toward urban fantasy/mystery.

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