The TBR Pile: Seven Novel Openings

Since I did this kind of post with mysteries a few days ago, I thought it might be good to do it again, this time with SFF novels. Say, a handful of the ones that have been on my paper TBR shelves for a year or two. Or three. For some time, let’s say. That applies to nearly everything on those shelves. Since I’ve got probably a hundred books or so on the physical TBR shelves, let me pick a theme … okay: these are all older titles – published before 2000. (That still seems a little odd to me, referring to stuff before 2000 as “older.” But here we are.)

Taking a good look at the opening paragraphs ought to show me which of these books, if any, I should leave upstairs on the coffee table, which can go back down to the TBR shelves in the library, and possibly which might go directly to the give-away pile. So, let’s take a look!

1. Name of a Shadow by Ann Maxwell, 1980

“Are you the Sharnn?”

“Yes.”

“Come in.”

Ryth entered the room with the lithe grace of a dancer or a Malian assassin. Kayle watched, orange eyes hooded; few people had ever seen a Sharnn in the flesh.

“I didn’t know that Sharnn ever left their planet, said Kayle, gesturing to a sling for Ryth to sit in.

“Not much is known about Sharnn,” said Ryth, his face changing with what could have been a smile.

Kayle’s glance flicked over the tall man whose silver-green eyes compelled attention. Though Ryth was standing motionless, his floor-length cape seemed to stir subtly, twisting light into new shapes.

I picked this up at a convention relatively recently, which probably means at WindyCon in 2019, since it sure wasn’t last year. It was one of those surprising finds. I’ve got some other books by Maxwell, but had never even heard of this one. I won’t claim that those of Maxwell’s books I’ve read have struck me as flawless, but I do enjoy them and have read them all several times, particularly the first book of her Fire Dancer series. The first book of that series, by the way, resolves a particular plot point which Maxwell then pretends in the second book was never resolved, a phenomenon which particularly annoys me in a series. Nevertheless, I do like the first book, which is a delightful example of a SF romance with a bonus prison escape. (I love prison escapes. I should include one in a story of my own sometime.)

So, what about Name of a Shadow?

It’s been some time since I opened a novel and saw a beginning like this – dialogue with no setting at all. I actually can’t remember the last time I saw that. It’s certainly risky to open a novel that way. I think it rarely works. I don’t think it works here. The reader’s going to have to read a bit more to get any sense of the setting or the world or even the characters. This is a classic white room opening – people speaking to one another in a scene devoid of setting. Not a great choice as far as I’m concerned! I’d read a few more pages, maybe the whole first chapter, because I’m interested in seeing what Ann Maxwell does here compared to her other books. But right now this is reading like a pretty amateurish work. I expect it was one of her first.

Let’s pause here to just pull Fire Dancer off the permanent-book shelves and take a look at how that one begins:

1b) Fire Dancer by Ann Maxwell, 1982

Onan was the most licentious planet in the Yhelle Equality. No activity was prohibited. As a result, the wealth of the Equality flowed down Onan’s gravity well – and stuck. Nontondondo, the sprawling city-spaceport, was a three-dimensional maze with walls of colored lightning, streets paved in hope and potholed by despair, and a decibel level that knew no ceiling.

“Kitrn!” shouted Rheba to the hug Bre’n walking beside her. “Can you see the Black Whole yet?”

Oh, yes, that’s a far, far better opening! Also, I’m a little amused by the Black Whole. It makes me think at once of Jackson’s Whole, because of the “most licentious” thing. You can buy licenses to do whatever you want on Onan, just as you can buy whatever you want on Jackson’s Whole.

Anyway, I do recommend Fire Dancer. If and when I read Name of a Shadow, I’ll let you know if it improves. Or if any of you have read it and remember it, what did you think?

2. The Ends of the Circle by Paul O Williams, 1981

From the west wall of the Rive Tower in the city of Pelbarigan on the Heart, a young guardsman leaned out and yawned in the glare of the winter sun, now toward the west and glancing off the snowfields beyond the river. Far out on the river, a party of Pelbar was cutting ice, leaving large squares of dark water in the gray and moving the blocks toward shore, where they would be brought to the caves under the city for storage against the coming summer heat.

“Ahroe, you don’t watch,” said the guardsman. “Your husband has fallen four times now. He is tired. The Dahmens are too hard on him. He will never bend. I know him. He is a good man, but incredibly stubborn.”

Ahroe said nothing. She resolutely looked upriver, toward where the thin haze of woodsmoke had climbed above the trees on the bluff and lay like gauze on the still air.

“Ahroe,” said Erasse. She didn’t turn. He shrugged and looked away.

Lots of setting this time! However, I agree with Elaine T’s comment regarding the Bruno mystery: I truly dislike the stylistic choice of introducing a character, the first character the reader sees, as “the man” or “the girl” or, in this case, “the guardsman.” Like a white room setting, that strikes me as amateurish. This is true even if the author in question is by no means an amateur. I don’t know anything about Paul O Williams. He may have written a hundred novels. I still think this is an amateurish thing to do.

The sense of place is really good. I particularly like the line about the woodsmoke. But the characters we meet first are not very appealing. This is a rather distant, unconcerned exchange. Neither the guardsman nor the wife seems particularly worried about whatever is going on below. The society appears unpleasant. All of those first impressions might be off, but that’s how everything looks right now. Also, “You don’t watch” is a weird locution. “You’re not watching” would sound far more natural. Maybe Williams is deliberately using phrases that are off from normal phrases. I’m not sure I would suggest that on the first page of a novel – unless the phrase is so far removed from normal usage that no one could possibly miss that the author is deliberately choosing odd phrasing.

Offhand, I don’t think I would go on very far with this one, unless it gets a lot more appealing really fast.

Here’s one by an author you’ll all recognize:

3.  Yarrow by Charles de Lint, 1986

Old ghosts lived behind Cat Midhir’s eyes, memories that had no home until they came to haunt her.

They came visiting in dreams, a gangly pack of Rackham gnomes, with long skinny arms and eyes like saucers, dry-voiced like cattails rattling in the wind. Their tunics and trousers were a motley brown, their green and yellow caps pushed down unruly thatches of wild hair. Sometimes she sensed them outside of sleep, their wizened faces peering sharp-edged from sudden corners or, shy as fawns, soft stepping behind her through parks and vacant lots – shadow companions who capered in her peripheral vision and were gone when she turned her head, dry voices piping strange music that became only the wind when she listened closely.

I’ve never read anything by Charles de Lint. It’s immediately clear why some of you have mentioned him as a writer I’d like. This is beautiful writing. 

Here’s another writer I don’t think I’ve read anything by, even though I think she is, or perhaps was, pretty well known.

4. Mirage by Louise Cooper, 1987

Are you awake, in the dark and the silence?

Do you have eyes to see, and ears to hear? Do you have hands, to reach out and clutch at the emptiness?

Can you feel? Can you know hate, loneliness, love, despair?

ARE YOU ALIVE?

Yes; you are alive. You can sense blood trickling through your veins, cunt the muffled beats of your heart; and you know that, after what might have been centuries of waiting, sleeping without dreams, without memory or identity, you exist. And although as yet there is nothing for your awakening senses to grasp, something is approaching you. It draws nearer, like a half-recalled nightmare, and it pulls and calls, demanding that the call be heeded.  …

“Wake up!”

The voice was light, crisp, demanding obedience. It spoke so close to his ear that he started; and his muscles contracted sharp with the unaccustomed movement. It took him a few moments to comprehend that the voice was female.

“Wake up!” The impatient edge was sharper.

Wow, two white room openings in this small set of samples. That can’t have been all that usual in the eighties. This must be an unrepresentative sample. Also, second person! I skimmed past a page or so of that second-person introduction – sort of a prologue, though it isn’t called that – to where the third-person story begins. Most readers, I suppose, would make it that far, unless the second-person style pushed them away immediately. Which it might. I am seldom or never in the mood to wade into a second-person narrative. As a cute gimmick for a very, very short passage … I’m still not sure I’m in the mood. And as soon as the actual story begins, we see at once that “he,” presumably the protagonist, appears to be in a terrible position of servitude to the impatient woman. This is quite unappealing so far. I’d turn the page, because I almost never stop THAT fast, but this is not looking promising.

How about it? Has anyone read this, or would anybody recommend Cooper in general?

5. Blue Moon Rising by Simon Green, 1991

Prince Rupert rode his unicorn into the Tanglewood, peering balefully through the drizzling rain as he searched half-heartedly for the flea hiding somewhere under his breast plate. Despite the chill rain, he was seating heavily under the weight of his armor, and his spirits had sunk so low as to be almost out of sight. “Go forth and slay a dragon, my son,” King John had said, and all the courtiers cheered. They could afford to. They didn’t have to go out and face the dragon. Or ride through the Tanglewood in full armor in the rainy season. Rupert gave up on the flea and scrabbled awkwardly at his steel helmet, but to no avail; water continued to trickle down his neck.

Towering, closely packed trees bordered the narrow trail, blending into a verdant glom that mirrored his mood. Thick, fleshy vines clung to every tree trunk and fell in matted streamers from the branches. A heavy, sullen silence hung over the Tanglewood. No animals moved in the thick undergrowth, and no birds sang. The only sound was the constant rustle of the rain as it dripped from the lowering branches of the waterlogged trees, and the muffled thudding of the unicorn’s hooves. Thick mud and fallen leaves made the twisting, centuries-old trail ore than usually treacherous, and the unicorn moved ever more slowly, slipping and sliding as he carried Prince Rupert deeper into the Tanglewood.

While I don’t exactly like either Rupert or the scenery, I must say, this is a certainly lively as an opening. I’m enjoying reading this. It’s one I would certainly go on reading, at least for a bit.

6. Forbidden Magic by Angus Wells, 1992

Bylath den Karnyth, Domm of Secca, Lord of the Eastern Reaches, and Chosen of Dera, stared moodily from the embrasure, his expression saturnine, as if the breeze that skirled about the palace walls enhanced his naturally dour temperament. Fingers calloused by a sword’s hilt tugged at his leonine beard, the yellow streaked with gray now, like his hair, and fell in a fist to the stone of the sill. Below him, on the sanded practice ground, his sons worked under the vigilant eye of Secca’s weaponsmaster, Torvah Banul, the younger the object of the Domm’s dissatisfaction.

The younger son is too effete for his father’s taste, I see. Wow, that is a familiar situation from one million books. Wait, I bet the son turns out to be bookish and clever and probably has magic no one knows about.

I like lyrical prose, I can appreciate ornate prose. But the above has purplish tendencies that don’t appeal to me. Also, the the clustered dependent clauses are not working for me. Anybody else get a brief image of the beard or hair or something falling in a fist to the stone of the windowsill? Too much stuff between the fingers and the fist, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure this book is going to be anything that holds my interest past the first pages.

Moving on:

7. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, 1998

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, rightly or wrongly, among my friends. I do not intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I was deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe, will speak for itself.

A very mannered style, entirely different from any of the above. I don’t mind a style like this, necessarily – I enjoy Steven Brust’s Viscount series – but I prefer to like the protagonist. This guy sounds like he might be amusing, but not likeable.

This is a significantly more well-known title, I believe. It’s got a laudatory quote on the cover from The Sunday Boston Globe, and plenty of other quotes from other sources like that, so it must have been brought out as a literary novel. The quote says, “May well be the best historical mystery ever written,” so I think I was mistaken about this being a fantasy novel. I think the book was recommended by Jo Walton, which is perhaps why I had an impression that it was historical fantasy. Or maybe there are fantasy elements that are not obvious from the back cover description.

Regardless, this selection of older titles certainly provides a wide, wide range of opening, that’s for sure. I like the de Lint best (by a lot,) but I would put Green’s novel second without hesitation. It’s a great deal livelier than Iain Pears’ opening. That one will go back down to the TBR shelves, for me to actually try reading … later. Someday. When I am in the mood for something erudite and intellectually amusing, rather than actually engaging.

Several of these, I will probably try right away, just to be able to move them off the TBR shelves to the give-away pile promptly. That always gives me a sense of accomplishment, if not exactly satisfaction.

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10 thoughts on “The TBR Pile: Seven Novel Openings”

  1. Are you the sort of reader who gets influenced by knowing something about the writer? (I’ve met one of those writers and heartily dislike them, which I’ve tried about three times to tell you without telling you; do you want me to?)

  2. i like these posts, it’s fun to take these samples and see what works, what doesn’t and what is done well even if the writing isn’t engaging.

    So…

    Name of a Shadow
    Absolutely dead writing, no interest, no setting and then came to a dead stop on the fourth line with the lazy dancer/assassin comparison. It’s like opening with ‘the man’, I’m allergic to it. On top of that there’s no sense of movement, no anything to draw a reader in.

    Not her first book, she had three published in the ’70s. I’m surprised it’s so poor.

    Fire Dance Much better than the other. Setting! Flavor! a sense of movement. All elements missing in the previous sample.

    I know I read some Maxwell once, but can’t remember a thing about them, except I finished whatever it was.

    The Ends of the Circle
    Well, we get setting, season and time of day. STill not interesting, though. And not nearly as full of information as the Kipling and Buchan of the previous samples.

    Yarrow I used to read everything deLint put out. Then stopped – I think too many with too many similar elements too close together in the reading space. This reminds me why I liked him. We don’t know much of setting or character, but there’s life and movement and personality. And a clue or two as to time – modern(ish), if we get a comparison to Rackham.

    Mirage I have read some Louise Cooper, but not this one. It certainly isn’t whatever made me drop her, which featured an idiot being an idiot in the first three pages. That’s a different opening, for sure. Don’t like the second person, would probably skip to see if the whole book was written in it, and put it back, if it were. I guess it is ‘white room’ as far as not providing setting details, but we do get a lot of physical and emotional elements that provide grounding. The Shadow opening had nothing.

    I read Cooper’s Time Lord trilogy and liked it at the time. It was new at the time, which tells you how long ago that was.

    Blue Moon Rising We have this one on our shelves, my husband likes Green’s work. I’ve occasionally flipped through but never sat down to read it. This opening reads like the writer is trying too hard. I think it’s all the modifiers; balefully, drizzling, half-heartedly, etc. Too many, too soon. Now I really want to compare with the Kipling and Buchan because they got information in without it seeming heavy-handed.

    Forbidden Magic pass. Yep, I had a brief image of the hair/beard falling in to a fist as well. It doesn’t strike me as purple so much as … not quite the right word. What’s that Twain quote about the lightning bug and lightning? That problem. Saturnine didn’t belong there (might have worked if it and dour had been swapped), come to think of it.Lions aren’t noted for beards… that sort of thing.

    An Instant of the Fingerpost I read something else by this guy when I was stuck in jury pool, waiting around a courthouse. It was ok and was long enough to be a good choice when there’s a lot of waiting around (this was long before ebooks) but I never went on. He can do the mannered style well, but there’s not enough liveliness that comes across to keep me going with his work.

  3. I like Simon Green’s work quite a bit, but he has a particular style that’s not to everyone’s taste. Those who like it (like me) may call it space opera flavor (fantasy or otherwise), and those who don’t like it are likely to call it overblown.

    Used to be a huge fan of Charles deLint. Great writer. Haven’t read anything by him in years, though. Not quite sure why. I think my tastes just drifted away from his style over time.

    I’ve read Mirage and Forbidden Magic but can’t remember anything about them, which probably means I thought they were okay, but, demonstrably, not that memorable…

  4. Irina, I prefer not to know much about the writer as a person unless I’m a real fan of their work, and honestly sometimes not then. So, thanks, but … I guess not.

  5. Be warned: An Instance of the Fingerpost has four or five different narrators, each of whom spends a lot of time talking about how unreliable the previous narrators were.

    It’s unique in my experience in one sense. It’s a murder mystery, and by the time I got to the end (around a thousand pages or so it felt like) I no longer cared whodunit. In the last third of the book, the story started getting all metaphysical on me, and I didn’t appreciate it.

    On the other hand, I read it quite a while ago and can still remember a lot about it. The writing was good, even if the story wobbled a bit toward the end.

  6. Thanks, Evelyn! I think that first paragraph screams UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, so that’s not surprising, but I didn’t realize the pov switched like that. I wonder if the metaphysical stuff is why this was recommended as fantasy or got pegged that way in my head.

  7. I hope you enjoy exploring de Lint’s back catalog! Really loved his mix of european and First Nations elements in the newford books.

  8. Jenny Schwartzberg

    I remember loving Name of a Shadow and rereading it a number of times but it’s been a very long time since I read it. I’ll have to dig it out and see what I think of it now. I liked Ann Maxwell’s science fiction romances a lot and was always sorry she switched over as Elizabeth Lowell to romances and mystery thrillers. I liked those books but then she got too thriller-ish for me. However, her science fiction had a real sense of wonder and the other for me.

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