SFF books with Great Opening Lines

A post at tor.com: Five Books With Great Opening Lines

Of which my favorite by quite a bit is Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.

I’ve never read this book. I’ve only read one of the five books featured on this post. Oddly, it’s not the one with the dog. I might even have that one buried somewhere on my Kindle? Not even sure, that’s how out of control the TBR pile has gotten.

If you’ve read Mortal Engines and the rest of that series — or, for that matter, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which is the one with the dog — what did you think?

But back to first lines. Obviously this is an endlessly fertile topic for posts. For some reason, that sentence from Mortal Engines made me think of 2312 by KSR. Oh, I know why: because of the way the city on Mercury travels continually to stay ahead of the intolerable heat of day. How does that book actually start? Like this:

The sun is always about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do.

Two sentences, but they work very well. So does the whole first paragraph. Here it is:

The sun is always about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day. Some of them hurry from location to location, pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophytes, quickly scraping away any accumulated residues of gold or tungsten or uranium. But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun.

What do I like about this paragraph? Well, let me see.

I like the use of the semicolon before “and” in the second sentence. This is a technique I learned from CJ Cherryh. It is not, of course, exactly standard. But I like the extra pause that is created this way; not the same as a period or a semicolon; definitely not the same as a comma plus “and.” I don’t use this type of punctuation often, but sometimes I do. KSR is certainly confident of his stylistic choices, using that in the first paragraph. You can bet his copy editor said NO and he said STET.

I love the alternation of very short and very long sentences.

I’m not crazy about his use of the second person in the second sentence, but I didn’t notice that until now, so obviously it didn’t actually bother me.

I love the use of the word “stupendous.” That’s a word you can’t easily get away with using. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually used that word myself, ever, in any book. It’s absolutely perfect here. Now that KSR has drawn this word to my attention, I may well find myself using it sometime soon.

I can take or leave the technical details about the metallophytes. That’s fine; it tells us something about this setting, about the broader worldbuilding; it fits the paragraph. But it lacks the poetry of the rest of the sentences, except inasmuch it sets up the last sentence.

I like how the first sentence is The sun is always about to rise and the last sentence is But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun — effectively bookends the paragraph.

Well, this post moved away from just “first sentences” to a broader “novel openings” in a hurry, didn’t it?

I haven’t read all that many books by KSR — just the Mars trilogy and 2312 — but his writing in this one in particular is often beautiful; I remember thinking so at the time.

If you’ve recently been struck by an opening sentence or paragraph, drop it in the comments!

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14 thoughts on “SFF books with Great Opening Lines”

  1. Everyone says good things about The Knife of Never Letting Go, but I haven’t read it because I know that SPOILERS the dog dies, and I can’t handle that.

    I think I did give Mortal Engines a try, but don’t think I finished, can’t remember why…

  2. I was the youngest of three daughters. Our literal-minded mother named us Grace, Hope, and Honour, but few people except perhaps the minister who baptized all three of us remembered my given name. My father still likes to tell the story of how I acquired my odd nickname: I had come to him for further information when I first discovered that our names meant something besides you-come-here. He succeeded in explaining grace and hope, but he had some difficulty trying to make the concept of honour understandable to a five-year-old. I heard him out, but with an expression of deepening disgust; and when he was finished, I said: ‘Huh! I’d rather be Beauty.’

  3. Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

  4. There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

  5. I was going to say that I didn’t remember a dog in Knife of Never Letting Go, (so I obviously blocked that out of my memory!) and also that it’s absolutely the kind of book in which the dog probably dies. Very well-written, very interesting and compelling, but intense, violent and dark. I’m glad I read the series—in my review I said that I loved it—but I doubt I’ll read it again. But Ness is an insta-buy author for me and I’ve liked every one of his books. Favourite is probably The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Here’s the Chapter title and first line:

    Chapter the First, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate.

    On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.

    (The whole first page is fantastic. Maybe I’ll read this one again now!)

    Shannon Hale is a great author and I remember really liking Book of A Thousand Days. And Chime is fantastic. Lovely writing, really unique fantasy. Billingsley has a new one out that I’m excited about.

  6. Well, I am SO not reading The Knife of Never Letting Go.

    Wow, no. Thanks for the warning, SarahZ!

    I got the first and third, but not the second. It almost sounds familiar, but … nope, don’t recognize it.

    Interesting teaser for The Rest of Us, I agree. Would definitely turn the page.

    I read Chime at the wrong time, I think. I agree it is beautifully written and objectively excellent, but I didn’t like it.

  7. Well, then — SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO GUESS — they are

    Beauty by Robin McKinley
    Persuasion by Jane Austen
    The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

  8. Not SFF, “When I was nine years old I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.” From memory, a juv/YA historical Quest for a Maid. The Teen has remembered that one for years.

    I got all of Mary’s quotes.

  9. In the border regions of northern Shaftal, the peaks of the mountains look over hardscrabble farmholds. The farmers there build with stone and grow in stone, and they might even be made of stone themselves, they are so sturdy in the face of the long, bitter winter that comes howling down at them from the mountains.

    If no one has read Laurie Marks’ Fire Logic and Earth Logic, they should.

  10. Elaine T, I loved that book as a child and I think of it whenever I use cloves (the main character gets a very expensive clove for a toothache at one point) but I’d completely forgotten the title—thanks for bringing it back to me!

  11. Glad to help! We tracked down a copy after the Teen decided we needed one because the book is just that unforgettable.

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