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!