Fifteen Novel Openings

Okay, it’s been a while, and amazingly enough even though I’m REALLY not reading anything much that’s new to me, I’ve nevertheless managed to acquire a number of new books and samples. Fifteen, in fact, about half full books and about half samples, depending probably more on price than anything else. I honestly don’t think my book acquisition rate actually slows down a lot even when I’m reading literally fewer than one new-to-me book per month instead of fifteen. It’s remarkable, in a way.

I am reading a little, but slowly, and switching from book to book depending on my mood and, I don’t know, tolerance for novelty, I guess would be one way of putting it. Exactly one of these beginnings caught me enough to make me turn more than once page. I’ll tell you which it was at the end.

A lot of you will recognize one or another of the titles here because you recommended most of these. However, this first one was recommended by someone I follow on Twitter – Joel Dane, who wrote Cry Pilot. That series has been too high-tension for me to want to go on with it, but I liked the first book a lot and, so that recommendation was enough for me to pick up a sample.

1.  The Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay

When you join the military, none of the recruiting material shows you trying to stow away on a bot freighter headed to a war zone on a hellhole of a planet. But there I was.

I like this! Funny and interesting right off the bat. A promising first couple of sentences. I’m glad I picked up the sample.

2.  The Forgery Furore by Marissa Doyle

The ormolu clock on the chimneypiece was striking seven as Annabel, Lady Fellbridge, slipped into her seat in the white-and-gold paneled room and glanced around the table, taking a quick count. Ah, good – she was not the last to arrive. Even after more than a year, being the newest member of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s still made her feel like a young girl allowed to dine with the adults for the first time: she’d thought about sneaking in under a concealing shadow in case she was late, but fortunately that had not been necessary.

Nothing particularly striking one way or the other. It’s fine.

For this next book, there was a brief prologue, but I skipped it: this is the opening of Chapter 1

3.  Through a Dark Glass by Barb Hendee

I was trapped, and I knew it. Worse, it came as a shock on my seventeenth birthday, the same day my elder sister died.

Daughters of the nobility are mere tools for their families, so in truth what transpired shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, but I’d been trained and honed as a different type of tool than my sister, Helena.

Again, this is fine. Despite the obvious differences, this is sort of similar to the one above as both evoke a Regency sort of setting. I don’t know that I’m exactly in the mood for something like this, but there’s nothing particularly off-putting about it.

This time a longer prologue; again, I skipped it.

4.  The Necklace by Carla Kelly

All romantic notions aside – Hanneke Aardema had few – marrying a cousin of the king of Castile and Leon seemed precisely what a man as ambitious as her father might attempt. Why hadn’t she suspected he might do something like this?

I like this better, even though it’s got the same sort of historical Regency-ish vibe. I like that first sentence a lot. That’s an admirable use of dashes. This protagonist immediately comes to life in a way that I think the two above don’t. Carla Kelly has a real tendency to make the father into a problem who kicks off the plot by being irresponsible or wicked, and she certainly seems to be doing that again here. Which is fine. I just happen to have noticed that she does that a lot.

Yet again, a long prologue; once more, I skipped it to take a look at the opening of Chapter 1

5.  The Phoenix Feather: Fledglings by Sherwood Smith

Mouse woke the next morning after dreams full of terrible images – her parents being chased by shadowy figures led by one wearing gold, and her mother kneeling in the surf with blood pouring down her face. But they were heroes! Her father fighting a duel against an evil prince, that was heroic! Her mother putting the charms down to raise the fog, that was heroic too. Also clever.

I think this might be the second time I’ve opened this one up. Some of you keep mentioning this series, so it came back to my attention and I downloaded it onto my phone, where I’m more likely to take a real look at it. Mouse sounds very young. I don’t know if I’m exactly in the mood for such a young protagonist. But it does matter a lot that some of you keep nudging me toward this story.

6.  Gabriel’s Ghost by Linnea Sinclair

Only fools boast they have no fears. I thought of that as I pulled the blade of my dagger from the Takan guard’s throat, my hand shaking, my heart pounding in my ears, my skin cold from more than just the chill in the air.

I wasn’t all that taken with Finders Keepers, which was just okay for me. This one has a prison escape, a trope I love, so I thought I’d try it. I do like this beginning.

7.  Greenglass House by Kate Milford

There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smuggler’s town. You shouldn’t make it a habit to ask too many questions, for one thing. And you probably shouldn’t be in it for the money. Smugglers are always going to flush with cash as soon as they find a buyer for the eight cartons of fountain pen cartridges that write in illegal shades of green, but they never have money today.

I love this opening. Light and quick, with an instantly engaging voice.

8.  Admiral’s Oath by Glynn Stewart

The universe could change in a thousand ways. A proud old indigenous nation could divide itself across the stars, guarding new world and old alike against the failures of mankind. A child of that nation could rise to some of the highest ranks of the military that guarded that nation and a thousand others.

 But grandmothers didn’t change, and Rear Admiral James Tecumseh of the Terran Commonwealth Navy grinned at his incorrigible ancestor as she waved a hand at him.

I’m not particularly taken with the first paragraph, but I do like the second paragraph.

9.  The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall

She lived where the railway tracks met the saltpan, on the Ahri side of the shadowline. In the old days, when people still talked about her, she was known as the end-of-the-line woman. She had other titles, many more, although most lay forgotten and buried now. Whispers of her presence rustled down through the centuries, a footnote here, a folksong there. Rumors. Myths. Yet she did not dwell in a house of bones, or eat children, or carve hexes into the entrails of men beneath the light of the full autumn moon.

A thoroughly artistic beginning. I like it, but this immediately makes me feel that the story where I’d have to pay attention to the worldbuilding and the writing itself. It’s all artistic and literary and I’m not sure I’m in the mood.

10.  Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry

When I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.

Some of you mentioned this in glowing terms. That certainly is a catchy first sentence.

11.  Namesake by Kate Stradling

I was a mistake.

My mother always says this as a joke. “Oh, Jen was our little mistake, but she’s turned out well enough so far.” And then she squeezes my arm and shares a laugh with my dad, and I force a smile at whichever dignitary they’re schmoozing.

If we’re looking at toxic family relationships, I’m not into that, especially not right now. Also the protagonist instantly strikes me as self-absorbed, which again, not what I want right now.

Next up, another book with a long prologue, and then this:

12.  Dreamwalker by CS Friedman

“Tommy?”

No answer. I pushed the door open the rest of the way and stepped into the house. The interior was gloomy, not at all what you’d expect on a summer afternoon. It took me a few seconds to register that all the curtains had been drawn shut.

Nothing interesting here. Or at least, nothing that particularly catches my attention.

13.  Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

“Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

She sat, severe and forbidding in a high-collared tunic, in her reception room at the heart of the warren-like sprawl of the Imperial Palace. The arching windows of the tower were heavily optimized to amplify the weak autumn sunlight from Iskan V; the warm rays that lit the wrinkled Imperial countenance should have softened it, but even the sunlight had given that up as a bad job.

Oh, yes, this is one of the arranged-marriage stories that came up in the comments recently. I might be in the mood for this. Hmm. I hadn’t realized that, but yes, could be. … I see it’s $13 for the ebook. That’s a heck of a high price for a new-to-me author. Who set this price? Ah, Tor. Well, I don’t know whether I’m that interested.

I will say, I can’t tell whether the Emperor is the woman sitting severe and forbidding or whether the Emperor is speaking to that woman. One would not ordinary paragraph if the Emperor is the woman, but the author might have paragraphed to make the first sentence stand out. However, I hereby offer this piece of advice:

If you’re going to use a title that is usually gendered, and you’re going to reverse the gender, please indicate that immediately, in crystal clear terms, the very first time you use the title. That way the reader will be able to tell how many people are present in the scene. Please do not puzzle the reader by making simple questions like how many people are present a big confusing deal. It turns out – I’m pretty sure – that the Emperor is the woman. Ah, yes, she is. It took several paragraphs to arrive at that conclusion. Please. Don’t do that. All it would have taken to avoid that confusion in this case would have been following ordinary paragraphing conventions for fiction.

14.  Crown of Shadows by KM Shea

I was on my way out the door from my parents’ house on a humid spring day, eager to launch my long-cherished plan to become a Responsible Adult, when I glanced over at the horse pasture and saw it. A monster.

I could like this.

15.  Jade City by Fonda Lee

The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant. The windows were open in the dining room, and the onset of evening brought a breeze off the waterfront to cool the diners, but in the kitchen, there were only the two ceiling fans that had been spinning all day to little effect. Summer had barely begun and already the city of Janloon was like a spent lover – sticky and fragrant.

Okay, so, several people have recently made comments that made me get this book. However, I really do not like this opening. I see that a lot of people highlighted that last sentence because it’s underlined in my version. Well, I can’t imagine why anybody finds that line appealing enough to highlight it. It’s vivid, certainly, but not in a way I appreciate.

I will add that, of these books, Jade City is the title that I keep hearing about. Every time I turn around, I’m tripping over yet another rave review or at least another positive comment. I will almost certainly try it for real eventually, but probably not soon because all the recent comments I’ve heard have been like, “I’m amazed I like this because it’s very violent, but somehow it’s working for me anyway.”

Okay! Which of these openings do you think made me go on and read several pages?

Wrong! (Probably.) I normally do read a few more sentences than I type up for these posts, and the entry that kept me turning pages was Crown of Shadows. It’s an UF or something in that general vicinity. Arranged marriage; reluctant fae queen who decides she’d better marry the assassin who (I think from the book description) initially tries to kill her. Disregarding the book description, I was hooked enough to read onward. Here’s how this story continues:

I was on my way out the door from my parents’ house on a humid spring day, eager to launch my long-cherished plan to become a Responsible Adult, when I glanced over at the horse pasture and saw it. A monster.

It was a skeletal creature that was only vaguely horse-like. Even from this far away I could see the bulges and indents of its bones. Its ribs and spine stuck out uncomfortably, and its neck was too thin and made its head look huge and blocky.

A fae creature if I ever saw one – which meant that it was deadly at best and murderous at worst. And it was standing about three feet away from Bagel, my pet donkey.

And that’s why I turned the page. I was worried about the donkey. But not that worried. This really doesn’t seem like the tone of a story where a donkey is going to get eviscerated in the first chapter. (Spoiler: the donkey is fine, at least so far. I’m betting it stays fine. This honestly does not seem like a donkey-evisceration sort of story.)

I’ve read the whole first chapter; I like it; this story doesn’t seem to be taking itself too seriously and I guess I’m in the mood for that. I didn’t think I was particularly interested in paranormals or UF and would definitely not have thought I’d pull this one out to read, but fine, I’ve gone ahead and picked up the full book — $4, which makes a huge difference — and we’ll see. Maybe I’ll actually read it soon.

However, this isn’t the story that I think has the best beginning, not at all.

The openings I like the best are #1, #4, #7, and #9.

The openings I think are objectively the best are #7 and #9.

If I had to pick just one, it would be #7.

What do you all think? Any standouts in a good or bad way?

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10 thoughts on “Fifteen Novel Openings”

  1. #7 and #9 are the only ones that I would continue with unless I knew something about the authors’ other works. I may be biased towards #7, though, since I have read that book. And it was engaging all the way through.

  2. I own a couple of these, but the only one I’ve read is Winter’s Orbit, which I had mixed feelings about- I liked the characters and their developing relationship and there are some charming and funny scenes, but I felt the actual space opera elements were rather thin and one of the characters has a recent background of domestic abuse that is very, very prominent in the story, including on-screen flashbacks and a scene where he is forced to re-live memories of the abuse, and the way this element of the plot was handled was TOTALLY incompatible with the cute and fluffy arranged marriage book I had thought I was getting from how people talk about it. I may like it better on a reread knowing what I’m getting into, but I think the blurb and the hype have done the book a disservice here.

  3. #9 and #14 as well as #4 which I’d already downloaded a sample of (but not read it yet). I took another look at #5 because that wasn’t what I remember being the opening, and I like it a bit better than the actual first pages. But not enough to go on with. The coyness in the opening about whether characters are male or female grated.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Sandstone. What with grim flashbacks and a relatively inflated price, I think I’ll shelve Winter’s Orbit in the “maybe someday” category.

  5. I generally don’t care too much about the start of a book when I’m actually reading it, too many cases where the start is either “better” than the rest (was polished and worked on a lot more, presumably since it will be checked more), or is “worse” than the rest (not quire sure why, maybe writers who don’t do extensive redrafts/edits so earlier parts which are deemed “good enough” get less polish eventually?). Since I’m reading the book anyway, I’ll get a better sense after a few chapters.

    But as first impressions, these can be very useful for the “should I bother reading a sample” decision.

    #1 is great in that regard, it’s already enough to get a very good sense of what’s happening in the book, and what the overall style and the tone of it is going to be. I’ll be very surprised if there would be any, ahem, surprises, reading further into the book.

    A bit conflicted on #7, on the one hand it’s great with the tone and setting. But the first sentence sort of annoys me, I think I really would have liked a comma before “and a wrong way”, or even have it transposed to the end.

    #10 is good on its own, but really doesn’t work when you continue reading. There’s apparently a very unannounced and non-telegraphed time jump backward (second paragraph is just some days, or more? before) that had me stop reading to figure out what is going on, expecting it to be followed by either the actual scene it describes or what happens shortly afterwards. (Also I really hate so much “accent” in the speech, can’t read this if people will keep having dialogs)

    I think #13 is pretty good, in giving the settings, though it doesn’t quite deliver enough info by its own on tone or style. That said, I really didn’t have your problem with the “She”, I think it works in the completely normal and expected way of referring to whoever was just mentioned before. The paragraph break reads to me setting the scene, we have the sentence by the emperor immediately stating the issue, then the second paragraph builds the scene itself.
    Regarding the price, another case with regional differences, the Orbit (UK) version is now at 5.54, and I see I purchased this sometime last year at 5.78 so it’s probably the normal range there. That said, at least for US prices it’s possible to get more detailed price history (there are a few sites doing this, for Amazon I’m generally using https://www.ereaderiq.com/ ) and I see that the Tor version, while usually at 12.99, was 2.99 on Feb 7 to 13, and also last year Oct 18 to 24. So if you use one of those services for a price drop alert, or put it on an Amazon list and check from time to time, it’ll probably do it again…

    #14 is again good, enough to give both tone of the book and general style. The “Urban Fantasy with young and snarky heroine protagonist” subgenere is especially risky for quick judgements, though. There are certainly good and entertaining ones, but also a heck of a lot of ones that feel like mass produced paint-by-numbers ones. There are times I feel comfortable buying a book based on merely recommendations or a good short start (like the few opening paragraphs), but on these, even though I do like the genre (when done right), I’d always want to read a much longer sample first with an unknown author (in this case I already read a couple of books by the author, which were nice enough, so personally good enough to get, but the general note still stands).

    On #15, agree it’s not a particularly strong opening paragraph. I do personally like, and enjoyed, the book, and have read the entire series. But they’re indeed very violent, and with tense moments when you know bad stuff is going to happen, so I suspect really not for you now with the preferences you express lately. I also find the writing style to somewhat contrast with the content, in that it’s a relatively heavy in action/things-happening book which often reads like something more slow and “literary”.

  6. Kathryn McConaughy

    Just in terms of openings, #1, #8, #10 for me.
    Namesake is, I think, my least favorite Stradling. If you want to try something else by her instead, Goldmayne is my favorite. It starts out with a dark fairy tale tone, but morphs into a cheerful adventure about a quarter of the way in. Somehow it works.
    For me, Jade City was too dark. It is really well written and the characters are convincing, but none of the people are trustworthy, and most of them have the magical equivalent of a drug addiction, which causes all kinds of anguish. I finished the first book but had no desire to go on with the series.

  7. Kathryn, thanks for your comments. And Yaron, thanks for weighing in on Jade City. I think Goldmayne sounds like something I’d like — and I definitely don’t feel like reading Jade City right now. I need to create a folder on my Kindle for Someday For Sure. That would get a lot of books out of the way for this year.

    Thanks for your reminder about poking around for better prices, Yaron. I need to remember to do that.

  8. I thought The Necklace was a little dark, and I definitely couldn’t get through Jade City- much too grim. Quest for a Maid was also on the grim side. If you’re looking for historical fiction, try Cecilia Holland’s Until the Sun Falls (you’ve probably already read it). Love anything by Kate Stradling. I read the Barb Hendee book in 2018 and have absolutely no recollection of it which is not a good thing. I’m having a hard time finding anything to read, other than The Unsinkable Greta James, as anything by Jennifer E Smith is terrific.

  9. I’m commenting now that I have finished the Jade City trilogy since I’m one of the people who said it was working for me. I liked the first book the best and was intellectually impressed by the ambition and scope of the second and third books, but wasn’t as emotionally involved. Part of that was that I have never felt so ambiguous about every character in a series. While almost every character tried to do what was right by their standards, their standards were all completely messed up and sometimes outright horrifying. I heard an interview with Fonda Lee where she said she likes writing morally ambiguous worlds, and she succeeded, but it was a very strange and distant reading experience for me as I was constantly questioning who I was supposed to be rooting for or repulsed by those I was supposed to consider the heroes or thinking about why I should or shouldn’t be rooting for anyone. So she did succeed. I do have to say, if you get all the way through, the final quarter of the last book is a masterful series of payoffs of all the plot threads through the three books.

    So no, I don’t think this would be a good choice right now, Rachel. It is an interesting book to pick apart as an author to see how she did things and why she made the choices she made.

    This is the second time recently that someone has mentioned/recommended K.M. Shea.

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