Okay, this took awhile, but I have finally pulled together all of the recommendations you all made in the comments of this recent post here. There were nine, so I threw in one more book that’s up at the top of my TBR pile. I should have thought of it for the other post, but didn’t, so I’m including it here, partly to bring the number up to ten, but partly because I genuinely want to read this one soon. Maybe even this year! Wow, I can’t believe it’s practically December!
So: here are the openings plus comments. Thank you all for your suggestions, lots of these look good! I didn’t specifically aim to put my favorite at the end, but that’s where it wound up. You can read through the set and see if you’d also pick out that one, or whether one of the others happens to hit your buttons.
1. A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
This has been recommended to me multiple times and I’m certainly interested, so let’s take a look:
Reginald Gatling’s doom found him beneath an oak tree, on the last Sunday of a fast-fading summer.
He sat breathing rapidly and with needle-stabs at each breath, propped against the oak. His legs were unfelt and unmoving like lumps of wax that had somehow been affixed to the rest of him. Resting his hands on the numb bulk of them made him want to vomit, so he clutched weakly at grass instead. The tree’s rough bark found skin through one of the tears in his bloodstained shirt. The tears were his own fault; he hadn’t started to run in time, and so the best route of escape had appeared to be through a tangle of bramble-hedge that edged the lake here in St. James’s Park. The brambles had torn his clothes.
The blood was from what had come after.
Okay, so, wow, not enjoying this opening at all. I may not be as deeply committed now as last year to avoiding everything grim, dark, tense, or edgy, but still, ugh, we are starting in the pov of (a) a guy who’s going to be tortured to death in the next few pages, or if not, then at best (b) a guy who’s in real trouble one way or another. Top Ten List of things I don’t want to read about: someone being tortured. Let me just skim ahead … okay, the entire first chapter is this torture scene. Tell us where it is, Reggie. The only good thing here is that in chapter two, we start over in a new pov, hopefully with a protagonist who isn’t going to be tortured and murdered.
That means chapter one is basically a prologue, even though it’s not called a prologue. I will just comment that if you introduce a pov protagonist and kill him at the end of the first chapter, a lot of readers will be seriously put off – unless you’re writing a murder mystery. This is not something to do lightly.
I’m one of the readers who is very thoroughly put off by this technique (except in a murder mystery, where I’m braced for it.) The sole reason I’d consider going on with this is the glowing recommendation from commenters here. Wait, no, there is another reason: now that I’ve skimmed through chapter one, hopefully I’m done with the torture scenes and everything else will be downhill from that.
Let’s move on.
2) The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
Most people have trouble recalling their first memory, because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes; but Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his forty-third birthday.
He stepped down off the train. That was it, the very first thing he remembered, but the second was something less straightforward. It was the slow, eerie feeling that everything was doing just what it should be, minding its own business, but at the same time, it was all wrong.
It was early in the morning, and cursedly cold. Vapour hissed on the black engine right above him. Because the platform was only a couple of inches above the racks, the double pistons of the wheels were level with his waist. He was so close he could hear the water boiling above the furnace. He stepped well away, feeling tight with the certainty it was about to lurch forward.
Oh, yeah, I like that a lot better. A LOT. I mean, not that it’s a high bar, but still. That is a very clever first paragraph. I mean, the concept there is super clever to start with, and then I like the confidence of the writing. A semicolon in front of “but” – that could be a writer who doesn’t know anything about standard punctuation, but that’s not the feel at all. The feel is, as I say, confident. I appreciate that semicolon. I like the extra little check that gives the rhythm of the sentence. This is like Nicola Griffith opening The Blue Place with a fragment rather than a complete sentence. I remember reading that for the first time and thinking, Oh, yeah, this author knows how to use the language. I get the same feeling here. Oh, on the next page, look at this line:
Because it was only just light outside, the round lamps of the station gave everything a pale glow, and case long, hazy shadows; even the steam had a shadow, a shy devil trying to decide whether to be solid or not.
Joe had no idea what he was doing there.
I love that shy devil! Mind you, I don’t know if I feel like reading this right now. This is probably going to be a book I want to read slowly, savoring the language, and I’m not sure I’m up for that. I may prefer novels I can read easily, so they don’t distract me too much from Tasmakat. Not sure, though. I really like this a lot. I didn’t read the description before I picked up the sample. What’s this novel about? Let’s check now:
…A genre-bending, time-twisting alternative history that asks whether it’s worth changing the past to save the future, even if it costs you everyone you’ve ever loved.
Wow, that’s quite grim. Interesting, but grim.
… The search for M will drive Joe from French-ruled London to rebel-owned Scotland and finally onto the battle ships of a lost empire’s Royal Navy. Swept out to sea with a hardened British sea captain named Kite, who might now more about Joe’s past than he’s willing to let on, Joe will remake history, and himself.
Very intriguing! But, truly, it might be a little much for me right now. Those of you who are into alternate history … Hi, Craig! … if you read this, you should absolutely let me know what you think.
3) NPCs by Drew Hayes
I’m guessing this is about one million times less challenging than the above, but let’s take a look.
Oh, look here, there’s a Mysterious Prologue. This is not a type of prologue I have ranted about in the past, but while we’re here, I will say that, like killing the first pov character introduced, I do think this is something to handle with care, probably by backing away slowly. A prologue where some mysterious unnamed person is doing mysterious things for mysterious reasons doesn’t make me curious. It makes me want to shut the book. I’m certain I’m not alone in that response. A prologue that offers a short, self-contained story will often invite the reader in. If the pov character dies at the end of the short story, that’s much (much) less inviting, but it’s still better than a Mysterious Prologue. This kind of prologue very specifically avoids offering the reader anything to get a grip on, and that is difficult to do well. I don’t want to say impossible because who knows, but I’m skipping ahead to chapter one. Here’s how the story actually starts:
“Your party finally makes it into town sometime past midnight. The streets are vacant, save for the occasional guard making rounds, and the only light seems to be emanating from the local tavern.” Russell took care describing the sleepy hamlet of Maplebark, determined to get all the details just right.
“About freaking time,” Mitch grumbled. “That took forever.”
“I told you, I want to do more realism in our games. That includes dealing with physical travel time,” Russell said, letting out a heavy sigh.
“Whatever; I say we hit the tavern. Boys?” Mitch asked.
Okay, this is a (fairly rare imo) example of a book that works well opening with dialogue. This is actually dialogue that serves to set the scene! Usually opening with this much dialogue implies a white-room opening, which is not great. In this case, that’s not a problem. We all know this scene, right? A handful of friends around a table, probably with dice, certainly with books open, maybe maps, whatever. Could be a kitchen or living room or whatever, doesn’t matter, it’s enough of a scene to go on with.
The description of this book is inviting:
In the town of Maplebark, four NPCs settle in for a night of actively ignoring the adventurers drinking in the tavern when things go quickly and fatally awry. Once the dust settles, these four find themselves faced with an impossible choice: pretend to be adventurers undertaking a task of near-certain death or see their town and loved ones destroyed …
I doubt the actual sentence-level writing is all that and a bag of chips. “Letting out a heavy sigh” is a pretty heavy-handed dialogue tag, for example. On the other hand, it does look like fun. I could definitely see myself picking this one up because I’m in the mood for something that isn’t too serious or demanding.
Let’s see, what’s next …
4) Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The only thing I’ve ever read of Tchaikovsky’s was that novella, Elder Race, which I read because it was a Hugo nominee. I loved it and voted for it and I’m sorry it didn’t win, and also that made me perk up when Elaine T suggested this title. Here’s how this one starts:
There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility – rotation meant that “outside” was always “down,” underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.
This is the polar opposite of #3 above! This is starting with pure description, no dialogue and also no story. When do we get to story? The story generally starts when we introduce a character. When does that happen? In the second paragraph. Here it is:
It had no officially confirmed name beyond its astronomical designation, although there awas a strong vote for “Simiana” amongst some of the less imaginative crewmembers. Doctor Avrana Kern now looked out upon it and thought only of Kern’s World. Her project, her dream, her planet. The first of many, she decided.
This is the future. This is where mankind takes its next great step. This is where we become gods.
I can’t say I like Doctor Avrana Kern very much right off the bat. She sounds … hmm. Not just ambitious. I have no problem with ambition, depending on how that’s handled. I don’t mind vanity, even, always depending on how it’s handled. Kern sounds self-centered and hubristic. That, I’m not so fond of.
What’s this story about?
The epic story of humanity’s battle for survival on a terraformed world. … All is not right in this new Eden. … New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare. Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive.
Kind of grim-ish. If you’ve read it, what did you think?
5) Mistborn by (obviously) Brandon Sanderson
This one also starts with a prologue. This time the prologue is a story in itself. Wait, reading ahead a bit, it’s more like two stories. The first pov character is a seriously unpleasant slave master, and what is it with these prologues today? Opening in the pov of a horrible person is the opposite of inviting! A torture scene, a mysterious unnamed person who is mysterious, and now a slave master! Ugh. No wonder everyone hates prologues. Probably the only kind of bad prologue left is the History Lesson prologue, and maybe we’ll get one of those somewhere among the rest of these openings.
I will add, this prologue shifts pov to a man of the slave race or caste or whatever. That’s much better. But the prologue goes on and on, so I’ll treat it as chapter one.
Ash fell from the sky.
Lord Tresting frowned, glancing up at the ruddy midday sun as his servants scuttled forward, opening a parasol over Tresting and his distinguished guest. Ashfalls weren’t that uncommon in the Final Empire, but Treting had hoped to avoid getting soot stains on his fine new suit coat and red vest, which had just arrived via canal boat from Luthadel itself. Fortunately, there wasn’t much wind; the parasol would likely be effective.
We’re in this guy’s pov for several pages. He is not a nice person. The world is not a great world, at least not if you’re a slave. The prologue is mostly building the world. Nothing about this opening particularly draws me in. The first pov actively pushes me away, but the second is okay. I guess eventually I’ll skim forward and read part of chapter one and see whether I want to go on from there.
6) Ghostlight by Rabia Gale
This is the one recommended here, but with a warning that the third book ends on a cliffhanger. That’s certainly good to know. I don’t mind trying the first book if it stands along pretty well, but I’m not keen on reading all three books if the third ends on a cliffhanger.
Let’s see how this book starts …
Trevelya Sheld knew Arabella Trent was trouble the moment he laid eyes on her that spring morning.
He was a trifle foxed, staggering home from the Plush Purple Peacock through streets filled with a pale golden haze. A happy fog occupied most, but not all, of his head. He could never quite turn off the watchful part that was currently keeping him from embracing a sreet lamp and attempting to waltz with it. Trey couldn’t quite understand why, but he was sure he’d be grateful for it later.
In the meantime, he had to navigate the early morning rush, a task that was more than usually difficult today.
Carts laden with milk and eggs trundled past him, pulled by dray horses who showed their pegasus heritage in vestigial wings and feathered hoofs. …
I was kind of thinking, Well, whatever. Drunk guys don’t appeal to me, as a rule, so I was rolling my eyes a bit. Then I got to the vestigial pegasus wings and boom! I was instantly charmed. Definitely going to turn the page here. This is the kind of detail where I’m also jealous. Why didn’t *I* ever think of giving horses vestigial pegasus wings? What a missed opportunity!
7) Dark Wizard by Jeffe Kennedy
Gabriel Phel crested the last ridge of the notorious Knifeblade Mountains that guarded Elal lands on nearly three sides and faced the final barrier. The path through the mountains had been narrow, crooked, with blind endings and unexpected pitfalls.
Not unlike his life, Gabriel thought with grimly sardonic humor.
He halted his gelding, Vale, several lengths short of the border, sensing the repulsion spell that prevented the uninvited from crossing. It was a highly refined enchantment – he’d expect nothing less of the powerful Elal wizards – one that barred only humans, but allowed animals and weather to cross freely. Gabriel dismounted so he and Vale could both rest a moment before the last leg of the journey, while the Elal border guardians confirmed his identity. Lord Elal was famously insular and fanatical about guarding what was his. And, as the most powerful wizard in the Convocation, Lord Elal had a great deal to call his.
Not great, but not bad. Right now this looks like a perfectly standard fantasy novel. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, if it’s well done. Hmm. Okay, this is a fantasy romance, I think. From the description:
If [Gabriel] can obtain a familiar to amplify his magic, a highborn daughter he can marry … he’ll be that much closer to saving his family. With her by his side, he can ascend to such a position of power in the Convocation that he can destroy it forever.
Lady Veronica Elal, captive in her tower, has only one way out. To her bitter disappointment, she will never be a wizard. Instead … Nic is doomed to be a familiar like her mother.
If you click through and read the whole description, I think you’ll see that it’s not terribly well written. He wants to destroy the Convocation? Okay, well, that kind of comes out of nowhere, since the first part of the description strongly implies he wants to elevate his family’s position within the Convocation. The marriage-of-convenience is a romance trope I like, but this isn’t quite that: it looks like the marriage is entirely involuntary on Veronica’s part. Still, I suspect, from reading the full description, that they become allies pretty quickly. I’ll turn the page.
8) Ascending by Meg Pechenick
Phoebe Oliver said, “Divided by Stars.” God, I used to love that show. What was the opening line again? ‘The Vardeshi have a saying …’”
I said, “ ‘A story has a thousand beginnings, but only one ending.’ “
Phoebe slapped the glass patio table. “That’s it. I knew it had something to do with beginnings.”
“What was his name – the blond one?” Aria Lewiston asked. “Sirrus? So hot.”
“Sirran.” Phoebe corrected her.
Reflexively I glanced at Tenley Fuller, who could be counted upon to skewer any hint of fangirl ardor with withering contempt. She didn’t seem to be listening. She was looking at her phone. Her drink, I saw, was virtually untouched.
“They probably don’t even say that,” Aria said.
Surprised, I said, “No, they do.”
Dr. Sawyer paused in the act of topping off my drink to fix me with an intent look. Suddenly self-conscious, I went on, “I thought everyone knew that. It’s in the first contact footage.”
This is an interesting, unusual opening. It’s both a crowd scene AND very dialogue-heavy. Very difficult to pull off well. I’m impressed, because it’s working for me. The suggestions we’re given about the nameless narrator, about who she might be and what she might be like, are intriguing.
I would certainly turn the page, and if this winds up being a book that draws me in fast, I’ll have to make a note of it as an example of a dialogue-heavy opening that does its job. Also, I know the narrator is a linguist and I like that.
9) This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
I had forgotten about this one, but I happened to remember that I’ve been wanting to read it. This isn’t the first time I’ve looked at the opening, which I like a lot. Let me look at it again:
When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged – the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.
Grim, of course, but nevertheless. The writing is beautiful, the reviews are stellar, I believe a lot of you here have said that you loved this book, and I am moving it up to the top of the TBR pile.
10) When the King Comes Home by Caroline Stevermer
Okay, of course Stevemer was one of the two authors who wrote Sorcery and Cecilia, so that’s a good sign right there. And I did like College of Magics. Let’s see how this one starts …
I was born on the coldest day of the year. When the midwife handed me to my father, he said, “Hail the newcomer! Hardy the traveler who ventures forth on such a day.”
After four sons, my family was pleased to have a daughter at last. My father persuaded my mother that I should be named Hail, to commemorate the welcome I’d been given. My name is a greeting, dignified and sober, not a form of bad weather.
My family is in the wool trade and are as hardworking as they are prosperous. My earliest memory is of chasing my brothers through the wool market, a maze of bundles and bales, a mob of people haggling. …
I’m stopping right there. The opening paragraphs are so delightful that there’s no need to describe the bales of wool or the town; I’m already sold. This one shot right up to the top for me in, what, six sentences.
This looks fun, it’s obviously well-written, I don’t think it looks too challenging, and also nobody is getting tortured to death or planning to oppress his slaves in the opening scene, so that’s certainly a plus. This is just a very appealing opening in every way. First person can be harder for me to like than third, but not this time. For me personally right now, this is the one that bounces right to the tippy-top, and thank you to Kristi for recommending it.