First sentences: And the winner is —

Not that we were actually having a contest, but reading through all these sentences and short paragraphs, this is the one that caught my eye the most. Heather contributed:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless colour of sea foam but rather the colour of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

Which I bet we all instantly recognized, yes? That’s from The Last Unicorn. It’s two sentences, of course, but why be a stickler? This is my favorite of all the sentences provided. I’d forgotten how utterly lovely the prose is in this short novel. Or at least, I hadn’t remembered the specific beauty of this opening. It’s just unbeatable.

However, the other sentences and short paragraphs are also noteworthy, so let’s take a look!

You know, I did like the opening of The Book Thief, but I honestly could not get into the actual book and it was a fast DNF for me. I’m not sure why. Now that I look at this opening again —

First the colours.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or, at least, how I try.

Here is a small fact:
You are going to die.

I think maybe it strikes me as annoyingly arrogant with a side of cutesy. I’m kind of having a reaction like, Wow, we’re going to die? What a revelation. Tell me more, oh wise one. This is not a response calculated to make me want to go on with the story. I guess I would say that this opening seems clever, but also a little off-putting. That’s just me, obviously. I know a lot of people loved this book.

Heather also contributed this one:

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go…[]… My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

This is Wonder by R.J. Palacio. In this case, I’ve never heard of the book, and that’s a neat beginning. At the end of the description at Amazon, it says this: R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. 

Fine, I’m picking up a sample.

Okay, from EC:

There is only one Beginning. There is only one place and one moment where the world, life, and time itself began. There is only one Story. It began in the dark. It has many middles and many ends. You and I could chase it for lifetimes and only make it longer by our living. It is too sprawling for these pages and too big for this mouth. We begin in a middle. We trace a smaller arc.

Very nice! This is from the second book of the Ashtown Burials series. Here’s the series description:

For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room.

Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world’s secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.

Sounds neat! Another sample.

From OtterB:

In the early days, the wall of thorns had been distressingly obvious.

This is from Thornhedge by T Kingfisher. You know, I just cannot keep up with Kingfisher/Vernon. She keeps writing more books! Super fast! This one came out this past August, looks like. Great cover!

Simple, elegant, evocative, eye catching, and a great tagline.

There’s a princess trapped in a tower. This isn’t her story. Meet Toadling. On the day of her birth, she was stolen from her family by the fairies, but she grew up safe and loved in the warm waters of faerieland. Once an adult though, the fae ask a favor of Toadling: return to the human world and offer a blessing of protection to a newborn child. Simple, right? But nothing with fairies is ever simple.

Centuries later, a knight approaches a towering wall of brambles, where the thorns are as thick as your arm and as sharp as swords. He’s heard there’s a curse here that needs breaking, but it’s a curse Toadling will do anything to uphold…

I’m struggling with “Toadling” as a name. Sorry, but I have real trouble with silly names no matter how good the book is. Corporal Carrot, ugh. Peachy, ugh. Pug, ugh. Those stupid names in Rose Daughter, ugh. I really, really wish authors would not do this even if they have a good rationale for these names. I don’t care what their rationale is. This feature alone makes me reluctant to read the book. It honestly does not seem sensible to set obvious roadblocks in the way of readers when those roadblocks are so very easy to avoid, which this one is. Just give the characters non-silly names! Is that really too much to ask?

Okay, moving on. Here’s another one from OtterB:

The call came at night.
Esther fumbled for the phone lying on the side table. Still barely conscious, she stuck it to her ear.
“Hello!” What time was it?
Static hissed and whistled.
“Mom, I need your help.”

I don’t actually find this opening, from Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott, all that interesting. On the other hand, this bit of description is really intriguing:

Kate Elliott’s action-packed The Keeper’s Six features a world-hopping, bad-ass, spell-slinging mother who sets out to rescue her kidnapped adult son from a dragon lord with everything to lose.

Is this part of a series? It looks like a standalone. Great! Picking up another sample.

Now, it’s the other way around with the opening Alison offers:

I am dangling, and it is only my father’s blood-slicked grip around my wrist that stops me from falling.

This is from The Will of the Many by Islington, another one I’ve never heard of. Alison says the rest of the book is better than the opening, but I really like this opening!

I tell them my name is Vis Telimus. I tell them I was orphaned after a tragic accident three years ago, and that good fortune alone has led to my acceptance into their most prestigious school. I tell them that once I graduate, I will gladly join the rest of civilised society in allowing my strength, my drive and my focus—what they call Will—to be leeched away and added to the power of those above me, as millions already do. As all must eventually do. I tell them that I belong, and they believe me.

But the truth is that I have been sent to the Academy to find answers. To solve a murder. To search for an ancient weapon. To uncover secrets that may tear the Republic apart. And that I will never, ever cede my Will to the empire that executed my family.

Grim! Nevertheless, I’m picking up a sample.

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11 thoughts on “First sentences: And the winner is —”

  1. Toadling isn’t a silly name; it’s actually quite important to her character. When you find out who named her and why, I think you’ll be entirely reconciled to it! Thornhedge is a slow meditation on love and family, sweeter and quieter than Kingfisher usually goes. She says she wrote it because after her Hamster Princess version of Sleeping Beauty (which is awesome, by the way) she realized she wasn’t finished deconstructing this fairy tale. It goes in unexpected directions, of course, being Kingfisher. I loved it.

    The Ashtown Burials is a fantastic series (though I found the ending very abrupt, to the point that I was sure there was going to be a next book, but there wasn’t). It takes a lot of MG fantasy tropes and pushes them all out of recognition; lots of action, adventure and tension. I liked his 100 Cupboards series even better: sort of Narnia on crack, with lovely writing and great characters.

    I really need to reread The Last Unicorn.

  2. I dnf The Book Thief. In fact, I barely began it. Annoyingly arrogant with a side of cutesy sounds exactly right to me. Since I haven’t read the book, I of course don’t know, but my main feeling was one of outrage. How dare this author profit from the sufferings of so many? With such an annoyingly arrogant and cutesy tone? Maybe others will correct me.

  3. It’s hard to beat “I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.” Go out of SFF and Leonard Elmore had some good openings, as does Carl Hiaasen. And of course there’s the description of the Santa Ana wind.

  4. I think the one thing you HAVE to understand with The Book Thief is that the narrator isn’t human, not even close, and therefore he doesn’t think anything like a human does. Death doesn’t *understand* humans, not really. He’s been around since goodness knows when, and it’s his job to carry people’s souls away, and he’s been doing it for eons. But he’s *tired*, and he’s trying to distract himself, and he’s trying not to let himself become interested because it’ll just get too much… and then he does become interested. Despite himself. You’ve got someone immortal telling himself a story of something he witnessed in an attempt to convince himself that humans are actually worth something after all. And *because* he’s immortal, and he doesn’t really understand, the flashes of brilliant and terrible insight cut deep – far deeper, for me, than they would in a more usual book about these events. So it’s not an arrogant tone, but rather a massively *non-human* tone… and for me, that really, really works.

    Cutesy, though… yes, all right, I’ll give you that one. Death’s narration can be cutesy at times, usually when the author’s trying to be clever (and this is the Massive Fail of his other books). But then you’ve got bits where Death is describing how he only carries children’s souls in his arms (everyone else is carried in his fingers, slung over his shoulders, etc, because there’s just SO MANY of them)… and then the sucker punch later, when he describes how he picks up each and every soul that died in the gas chambers as if it were a babe new-born. It hurts.

  5. @ Kim,
    In fact, N.D. Wilson had The Ashtown Burials series axed by the publisher, and has promised his fans that he would finish the series. He has had a brain tumor and resulting complications in the meantime, but he does intend to finish the series, and in fact wrote most of a first draft and mailed it out to his fans as a newsletter in order to attempt to keep his promise. The final few chapters are not yet out, but he is in fact trying to finish it and possibly get it self-published.

  6. OT: “The Book Thief” reminded me of “The Feather Thief” which is one of my favorite non-fiction books from a few years back. It covers ground from Darwin and Wallace to the odd 19th Century tendency to found oddball museums to the modern incarnation of Victorian elite fly-tying. The goal wasn’t to catch trout; it was to one up the competition with the most outré feathers possible. Blacker than black*. Cerulean blue. 6″ long bird of paradise tail. Etc.

    * literally. There’s black from dyes. And then there’s nanoscale black, absorbing 99.6% of visible light.

  7. Re The Keeper’s Six, it may be that the opening grabbed me so quickly because I knew the rough outline from the blurb. I was primed to like a story about a mother who continues her adventuring after she has children instead of retiring to live happily ever after, and that opening put me right into it. Also, it’s a standalone in that it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger and there’s no sequel announced, but there are hooks that one could hang on, and I hope Elliott writes one.

    Thornhedge is a novella, so it’s a pretty quick read.

  8. Heather, I have to admit, your description of collecting the souls from the gas chambers makes me feel much more in sympathy with the narrator.

    Pete, thanks! The Feather Thief sounds like fun!

    EC, good to know that Wilson is trying to finish the series; that’s something I wish all authors would do. I hope he’s okay.

    OtterB, you’re right that the blurb (Mom to the rescue!) makes that opening much more grabby.

  9. @EC: thank you for letting me know that! I will put Ashtown Burials in the same category as the Steerswoman series and send my best wishes to both authors.

  10. Wonder is a beautiful book. I can’t remember if I read it or listened to the audiobook , but I remember the book. Exemplifies all the things I love about really well written middle grade books. Highly recommend.

  11. Thank you to those hete talking about the Keeper’s Six book; I was intrigued by the blurb and what you said about it, and bought it, along with three more of the books mentioned in these related posts.
    I just finished it, and enjoyed reading it.
    Intriguing world, adventurous quest, unusual protagonist and some interesting people, and a positive ending – I liked it enough to consider giving another of her books a try, though she’s been hit-or-mis enough for me not to read a lot of them.

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