Lots of books are given away at the WFC. Everyone is handed a bookbag at check-in with a dozen or so, donated by publishers and authors. The bags do not all contain the same books, so a trade table also appears, on which you discard any books you’re not interested in, trading them for books you find more appealing. I immediately discarded everything with a horror vibe – well, that’s an overstatement. Most of those that looked like horror. Fortunately, there were others that looked like they’d be more to my personal taste.
For the first time, by the way, I donated books to the bookbags. I dropped fifty copies of TUYO into the bookbags, and was pleased to see almost none on the trade table. I hear some people picked up a copy there, but they must have disappeared as soon as they were put out, because I only ever saw one there and it was gone the next time I looked. This is nice compared to seeing a big stack discarded, although my basic assumption is that when you see a lot of copies discarded, that probably just means a lot were donated. Anyway, after a pause for consideration, I also dropped the entire Death’s Lady trilogy omnibus into the virtual bookbag. I wouldn’t have done that except the first book is so … it’s so … well, it’s not really fantasy, or juuuuust barely fantasy, so I wasn’t sure about just including that one. Though the teaser for the second book makes it clear the story turns into a fantasy. Even so.
This is the first year (as far as I know) that there’s been a virtual bookbag. A good many people donated ebooks because that is, basically, free. Not possible for anything in KU, hence donating that specific trilogy. It will be interesting to see if there’s a rise in sales for Shines Now in the next couple of months. Anyway, I see there are roughly 40 ebooks and a few audiobooks in the bookbag. I’ve downloaded all three audiobooks, two of which are by Brandon Sanderson (!) and one is by someone I’ve never heard of. I’ve also downloaded just six of the audiobooks. Some didn’t look particularly appealing to me, some had a horror vibe, some were short stories or short story collections — I’m largely uninterested in short stories. I’ll send the ebooks to my Kindle app and look at them later.
For now, let’s take a look at the paper-edition books. In random order because I’m just picking them off the stack:
1. The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson. Never heard of Johnson; it may be his debut. Laudatory quotes from Mary Robinette Kowal and RF Kuang. Lots of starred reviews. Nice cover, very attractive image.
Sing, memory, the storyteller says, the words low and quiet, a dirge for the darkness. His skin, the few patches of it not covered by patchwork clothing, emanates a faint glow illuminating his steps, and casting shadows of the fractured, broken buildings surrounding him, jagged outlines of the old world.
What do you think? I like it, but this opening implies that the story may be fundamentally a tragedy. Maybe all those stars are because it’s a tragedy and after all tragedy is deep and meaningful. Not sure whether that attitude is customary for SFF reviewers, but it wouldn’t totally surprise me as it’s so pervasive in literary criticism in general. This is the kind of thing where I may look carefully at reviews before I try reading it myself.
2. Whispering Wood by Sharon Shinn
Valentina Serlast spent the entire two hours of the coronation ceremony trying to convince herself that she didn’t hate every other person in attendance. She didn’t succeed particularly well.
This one wasn’t given away in the bookbag; I bought it. I have the others in paper and therefore wanted this one in paper as well, and there it was. Obviously I’ll be reading this one soon! In fact, I’m about a quarter through it as I write this post. Sharon tells me the plot is simple and she’s not sure readers will like that. In my opinion, zero readers are going to pick this book up wanting high tension and excitement. Although some excitement is okay, the whole series is warm and fuzzy. It’s a series that hands you a mug of cocoa and invites you to settle in front of a fireplace and relax. With a series like this, I think a simple plot is not only fine, it’s probably a plus.
3. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
As Sancia Grado lay facedown in the mud, stuffed underneath the wooden deck next to the old stone wall, she reflected that this evening was not going at all as she had wanted.
This opening line is funny! I’m not sure the rest of the first page lives up to this opening, but this is definitely a fun opening sentence.
4. Cassiel’s Servant by Jacqueline Carey
“They’re coming, they’re coming!”
It was my younger brother Mahieu who brought the news, bursting into the manor’s great room, breathless and flushed-cheeked, dried burs and brittle twigs caught in the shearling cuffs and collar of his oversized winter coat. A swirl of yelping hounds accompanied him.
This opening is not particularly engaging for me, though of course the writing is good. But! You know what this book is? This is Kushiel’s Dart, re-told from the pov of the male lead, Joscelin. This is a brilliant idea! Brilliant! I loved Kushiel’s Dart, the lush writing and characterization and depth of worldbuilding. I’m just delighted at the chance to see what Carey does with this story. I ought to re-read Kushiel’s Dart before I read this one. They’re long (long!) books, so it may take a while for me to get to this, but seriously, I’m really intrigued by the whole concept, especially since, like most readers, I liked Joscelin a lot.
5. Pinquickle’s Folly by R A Salvatore. There’s a prologue, which I’m skipping. Here’s the beginning of chapter one.
The two figures moved slowly along the uneven and rough stone stairway that ran up the side of the high hill. Although winter was on in full, the vernal equinox still several weeks away, the sky was cloudless and the air comfortably warm. The smaller of the pair, a young woman named Quauh, her Xoconai face coloring beaming in the brilliant sunlight, hopped lightly from stone to stone, moving as if she had too much energy within her lithe frame to maintain such a casual pace.
I’ve never read anything by Salvatore. I find this opening unengaging. Let me see, why is that? Failure of craft, that’s why.
I realize this is a famous writer who has sold a lot of books. Nevertheless. “winter was on in full” puts two short prepositions in a row, which is iffy. “Within her lithe frame” is the sort of phrase a novice writer uses to describe the protagonist. It’s just amateurish. From a writer who’s written a lot of books, I’m just surprised to see phrases like this. “Face coloring beaming” is frankly terrible. This is why I say that an author can be successful writing books that fall anywhere on the spectrum of “readable” to “excellent.” This book looks just barely readable to me, but here he is, successful.
Also, this is very distant third person. “A young woman named” is about as distant as possible. A much less distancing technique would be “A young woman, Quauh,” and closer still would be “Quauh hopped lightly” and work in the fact that she is a young woman somewhere else. In fact, just using the pronoun “she” and saying she moved “lightly” would take care of that, as the reader would then assume she is a young woman unless otherwise specified. Saying “named” is the narrator speaking almost directly to the reader. I don’t necessarily dislike distant third, but I prefer closer third. But it’s definitely the writing at the sentence level that is a problem for me. If I’d read the first page while at the hotel, I would have discarded this book on the trade table. As it is, I’ll give it away to the local used bookstore.
6. Liberty’s Daughter by Naomi Kritzer
“Show me the sandals first,” I said.
Debbie held out a pair of size eight sparkly high-heeled strappy sandals. I had been knocking on doors all afternoon, hunting for sandals like this for some lady over on Rosa.
“My sister’s name is Lynn Miller, Debbie said. “She’s been missing for three weeks.”
Not particularly interesting, but Naomi Kritzer, so I was happy to pick up this book and will certainly go on with it.
7. A Stranger in Olondria by Sophia Samatar
As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.
Lovely from the very first sentence. Also, I’ve wanted to read this book practically forever. Now here it is, on my TBR pile! I’m more pleased about this than about any other book I picked up at WFC. I think I literally gasped when I saw it. Definitely happy to see that some older books appeared as well as brand-new titles.
8. A House with Good Bones by T Kingfisher
There was a vulture on the mailbox of my grandmother’s house.
As omens go, it doesn’t get much more obvious than that.
T Kingfisher is always welcome on my TBR pile. I’ve already read this one, so I’ll post comments about it pretty soon.
9. To Each This World, by Julie E Czerneda
Beth Seeker cupped her hands to shade her eyes. Seared brown desert stretched to wavering distant lines that might have been hills, but you didn’t use Human words for things in the Split.
Human words didn’t belong here.
I have barely read anything by Czerneda, which is weird, as they tend to have a biological emphasis that ought to appeal to me. I think I read something of hers long ago and did not actually like it much, and that’s been inhibiting. This beginning is very strong. It’s intriguing and well written and I like it a lot.
10. Lone Women by Victor Lavalle
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who live with shame, and those who die from it. On Tuesday, Adelaide Henry would’ve called herself the former, but by Wednesday, she wasn’t as sure. If she was trying to live, then why would she be walking through her family’s farmhouse carrying at Atlas jar of gasoline, pouring that gasoline on the kitchen floor, the dining table, dousing the settee in the den?
That’s a good first line, and a stunning second line. Really excellent. This books definitely has a horror vibe, but nevertheless, I’m caught. This is true even though it seems to me that planning to burn down her family’s home does not in any way imply that she wants to die or intends to die or anything like that. Last I noticed, lots of people burn down houses without intending to kill themselves.
11. Gray Warrior by Erin Hunt Rado
Traevis crested the steps of Airlight Manor’s residential wing so swiftly that no one would imagine he hadn’t slept for the past two nights. Of course he was exhausted. Who wouldn’t be after riding from the Central States to the northeastern coast in half the normal time, but what did exhaustion matter? There was a problem here at home that somehow involved his father. How did Traevis know? Because apparently every Mother-Blessed Stone in Airlight Manor had been warning him every Mother-Blessed waking moment with a magical summons that was driving him half-mad.
I bought this self-published book. I liked the cover image, and although the first four sentences aren’t interesting at all, the rest of the paragraph makes up for that.
12. Mystery at Dunvegan Castle by TL Huchu
Boom. Lassie from the slums winds up in a castle. Ain’t that a right old fairy tale? If I didn’t know any better, I’d have done up my dreadlocks, worn a tiara and called myself Princess. Nah, screw that Disney malarky. I’m just loving the Isle of Skye right now. This must be what being on holiday feels like. Though how would I know? Seeing as I’ve never done nothing posh like that.
The writing here seems … self-conscious, I guess? I feel like the author is working too hard and I can see that effort. This pushes me away. I’ll read a little more, but I’m not caught; I’m uninterested and mildly turned off. This is a demonstration of how important voice is in first-person stories; if the voice doesn’t appeal to the reader, that’s it, and I mean appeal immediately, in the first paragraphs. “Appeal” is of course a personal reaction. No doubt other readers would like this opening. Personally, I’ll read the first pages, but if I don’t like it any better after two pages, I’ll just give it away.
13. The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill
The crane came in through the front door like he owned the place. My mother walked slightly behind, her hand buried past the wrist in his feathers.
This is a stunning cover. Lovely.
I would have kept it just for that. This is also a striking beginning. I’m not sure I’ll like this story, but I think I’ll admire it.
14. Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse
It was the devil’s hour on Aventum Angelorum, Goetia’s own high holy day and there was a black wind blowing off Tabor’s mine. It slithered down the mountains past the places where the old gods of the continent had once held sway. It rolled through the mining town below called Goetia, snatching hats off heads and shivering shoulders. It wormed its way through the holiday merrymakers on Perdition Street, whispering memories of heavenly war, of bright Lucifer’s doomed defiance, and the sweet aftertaste of rebellion cloyed noses and mouths, making those who breathed it in discontent and covetous.
I’ve heard of Rebecca Roanhorse many times, but never quite gotten around to reading anything of hers. I would have picked up this book just for that reason. This opening is wonderful, though it sure indicates horror or very dark fantasy.
Okay! Fourteen paper-edition books I picked up at WFC. What do you all think? I think … hmm, this is hard. I think #1, #7, #13, and #14 are the best openings – I mean best as in most beautiful. It’s hard to choose among those four, so I’m just listing them in numerical order.
For catchiness, I’d put #3, #8, #10, and #13 up front. I understand why the beginning sentences of the first three are catchy, but I’m not sure why #13 strikes me as catchy as well as beautiful.
For least appealing openings, I’d put #5 way, way out in front, then #12. Everything else has an appealing opening.
For best cover, I like a lot of these, but I’d put #13 in front, followed by #10 and then #1. I’m not sure why #10 appeals to me so much, but it does.
The ones I’m going read first are #8 because it seems very suitable for Halloween (checkmark: did read it) and #2 because it’s by Sharon Shinn (checkmark, reading it now). I notice that #13 appears three times in the rapid, informal ratings I just outlined. It’s also very short, a novella at most. I need to re-read the fairy tale The Crane Wife and then read this story. I will probably do that next.