Opening with description

There’s no way to open a novel in a way that doesn’t contribute to a sense of style, of mood, and of voice. But opening with description means that you’re also opening in a way that brings the world to the forefront in a way that opening with dialogue or incident doesn’t generally achieve. Let’s look at an opening that’s very description-focused. Here is the opening of A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.

To take a better look at how this opening works, I’m including the first 1300 words, which lets me include some paragraphs I particularly want to include.


As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of the coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents. I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea. Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart: it is the light the local people call “the breath of angels” and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs. Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossom. But of all this I knew nothing. I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.

My name is Jevick, I come from the blue and hazy village of Tyom, on the western side of Tinimavet in the Tea Islands. From Tyom, high on the cliffs, one can sometimes see the green coast of Jiev, if the sky is very clear; but when it rains, and all the light is drowned in heavy clouds, it is the loneliest village in the world. It is a three-day journey to Pitot, the nearest village, riding on one of the donkeys of the islands, and to travel to the port of Dinivolim in the north requires at least a fortnight in the draining heat. In Tyom, in an open court, stands my father’s house, a lofty building made of yellow stone, with a great arched entryway adorned with hanging plants, a flat roof, and nine shuttered rooms. And nearby, outside the village, in a valley drenched with rain, where the brown donkeys weep with exhaustion, where the flowers melt away and are lost in the heat, my father had his spacious pepper farm.

This farm was the source of my father’s wealth and enabled him to keep the stately house, to maintain his position on the village council, and carry a staff decorated with red dye. The pepper bushes, voluptuous and green under the haze, spoke of riches with their moist and pungent breath; my father used to rub the dried corms between his fingers to give his fingertips the smell of gold. But if he was wealthy in some respects, he was poor in others: there were only two children in our home, and the years after my birth passed without hope of another, a misfortune generally blamed on the god of elephants. My mother said the elephant god was jealous and resented our father’s splendid house and fertile lands; but I knew that it was whispered in the village that my father had sold his unborn children to the god. I had seen people passing the house nudge one another and say, “He paid seven babies for that palace;” and sometimes our laborers sang a vicious work song: “Here the earth is full of little bones.” Whatever the reason, my father’s first wife had never conceived at all, while the second wife, my mother, bore only two children, my other brother Jom and myself. Because the first wife had no child, it was she whom we always addressed as Mother, or else with the term of respect, eit-donvati, “My Father’s Wife;” it was she who accompanied us to festivals, prim and disdainful, her hair in two black coils above her ears. Our real mother lived in our room with us, and my father and his wife called her “Nursemaid,” and we children called her simply by the name she had borne from girlhood: Kiavet, which means Needle. She was round-faced and lovely, and wore no shoes. Her hair hung loose down her back. At night she told us stories while she oiled her hair and tickled us with a gull’s feather.

Our father’s wife reserved for herself the duty of inspecting us before we were sent to our father each morning. She had merciless fingers and pried into our ears and mouths in her search for imperfections; she pulled the drawstrings of our trousers cruelly tight and slicked down our hair with her saliva. Her long face wore an expression of controlled rage, her body had an air of defeat, she was bitter out of habit, and her spittle in our hair smelled sour, like the bottom of the cistern. I only saw her look happy once: when it became clear that Jom, my meek, smiling elder brother, would never be a man, but would spend his life among the orange trees, imitating the finches.

My earliest memories of the meetings with my father come from the troubled time of this discovery. Released from the proddings of the rancorous first wife, Jom and I would walk into the fragrant courtyard, hand in hand and wearing our identical light trousers, our identical short vests with blue embroidery. The courtyard was cool, crowded with plants in clay pots and shaded by trees. Water stood in a trough by the wall to draw the songbirds. My father sat in a can chair with his legs stretched out before him, his bare heels turned up like a pair of moons.

We knelt. “Good morning father whom we love with all our hearts, your devoted children greet you,” I mumbled.

“And all our hearts, and all our hearts, and all our hearts,” said Jon, fumbling with the drawstring on his trousers.

My father was silent. We heard the swift flutter of a bird alighting somewhere in the shade trees. Then he said in his bland, heavy voice: “Elder son, your greeting is not correct.”

“And we love him,” Jom said uncertainly. He had knotted one end of the drawstring about his father. There rose from him, as always, an odor of sleep, greasy hair, and ancient urine.

My father sighed. His chair groaned under him as he leaned forward. He blessed us by touching the tops of our heads, which meant that we could stand and look at him. “Younger son,” he said quietly, “what day is today?”

“It is Tavit, and the prayers are the prayers of maize-meal, passion fruit, and the new moon.”

My father admonished me not to speak so quickly or people would think I was dishonest; but I saw that he was pleased and felt a swelling of relief, for my brother and myself. He went on to question me on a variety of subjects: the winds, the attributes of the gods, simple arithmetic, the peoples of the islands, and the delicate art of pepper-growing. I stood tall, threw my shoulders back, and strove to answer promptly, tempering my nervous desire to blurt my words, imitating the slow enunciation of my father, his stern air of a great landowner. He did not ask my brother any questions. Jom stood unnoticed, scuffing his sandals on the flagstones—only sometimes, if there happened to be doves in the courtyard, he would say very softly, “Oo-ooh.” At length my father blessed us again and we escaped, hand in hand, into the back rooms of the house; and I carried in my mind the image of my father’s narrow eyes: shrewd, cynical, and filled with sadness.


What do you think? Here are my basic impressions:

–The prose is beautiful.

–The voice of the narrator is the voice of a poet.

–The sense of place is profound.

–There is no generous sensibility here.

That last opinion is informed by the rest of the chapter, but it comes through clearly enough in these few paragraphs. I love the worldbuilding, but I dislike the lack of kindness in the world so beautifully evoked. The mother cares for her sons, but she is powerless to protect her elder son from her husband’s first wife, or from her husband when he tries, essentially, to have the elder son beaten into being the heir he wants. No one else shows a trace of kindness anywhere in the first chapter. This story is the precise opposite of cozy fantasy. One assumes the narrator’s circumstances will improve, or at least change.

This is a story where the world is everything — at least so far. The characters are set deeply into the world. There is a tremendous sense of depth and reality. This world is a real place, people by real people — that’s how it feels. I love this kind of worldbuilding, though a novel written this way requires much closer attention than, say, a quick, witty contemporary fantasy.

But this is also a story that begin in a way that invites the reader to admire the prose and the worldbuilding, while being fairly strongly repulsed by the characters and the world. The single line that most strongly evokes unkindness is “outside the village, in a valley drenched with rain, where the brown donkeys weep with exhaustion.” Before we get to the unkindness of the first wife and the revolting detail about the spittle, we have this offhand comment about donkeys weeping with exhaustion.

Do donkeys actually cry tears of misery? It’s believed, pretty axiomatically, that although all sorts of animals produce tears to lubricate their eyes and remove grit from their eyes, no nonhuman animals cry tears from misery or grief. Axiomatic beliefs of this sort can get in the way of perceiving reality. A desire to anthropomorphize animals gets in the way from the other direction. Romanticizing tears as a super-special way to express grief or misery gets in the way yet again. So I will state for the record that we don’t know for sure and also that it doesn’t really matter, since donkeys can certainly be miserable and apparently these donkeys are obviously miserable, anybody can see their misery, and that’s just part of life. There’s no sympathy implied in that passage. We see this again a few paragraphs farther on, when the narrator refers to his elder brother being beaten by “dull-eyed” workers from the field, with an obvious implication that the field laborers are treated so unkindly that they have no capacity to sympathize with someone else.

This opening plus the rest of the first chapter is as far from showing a world infused with a generous sensibility as you can get.

Will I go on with the book? Yes, I will. Someone at World Fantasy made a comment in passing that struck me – this was commenter David H’s friend – to the effect that if you wait to be in the mood to read a particular book, you’ll probably never read it and therefore you’ll miss whatever it might have offered. This, as I say, struck me.

I’ve been reading so few books lately, fewer still by new-to-me authors, and particularly few that seem as though they’re going to be demanding. I haven’t wanted to spare the time or attention for books like that. On the other hand, I’ve been wanting to read certain books for a long time, including this one. I’m going to read it, by gum, starting by reading one chapter at a time. While I’m vehemently opposed to reading books I dislike, I don’t dislike this book – not yet. I dislike this one thing about it: the unkindness of the world being drawn. That’s an important thing. Nevertheless, I’m going to go on and see where it leads, and along the way, enjoy the language and admire the worldbuilding.

Meanwhile, what does this remind me of?

It reminds me of Mary Stewart’s outstanding Merlin trilogy, starting with the Crystal Cave. The first link here goes to a paper omnibus, the second to the first book of the Kindle edition series.

This story, too, begins when the narrator is a child. This story also offers beautiful prose. And this story also begins with a childhood home that is not kind and that is filled with adults who may be, or are, dangerous. That story leads the narrator into a life that is not easy, but — and this is key — a life that is worth living. I love this series. I’m even okay with the fourth and final book, where Mary Stewart does as well as any author every has (or ever could) to handle Mordred’s story in a way that is believable, but isn’t filled with bitterness, though it does end in tragedy.

I’m curious to see whether Sofia Samatar’s book might create the same sense of a life worth living and a story worth telling. But, I have to say, I’m looking forward to Jevick getting out of his father’s house and heading for Olondria.

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2 thoughts on “Opening with description”

  1. I am very excited that you are reading A Stranger in Olondria! I’m trying not to say too much but I hope you will like it a lot by the end.

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