Tough Travelling: Beginnings
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re checking out the entry on BEGINNINGS:
Fantasyland, like so many other places, had its BEGINNINGS at a time when no one was around to see it. Nevertheless, quite a lot is known about it. Unlike our world, Fantasyland was definitely made by Gods, working alone or in teams of three, or in whole pantheons. This accounts for some of the peculiarities of the place, since the Rule is that one Goddess or three Gods always made some kind of mistake, often by being distracted somehow during the act of creation; and a pantheon of GODDESSES AND GODS tended to disagree and quarrel, causing mistakes likewise. This, at the very least, let EVIL in. After this, according to the ELVES, the deity/deities took time off to make the Elves and then let a certain amount of evolution happen. Opinions vary as to when and how humanity arrived, but the majority seem to favour the notion that humans were imported from another planet or universe.
Taking a slightly different turn from the great DJW, we’re going to look at our favourite Beginnings to fantasy books.
A big thank you to Theo, Nils, James, Graeme, Jonathan, and Filip for their recommendations…
Red Sister – the lone warrior/nun stalking the columns while an army approaches. I don’t think there is a better opening line than this:
It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men…
Mark Lawrence has always insisted that he writes people not genders and the whole story would work just as well if it was Red Brother about monks in a monastery rather than nuns in a convent. But the odd thing is that actually that opening line would lose a lot of its impact if the genders were reversed because we are so conditioned to the idea of Shaolin monks and kung fu fighting and the old DND monk class.
“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”
This opening line from The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon was one that completely captured me. The concept of a ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ was so eerily intriguing, I just had to know what it was. It also clearly defines this as a book for all book lovers. A truly stunning read.
You’ve also gotta love this opening of The Martian by Andy Weir, right?
‘I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
I haven’t even read this book yet, but I took one look at these first few lines and knew I needed to buy it!
I’m pretty bad at remembering beginnings…it’s often voice that catches me, and one recent standout was A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland.
It starts with a grumpy old man in court, arguing with his appointed solicitor, and lets you slowly build the context around that as more and more is revealed. I love a mystery, and this was a perfect start for me, especially tone-wise. Having carried on in that brilliant vein for at least two-thirds of the book, it struggled a bit towards the end, but still one of my favourite recent reads.
Another was Tom Lloyd’s Stranger of Tempest, which starts with a bang – and a naked assassin covered in blood – and goes back to show us how we got there using converging timelines. Also didn’t quite keep that momentum up until the end (so it’s clearly not all about beginnings), but certainly worth mentioning.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
– The Hobbit
Simple, yet planting the seed of the mystery very ably. That is what so much of fantasy is, distilled into one line. What is this thing I’ve never heard of?
“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”
– Name of the Wind
I know it has become fashionable to dunk on Rothfuss’ books (aka The Neverending Story) but there is no denying that his prose is beautiful.
I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.
– We Have Always Lived in the Castle
A line that immediately gives you so much of the character of the narrator and the book is deserving of some praise, no?
Angela Carter is wonderful at openings. In particular, the opening of Heroes and Villains is amazing in the information it gives you about the two characters right off the bat:
“Marianne had sharp, cold eyes and she was spiteful but her father loved her.”
If we’re talking iconic opening lines in genre fiction, it’s hard to beat –
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I almost like the opening line to its sequel Count Zero better:
“They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. Its core was a kilogramme of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.”
Both put you immediately into the aesthetics of Gibson’s tech-heavy world, but Count Zero, with its bizarre combination of future slang, mysterious tech and in media res action, throws you right into the deep end. You have to keep reading to find out what any of that actually means.
I am generally a fan of openings that throw you right in there. Another great example is Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, which opens:
“I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.”
Who measures age in miles? Again you just have to read on to find out.
In terms of iconic Fantasy openings, few can match the opening to Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint:
“Snow was falling on Riverside, great white feather-puffs that veiled the cracks in the facades of its ruined houses; slowly softening the harsh contours of the jagged roof and fallen beam.”
Immediately you get a perfect image of what Riverside looks like, the combination between romance and decay, what it must feel like to live there. Kushner follows this up with:
“Let the fairy tale begin on a winter’s morning, then, with one drop of blood new-fallen on the ivory snow: a drop as bright as a clear-cut ruby, red as the single spot of claret on the lace cuff.”
One is struck instantly with the drama and the decadence, but also Kushner’s command of language – here is a fantasy novel told by someone well aware of the art and expectations of fantasy storytelling, one who makes no bones at the beginning of the book that she is going to play with the reader’s expectations, and the reader is going to love it.
I’m a big fan of the classics, and is there any precursor of fantasy more memorable than the opening of that immortal epic by Homer?
“Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”
Next month, we’ll be looking at our favourite Animals in speculative fiction.
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