Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Love At First Word

A fair few of my readerly friends tell me a book must hook them within a single page or they’re out.

If I read this way, I’d never finish anything.

I like a lot, but I’m picky about what I love--and I usually need to sink into a book before I can tell whether I’m gonna fall hard for it. Hell, in a few extreme cases it's taken me as long as two hundred and fifty pages to go from, “I really like this” to “OMG THIS IS BEST THING IN THE WORLD.”

Because I’m as suspicious as I am picky. Books have to trick me into trusting them, and precious few have ever managed to win my love within the space of two pages.

Even fewer have done it with a single paragraph. In the order I read them, they are:

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by Anne Rice; published 1976, first read in 1999:

“I see…” said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the dim light from Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic. The boy could see the furnishings of the room more clearly now, the round oak table, the chairs. A wash basin hung on one wall with a mirror. He set his brief case on the table and waited.

This opening paragraph breaks tons of rules. It starts with dialogue, there’re adverbs, and it privileges the setting over the characters. And yet, I read it and completely forgot I’d ever had the slightest reservation about this book. (I was still firmly in my “I only read fantasy and everything marketed as something else can suck it” phase.) I was twenty-five pages in before anything else registered.

THE BLACK TULIP by Alexandre Dumas; published 1850, first read in 2000:

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected--the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and read stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland, was confined.

I mean, holy hell. That’s a single sentence studded with approximately one million commas and zero fucks to give re: concision. It delighted the hell out of me, as did the rest of the book (which is a terribly exciting tale about tulip breeding.)

SWORDSPOINT by Ellen Kushner; published 1987, first read in 2007:

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 jagged roof and fallen beam. Eaves were rounded with snow, houses all clustered together like a fairy-tale village. Little slopes of snow nestled in the slats of shutters still cozily latched against the night. It dusted the tops of fantastical chimneys that spiraled up from frosted roofs, and it formed white peaks in the ridges of t he old coats of arms carved above the doorways. Only here and there a window, its glass long shattered, gaped like a black mouth with broken teeth, sucking snow into its maw.

Yes, I had a seven-year gap between my love-at-first-word titles. I told you, I’m picky. Those seven years were filled with books I fell for after their prologues, or during their second acts, or on account of the whole package.

SWORDSPOINT, though… damn. Apparently I’m a sucker for a setting that draws me straight in. I read this paragraph, and the next one, and the next one, and Riverside was one of my favourite fictional places. I wanted to know everything about this ruined suburb and the people who lived there.

FOOL’S ERRAND by Robin Hobb; published 2001, first read in 2007:

He came one late, wet spring, and brought the wide world back to my doorstep. I was thirty-five that year. When I was twenty, I would have considered a man of my current age to be teetering on the verge of dotage. These days, it seemed neither young nor old to me, but a suspension between the two. I no longer had the excuse of callow youth, and I could not yet claim the eccentricities of age. In many ways, I was no longer sure what I thought of myself. Sometimes it seemed that my life was slowly disappearing behind me, fading like footprints in the rain, until perhaps I had always been the quiet man living an unremarkable life in a cottage between the forest and the sea.

This one differs from the others in that it belongs in the middle of an established series. (Yes, I even distrust new entries in beloved series. What if the quality's slipped?) Fitz, the narrator, is one of my favourite literary characters, and this was exactly the reintroduction to him I would’ve wanted if I’d known to ask for it. It’s so very him, packed with the promise of more himish storytelling over the next 660 pages.

Plus, Hobb knows damned well that everyone who read this paragraph’s gonna be hoping and praying the “he” it refers to is the Fool (with whom Fitz has my favourite friendship in all of fiction). It’s not, but she wields the possibility as one hell of a hook as she reintroduces us to Fitz, fifteen years older and enshrined in a vastly different sphere than the one he occupied in the previous books.

THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA by Scott Lynch; published 2006, first read in 2007:

At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.

Holy enticements, Batman! This first line has everything I love: twisty prose, a solid peek at a new world, and a sense of real urgency that’s bound to cause further complications for the title character. I revelled in it.

And yes, I added three books to the love-at-first-word list in 2007. It was one of my best reading years ever.

THE SECRET COUNTESS (aka A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS) by Eva Ibbotson; published 1981, first read in 2008:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

Again with the vivid settings. This one hooked me particularly hard because anyone who’s glanced at the jacket copy knows the family’s situation will have crumbled by the end of the prologue, and we can’t wait to see what they do with their new circumstances. The strong fairy tale feel extends through the entire book, too, though there isn’t a hint of actual magic behind any of it.

SANTA OLIVIA by Jacqueline Carey; published 2009, first read in 2010:

They said that the statue of Our Lady of the Sorrows wept tears of blood the day the sickness came to Santa Olivia. The people said that God had turned his face away from humankind. They said that saints remember what God forgets about human suffering.

Of course they said that in a lot of places during those years.

For a long time, there was dying. Dying and fucking. A lot of dying and a lot of fucking, and more dying.

It’s brutal, and it’s evocative, and it excited the hell out of me because the tone is completely different from Carey’s previous series (the Kushiel’s Legacy books). I knew I was about to read something that’d punch me in the gut over and over and over before I’d beg it to hit me just one more time.

THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater; published 2012, first read in 2013:

Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

In most of these cases, the first line called to me and the rest of the opening paragraph(s) cinched it. This time, I needed nothing more than those seventeen words intoned in audiobook narrator Will Patton’s softly sharp voice. Blue’s got a hell of a prophecy hanging over her head, and I couldn’t tear myself away until Maggie Stiefvater had told me why and how in some of the world’s most gorgeous prose.

SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA by Becky Albertalli; published 2015, first read in 2016:

It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t notice I’m being blackmailed.

Twelve words, this time! I made the Selena Gomez face, I read on, and I never willingly put the book down until I’d watched Simon’s whole life spiral out from this inciting incident.

And those are the nine books I've loved straight from the first word to the last. What are yours?


  1. I just texted you, but I will comment, too! Make you feel special. Ha! I just ordered Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda because I have seen a couple people really like it. And, I totally agree on Robin Hobb!

  2. I too have only very rarely been sucked into a book on the first page. And even when I am that's not necessarily a guarantee the rest of the book will be good! But a few of the books where it's worked out is Jane Eyre, Scaramouche, The Age of Innocence, and Night Train to Memphis.

    1. I've had Scaramouche on my list for years and years and years because of you.

  3. I rarely get sucked into a book so quickly--usually I need to give it a few chapters before I get full immersion (which is also why I have a hard time with short stories). But when I do it's magical. Cat Valente's "Deathless" was one. And on your list, Anne Rice and Scott Lynch ftw! :D