By Mark Alpert
Today we have a real treat, the first page of a fantasy novel submitted by a talented, anonymous TKZ contributor. Take a look:
Title: The Boy, the Girl and Dark Mother
He hates it when his eye pops out.
He especially hates it when it happens while he’s flying high in the sky. Oh why is he the only crow born with one, stupid, bulging eye? It pops out at the most inconvenient times, like now, while he is scouting for the Dragon Queen.
He dive-bombs down and catches the falling pupil just in time. He shoves it back in its socket. That’s when he sees below what he has been looking for.
“Oh good,” he squawks. “This town has a lot of children. Dark Mother will be able to find the boy and kill him easy.” He gathers up his old wings and flaps off to where he came from. “Hey, guys. Over here.”
Down below lays the small village of Wild Plum, innocence lying in wait.
Rooster, a big man on the verge of a double chin, scarred from years of battle, steps out on the landing of his tavern. He holds a flask, his fingers bent from seasons with a sword, a sword he never wants to torch up again. Above him, the faded sign ‘Lion’s Head Inn’ dangles in the breeze. A plump woman with a cane sways out, bottle in hand, eyelids
butterflying his way. “Come back in. I’ve got more to share.”
“I’m getting the ‘Rattle’ feeling. Guts are churning. Don’t know why they’re serving up fire. Once I figure it out what’s wrong, I’ll feel better.”
“We’re having a good time. Let go of yourself. Come in. It’s been a year since—”
She purses up her lower lip. Sighing, she pours some Tangleweed into his flask, looks up and smiles. At getting no response, she swings back in, her too wide hips hitting the doorframe.
Rooster takes a deep draft of his drink. He watches the market before him, waiting to see if the warrior is going to spark back into his eyes.
Children are playing. Adults are abuzz with activity as well, but more to stay alive than anything else, bartering over homegrown products of leather saddles, belts and candles.
A girl with fiery red hair peeks out. “You upset Franchilla. She wants to be with you.”
“Nobody can help,” he says.
“What is this ‘Rattle’ feeling?”
“Worry about customers. Leave me alone.”
Fantasy is one of my favorite genres. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, and those books had an enormous influence on me. I spent hours poring over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. I read everything else he wrote, including the unfinished Silmarillion. I even memorized the poems he wrote in his made-up languages. I blame Tolkien for the fact that I had no girlfriends in high school. Seriously, I was obsessed.
But when I tried reading other fantasy authors, I was sorely disappointed. I discovered that the quality of fantasy writing, at least circa 1977, was inconsistent and often downright terrible. So I stayed away from the genre for the next two decades and didn’t embrace it again until the advent of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
Perhaps the most important decision for a fantasy writer is figuring out how to introduce the book’s fantastical world. One popular strategy is to start the novel in the ordinary world, and then have the characters discover some kind of portal to the fantasy world. Examples of books that use this strategy are C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, in which the Pevensie children enter the magical land through a wardrobe, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in which Quentin Coldwater discovers a hidden entrance to the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The first Harry Potter book follows the same strategy; it begins with Harry’s miserable life with his adoptive Muggle family, the Dursleys, before launching into his adventures at Hogwarts.
The contrasting strategy is to simply drop the reader into the fantasy world right from the beginning. That’s what Tolkien did in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, starting each book in the Shire, the most peaceful and bucolic region of Middle Earth. Philip Pullman did something similar in The Golden Compass, as did George R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones. And today’s first-page submission adopts the same approach, beginning the narrative with a talking crow. (For some reason, it reminded me of the goofy buzzard in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. You know the one I’m talking about? After Bugs asked the bird, “What’s up, Doc?” the slow-witted buzzard sang, “My mama done told me to bring home something for dinner.” Look at the picture above to jog your cartoon memories.)
I love that first sentence: “He hates it when his eye pops out.” How could anyone resist reading further? And I also love how the scene suddenly shifts to the village below and the big, battle-scarred man stepping out of the tavern. There’s an excellent economy of language in these paragraphs, which have very few wasted words. And I adore the expression “eyelids butterflying his way.” The invented names are also great (Tangleweed for the drink, Franchilla for the plump woman).
I have a few quibbles with this submission: you can’t write “down below lays the small village.” The proper verb is “lies,” although the author might want to replace the word with “is” instead, to avoid repetition later in the sentence, which ends with the phrase “lying in wait.” Also, I think the “up” in “purses up” is unnecessary. More important, I don’t like the title of the book; “Dark Mother” alone would be better.
All in all, though, I get the sense that we’re in the hands of a confident, inventive writer who’s not afraid to take risks and have some fun. I would definitely keep reading. In fact, I’d love to see more.