Getting the Story Started

If you want a lesson in how to start a fantasy novel brilliantly, I suggest Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon. The story opens with a mid-Atlantic battle between a British ship and a French ship. The details (swords and sails) establish immediately that we’re in an early 19th century setting, on our own Earth. The victorious British captain is summoned by his first officer to the hold of the French ship, where they find, in a very large crate — a dragon’s egg. Bang! Who wouldn’t want to keep reading?

The novel is not entirely free of flaws, but they’re minor. My point is, this is how you start a novel: Give the reader a clear and compelling reason to want to find out what happens next.

For a counter-example, this week I’ve started reading The Unwilling by Kerry Braffet. Hadn’t heard of her before. Hardback, picked it up at the library. Front cover endorsement by Erin Morgenstern, whose The Starless Sea is amazing, so of course I’ll take Braffet out for a spin.

The prologue is rather mystifying. The setting is a desert caravan of some sort, and the main character is referred to only as “the boy.” He’s never given a name, though those around him are named. Something magical happens to him, he’s sent off with another caravan, and that’s all we hear of him.

In the first two chapters Braffet’s main character is, I’m sorry to say, a Spunky Princess. There are, to be sure, a couple of wrinkles in her situation. She lives with the prince, the prince’s younger brother, and the prince’s betrothed girl, but she’s not of royal blood — she’s a foundling. The iron-fisted ruler has had no choice but to take her in and raise her with his own children. Her situation is difficult: She’s surrounded by scheming courtiers and has to deal with the sadistic old court healer.

And of course she’s spunky, which adds friction to her life in the palace. But there’s no dragon’s egg. The girl has no pressing motivation. The kingdom is not visibly threatened by enemies within or without. She’s not in love with anybody. Her chief pleasure in life seems to be sneaking down to the stables to shovel horse manure. And at this point we’re 75 pages into the book.

Braffet seems to feel that world-building and filling in the back-story will keep readers glued to the page. Her world-building is not first-rate, but that’s a separate issue. In plotted genre fiction, giving the protagonist a life-changing plot problem cannot be put off for very long.

It can be delayed a bit if the fantasy world gives us something fresh and startling (a dragon’s egg) to keep us going, but that’s a short-term solution. By page 20, Novik has given us the background about how dragons are part of her otherwise realistic 19th century world, and in particular about the bond between a dragon and its human aviator. And then the egg hatches, and the British captain finds that the baby dragon has chosen him. His whole life will be turned upside down. The plot will show how he makes the sometimes painful adjustments to his new life, and that fact is right there on the page.

Novik does eventually introduce a couple of women aviators, who blithely ignore the strictures placed on women in the 19th century — but, saints be praised, they’re not spunky!

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