Openings of Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews
Gunmetal actually has two openings. One is an untitled prologue, and the other is the proper chapter 1. I'll cover them both.
This world needs setup, because it is our world, modern times, but it isn't. Or rather, it is, but with a major, interesting twist. The world has suffered an apocalypse by magic, but it is recovering well. Andrews does an excellent job of setting this fact up right away through a faux document that explains that magic hit the world hard, but the people are still persevering. Besides giving some basic facts about magic waves and magic powers, this document gives a hint of time frame. This magic attack happened 40 years ago. This information is told in an engaging writing style, and it is brief and quick. It gets the simplest facts across, it gets emotion across, it hints at cool stuff, and then it moves on. And this all within four paragraphs and one set of attributions.
Shortly after the untitled prologue, Chapter 1 starts with a bang. Or rather, a thud. That is the sound of the protagonist being beat up, something that instantly brings on conflict and brings about the reader's sense of compassion. This is rather hard to do, but it works, because the untitled prologue grounded the reader well. The reader doesn't expect or need more world setup but is ready for the story to begin, and the author doesn't disappoint.
Nor does the author disappoint in delivering other important bits of information right away, without slowing down the conflict and reader sympathy. For instance, this novel is written in a first person pov, but within a few short paragraphs, two of which are only one word a piece, the reader knows the protagonist's gender as female and that this is a dream. That's not easy to get across that fast in first person pov novel.
Then, at Kindle Location 164, the reader learns that the ones beating up the protagonist are not human. Andrews shows us what they are by active description tied to the moment: a character shifts into a were-hyena. The transformation uses a combination of expected words and a particular strong, unusual one: "The flesh on her body boiled." She starts out with that description, then moves into more expected ones. This way that line pops without being drowned out by a bunch of equally unusual ones.
Moving on further, by Kindle Location 171, the reader is told it is a combination of dream and memory. But to add punch, the next few lines are not of her helplessness, but of the MC's revenge upon her attackers later on. This is told in strong, efficient language: "I came back and put two bullets through Sarah's eyes. I had emptied a clip into Candy's left ear." These are strong details because they are precise. Sarah's eyes. Candy's left ear. They speak of particular character, one who is not helpless in her waking life, and they evince a strong reaction in the reader. In fact, even in her dreams, she can turn things around, for as it ends, the MC gains control over it. The MC knows she is waking up and tells off the attackers in a succinct way. I won't reproduce it here, because I don't want to use strong curse words in this blog without censoring them a little. One last thing worth noting is that, when the character is waking up, the reader will notice a tie-in to the dream. The "thudding" sound that started the dream-memory is also in the real world. This is a great technique, because this is how real dreams work, too. You hear something and incorporate it into the dream. That little bit of realism draws readers in, connecting to them, and it makes something supernatural real.
This novel does two noteworthy things. First, it quickly grounds the reader in an interesting world, choosing interesting facts to relate. But it does more. It ties in emotion. It's not a dry factual piece. Because successful fiction openings do more than relate facts, they engage emotions. Otherwise, one might as well read nonfiction. Second, the other opening dives into character, conflict, and reader sympathy. It doesn't try to redo what the first opening does; rather it has already moved on, knowing it is best not to try reader patience with an elaboration. So, this sample is well worth studying for those who have a world that is difficult to explain.
Note: This novel sample was read on my new Kindle Keyboard. When I downloaded the sample of Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews on 8/13/12, this book was ranked #15 on Amazon's Fantasy book list, sorted by popularity.
Cites: Andrews, Ilona. Gunmetal Magic. New York: Ace Books, 2012. Kindle Edition.