Reviewing Some Award Winners – Part the Second
As promised, I’m reviewing the opening of the winner of a different award this time around. The genre is more or less the same, but beyond that, there’s very little the two works have in common. As I did last week, I’m not giving the name of the work or the author, because I want the focus to be on the work rather than who wrote it.
Quoted text is italicized, my commentary is not.
“Dad, how many universes are there?”
This isn’t a killer opening, but it’s a decent one. There’s a hint to what I suspect is one of the major themes of the work, and at least two people, a father and his child.
“Only one, by definition, son,” he answered. “Hence the term universe.”
There’s a hint that the father has a sense of humor here, and a strong suggestion the son is an adult, or at least mature enough to recognize the humor. The father is also rather obviously avoiding a direct answer, which suggests that in this novel’s world there may well be more than one universe.
Spread out on the couch, still in his gear, my father spoke in a weary monotone, not raising his head, not opening his eyes. I was surprised to get even a grunt out of him, much less an answer, even if it was an answer that was not really an answer.
This paragraph trickles out a little more information. The prose so far is simple, focused, and hints at a lot more than is present on the surface. The author is showing the father’s tiredness in the way he speaks, the fact that he’s still in “gear” – without revealing what that gear is (and this makes sense because the son is obviously used to his father getting back from whatever it is he does, and being very tired).
I prodded the fake log with a poker, but no sparks flew up. I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice. Depending on his answer, I would either be back upstairs asleep in ten minutes, or running wildly out of the house into the wide darkness before the dawn, at top speed.
Four paragraphs in, and we’re aware that something the father knows is critical to something the character finds massively important, but which could be a complete bust (the “asleep in ten minutes” comment). The character’s nervousness shows in his poking at the fireplace and trying not to sound frustrated. There’s also a hint of discordance – what kind of job does the father do that he’s getting back from work (which isn’t openly stated, but strongly implied) in the hours before dawn?
It might be too late already. I wanted to take out my phone and look at the time but I feared I might glimpse the message that was still glowing on the little screen.
Here the author ratchets the tension up a little, suggesting that whatever this message is, it’s got the character in quite a state.
“Let me ask it another way. What is reality?”
This is a clever way to show that this work is not part of everyday life: there is no aspect of normal life where something important enough to have someone running off into predawn darkness can be answered by this question. More than that, in what kind of weird place and time is this question something you ask your extremely tired father?
He heaved a weary sigh.
And in what kind of world does the extremely tired father respond with the kind of sigh that, although not explicitly described as such, you just know is one of those “why me?” things?
This is a very good example of using simple, unadorned prose to foreshadow strangeness to come and drop hints about the nature of that strangeness, while at the same time drawing a broad thumbnail of the father-son relationship. There’s a lot of depth layered into the deceptively simple handful of paragraphs that act as teasers for what is to come.
And then the author shifts gears.
Before you ask, it was because of a girl. Before you laugh, tell me a better reason to dive headfirst off the edge of reality.
Motivation, right up front and smacking readers between the eyes, as well as hinting that the character is a tad impulsive.
Her name was Penny Dreadful. Unless it wasn’t. I was in love. Unless I wasn’t.
And infatuated if not in love. The kind of family who would name a child Penny Dreadful is left to the imagination, while hinting that the name is an assumed name.
Penny was a very pretty, witty and brave girl, as bold as a Marine platoon storming Iwo Jima. She was famous and rich, and way out of my league.
I like this mix of cliché wrapped around the decidedly not-cliche simile of the Marine platoon. It’s more vivid than avoiding cliché entirely would have been without threatening to send readers chasing down a thesaurus.
It wasn’t her fault. It’s not like she asked me to save her. Heck, she did not even know I was alive. Well, technically she knew I was alive.
She saw me every day. She just couldn’t remember my name.
The character has now been established as potentially unmemorable – at least until the next two paragraphs.
It’s Ilya, by the way.
Ilya Vseslasvyevich Bessmertniy Saint Mitrophan Muromets.
And the brief suggestion of unmemorable is followed by a name that completely overthrows my initial guess and leaves me feeling sorry for the poor sod.
Quite simply by this point I was hooked (and damn it, I really don’t need more in my to-be-read queue, which is getting to the point where it’s going to form a literary black hole soon). This is one of the better examples of a teaser opening I’ve read, where the author does the equivalent of tickling the fish… ahem… reader towards the shore where they can be landed and neatly gutted… um. That may be taking the metaphor a little too far.
At any rate, this particular work is, on the strength of its opening, a worthy contender for the award it won (yes, yes, this is my opinion only). There’s no clumsiness to the prose, no faux-literary flourishes, but there’s a whole lot of depth packed in to what seems simple.