Monday, 28 April 2014

Blood on the Strand by Susanna Gregory

London, early May 1663

Matthew Webb was cold, wet and angry.

This line does not hook. We have an ageless male, though luckily with a name, and we learn little else other than he is cold (weather reference), wet (weather reference) and angry (also weather reference?). Naturally, the next line enters into a weather report, because I assume the writer fears the reader may be confused as to what cold and wet actually mean. After all, readers are stupid, right? They always misunderstand us intellectually superior writers and go off thinking the wrong thing, like, for example, this guy was just swimming or had taken a shower. So let's be clear, he's wet and cold, because it is raining. For some unknown reason, this is a very important plot point which the writer feels must be made clear before any story begins.

That's right, weather is not story or this would be a bestseller: Bob woke up and saw it was raining on his house. The end.

Next line:

The rain, which had started as an unpleasant, misty drizzle, was now the kind of drenching downpour that was likely to last all night.

So the opening conflict in this novel is bad weather. Been done before. Not interesting. The rest of the first paragraph develops how bad the weather is, in case you aren't clear. Actually, it reads like the author is trying to put the reader in the rain.

Honestly, even though so many novels begin with the weather phenomena, I can't understand how anyone would think weather in the first paragraph would hook. Who is interested in a rainy day, and who believes that weather is a gripping problem or an inciting event worthy of beginning a story? Who demands a novel begin with weather, because if it doesn't they just won't understand what is going on?

Of course, many will argue that weather establishes mood, but that is exactly what makes it a cliche.

To make it worse this character is walking - walking towards the plot and, one hopes, towards the opening conflict, but of course there are no guarantees. So with the opening prologue, we are confronted with two cliches so far. One more and this will be an automatic epic fail and be honored with the three-hit-cliche award. Curious if this will be the case, I read on.

Chapter 1:

Westminster, late May 1663

Hailstones as large as pigeons' eggs pelted the royal procession as it trooped down King Street from the palace at White Hall, and any semblance of dignity was lost in the ensuing scramble for shelter.

Hm. Another weather conflict. At least this weather report suggests a little more conflict than the previous one in the prologue. Hail the size of a pigeon's egg can hurt.

In general this novel opens with the proverbial lens zoomed out, as if we are up in an airplane looking down at the plot and characters as if they are ants, slowly coming in closer and closer for a landing where the plot is waiting. Zoomed out beginnings are less interesting. The prologue opening was a little more zoomed in in the fact that we had an actual character who was expressing negativity, though for unknown reasons.

With the zoomed out technique, the author chooses to set the setting before beginning the story. It is the old-school writing style and doesn't hook modern audiences like it did for those who lived in a world before photography and moving images. However, I do understand the motivation for being descriptive early, as this is an historical novel and establishing setting is important - just not at the expense of story conflict, you know, things happening to people, which does not include getting wet in the rain.

First thing said:

"I do not like you."

At least the opening dialogue offers conflict.

Verdict: Fail

Theodore MOracht

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