This is a new feature I’ve been considering doing for a while – talking about a small portion of a book and why it works (or doesn’t perhaps in some cases). For my inaugural post, I’m going to discuss the first chapter of the book I am currently reading and why it works. What it does so well is setting up the book as being not-quite your traditional high fantasy novel and really making the characters involved interesting immediately. This book is Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly, which was recently re-released as an ebook after being out of print for a while (along with several other books by the author). It was originally published in 1986 and is the first book in the Winterlands series. (Note: I’ve actually seen the publication date listed as everywhere from 1985 – 1987, but I went with the date listed on the author’s website.)
In the first chapter of Dragonsbane, we are introduced to two people who are not your traditional fantasy hero and heroine – and not just because they have two very common names that are easily pronounceable, Jenny and John. First, we are introduced to Jenny, a witch of rather mediocre powers. Yes, you read that right – Jenny is not the most powerful magic-user in the land but actually not very powerful at all. She’s also 37 years old instead of in her teens or early twenties. Nor is she beautiful or even particularly noble as is shown when she defeats some bandits no thanks to Gareth, her would-be rescuer.
When Gareth startles some bandits, Jenny is forced to fight them and feels obligated to use her magic to finish one of the dying men:
Jenny sighed, feeling suddenly cold and weary and unclean, looking upon what she had done and knowing what it was up to her yet to do. She knelt beside the dying man, drawing the stillness of her magic around her again. She was aware of Gareth’s approach, his boots threshing
through the dew-soaked bindweed in a hurried rhythm that broke when he tripped on his sword. She felt a tired stirring of anger at him for having made this necessary. Had he not cried out, both she and this poor, vicious, dying brute would each have gone their ways . . .
. . .And he would doubtless have killed Gareth after she passed. And other travelers besides.
She had long since given up trying to unpick wrong from right, present should from future if. If there was a pattern to all things, she had given up thinking that it was simple enough to lie within her comprehension. Still, her soul felt filthy within her as she put her hands to the dying man’s clammy, greasy temples, tracing the proper runes while she whispered the deathspells. She felt the life go out of him and tasted the bile of self-loathing in her mouth.
Gareth is rather disturbed by this, but Jenny accepts it even though she didn’t like it. As soon becomes evident, living in the Winterlands isn’t easy and it’s all about survival. It’s complicated, this line between morally right and self-preservation.
When Gareth recovers from his shock over Jenny’s actions, he comes to the realization that as a witch Jenny should have done something far more spectacular such as casting fireball, blindness, or polymorph. So he asks Jenny why she didn’t, to which she responds simply, “Because I cannot.” It upsets her deeply to admit this:
Even after all these years of knowing it, she found the admission still stuck in her throat. She had come to terms with her lack of beauty, but never with her lack of genius in the single thing she had ever wanted. The most she had ever been able to do was to pretend that she accepted it, as she
At this point, I already like Jenny – she’s showing human complexity and doesn’t seem like a stereotypical heroine, gorgeous or a superwoman.
It turns out Gareth is on a quest: a dragon is in need of slaying so he has come to find the one man alive who is a true dragonsbane, Lord Aversin. He’s heard all the ballads about how courageous and honorable Lord Aversin is so he’s rather disappointed to learn he didn’t kill the dragon by facing him with a sword but with a harpoon dipped in poison, followed by an axe. Alas, his hero did things the way least likely to get himself killed rather than the standard, romantic method. But surely he’s still as handsome and imposing as the ballads say?
Not exactly… When Gareth meets John, Lord Aversin, he discovers he is unkempt, medium-sized, and wears spectacles. Oh, and he’s standing in a bunch of mud next to a pigsty.
So much for our would-be hero’s romantic notions of dragon-slayers. The poor boy faints. (The blood loss from the wound he got in the battle probably had something to do with this, but it was still good timing.)
The entire first chapter of this book and the way it set up the characters really intrigued me. Right now I’m about 50% of the way through it and am still really enjoying it.
Have you ever read a first chapter that really drew you in and made you want to know more about the characters like that? Or, have you read Dragonsbane or any other books by Barbara Hambly?