Anju was cooking…

Anju was cooking when first they came, the knife in her hand flashing quick, down along the onions, slicing thin, turning and slicing again, cross-wise. Three onions done for the goat, and three more for the lentils, set soaking overnight, plump and ready now. Her husband, Vimal, loved her lentils. Ghee sizzled in the pan; she was lifting the wood board, ready to slide the finished onions in, when they came, one through the door, one the window. Two men, dressed in black silks, tall and slender and swift. The one at the window was closer, with a sword across his body -- but he didnt advance; he stood guard at the window while the second man came for her, a slender strangle-cord in two outstretched hands reaching for Anjus throat. There was nowhere to run in the small kitchen -- but she didnt even try.

She dove forward instead, going under his encircling arms, coming up against his body. The onion-knife in her hand stabbing up, between the ribs, straight to the heart. He slumped against her, but she was already pulling away, pulling the knife smoothly out, twisting to face the other threat -- but he was gone the way hed came, out the window and away. She was left with a bloody corpse on her kitchen floor, the floor shed just washed. A corpse, his drying blood on her knife, and no explanations. Anju filled a bowl with water, dipped the knife in it and rinsed it clean. She had never even hit a body in anger in her life -- not her children, not her little sisters as a child, growing up. She prayed every morning to Lasa, the goddess of peace, of hearth and home. She had just killed a man -- she knew, without needing to check, that he was quite dead. How did she know that? How had she known what to do?

What do you think? If this were the opening to a fantasy novel, would you want more?

(Exactly what I need is a new novel idea. They ambush you, I swear. They sneak up on you and thump you in the night.)

(Karen, the onions are for you. :-) The lentils are for David.)

14 thoughts on “Anju was cooking…”

  1. I’d have to say no for now. It needs a little cleaning up and there were some corny aspects involved that plague several sword-master-type-fantasy novels.

    However, I enjoyed the line: “She was left with a bloody corpse on her kitchen floor, the floor shed just washed.” — that last part of the sentence, “…the floor she’d just washed.” was a stylistic touch that did cause me to read on.

  2. Simon, I’d be curious what, specifically, struck you as corny. It’s an interesting line, trying to write in an epic fantasy vein, without sliding into cliches. Very new to me — I don’t have this problem with mainstream lit! Any advice would be appreciated.

  3. You may want to check out some of Lynn Flewelling’s work. She writes fairly straight ahead fantasy (generally somewhat similar to Fafard and the Grey Mouser – i.e. from the point of view of a thief) but adds to it a very intriguing exploration of gender roles and really strong characters and character development.

    So, while in many ways “typical fantasy”, in many other ways extremely atypical. (minor spoiler – major gay characters for example)

    Might be useful as an example of how one writer is playing with the genre.

  4. Shannon, I don’t think that’s the sort of thing Simon was talking about — I don’t see how it could be, given that he only had two paragraphs to work from. You’re talking about much broader things. I’m curious what he got out of those two paragraphs specifically.

  5. For my part — and this is definitely a matter of my preferences, which are probably at odds with the general marketplace — I’d probably glance at this, shudder, and put the book back on the shelf. ‘Cause I’m not big on the blood and guts, the hacking and slashing, and this gives me the strong impression that the novel’s going to be all about that stuff.

    Otherwise, The Bourne Identity comes to mind, only with a stronger emphasis on the violence… Actually, I sorta liked that book, but I read it while in Israel and starved for anything in English, even stuff I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole under normal circumstances.

  6. So says the man addicted to Buffy? 🙂

    I’m not sure how much violence there’ll be in this book, actually. Some, but it may be quite sporadic. This is all assuming I actually write the thing, which is entirely unclear, since all I have is a concept and two paragraphs at the moment.

  7. In these first couple of paragraphs it’s reminding me of The Long Kiss Goodnight, a movie I liked a lot (and which had a plot similar to The Bourne Identity). It does feel familiar rather than genuinely mysterious or new, but it’s familiar in a way that intrigues me.

    My main problem with the violence is that it doesn’t feel remotely real; it doesn’t read as though any of this actually happened. And that right there is a typical problem of cliched epic fantasy, in which often there’s lots of swords and knives and blood described, but none of it seems grounded in reality. It feels like the writers learned how to write about fights by reading epic fantasy novels instead of going back to basics and having or watching or imagining a fight and figuring out how to describe the action. The reader recognises and registers and pretty much dismisses such scenes as generic fantasy fights, instead of being drawn into a visceral experience.

    Here you start out with a quiet tight focus on the onions (!) and I’m all prepared to enjoy your usual ability to invoke the senses — but then I’m immediately thrown out of the story by the sudden onslaught of action which seems to have no weight, sound, or other physical impact. This just reads like a flurry of words on paper; I don’t believe in its reality. If you made me believe, I might consider this a pretty neat opening scene.

    Also, I think you have room to stretch out the food prep a bit, to engage our senses and get us adjusted to the protag’s slow pace and domestic sphere for a moment before the other thing intrudes, so it would hit with more contrast.

    Nice onions 🙂

  8. Undoubtedly Karen is right on all counts. Sounds right, anyway. Maybe I should get Jenn R. to write all my fight scenes. 🙂

    There’ll be more sex scenes, however it turns out. She’s a lover, not a fighter….

  9. Man, I hate when I write whole paragraphs and then accidentally exit out of them when I try to maximize the screen…

    Anyway, the Sword-master-clich in which the main character comes by skills without any prior knowledge — in your case it’s a woman and in most cases it’s a stable boy or something of that sort–is visited over and over again in sword and sorcery—the use of destiny carrying our hero over all obstacles until it is driven into our heads that they are invincible. There was a great quote in the movie Angus: “Superman wasn’t brave because he was invincible”…and it doesn’t always have to be a sword. In the case of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, it’s guns. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Dark Tower series, but I’m partway through the fifth one right now and I’m hating it, hating every time Ka–Stephen King’s version of destiny–saves the day, every time one of the main characters gets a sense of foreboding as some unseen being protects them. I could be wrong, but judging by your last few sentences this seems to be the road you’re traveling, this main character given the skills of knives with no prior training whatsoever.

    This was written so much better the first time I wrote it, but oh well.

    Anyway, I guess it should be noted that I practically drenched myself in S&S when I was younger (I was part of the Robert Jordan fandom) and now when I look at S&S novels I shudder. So if you were to submit it to a S&S market it would be geared towards S&S readers who like this kind of stuff, making my advice pretty much useless.

    You say you’re used to mainstream lit (and here my mind is wondering why branch off from mainstream at all, it’s such a wonderful genre to work with), so perhaps you could take some of the conflicts of your mainstream lit and subtly add them to S&S to create your own sub-genre of fantasy.

    Will it sell? Who knows? But it would do a hell of a better job reaching out of the clichs to grab my eye.

    But of course I’m just one of many.

    To sum up my advice: Protagonists should be able to figure out their own problems.

  10. Ah, I see where you’re having a problem now, Simon. Hmm…not sure what to do about it, though. I plan to mess with some of those cliches, including the no-prior-training one — but I can’t mess with them unless I set them up first. The question is, can I get the readers to trust me long enough to give me time to actually do what I want to do? Hmm…

  11. Granted on my liking Buffy, but… (1) The show tends to deliberately keep away from the blood and guts stuff. This is largely the reason why vampires go “poof” on the show, both making the experience seem less visceral, and keeping the landscape from being littered with vamp corpses. (In the director’s commentary to “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” Joss points out the mysterious absence of all the human corpses that ought to be around after the big fight scene. There’s no plausible explanation for this, but they didn’t want ’em dragging the scene down.) (2) Even on Buffy, there are parts where I simply don’t watch the screen. And other parts where I wish I’d looked away in time. Similarly, I tend to skim or skip similar scenes in books, and I might be able to handle something like this that way if it came along once I was already hooked… but I’m much less inclined to do so when you hit me with it in the first two paragraphs. (But again, this is just me.)

  12. I agree with the comment about the cooking–not just with cooking, but with the character herself. In order to care whether she lives or dies in the fight scene, we have to know her more intimately…I feel that you rushed quickly into this first scene in the hope that action would draw the reader in.

    Your attention to the character and the culture ingrained within her–however small a look we get–was wonderful. I think you should use this writing talent to your advantage.

  13. Not knowing what comes next, this is just a guess, but the scene leads me to believe that there is a reincarnation theme, so that past life experience enabled the character to respond so deftly when threatened with unexpected violence. I was hooked instantly and will be disappointed if I never get the chance to read the rest of it. (I am still part of Robert Jordan fandom.)

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