First Impact: Mourn Their Courage by Victoria Dixon

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember you are eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me if you share your thoughts in the comments. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

If you want your material critiqued, send it to Details here.

Big thanks to long-time reader Victoria Dixon for submitting the first page of her Chinese historical fantasy. Keep in mind all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.

My in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Opening Page
I like the gestures here, but I'm not
sure whose POV this is. Also, as an
opening, I'm hoping for some small
hint of conflict or mystery to make
it more compelling.
Once Liu Jie joined his general on the staircase, General Tong Zhang drained his tankard in a gulp and slammed the metal cup against the stair's supporting pillar. Both men stood in their heavy double-framed cuirasses, framed by the stair's red pillars. If the inn were not so crowded already, Zhang would not have needed to draw the men's attention.

Every eye? Really ;-)
Jie waited until he'd met every eye and while the room quieted in anticipation.

I'm not sure we need their full names
both here AND at the start.

I think this would be clearer if Jie
were more direct, like "Emperor
Xien has charged us to protect the
capital from rebels [etc]."
"My name is Lord Liu Jie. This is my partner, Tong Zhang.” Jie gestured to the Imperial notice by the inn's door. “For the safety of his people, Emperor Xien has warned us about rebels who have robbed from Imperial warehouses — stealing from all of us and threatening the capital. We must do more than be wary. Our Imperial Father is in danger and we must protect him." Jie paused. "My partner will see we're you are fed and I will pay those who will serve."

A murmur rose in seconds. Most men joined militias and were paid with for consistent meals they didn't receive elsewhere.

Jie raised his hand for silence and the room quieted in an instant. "Make your mark on the sign up sheet. We'll take recruits for the next three days." Jie nodded to the crowd and stepped off the landing as men rushed forward to give their names to Zhang.

I'm not sure who is marveling here.
Servants lit the paper lanterns whose construction he and his family had marveled at days before when they arrived. The fragile lights swayed as he passed.

At first, I confused the "starving
farmers" here with the men he was
enlisting. Could that be clarified?

I love this last line. It implies the
sadistic choice I'm always talking
Jie still struggled, sickened by his decision to go to war. The rebels were probably starving farmers in need of pity, not punishment, but their actions required the latter. All Jie wanted was to reach his nephew the Emperor and stop the mounting civil unrest. It was why he and his family had journeyed all the way across the country, but now he couldn't reach the Emperor without sounding the battle drums he'd fought to keep silent. To bring peace, I must attack my brothers.

Adam's Thoughts
I love Asian history and historical fantasy. I, personally, would keep reading based on genre alone. I also like the gestures and the descriptions here. I feel drawn into the scene.

One problem I had was figuring out whose point of view we're in. The opening image of them standing, framed by pillars, implies omniscient or a third character. The last sentence of the first paragraph implies Zhang's POV, but later we get deeply into Jie's thoughts.

Another way I think you can improve this is to bring up Jie's internal conflict about the civil war sooner, even in the first paragraph. I don't mean mean move the whole last paragraph to the front, but just provide some kind of hint in the first paragraph that Jie is conflicted about what he has to do (maybe something about enlisting poor farmers to fight poor farmers, for example). I think that might help engage the reader from the very start.

But that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you guys think?


Steve MC said...

The first paragraph has all the right stuff - setting, character, gesture, but it's kind of muddled, especially for an opening paragraph, where you really want to pull people in.

It's also not clear where they are in the first paragraph - since they're climbing stairs with pillars, I thought they were at the top of a palace.

Also, if they're just walking in to recruit people, why does Zhang already have a tankard? He might be staying there, but to round up as many men as he can, he'd be making the rounds of the city, so I figured that's what he was doing here.

Here's a suggestion of how you might lead into it, from Jie's pov.

Liu Jie climbed the crooked stairs of the inn to where General Tong Zhang stood in his heavy double-framed cuirass, surveying the crowd of cast-offs.

"Any better than the last place?" asked Jie.

"No, but they're hungry."

"Go ahead."

Zhang grabbed a tankard from a table and slammed it against a pillar.

I like the conflict for Jie, both internal and external, and how he sounds like a wise leader. And I agree with what Adam said, including how I love the setting and that great last line.

Matthew MacNish said...

Did I really beat Susan here? I came in late today. Amazing.

Matthew MacNish said...

First of all, I LOVE the genre. Historical Fantasy, based on ANY Asian Culture is automatically cool to me, but I did notice some issues.

I agree with everything Adam points out, but another issue I notice is echoes. General is echoed twice in the first sentence, and framed is echoed twice in the second sentence. I'm not saying it doesn't make sense the way you've written it, just that it might be stronger if you'd tried rewriting to avoid those echo words.

Otherwise, I really like this. I would definitely continue reading.

Jack said...

I don't like Asian history, but there is something about this that I would have kept reading. It drew me in, maybe it is the writing style or the characters. I don't really know, might be both.

I too got a bit lost with the POV and who the two men are, and talking to. But it still pulled me in, which is always nice to find in stories.

Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks so much, everyone and most especially Adam for the opportunity. This is so helpful!

The Dieselpunkette said...

I agree with the POV bit, I think it helps suck me into the story when the POV character comes in strongly right at the beginning.

The other thing I was wondering about is the cause of the war. You do get it in, and I'm sure there will be more later, but I find it helps draw me in if that's there right away. You could open with a line about the POV character's feelings on the war as he mounts the stairs, and then it would not only get into the action, mounting the stairs, but also get the POV character clarified right off, as well as engage the reader's emotions right away, and give them a reason to care about the actions of the characters.

I like the imagery though, and the subject matter is intriguing. I like delving into other cultures.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

*points to self* Slacker here, finally showing up.

I too am in love with that last line. I would put it first, and I would draw us deep into the POV of your agonizing main character, right out of the gate. This clanging of the tankard, it's a symbol of the beginning, a ringing call to war that he has fought against. Use it.

Liu Jie's hand picked general, Tong Zhang, drained his tankard in a gulp and slammed the metal cup against the red pillar of the staircase. The ringing drew the attention of the crowd, reminding Jie of the ancient clarion gong of his country's past, and the wars that always followed that call to action. To bring peace, I have no choice but to attack, Jie reminded himself. He only wished his enemies weren't his brothers.

Or, you know, something like that! :)

I agree that the genre is intriguing, but for me, a close POV would make it really come alive.

Jay Noel said...

LOVE Asian historica fantasy. That's one of my favorite genres for sure.

I got a little confused with POV as well. My first impression is that it's 3rd person omniscient, but it shifts in a 3rd person limited/episodic manner.

So that really needs to be made clear from the very beginning.

crazymixedupgirl said...

I enjoy Asian historical fantasy and am so pleased to see something set there! With that said, I kinda glazed over all the names and action (I was really confused the first few paragraphs) until the last paragraph. The last line was interesting, but I am still confused as to why Jie has to fight his brothers. I'm not sure whether that is something that will be explained later, or I just didn't read carefully. :)

At any rate, you are very brave for letting us critique your work. Thanks!

G.M. said...

The last sentence is very powerful and should be the start of the novel and then do a flashback, like this:

"To bring peace, I must attack my brothers," Liu Jie whispers.

A few moments ago, he joined his general, Tong Zhang, on the staircase ...

I will continue to read fater the first page. When Jie passes by the lights of the paper lantens, I will add that he smelled the candles burning .. if there is a smell. Good luck, Victoria.