Welcome my friends to the first first page
slaughter. Ahem, critique. Sorry about that. Seriously though, I plan to offer my feedback, but I am interested in yours. I’ve got four weeks to do these at this point, so we will double up on a couple of days, but today is all Firn. You may or may not agree with me, so feel free to offer your opinions. I hope this critique will be constructive. I’ll put my thoughts in square brackets. I apologize in advance for being horribly blunt. I try to be tactful, but blunt usually wins out. Thank you Firn for being willing to play.
ANOTHER SWORD by Firn C. Hyde
Smoke curls [present tense instantly makes me nervous. It’s not that you can’t carry it off, but a lot of readers hate reading it and it may turn off an editor before they read a full line] against the stars like blood in water. [I dig that image] My horse dances underneath me, snorting in fear, but I rein him in and stare. That unnatural plume of smoke has no place here in this still summer midnight. And there’s only one thing I can think of that would create it…
[as first paragraphs go, it’s okay, but it doesn’t really hook the reader, and doesn’t offer anything compelling to make us to keep reading. Here’s why. The horse is dancing (sounding joyful) and supposedly in fear. Contradiction that. Then your character just stares. The smoke is unnatural and has no place—redundant. The last line doesn’t do anything to offer real tension or suspense. The paragraph doesn’t offer character or tension or real interest.]
The reptilian shape lifts above the dark hills and writhes in the air, its silhouette cutting a sharp black hole in the star-studded sky. Batlike wings spread on either side of its long lithe body, a spike-tipped tail following the sinuous motion of the beast, deadly claws groping for balance as it gains altitude.
I’m safely hidden in the forest and downwind of the creature, but my heart still does a nasty little somersault in my chest. Dragon!
[The reptilian shape? What shape? You’ve not mentioned anything like that and it’s out of the blue. A sharp black hole? Suggest a round shape and I don’t think that’s what you’re going for. The tension is still not particularly real here. The character seems totally uninvolved and unimpacted by the dragon. The fear isn’t believable. Plus, being in the forest suggests that he shouldn’t be able to see so far.]
The dragon swoops again and dives behind the hill, and I know that I’m probably the only Arishean alive who knows about it. It was flying low enough that the tall crest of the ridge on my right will have hidden it from the guards at Ardara, our capital. I look up at the ridge that hides the castle I’ve called home for the past eight years, fear prickling in my blood.
[don’t buy the fear. And why the only one alive? There’s no real action, no real threat, nothing to really draw a reader into the story]
Then the hills explode. Big as houses, spewing smoke, their ponderous claws tearing at the sky, a battalion of monstrous beasts climbs into the air. These make the first dragon look like a lizard; it must have been a scout. These are for battle, giant spikes protruding from their backs, the tiny figures of their riders clinging on between the spikes.
[cut that second paragraph. There ought to be visceral reaction. I don’t really have a sense of dragon size or how many or the real threat. Part of it is that I don’t care anything about anything in this world. I’m okay with dragons eating everybody or whatever their threat is. You need to make your reader care about something and feel the threat.]
Tariq tugs at the reins and snorts, shifting uneasily. Like me, he’s never seen a dragon before, but his instincts are telling him that it’s not a friendly thing. Unfortunately, it’s more than just instinct that makes me nervous. Those things shouldn’t be anywhere near here. Where there’s a dragon there’s a Bahaduryan controlling it, and they’re even worse than their scaly mounts.
[super mild reaction. Feels like he just saw a few mosquitoes come out of the woodwork. Underwhelming. Plus whether or not you’ve seen scary predator, instincts will tell you to flip out, I should think. In fact the dragons would be something that the horse would probably try to go raving mad about, even though he is a trained war horse. The last sentence doesn’t make sense to me in this context. Why introduce that idea at all?]
“Bet I know why it’s here, though,” I whisper to Tariq. His neat, black-edged ear flicks back to catch my voice. “We must be, what, two leagues from Ardara. Ariella’s Day. The Royal Family will all be in the hippodrome watching the midnight joust.” I snort. “I knew it was a stupid idea, but just because it’s been done every year for five hundred years means they’ve got to go on doing it.” I turn the horse’s head east, towards Ardara, and nudge him into a trot.
[it’s a bit info dumpy (or a lot) and he just sort of walks off in the direction of apparent danger, but no sane idea of why he might do that. Plus no urgency. It’s more like he said, well, gotta get to the grocery store now.]
I can’t really say that I have a plan. I force myself to stay calm, to breathe, to resort to cold calculation instead of emotions and the panic that comes with them. Those are Bahaduryan without a doubt – Bahadurya has been at war with Arishea for hundreds of years. They must be members of the Bahaduryan warrior elite, the feared Ghalib. It makes sense for them to make a beeline for the capital. Their target is almost certainly the King, without whom Arishea will fall apart.
[info dump and I don’t care. I don’t know these people and right now, I’m rooting for the dragons. I don’t know why your character says he cares. I don’t buy the fear. There’s nothing to back it up but what he says. No showing. Who is this guy? Why should your reader care about him?]
And I’m the only thing standing between him and the Bahaduryan battalion. I’m the only one who can warn him before it’s too late.
[yawn. Okay, that wasn’t nice. But I think it’s accurate. Your reader wants to feel worried and be carried along on a tide of action and emotion and impending horror. There’s nothing here of that.]
Dragons breathe fire and have impenetrable scales; their only vulnerabilities are their eyes, bellies and wings, and even if you get past the dragon you have its rider – a Vulture – to deal with. They’re master swordsmen and dead accurate (literally) with a crossbow. Facing one of those, I’m in trouble. Facing a battalion, I’m toast.
I’m also extremely stupid, so I urge Tariq into a canter. War dragons are big and slow and Tariq is the fastest horse in Arishea, so my only chance is to outrun them to Ardara and raise the alarm and die afterwards. Of course, I’ll probably die long before I get there, but I guess I’ll just have to take my chances. My options are limited.
[I don’t really believe the voice here, but I do like it. It’s the first of the personality showing through. You need to bring this to the forefront sooner. Plus all this thinking slows your pacing. You need to drop less info in throughout here in terms of thinkiness, and find ways to let it drop in in smaller pieces. Like what if you started this with him running into a bad guy up front? Killing him? Maybe killing the scout? And then the rest arrive? Start with some action to really grab your reader]
I hear the whoosh as the dragons pull out of their slow circling and glance over my shoulder to see them file into ranks and head purposefully for Ardara, still below the crest of the ridge. Even if the night was bright enough for the Arishean guards to see them, they’re still behind the ridge’s protection. Thinking time is over. Acting time is now.
[why has he been waiting at all? Why were they circling? I had no idea they were really. I thought they’d already headed off.]
“Go!” I gasp, clapping both heels into Tariq’s sides. He surges into a gallop, breaking cover and skimming up the steep, silver slope of the ridge ahead of the dragons, snorting with each stride as he climbs. His hooves don’t hammer, they fly, touching the ground simply for the fun of it. He flattens out, black mane lashing against my gloved wrists, and accelerates like a diving falcon.
[action at last! And well described. You should have put that right up front. A stronger, visceral reaction. Except for the ‘simply for the fun of it.’ Doesn’t fit here at all. Not in this context. Also, not sure I buy that he accelerates like a diving falcon. It makes him sound like a super horse, and so far you’ve not made seem beyond a war horse, even if he is a good one.]
The spring wind rips back the hood of my cloak and blows through my hair, making my head feel cold. I wish I’d thought to bring a helmet. But I’m just a first-year squire riding back to knight school after the holidays – probably the only one brave/stupid enough to do so in the dark at new moon – so all I have is a hauberk.
[the spring wind does that? Or is is the wind caused by the speed of the run? He’s thinking helmet? He’s a squire? To this point he’s sounded sort of seasoned and knowledgeable. I totally don’t buy this. It totally doesn’t fit for me]
So the upshot for me is this: not enough character, not enough action, not enough tension. Too much info-dumping, and too much contradiction.
I think you need to put your character right into action. Maybe having him run from a dragon and trying to get away. Maybe killing one, though he’s never seen one. He’s entirely too calm for a mere squire. Until the last bit, I thought he was a seasoned/jaded warrior. Maybe a merc who didn’t feel too obligated to warn anybody. I thought he could easily ride off without doing anything. No skin off his nose.
Now that I’ve said all that, I think you’re getting close. You’ve got good description and clearly a good sense of adventure to come. So, questions for me? Anybody else have thoughts? Anybody think I’m