The last book that got its hooks into me struck at Chinggis Khan airport in Ulaanbaatar. A friend and I were returning from a long stay off the grid with Kazakh nomads in Mongolia’s far west. We were saddle sore from a trip across the Altai mountains in a Russian jeep, suffering from intestinal parasites, and reeking of yak dung. But we had Kindles, and something passing (in Mongolia) for Wi-Fi. “Read this,” my friend said, and stuck this opening under my nose:
“If I could tell you one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing else comes close.”
Thank God for books. They can take you from anywhere, to anywhere. Not all of them do it as precipitously as Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint—there are ways to be transported that don’t involve such a dozy of a first step—but as an author myself I swoon over such writing.
I swoon mostly with envy. Beginnings are hard. Or, at least, beginnings are hard for me. For instance: the first scene in my new book, The Scorpion Rules, depicts a small classroom full of hostages pretending to discuss history, while actually watching the slow approach of a horsemen who’s coming to kill one of them. I must have redrafted that scene a dozen times, and I’m still not sure of all of it. But I like the moment where the narrator turns her head and sees, out the window and across the sweep of post-apocalyptic Saskatchewan, a faint plume of dust.
It’s not easy to hang a world off a smudge on the horizon—but it’s much, much harder to hang a world off a single sentence. Here are five YA science fiction and fantasy books that succeeded.
Feed by M.T. Anderson
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
Sometimes—often—it’s all about voice. Of course there’s world building happening here too. This single sentence suggests a society advanced enough to make travel to the moon on par with a drive to Vegas. It shows the extremes of jaded you can get when you combine teen and tech. In fact, it encapsulates the novel in perfect miniature, which is (to use a technical author term) a hell of a thang.
But really, what I fell for in this single sentence is the voice of the narrator, Titus. By the end of the first page, his fumbling reaches beyond the shallow, beyond the world of himself and his brain-implant-facebook, the titular Feed, already had me. I was ready for him to break my heart.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
The first thing you find you when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.
Another world contained in a single sentence. Another voice to love. Oh, Todd. It’s been years since I first read this book, but I have not yet recovered enough to be coherent about it. With a backstory involving a plague of involuntary telepathy, Knife is about voices, essentially. About who gets to speak and who doesn’t; about what’s understood and what’s misunderstood; about the difference between what one thinks and what one does; about connections; about power. About speech itself.
Or to put it another way: There’s a sweet kid. He has a talking dog. Obviously things go well for them.
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.
My husband read this one out loud to me. He read the first sentence and I said: “excuse me?” and he said: “you heard me.” Mortal Engines is not the Reeve book I’m over the moon for—that would be Larklight—but I cannot think of a better exemplar for the kind of science fiction opening that says: “buckle up, kids.”
I mostly come to science fiction and fantasy looking for character-driven stuff with the occasional dragon attack, but there is no denying the pleasure of the occasional whirlwind tour of a genuinely new world. Mortal Engines promises such a ride, and delivers.
Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
Day One: My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.
I once heard Joseph Boyden say one key to keeping readers is making them a promise on the first page. He spoke of his own book, in which one character has an addiction to morphine, a two-day supply, and a three-day journey home. Three-Day Road, it’s called. I dare you not to read it.
I also dare you not to read Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days, which is a Mongolian-flavored retelling of the fairy tale Maid Maleen: a princess defies her father, who seals into a tower for seven years. One faithful servant refuses to leave her lady’s side. But seven years is a long time, and the food is running low…
Call a book a Book of A Thousand Days, and open day one with the only window being bricked up slowly? Do you promise? Because I’m yours.
Chime by Franny Billingsley
I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please.
Talk about swooning. Here is a first line that has it all. A voice—I have an unfortunate thing for well-spoken murderers—a promise, a slow-building world. If you like the first page, you’ll like the book. If you don’t, well… we probably can’t be friends.
Top image: Fanart of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines by Julia Zhuravieva.
This article was originally published in September 2015.
Erin Bow is the author of three novels: Plain Kate, Sorrow’s Knot, and the science fiction thriller The Scorpion Rules, which opens: We were studying the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand when we saw the plume of dust.