“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I see you there, with that novel in your hand. Turning to page 1 (or, given the vagaries of publishers, maybe page 3), are you? Starting with the prologue, or the preface, or good old Chapter 1? Well, I’m here to tell you to turn that page back in the other direction and take a look at what you might find lurking in the front matter of the book. No, I’m not talking about the publication information (though I’m sure the Library of Congress would love to feel appreciated) and not even the acknowledgements and the dedication (though while you’re here, why not find out who the author loves?). I’m talking about the epigraph. The little (often italicized) sayings or quotations nestled in the very beginning, right before the action starts: right ahead of that opening paragraph on page 1 you were about to read.
Read the epigraph. Yes, exactly like the one I put up at the top of this article, why do you ask?
Now, not every book—not even every fantasy novel—is going to have an epigraph. For example, I just checked the romance novel I was reading this afternoon and it doesn’t have one. But when a novel does have an epigraph—when the author has decided to start their book with a little bit of something else—it’s well worth your time to read it. In fact, reading those little italicized words can tell you an awful lot about the book you’re about to experience.