- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (JK Rowling)
- Lirael (Garth Nix)
- The Dark Portal (Robin Jarvis)
- Northern Lights (Philip Pullman)
- The Trolltooth Wars (Steve Jackson)
- The Philosopher's Stone
Rowling opens her book with the Dursleys - Harry's Aunt and Uncle. This sets up the ordinary world into which Harry will be thrust, and meanders along with not a lot going on - you can understand why Chris Little passed on it first time - the writing is no worse than the other four books I've looked at, and it's a good character study on exactly who the Dursleys are.
Why do this? Why risk boring the reader with something so unconnected with the rest of the book? Although we are in the ordinary world, Rowling uses the opportunity to develop Harry's story from the start - that witches and wizards are out in the open celebrating. This helps to show how much of a "prune" Vernon Dursley is, and how hateful he will be towards Harry. Remember that in this one we spend four chapters with the Dursleys, up until the end of Act 1 (Philosopher's Stone is about 200 pages, so this is roughly right) when Harry moves from the ordinary world into the wizarding world. So, the Dursleys play an important role in fashioning who Harry is by their manner and the way in which they treat him - setting them up as Harry's first antagonists of whom he must overcome.
However, we don't end the first chapter with just the Dursleys. Rowling relates strange occurrences - shooting stars instead of rain, wizard and witching folk dressed up, a cat reading a map, as most importantly whilst we are introduced to Dumbledore and McGonagall, and through their discussion setting them both up as caring and trustworthy characters, we are given the backdrop to the tale which does several things in itself - through the mannerisms and dialogue of the two professors we are given the badguy (Voldemort) and his evil deeds, the death of Harry's parents and that for some reason Harry is the boy who survived, that he is in some way special. There are question marks over whether Voldemort really is dead and there is enough tension presented by Hagrid's arrival with baby Harry (that these three are trying to protect him from danger) to sustain further interest.
Unlike Potter, Lirael opens with setting rather than character. While Rowling introduced us to the normality and hatefulness of the Durselys, Nix gives us focus in a mound - a place of darkness that (I guess - I haven't read this one) will bring much pain and suffering. From this mound Nix reveals a character shrouded in mystery. We know from the first book by his clothing that he is a Necromancer but Nix doesn't assume anything and shows him to us. Similarly to Potter we get hints of magical power, subtle uses, but we soon realise that in this case we are being introduced to the main antagonist, or if not him, at least one of the main badguys (Hedge) who will unleash the antagonist (Kerrigor). There is a momentary recap to bring us up to speed (just as in Potter), carried out through dialogue and plucked moments of narrative that feed off the dialogue for pointers, so that the reader feels shown rather than told, and we are presented with direct threat to the point of view character - Hedge - the threat of death.
Onto Chapter 1, and we meet our hero Lirael, through whose anxieties about having no parents and being physically and spiritually different from her fellow orphans we learn of her history and her place. But there is no menace against Lirael, no threat to her person. This is a small matter since the seeds have been sown in the prologue. With Lirael we are invested into her worries over not yet having her awakening (a spiritual thing), and though it's her birthday (14) another child has (being only 11) had her awakening - and as such stolen the day from Lirael. So, although no physical stress, their is mental anguish. And we still have the dramatic irony of the prologue which means that we, the reader, are expecting whatever it is Hedge is doing to come by Lirael sometime soon.
- The Dark Portal
Jarvis's book again is different. After a very brief prologue that sets the scene immediately for the world in which we will invest our time - Mice communities, fearing monstrous rats and worshipping in some fashion the Green Mouse and then the danger of the Grill which leads to the sewers and danger. Straight away we are pulled into the world of Albert (a minor character, since by the end of the chapter he will be sacrificed by Jarvis to show the danger that the mice are in - more dramatic irony). Through Albert we have someone to invest our emotions in - he's lost in the sewers - and Jarvis has chosen to give us the extra anxiety that poor Albert being lost will mean he won't be there for his children's Mousebrasses presentation (don't ask, it's not as spiritual as Lirael's awakening - from memory I think it's adulthood). Before we have time to become bored by his moping and lostlessness, we bump into Piccadilly, another lost mouse, and through their dialogue exchanges we learn more about the world and the dangers - references to the rats, chief-rat Morgan and the sinister monster Jupiter. Threats of death soon turn into real death when the two stumble upon Jupiter's alter, we see first hand the exchange between Jupiter and Morgan (learn of his diabolicalness) and hear of plans (just as we do in Lirael) of things to come. Albert of course is eaten and Piccadilly flees.
Out of the three books so far, this one is the only one with a thrilleresque cliff hanger.
- Northern Lights
An astonishing piece of writing (that slightly goes askew in book three, but nevertheless is a riveting read) that draws us immediately into this strange world and straight to our protagonist. None of the other four books do this, all opting to set the scene. Here we meet Lyra in the first word, her daemon, admittedly, not until the last third of the page, but nevertheless, Pullman draws us right behind Lyra as the reader goes with her, knowing instinctively that whatever it is she's doing... she shouldn't be.
The hall is dark. She takes care to keep out of sight - she shouldn't be here. She flicks a glass and is told off by Pantalaimon. She disregards him - we understand their relationship (he's Jiminy Cricket and she's headstrong and possibly troublesome). She stops the ringing glass - she's not stupid and does listen to Pantalaimon, as if he indeed acts as her conscience. Pantalaimon wants them to be quick but she refuses every time she gets further - Pan is also the fearful part of her conscious. This is almost like a buddy-buddy situation. These two will play off each other throughout the story, which is compelling in itself. We can tell Lyra will get herself into trouble at future turns because of her behaviour here.
When Asriel arrives Lyra isn't so afraid to stay hidden and saves her Uncle from being murdered. Her will to do what's right, despite getting into trouble for being there, draws the reader to her - she is somehow special, and not just because of her daemon (they all have them), but because we know that she is tricksy but also trust worthy. We know her nature is good and she will persist, despite the threats Asriel makes against her of breaking her arm.
- The Trolltooth Wars
The first of the five to open on a battle, with minor characters. Not much can be said for this opening beyond how well Steve Jackson always managed his battles - whereas I previously mentioned Rowling's wizard fight at the end of the Order of the Phoenix, here Steve Jackson manages his way through the battle so that it's not just a list of who is fighting who, is standing where, is dying how - admittedly this is made easier by the fact we don't know anyone and only have 3 characters names to learn - Donnag Kannu, Foulblade and Orcleaver.
Jackson moves from one immediate piece of action/fighting, draws it back to give a brief paragraph on how this came to be and then darts back to where Foulblade has usurped a Strongarm's mount. We move swiftly to a new point of view, and follow a charge away from the battle, a chase and escape - all in 4 and a half (small) pages. We also have a Mcguffin - that we don't yet know the contents of - kind of like Marcelle Wallace's briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
It won't be until chapter 4 where we meet our hero, however in the second chapter we go with bit part player Donnag Kannu to his master to relate what has occurred (giving no description of this master beyond the beady red of his eyes), and then once the game is set, Donnag is taken away for execution. Then, it's back to the Goblin camp, and a dark encounter with something we assume is from Zharradan Marr (great name), before they head off for the Black Tower.
This moves along faster than the Da Vinci Code (SIC) on steroids, and feels better written too. We realise that none of these characters are good, but it doesn't matter - little boys are in for the ride of death and battling. The scene is set by the end of chapter two and we know from the title - The Trolltooth Wars - that this encounter between the two dark forces is going to have sparked the war. Can it be stopped? What's the Mcguffin? We've met Zharradan Marr, but what of the man in the Black Tower (Balthas Dire) - who is he?