Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: Jo Walton's Tooth And Claw

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter is a mashup that totally shouldn’t work – Jane Austen and dragons.
Yes, Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw is a book where genteel, cannibalistic dragons sit in English countrysides and worry about being married properly.  And that is one hell of a thing to sell.  It’s a concept so absurd that as an author, you’d have to work overtime to get past the initial silliness of the material – because Jane Austen is actually quite serious stuff.
So the question is, how does Jo Walton signal that these are both dragons and English-style gentlemen?
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)
Opening Sentence: “Bon Agorin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as though he would fly to his new life in his old body.”
I talked in my analysis of Old Man’s War about the need to signal the presence of a non-standard protagonist right away – if you’ve got someone who’s not white, relatively young, and male, you need to jar the reader out of that default analysis before they get too firmly set in their visualization.  (Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily right that people default to zomgcisheterowhitedude, but it is a tendency you need to fight.)
And here, Jo is smart enough to recognize that if you’re gonna write about dragons, you’ve gotta start with a bold signal that these people aren’t human.  So: beating wings.  But also a deathbed, which hints at a more civilized society – a deathbed implies a long slow death, usually of the elderly, in a comfortable place – so yes.  Goal achieved.  Both the Austeny components and the dragonish components signaled up front before we’ve exited the first quarter of the first paragraph.  (The rest of that paragraph hammers on this double-duty as well – discussing “doctors” leaving the “draughty undercave” where he’s sitting on his “scant gold.”)
When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist? Usually, it’s in or before the third paragraph, and here it arguably is in paragraph #3: Bon’s son Penn approaches his father on his deathbed to ask what’s wrong.  (The next paragraph fleshes this motivation out, where he wonders what’s troubling his father so.)
What Happens In The First Chapter? Bon dies, but not before settling his affairs (dispensing his gold and his body, which his family will eat and grow strong from), and making a shocking confession – that he ate his brother and sister alone to grow large enough to avoid being eaten by his adopted parents.  His son, a priest, grants him absolution regardless, but immediately regrets the decision.
There’s some wonderful justified worldbuilding here – and several first-chapter analyses later, one of the keys of “good worldbuilding” seems to be “justified.”  In this case, the son attempts to reassure his father by saying this:
“Beginning with more than a gentle name, you have grown to be seventy feet long, with wings and flame, a splendid accomplishment and the respect of all the district.  Five of your children survive to this day. I am in the Church, therefore safe…. Berend is well married and has children, her husband is a powerful and industrious Lord.  Avan is making his way in Irieth.  His is perhaps the most perilous course, but he has strong friends thus far, as you did before him.”
The dialogue rings a little of “As you know, Bob” – but in this case, the son does have some urge to go over his family, to let his father slip into death without guilt.  But note what gets accomplished there – we’re told in that first line of dialogue that dragons measure success in foot-growth, that wings and flame are something to be aspired to in this world.  And then, in the next sentences, it’s made blatantly clear that being killed is a distinct possibility, one that other dragons have to maneuver to be protected against.  All before we’re to the end of paragraph #5.
This is a short chapter, less than five pages, but it is also highly political.  Bon is concerned with dispensing gold, splitting up his body; Penn considers himself lucky to have gotten into the Church, and is worried about losing his position as parson.  Should it come out that he has given absolution for such a great sin, he could lose his position.
The thing is, the danger presented in the plot is slight.  The only person who knows about Bon Agornin’s terrible crime is his son Penn, and no one else.  Penn is shaken by the revelation, but it’s doubtful this will affect the plot as of the end of this first chapter.  What draws us in is the depth and complexity of this world – we’re not so much fascinated by Penn, who is at this point a rather unprepossessing minister, but rather the idea of a world full of dragons eating dragons, and how does a thinking being maneuver in such a society?
We’re drawn in by the promise of a bigger world.  Character is secondary; we want to know the society.  And given that the only rule in first chapters is that they have to make you want to read the second, that’s different, but it’s perfect.
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