What stands out for me in this novel’s opening chapter is the strong relationship between the protagonist, Renita, and her servant, Adyna. The descriptions of them interacting feel vivid and immediate, and Adyna’s cynicism and world-weariness provide a nice contrast to Renita’s romanticism and naïveté. It’s often helpful to have a sidekick for your protagonist who has differing beliefs, since this can create conflict and help to reveal your protagonist’s character. This is what’s happening here. The story-within-a-story told by Adyna is engaging and seems like it may foreshadow events to come. And in the disagreement between Renita and Adyna about how the story should end, the personalities of both characters are revealed.
While the opening chapter has a number of strengths, I think several areas could be improved. Last month, I spoke about voice, and I’d like to bring that up again here. The novel is told from Renita’s first person point of view, in past tense. She is looking back on her existence, remembering events from 1141. My understanding is that she becomes a vampire and exists to the present day. While such a long life could lead someone to occasionally phrase something using obsolete syntax or diction, I would imagine that for the most part she has learned and adapted during her undead existence and now sounds mainly like someone living in 2016. My mother is 85, born in 1930, but she doesn’t call things swell or complain about visiting a clip-joint or refer to a bad neighborhood as skid-row or admire a hepcat. (Instead, she tells me that she downloaded the Fandango app onto her tablet and asks me how to stream Netflix.) So if Renita is in 2016 looking back to 1141, why would her voice sound like someone living in 1141? As she speaks to the reader, why would she say “We shall not tarry long in that century” rather than “We won’t spend much time in that century”? It doesn’t seem believable to me that she would speak in a 12th-century voice.
I think the novel ends in present day, so it would also be nice to begin with a contemporary voice to tie the novel together, creating unity and cohesion, and to cue readers about the vast time period that will be covered, which will excite readers.
In many similar narrative situations, as the character recounts events from her past, the voice gradually transitions into one that subtly suggests that past time period and the younger age of the character. The problem with that strategy in this case is that the present-day Renita regularly comments on the actions of the child Renita, in sentences like this: “In those days, I still had a soul, and it fancied romance.” But the present-day Renita should have the present-day voice. Having the voice jump between 21st century and 12th century would be jarring and distracting.
My suggestion would be to reduce these narrative intrusions and limit them to one or two near the beginning of her account. Then the voice can transition to one that subtly suggests the 12th century, and we won’t be thrown out of the past story by any modern intrusions.
Another issue I’d like to discuss is the opening. I enjoyed most of the chapter quite a bit, but if I were not critiquing this, I would never have gotten to page 2. The chapter doesn’t really begin until “One night in my twelfth summer . . .” Before that, we get exposition and setting. That is not a strong way to open. I think the first paragraph is intended to hook me, but I’ve read many books about the undead, so simply learning that the narrator is undead isn’t enough to make me want to keep going. I think some of this exposition and setting can be moved later and some can be cut.
Without knowing the entire story, it’s hard to know how to open. But I think what we may need in the beginning is the occasion for Renita to recount her life. To whom is she telling the story, and why now? Is this a compelling situation that would draw the reader in? The obvious (and overused) choice would be to have Renita on the verge of (undead) death, thinking back over her existence. A more interesting situation might be for Renita to be facing a difficult decision (one that would be made at the climax), and that she’s searching through her past for the answer. Maybe she has a lover she cares for but can’t trust, and she needs to decide whether to kill him or not. So she might think over her past and the evolution of her beliefs about relationships from romanticism to realism to cynicism. This would create a subtext to tie her memories together and give the protagonist a goal she is struggling to achieve through these memories, rather than having her telling her story with no real purpose and nothing at stake.
When the setting is described (perhaps after she returns to her chamber and Adyna prepares to tell the story), it would be more compelling to describe the elements that are significant to Renita, since this is from her point of view, rather than to simply describe the place as if it were an establishing shot in a movie. The description in paragraph 3 seems objective, divorced from Renita. I don’t know why any of this is important to her, and I don’t really think it is. What seems important to her is the isolation of the place, which she doesn’t like. If you focused every detail of description on showing isolation, the setting would be more unified and emotional.
I hope this is helpful. Most of the chapter read smoothly and carried me along.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey