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First Page: Black Wings – Fantasy

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Jae leaned down, urging her raven faster, the warmth of the sunlight challenged by the stiff breeze spilling mountain cold into the valley. The sense of an obligation slipped was as freeing as the wind whipping through her hair.

The valley unrolled below Jae like a quilt of flame and gold. The sky was late-autumn blue, the wind quick and easy, flinging them along with every sweep of Ghost’s wings. She was on patrol rather than at the ceremony, and she hadn’t even had to trade a shift. Everyone else wanted to be there, for the festival atmosphere, if not for the solemn vows to Oru. She’d take freedom: the freedom of the air, the freedom from familial expectation.

When Ghost caught an updraft, chill penetrated her tightly-buckled scout’s leathers. They were close to the border, the sharp mountainous ring that separated the valley’s autumn from the fierce early winter that raged down the slopes of Mount Esben outside. Drifts of snow blew over the rocky promontories into the milder weather.

Nobody lived in the woods this close to the border. The snow was a blessing rather than an annoyance, one more protection between the valley and the outside world.

Ghost cawed, and she gripped the leather harness. The raven banked to the side, and she saw what the bird’s sharper eyes had caught first: tracks in the snow. Her good mood fled. She urged her bird lower, and Ghost stooped, but on her signal, didn’t land. If a beast had come into the valley, there was no way she was risking her bird.

Whatever had made the trail walked on four feet and had claw-tipped paws that could easily span the width of her torso. The prints pressed deep into the snow, edges blurred with the speed of its movement. Tied to her wrist was a wooden medallion inscribed with a stylized feather. She pressed her thumb firmly into it. A feeling like cold water brushed against her hand despite her glove, and she shuddered, although this magic was tied by the kith to her service. The other scouts would know that she had seen something and someone would come to help. Even if she were so careless as to get herself killed, they’d keep the beast from ravening through the valley.

She signaled Ghost higher and followed the tracks back to where the creature had come over the rocks at speed. The borders of the valley were warded against this kind of intrusion but sometimes the barriers thinned or a beast was particularly driven. The kith would need to know, so they could check the wards. But first, she had to find the thing, preferably before it got close to any place people lived. She leaned lower as Ghost caught a current and circled back. Her raven sensed her urgency and beat powerful wings against the wind. They sped along the trail, Jae loosening her javelins and daggers. She checked her bowstring as well, but she’d never been that accurate a shot even on the ground; from Ghost’s moving back, archery would be a last resort. She breathed a prayer to Imene, who tracked the sun, that she would be a worthy hunter.

The snow melted as it blew downslope into the warmer air of the valley, but the thing’s prints were still visible in the mud along the edge of the treeline. Jae’s stomach fluttered. It was headed toward the lake, toward the hearth trees. Her mind tossed up images of beasts at the ceremony, ripping through unsuspecting people. People she knew. Thorn. Seph. Uncle Ventis. She took a few deep breaths and focused on the now: wind in her face, sky above her, the thing’s tracks below.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

11 Comments

  1. SAO
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 04:57:17

    I thought this was pretty good. You get to action quickly, you have nice description, world-building doesn’t seem too intrusive and we are thankfully free of backstory.

    If anything, you are a bit wordy and you often sound like you are explaining things to the reader, rather than being in Jae’s head. “The snow was a blessing rather than an annoyance” That early snow would be a blessing so that she saw the prints, yes, I’d get that.

    You wrote at length about the feather, but I thought the whole description could be cut and doing so would be more like a natural POV:

    Whatever had made the trail walked on four feet and had claw-tipped paws that could easily span the width of her torso. The prints pressed deep into the snow, edges blurred with the speed of its movement. She pressed the (name of feather) tied to her wrist to summon help, bracing herself against the wave of cold the magic sent through her arm.

    She imagines the beast ripping through unsuspecting people, rather than remembering tales or having personal experience. Again, it seems like you are telling me, rather than I’m living Jae’s experience.

    I have a few nits:

    Ravens are far smaller than humans. I would have liked to know Jae’s size. I found it easier to imagine a tiny pixie on a raven than a full-sized human on a giant raven.

    Ghost seems like an odd name for a black bird.

    I don’t know how she could know that the “creature came over the rocks at speed.” She hasn’t seen it and she hasn’t identified the tracks. Usually the deepness of the impression and the stride length are determined by the size of the creature, as well as it’s speed.

    When your char is on a raven, I’d chose another word than “ravening” to describe the beast’s presumed behavior.

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  2. Lori
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 06:28:00

    I really liked your writing. I wondered about the size of Jae and the size of Ghost: is the raven huge or the woman a smaller creature? But I know that information will come.

    Description was really well done. I don’t read a lot of fantasy because world building tends to do my head in, but I liked yours and would keep reading.

    I did think the last paragraph needed a greater emotional power: the urgency was there but the shock of fear, the feelings of the character were missing. As SAO pointed out, you described well but the sense of character’s emotions was absent.

    Outside of that one nit, really liked this. A lot.

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  3. Kate Sherwood
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 06:56:05

    For me, it was a bit TOO descriptive, but that’s quite possibly a personal quirk on my part – I like things on the spare side. But I definitely wanted to skim toward the end.

    But, for example, your first sentence had two fairly separate concepts in it – Jae riding her raven, and a description of the weather. The raven part is a lot to get my brain around (like SAO, I’m imaging a tiny person on a regular-sized raven, but it could just as well be a huge raven, or maybe Jae is a mouse or something, or…? A few hints would be nice). So I’m still working on that and then I’m reading some largely unrelated things about weather, all in the same sentence. For me, it was too much.

    I’d like to see things tightened up a bit. What’s the main idea of that first paragraph? If it’s the weather, let it be the weather (although that’s a bit dull, considering that the weather is unremarkable). If the main idea is the raven-riding, focus on that. What does it feel like to ride a raven? Is there a harness? Do they communicate telepathically, or through weight shifts, or…? I’m not saying I need a factual treatise on every detail, but the raven is the novelty of this paragraph, not the weather. So I think it should get the focus.

    Overall, I think the writing is polished and smooth. But for me, there’s too much of it, and I’m not really grabbed by Jae yet. I think this is good, but maybe not for me.

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  4. Carol McKenzie
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 07:06:56

    I like this. I’d read on, especially with a blurb to give me an idea about the story.

    It’s a nice build from beginning to end, it gives us a pretty stunning opening visual, gets us into a bit about our character without telling us her entire life history. It gives us a sense of place, of time (a celebration), a sense of where she fits in, and that’s she’s a maybe bit of a rebel. Then we have the unexpected, and potential danger. It flows nicely.

    A few bits and pieces that hung me up:

    “Drifts of snow blew over the rocky promontories into the milder weather.” I get what you want to say, but ‘milder weather’ is such a big-sounding phrase. “Drifts of snow blew over the rocky promontories into the milder air of the valley, showing white high above her.” Something like that. Makes it more intimate, more to scale with where your character is.

    I can’t envision how a raven stoops. I get you’re not on the ground, that the bird didn’t land. But stooping is what people do to look at something on the ground, or someone can have a stooping posture. I can’t quite translate that to a bird that has been flying and is now hovering?

    Ravening. Nice word choice. But a bit confusing for those not familiar with the word, and very similar to raven, something we’ve just been reading a great deal about.

    I have a few moments of implausibility. If beasts are few and far between, because of the terrain and warding, she seems awfully adept at tracking and determining a great deal about the beast. Tracks can indicate speed, but you’ve just told me it’s windy where the snow comes over the mountain; snow blurs tracks. So was it really running? She sees the tracks are deep, but she doesn’t know what made them, so I’m not sure how she can be certain it was running.

    I think if you give us a little more about the tracks: the claws digging into the mud, tearing through the soft dirt, flinging up little clods of wet soil. Big things running leave messy tracks.

    The paragraph starting with “Whatever had made…” can be divided where you start with the feather. The first two sentences are about the beast, the rest about her wooden call bracelet. Give each its own paragraph.

    There’s a few instances of telling, as if you feel you need to “tell” us something Jae knows instinctively. The part about the wooden bracelet. All that is telling us, so we understand what she’s doing. I don’t think she’d stop to think all that about something that’s so important. If someone calls 911 on their cell, they don’t stop to think about where the nearest cell tower is, who their service carrier is, who’s going to answer, the logistics of how they’re going to send help. All they want is someone to come help them.

    I, too, am confused over scale. I see a human on an over-sized bird, which leads me to believe humans live in a land with really large creatures. The beast seems large as well. Then again, the raven and beast could be regular size animals and the humans are tiny, and the valley is really the size of the ravine behind my house, the mountains no larger than the ridge my home sits on.

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  5. theo
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 09:07:17

    First, this is no longer the genre I read, fantasy. At least, not often anymore so it takes something really special for me to pick it up, but I have to agree with the other comments on the nitpicks they pointed out.

    Jae leaned down, urging her raven faster, the warmth of the sunlight challenged by the stiff breeze spilling mountain cold into the valley. The sense of an obligation slipped was as freeing as the wind whipping through her hair.

    For me, and most likely only me, this is where you started to lose me. My first thought is, she’s on a raven? She must be a tiny little thing. Like one of The Borrowers maybe? I’d read on, but I get no real idea of how big she is or how big the raven is throughout this piece. So I have this glaring unanswered question through the first page. The second half of that first sentence, again for me, is a bit too flowery. Though your writing is smooth, it’s much too wordy for me. And the second sentence, a sense of an obligation slipped…did she have an obligation she was shirking? Did she walk away from it? Does she just feel guilty about something she’s supposed to be doing? The word ‘sense’ for me does not work there. Sense is a feeling, a perception so I’m wondering why she only senses or feels that she skirted the obligation since she says in the next paragraph that she didn’t even have to change shifts. So I take it, this is her regular shift.

    I know these are really nitpicky things, but for me, they need a bit of reworking because I agree with @Carol McKenzie’s last paragraph. Without a blurb, I’m thinking an updated little people story and I don’t get the impression through the rest of this that you’re going for that. Unless you are and the beast is the neighborhood dog who got through the fence.

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  6. Lolo
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 09:16:14

    I agree with others here, especially about the description (too much in spots) but also about the engaging writing! I started skimming 2/3 of the way through this, which tells me I wanted her to talk to someone. Maybe if there’s no way she’s risking her bird (nice, BTW, which conveys the importance) the very next sentence could be something like “‘it was four feet in diameter,’ she told so-and-so when she’d gotten back to base” (or whatever). My point is jump the timeline and get her talking to the kith about the conflict so we can know more about the problem and likely solutions. Thanks for sharing your work!

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  7. Author
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 13:29:32

    Thank you all very much for the comments. It’s been very helpful. The birds are magically engineered to be of ride-able size–that gets established a few pages on, but I will move it up to the first page.

    @Carol McKenzie, here’s my working blurb:

    Jae just wants to ride her bird in peace. It’s all she’s wanted since her mother died in a magical accident. Scouts on giant ravens patrol the borders of a secret valley hidden from inimical mages for centuries, and protect it from both deadly magic-warped beasts and the occasional wanderer. Her brother and her uncle, mages both, want her to give up the sky and join them to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

    When an injured outsider stumbles through the valley’s borders, he begs Jae’s oath to keep him hidden from the rest of the valley. Calum is a mage himself, fleeing an abusive master–and he can teach her about magic without forcing her down her uncle’s path. But Calum’s master won’t let him go so easily. When he tracks his recalcitrant apprentice down, Jae must choose between using the magic Calum taught her to oppose the mage, which will make her anathema to her uncle and the valley, or seeing her people enslaved to the very sort of unscrupulous mage the valley was created to avoid.

    Thank you again for reading and commenting.

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  8. BRNZ
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 17:54:08

    I agree with the other comments about being to wordy and descriptive. Also I think updrafts of air in the sky are warm (warm air rises) so no sure why she would feel any more chilled than she was.

    Being a heavy fantasy reader I got the whole “raven was bigger than it normally would be” so I was good there, but I would have thought she would mentally have referred to it as her ‘mount’ not her ‘bird’?

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  9. SAO
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 18:45:00

    On the blurb:

    It looks like you’ve got a lot of great conflict between expectations of the community and individual desires, and a good conflict is the essence of good fiction.

    In the blurb, I don’t get why Jae has to “give up the sky” or do what others want her to do and I don’t know anything about her mother. So, it’s easy for me to know the “right” answer. Blow them off. But presumably, the community has survived because its members take responsibility to protect it, and asking Jae to take on that responsibility makes sense. Which would make protecting Callum violating that.

    This might be part of your book, but as I read it now, Jae has to resist people asking her to do something without a good reason. No conflict with many readers there. Plenty of opportunity for fake conflict., or conflict created by the contrived situation of the world.

    So, as I read the blurb (and I don’t know if it’s the focus of the blurb or the book), you’ve got a situation rife with real conflict and you’re not focusing on the real.

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  10. LG
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 18:31:40

    This sounds right up my alley, if the “fantasy animal companion” aspect continues throughout the rest of the story. There was enough here to make me wish these “first page” posts were a little longer – I’d definitely read on.

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  11. Jane Lovering
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 13:05:09

    I am presuming you are using ‘stoop’ as a bird of prey stoops, ie, to suddenly drop from the air? I’ve never heard the word applied to a non-raptor, and since people may not know what it means in this context, maybe choose a different word?

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