First 500 Words: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith

I recently signed up for the free trial of Kindle Unlimited (hashtag notsponsored) and, after finishing Lindsay Ellis’ new book and Will Wight’s new book, I realized that there wasn’t anything in particular that I wanted to read next. So, I went through the fantasy section of Kindle Unlimited. I really just wanted a female author with a female protagonist, and this was the first book title that jumped up that I thought looked promising.

Original First 500 Words:

Her eyes rested above the waterline as a moth struggled inside her mouth. She blinked to force the wings past her tongue, and a curious revulsion followed. The strangeness of it filtered through her toad brain until she settled on the opinion that it was best to avoid the wispy, yellow-winged ones in the future.

Unperturbed, she propelled herself into the murky shallows to nestle among the reeds. As her body absorbed the late-season sun sieving through the half-naked trees, she let her eyelids relax. But with the sun’s energy came new hunger. She swiped a forelimb across her mouth and considered hunting for snails along the mud bank when a second peculiarity pricked her instinct. Shapes and colors intensified in her vision, and not merely by a seasonal trick of the light. A brown leaf fluttered onto a ripple of black water. A silver fish with pink gills nibbled at an insect just beneath the surface. A dragonfly zipped across the pond, a blaze of neon green.

Her toad brain latched on to the insect’s emerald color and held it in its cortex like an amulet even as her nostrils filled with the sudden stink of fish slime and putrid muck. How had she not noticed the stagnant, vile smell of the shallows before? A muddy chill needled her leathery skin, prodding her to back out of the foul water.

The skin. It was time to shed again.

The shudder began involuntarily, as it had once a week since her toad memory began. Her body writhed, compelled by an uncontrollable urge as the outer layer of skin stretched and lifted, sloughing loose from feet, back, and tender belly. Tugging and twisting with her forelimbs, she pulled the spent casing over her head like a woman removing a sheer nightgown. Then she gathered the wad of skin in her mouth and began to swallow. Yes, she must always remember to do that, though the reason flickered just outside her grasp.

She blinked hard, maneuvering the skin deeper into the gullet, when a queer stirring in the bones halted her midswallow. Her insides churned and tumbled, and she coughed the skin back up. A lacerating sting, like claws tearing into flesh, gripped her hunched back. Panic ignited her instincts. Jump! Back to the water before Old Fox takes another toe with his teeth! But then her other mind, the one that had been wrapped and tucked away like a jewel deep within her subconscious, snapped awake. The hidden emerald of intelligence recognized the pain for the sign of hope that it was. It had her hold steady even as a fissure opened along her spine, agony nearly splitting her in two.

Splayed toes dug into the mud as four phalanges morphed into five, elongating joint by joint. A human face pressed beneath the speckled skin, forcing the toadish nostrils and mouth to tear and peel away. The metamorphosis accelerated. Shoulders, arms, and stomach grew. Brown hair, slick with a sort of

What Works:

The description of the book says that it’s about a witch who awakens from a curse to find her world is a total mess (my synopsis of the synopsis). I was down, so I sent it to my Kindle app and read the first chapter. For me, a first chapter should be action-oriented (not like a fight scene or anything, but something other than the MC sitting around, thinking — or waking up and getting ready for their day, or a few lines of a cool action scene followed immediately by the author backing up to tell us how we got here and starting with the MC thinking or getting ready for her day — uuuuuuugggggghhhh!). So, to find the MC in the middle of the curse wearing off, was great!

The next thing I look for is vivid and evocative language, so the first sentence being, “Her eyes rested above the waterline as a moth struggled inside her mouth.” Yes. I’m instantly transported to another location, inside another body, with an unexpected physical sensation. There are a few things I can be right now, but toad springs to mind, and that guess is confirmed in the same paragraph. So, something mystical is happening, but I pretty much immediately have a grip on what it is. The author doesn’t leave me to wallow in suspense or confusion.

Also, as the POV character starts to transform, the action is coherent, without losing the mood of the scene. There are a lot of ways to start off a book well, and this is one of them. Especially having read a brief description of the book, I understood that I was reading a curse wearing off of a witch, but I was intrigued by the author’s way of handling it. As a reader, it’s easy enough to find stories with interesting premises, but it can be more of a challenge to find an author who, from the the first sentence, draws me in and compels me to keep reading. More often, I have to be patient and give the author the benefit of the doubt that they’ll get to an interesting part — soon, hopefully. Figuring out how to start a story is hard, so I do try to be patient with the first couple of chapters, but the author immediately gained my confidence in her by having her first chapter written so well.

What Needs Work:

Not much. Maybe a few wording things, like the toad blinking in order to swallow. Is that a toad thing? They swallow as they blink? (After a quick Google search, yes. Yes, they do. So, I would maybe make that a bit more clear, even if it took a few more words.)

Also, I’m not sure why, if the toad has to re-swallow its shed skin every week, why does doing so only break the curse this time? Has the witch forgotten to swallow the skin every other week? That’s not clear.

Honestly, there aren’t enough flaws with the writing for me to re-write this, so this is my first First 500 where I won’t even try. I probably wouldn’t even have shared this except that I really liked it. I think it’s important to point out that there isn’t one perfect way to start a story but, again, based on the description, this seems like the perfect way to start this story, so I can already see myself enjoying the rest.

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