Book Review #3: Uncrowned by Will Wight

Uncrowned is the 7th book in the Cradle series. I read the first few for free, paid for the next couple, and then eagerly awaited this one but had quit my job and was broke by the time this came out. So, once I finished Lindsay Ellis’ new book, I knew exactly what I wanted to read with my Kindle Unlimited free trial.

SPOILERS!!!

The Cradle series follows Lindon, who is born without a magical talent, but who is interfered with by a — sci-fi goddess? — after which, he is able to rank up magically far beyond anything his village could even imagine. It’s an interesting mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and like, manga, except there are no pictures. It’s very martial art-ish and reads like what I assume Pokemon is like (never seen it). Or Magic the Gathering, if it was a book not based on a card game?

What I mean is, it’s pretty formulaic. Lindon levels up, while defying death at pretty much every turn. Most of him avoiding death is done through one-on-one combat wherein he is outmatched, by a lot. Uncrowned, in particular is based around a tournament that he and his friends fight in.

Having read the previous books in the series, but having finished with the 6th book, like, a year ago, it was nice to see Lindon’s pet turtle pay a visit to Lindon’s sister in the Prologue, but since we don’t see them for the rest of the book, I wondered why that scene was in there at all. It would have been nice to break up some of the monotony of the tournament, after a while.

The strength of these books comes from the characters. Every character, even ones we don’t know for very long, are multi-dimensional — often, it’s only two dimensions but that’s enough to create conflict and tension within themselves as well as within their worlds. Also, the dynamics between certain characters are fun to watch. I like to watch Eithan interact with pretty much anyone, and Yerin is such a badass. I also like that the romance between Lindon and Yerin is subtle, with Lindon respecting that Yerin’s ambition is, at the very least, equal to his own.

In this book, we finally get to see Lindon and Yerin fight each other, outside of sparring. In the tournament, anyone who dies is immediately resurrected by the judge, so neither has to hold back. I really love the moment when Dross convinces Lindon to really fight.

“She wants you to see her full power, and she wants you to trust her to handle yours.”

Uncrowned by Will Wight

That’s deep.

The series is framed by a larger, universal battle between chaos and order. Essentially, what Linden, and Yerin, and Eithan are training for is a sci-fi-ish type of godhood. Up until now, only Linden is really aware of this. But at the end of Uncrowned, the happenings on the planet Cradle catch up with the universal battle, and everyone left in the tournament is invited to become a god(ish).

Another strength of the series is the author’s way of sketching interesting, colorful, and diverse settings. We never get to stay in any particular location for longer than a portion of the book, and we don’t really go back to former settings, aside from Linden’s home town, but each setting is given its own sense of dimension and local culture. We get to meet a lot of characters in these settings who travel with us a ways, even as antagonists. The background settings add dimension to these characters that they bring with them. Generally speaking, because I have issues with visualization, I prefer stories that stick to one main character and few settings but Wight has a way of personalizing even characters whose heads we don’t spend much time with that I never feel lost or frustrated.

That said, the frame from the sci-fi god(ish) perspectives are a bit difficult to engage with because they’re told so clinically. The style effectively separates the warmer, flesh-and-blood adventures on Cradle from the cold, mental and technological battles in space but the characters are harder to like and I think I’d appreciate those parts better upon rereading them. Also, now that Linden is being invited into the universal battle, along with his friends, I think the space battles will become more engaging.

In this particular book, although the tournament started out interesting with more psychological challenges (my favorite, too brief, scene in this book is Eithan giving one of the test AIs a hard time), the battles started to get tedious after a while. Just when they did, the author changed things up, so that’s a minor irritation. Also, again, I loved the fight between Linden and Yerin.

I would say, though, that a lot of the tedium would have been broken up if we could have gone back to Linden’s village and his sister, as the Prologue seemed to imply would happen. I will also put it out there the hope that his sister gets to join him, at some point. I think she was the highest rank in Linden’s village in the first book, and she is a root-for-able character. I’m hoping that the fact that she was mentioned in this book means that she’ll be in the later ones more.

Book Review #2: The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith

I did First 500 blog posts for both Axiom’s End and The Vine Witch, so I won’t repeat too much of what I said about how The Vine Witch starts.

SPOILERS!!!

The Vine Witch is about a witch whose specialty in magic is wine. Before she was cursed and transformed into a toad, she helped her mentor run a vineyard. After she breaks the curse, she finds that the vineyard hasn’t made good wine since she’s been gone, and that it has been sold off to the MC’s new love interest. The mentor has been allowed to stay on as the cook. The MC believes that her ex-fiance is behind her curse and is determined to kill him. She also recognizes that the vineyard has been cursed (like, a LOT) and sets about fixing the vineyard.

As mentioned in my First 500, I genuinely enjoyed the way that The Vine Witch started. And I was well into the second chapter, before I started to get romance-novel vibes. Even though we meet the love-interest earlier in the story, we don’t really notice him (which I like) but here, he’s described thusly:

He snuck a glance at her while he polished the lenses, and she couldn’t help but notice the fine features of his face — the proud brow that tightened in thought, the geometric planes of the cheeks, and jawline taut from firm self-confidence.Excerpt of “The Vine Witch” by Luanne G. Smith

As John Mulaney would say, “Hmmm…gross!” And, sure enough, these two magically end up together without any romantic rivals, aside from the ex-fiance that the MC wants to murder. Now, just to clarify, there’s nothing wrong with romance novels, but I didn’t think that that was what I was downloading. Romance novels are great wish-fulfillment vehicles, and some are written better than others, but generally, the characters tend to be one-dimensional, the attraction is generally superficially-based, and the plot is predictable.

Somewhere in Chapter 3, I could predict the rest of the novel: the MC would work with the love interest to bring life back to the vineyard and fall in love. Love would heal the MC’s heart so that she would decide against murder. I will admit that aside from the dynamic between the prospective lovers, the overall book does not follow the predictable plot devices of a paranormal romance novel.

To be honest, I think it would have been more satisfying for focus to be on unravelling the malignant spells set on the vineyard, rather than the direction the rest of the book went in, but I will say that the plot was more interesting than what I imagined — in some good ways, in some that I didn’t like as much. Okay, where to start. First, the MC does get started on unravelling the malignant spells put on the vineyard, and she has to work around the love-interest because he’s too practical to believe in magic.

Before we can get to far with that, though, the MC’s ex-fiance shows up for a visit and offers to buy the vineyard. The MC hides upstairs so that she can avoid him, but runs into him later, in town. She is overheard threatening to ruin him for cursing her, and then he turns up dead, like, the next day. In the meantime, small animals have been found dead and drained of blood ever since the MC has been gone, so she’s arrested for her ex-fiance’s murder and accused of killing the small animals, which is a part of blood-magic and illegal.

The MC is arrested and put into witch-prison with two interesting cellmates. The love-interest used to be a laywer, so he’s determined to defend her even though he’s a) never been a part of a murder trial and b) didn’t believe in magic until, like, five minutes ago. The MC inadvertently helps one of her cellmates escape, who then helps the MC escape with her other cellmate. The cellmate and the MC go hide at the circus, where the cellmate knows some people.

We run into a psychic and are pretty sure that he put the curse on the MC but don’t know why. The MC doesn’t figure this out, but she steals a crystal from him so that she can place protection on the love-interest. For some reason, nobody has figured out that that ex-fiance’s wife is the one who killed him and is responsible for the dead animals, so the love-interest goes to visit her, and she ties him up and tries to feed him to a demon.

The MC shows up, just in time, and she and the cellmate save the love-interest and kill the demon. The love-interest and the cellmate go out to greet the police while the MC gets the bad witch to confess. The police magically overhear this (literally) and arrest the bad witch. She dies because the magical handcuffs cut off her magic and she’s centuries old. And everyone who is alive is probably going to live happily ever after. Oh, except that the MC’s mentor is (accidentally) responsible for the MC being turned into a toad and the mentor, angry at the carnival psychic poisons him and then, I think, herself. She dies, anyway, maybe from guilt. But not before telling the MC that her parents were snake oil salespeople, except that the snake oil was, like, poison and charms.

Okay, so, what I liked. I LOVE the cellmates, although I think that everyone escaped from prison too easily. I also really dug the circus setting and getting to know one of the cellmates better. I imagine that there either are or will be more books set in this world and can see each of the cellmates getting her own story, and possibly the barkeeper and the bakery owner (who is also a witch). I think the world-building overall was fantastic. I wanted to spend more time there and get to know the people better, and that’s all because of how specific everything in the world was. The circus is a run-away destination for people with magic but few options. The bar is also for magical people, and is on the rough side of town. The baker creates pastries that identify with the people buying them, particularly in regard to their romantic destinies.

I also loved that the MC had her own specific skills that are demonstrated to the reader. I really liked the idea of unravelling the spells put on the vineyards, and I also liked the idea of vine witches being a real thing. And beer witches, too. Hilarious. I half-suspect that this is based on a real thing, and I don’t care either way because I don’t believe in witches, but I’d keep reading about these ones.

What I didn’t like. I didn’t like the mentor and the psychic both dying rather than dealing with the consequences of their actions. Also, I would have wanted the mentor around for another book, even though her dying coincidentally meant that the vineyard was free and clear for the lovebirds. I didn’t mind the surprise of the ex-fiance dying, but I didn’t like that the murderer was SO obvious but the MC never picked up on it, even though she was, generally, pretty smart.

Overall, I liked the aspects of the book that had been focused on more because we’ll probably see them in future books, like some of the characters and settings. I don’t like that the characters we’ll never see again were one-dimensional, and I don’t like all the twists that didn’t need to be there. Similarly to Axiom’s End, it felt like the time period was a convenient excuse to allow the MC a certain level of naivety that the reader doesn’t share, which allowed the author to heavily rely on an overused trope. I also found it really frustrating that the vine witch was really knowledgeable about magic but didn’t know that a jinnie could be set free by giving her fire. I would have liked it better if she’d intentionally helped the jinnie escape.

The witch who kills small animals and people in order to stay young forever is not new, and every one of the scenes where the love-interest is being tortured and then rescued could have been deleted, and the word count put to use in other, more interesting areas. For instance, since we end up at the circus with the man who cursed the MC, why not make him fully responsible for her curse, as revenge for some nasty thing the MC’s parents did to him? Then, he’d have his own motivation to curse her rather than sheer laziness and greed, which made him as one-dimensional as the actual villain.

I will say that the villain’s back story was pretty interesting, but it was all exposition, and therefore, rendered boring. I would much rather have seen that character in her own novel in the same world. Maybe she would have had to fight her own demons as well as the one that she made a deal with. That would have been cool.

Something I’m not sure how I feel about is the involvement of the Catholic church in the story. On the one hand, Christianity in general is responsible for a lot of atrocities and has a historically negative view of witchcraft. It also served as a device that separated the MC into the “good” side of witchcraft with the villain as firmly “bad”, which just takes away dimensionality. On the other hand, I did like the priest and I know that a lot of converts were lured away from paganism with the promise that Christianity was basically paganism + Jesus, so maybe that’s the direction the author intends to go in.

Overall, the characters were interesting, but superficially so. I would love to spend more time in this world and see how it develops. I would like to see the author be less clever, plot-wise, because, honestly, every story has been told. You can only surprise us so far with what happens, but the how and the who are unlimited, so I’d like to see more focus on those aspects of storytelling.

Knowing that this was the author’s first novel and seeing how much creativity and detail she displayed in her world-building, I would definitely read another book from her. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this/these review(s), I’ll probably go look her up.

Book Review #1: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

I rarely review things because I have a tendency to change my mind over time, and I hate disagreeing with myself. But I’ve read three books this week, and they’re still floating around in my head, so I thought I’d give brief thoughts on each book. (This was going to be short reviews of each book, but they all ended up too long, so I’m splitting them up.)

SPOILERS!!!

First, yes, I do have copious amounts of free time, but no, I did not spend them reading. I actually listened to Axiom’s End on Audible and then used the text-to-speech function on my Kindle app to listen to the other two. To be honest, I prefer reading text-to-eyeballs, but I won’t refer to that as “real” reading because even though I personally prefer the tactile function of reading, the journey is comparatively the same whether the book is read or listened to. I won’t devalue the experience of people who can’t read for whatever reason due to a sensory snobbery that is based on the fact that my ability to process spoken words isn’t as good as my ability to process written words. Also, if you’re going to judge me by anything in this paragraph, how about the fact that I supported the same corporation that treats its employees unethically and whose standard of quality has declined with its popularity, like most monopolies do — twice?

Second, I’ve always had a thing about listening to books but I was working on a crafting project with a strict deadline, so I signed up for free trials of Audible and Kindle Unlimited so that I could listen while my hands were busy. (I actually purchased Axiom’s End, but couldn’t stop to read it, so I signed up for Audible so that I could listen to it.) Anyway, due to the fact that I don’t like listening to books, I won’t be reviewing the voice actors in Axiom’s End. I preferred the text-to-speech function in the Kindle app because it allowed me to choose my own emphasis. There’s a lot of internal arguing when I don’t like how a voice actor chose to interpret a section of writing, and the text-to-speech function works really well, as long as the book is edited properly with lots of good punctuation. Although, that said, I will say that Ollie of Philosophy Tube did a great job and that he has a remarkably soothing American accent, even when he’s playing a character who is kind of a turd of a human being.

Anyway, disclaimers out of the way, I’ll start with the first book I read this week, which was Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End. I have been waiting for this book to come out ever since I found out that Lindsay had a book coming out, which was about 9 months ago, when I watched her X0X0 speech. I’ve been watching her video essays for a couple of years and I always find her videos to be entertaining, insightful, and the most important thing in a good author — empathetic.

My first impression of Axiom’s End wasn’t good. I was genuinely disappointed, which was — disappointing. It occurred to me that even though I’ve been training myself to like audio books more by listening to Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer books that I’ve already bought/read multiple times, that maybe I was missing something due the sensory experience of listening.

So, I cracked open my Kindle version one night — okay, who are we kidding, one morning, before bed. I started from the first chapter and found that, yep, the visual process of reading allowed for a depth and comprehension that listening to the book wasn’t giving me. I was still on a crafting deadline so I went back to listening to the book with more trust in the author, and found myself becoming more engaged. I’ll probably read this book again in a few months and like it a lot better than I remembered.

But, that said, here is a short synopsis: The book follows Cora, whose father is a famous conspiracy theorist. Their relationship is estranged because Cora thinks her dad is crazy, and because he basically abandoned her family when she was younger. Cora lives with her mother, brother and sister (both younger) and their two dogs. Cora dropped out of college about six months before the story starts, doesn’t believe in aliens, and doesn’t particularly like her job as a temp.

In the first chapter, we find that Cora and her family are being followed (probably by the CIA), a meteor flies past the building Cora works in and shatters the windows, and Cora is fired for leaving work without checking out with anyone. Later that night, Cora sees an alien. So, action-wise, we get into it pretty quickly. I will say that, from Lindsay Ellis, I was expecting more of a wise-cracking, uber-jaded main character, but Cora was earnestly confused, scared, and tongue-tied throughout the book.

I liked the choice, as sincerity seems to be making a comeback and it also made Cora’s journey feel more authentic, as opposed to wish-fulfillment. Also, Ellis mentioned that Ender’s Game was a huge influence on this book, and Ender was a very earnest character (even though, as Ellis acknowledges, Orson Scott Card’s politics are toxic and BAD). I could see the influence in the way that Cora was either emotionally or physically isolated from the secondary characters in the book. This means that the reader was as forced to emotionally connect to the robotic alien, Ampersand, as much as the main character was (Almost, haha).

I would say that the secondary characters were pretty cardboard. I think that the best way to handle secondary and tertiary characters that the reader only gets glimpses of is the Georgette Heyer method. Instead of trying to make each character fully dimensional, she gives the character a very strong opinion on a specific thing or a very specific characteristic. This might sound like the recipe for a one-dimensional caricature, which is would be, if the story was based around this character. A main character should have strengths and flaws, and moments of humor mixed with moments of pathos. A tertiary character only needs to be interesting for a moment, so why not catch them in a moment in which they are interesting?

Also, specificity doesn’t need to be silly. Some of my favorite moments in Georgette Heyer novels is when the omniscient narrator jumps into the head of a servant observing his employer’s guests at dinner, or reacting to the first appearance of the heroine in their employer’s house. The fact that Georgette Heyer specializes in Regency romance novels means that pretty much any Regency convention allows the reader a glimpse into an entire world, so what’s conventional to the servant is automatically alien and therefore interesting to the modern reader.

This is not to say that Ellis would have done better with an omniscient POV, just that you can make a character endearing, ridiculous, or detestable with just a few words. One of my favorite interactions in a Georgette Heyer novel is in Sylvester, between the hero of the story and his widowed sister-in-law’s new fiance. The fiance is a vain idiot, but Sylvester is not, and we find him amusing himself during a conversation he’d rather not be having with a person he has no respect for, and he does it without being noticeably rude. So, just a short excerpt, and honestly, this is probably my favorite scene in one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, so if you don’t like it, you probably wouldn’t like her books.

In the scene, Sylvester is referred to as “Duke”, and the sister-in-laws’s new fiance is “Sir Nugent”.

“She did,” asseverated Sir Nugent gravely. “`My sweet life,’ I said – you’ve no objection to that, Duke?”

“Not the least in the world.”

“You haven’t?” exclaimed Sir Nugent, slewing his body round to stare at Sylvester, an exertion which the stiff points of his collar and the height of that Oriental Tie made necessary.

“Why should I?”

“You’ve put your finger on the nub, Duke!” said Sir Nugent. “Why should you? I can’t tell, and I believe I’ve cut my wisdoms. `My love,’ I said (if you’ve no objection) `you’ve got a maggot in your Idea-pot.'”

“And what had she to say to that?” enquired Sylvester, conscious of a wish that Phoebe had not cantered ahead.

“She denied it,” said Sir Nugent. “Said you were bent on throwing a rub in our way.”

“Oh?”

“Just what I said myself! `Oh!’ I said.”

“Not `my love’?”

“Not then. Because I was surprised. You might say I was betwattled.”

“Like a duck in a thunderstorm.”

“No,” said Sir Nugent, giving this his consideration. “I fancy, Duke, that if you were to ask all round the ton if Nugent Fotherby had ever looked like any species of fowl in such a situation the answer would be, in a word, No!”

Excerpt from “Sylvester”, by Georgette Heyer

So, if you’re not familiar with Regency-ese, Sir Nugent is someone who likes to think of himself as very fashionable and he wears his shirt collar so high that he can’t turn his neck. He has to turn at the waist in order to look over at Sylvester. The modern-day equivalent might be Lady Gaga choosing to make full shoulder spikes a daily choice rather than saved for special occasions. In the scene, Sir Nugent is surprised to find that Sylvester has no interest in breaking up his engagement to Sylvester’s sister-in-law. Also, Phoebe is the heroine of the story, and Sylvester is starting to like her and is sad that she has ridden on ahead (they’re on horses).

So, in this small portion of this scene, we get a sketch of Sir Nugent’s character, Sylvester’s character, and his vague admission that he’s interested in Phoebe — which, if you read the first chapter, is VERY interesting. Also, similarly to Darcy and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, both Sylvester and Sir Nugent are presented as arrogant, but one is more forgivable. On a side note, I would say that between Sir Nugent and Wickham, Sir Nugent is more likable, but that’s only because he’s amusing. Wickham tries to rape an underage girl and Sir Nugent succeeds in kidnapping a five-year-old, so neither is a great guy.

Anyway, to apply this to Axiom’s End, my emotional investment in Cora’s family is really low because Cora’s mom is a workaholic who thinks about work a lot, her brother is a teenage know-it-all who sneaks into the computer room to download porn in the middle of the night, and Cora’s sister is a sweet six-year-old. Her temper tantrum when she finds out that aliens are real strikes me as one-note and contrived. However, Cora’s sister worships Avril Lavigne and thinks that Ani DiFranco is boring. This was Ellis introducing a secondary character without a lot of screen time in a memorable way. I even remember that her family had to talk her out of wearing ties to school (like Avril) because that is the one unique detail we’re given about her. We assume the ordinary stuff about her but this simple detail hints at depth.

I will say, too, that Cora’s brother is introduced as kind of an ass but as soon as there’s an alien in the house, he acts more his actual age than the full adult every thirteen-year-old thinks they are. He’s happy enough to let his older sister take charge, but is a willing second-in-command. He’s also protective of his younger sister.

Unfortunately, the mother is the most one-dimensional, shrill, selfish, and useless person to have around, particularly in a crisis. This makes me sad because even though my mom was a drunk mess, she was amazing in a crisis and would have killed to protect her children. If Cora’s mother had taken control in that scene, I would have liked her better and she would have come off as more dimensional.

The scene could still have ended with Cora running out to try to find the dog because it wouldn’t have made sense for the mother to do that. So, Cora still would have found the alien and our adventure still would have started here. Overall, I think that the word count spent with Cora’s family should have been utilized more effectively or just cut entirely. If the book started at the beginning of Chapter 9, I would have had a similar level of emotional investment in rescuing her family from the CIA.

Throughout the book, I wished that Luciana was around to answer some questions, but any time she’s in a scene, she’s so tight-lipped and defensive that she might as well not be there. Again, not handled in an unrealistic way, but not particularly engaging either. Also, Cora and Luciana get into a verbal fight near the end of the book and then for a while we’re not sure if Luciana is dead or alive and Cora feels really bad about the fight but, I, as a reader, was not particularly invested. To clarify, I’m never happy to hear that someone died, but I wasn’t sad that Luciana’s essence was no longer a part of our world, because I never really got a sense of her essence. Also, I never believe a character is dead until I see the body, and even then, I’m only 20% sure they won’t come back. I’ve watched too many soap operas and sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, and wrestling shows.

I also feel like the scene where Cora visits Luciana and her crew — all of whom know about the aliens — is wasted. Cora initially describes her close encounter to Luciana in the woods with no one else around. Luciana doesn’t believe her, but she introduces Cora to the group. Then she takes Cora up to find a new outfit and lets her shower. Then she’s taken down to tell the group what happened. This is the direct passage of Cora’s interaction with the group.

Now having had the time to calm down and run through it in her mind, she was better able to explain what happened.

Did the entity make eye contact? She couldn’t be sure; she’d run away. Did it actually touch her? She couldn’t be sure; it felt more like a magnetic force than being touched. Did it show interest in the computer? Yes, it had dismantled the computer. She saw it hiding in the neighbor’s yard when she was at the mailbox? She couldn’t be sure — at the time, she thought she’d imagined it. Did it make any noise? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure. Did it make any bid to communicate? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure.

With all this ambiguity, she was started to see why Bard and Luciana were skeptical.

She didn’t get a sense of antipathy from the group. It seemed as though what she was saying just didn’t compute. Like they had been expecting an invading Hun army but she was describing a horde of invading spiders. But what was more noteworthy wasn’t the way they treated her but the way they treated Luciana — the way they interrupted her or stepped over her questions and comments made it seem like Luciana was on thin ice.

Luciana sent Cora back outside onto the porch while the grown-ups talks over what she’d just told them.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Bad, but not un-fixable. The first thing I’d do is cut the finding a new outfit scene, a lot. Here’s how I’d handle that. “Cora arrived at the safe house. Her aunt escorted her up to shower and gave her a change of clothes. Then Cora went downstairs and met the group.” Boom! The least interesting part of the chapter whittled down to three sentences. Also, I’d probably go back further than that. The scene between Bard and Cora effectively makes me dislike him the same way that Cora does, but then very similarly dialogue is immediately repeated between Cora and her aunt, so by the time we get to tell the story to the group, we’re all exhausted of this story. Not only did we live it, but we’ve had a phone conversation with Luciana, an in-person conversation with Bard, and in-person conversation with Luciana rehashing it.

If Cora had waited to tell the full story to the group, that scene would have been better and the scenes with Bard and Luciana could have been cut down without any loss at all to the story. I would transport the actual dialogue Cora had with her aunt to the scene with the group. This way, Ellis could show, instead of tell us what the interaction was. The group could interrogate her with dialogue tags and everything.

For me, there are two wasted opportunities with the way the scene is written. First, Ellis named the characters in the group after her friends, a lot of them her fellow YouTubers. So, if Ellis had fleshed out this scene, we would have gotten actual cameos of these people, which would have a) been a great fan moment for me, but also b) would have demonstrated not only Cora’s burgeoning dynamic with the group but her aunt’s “thin ice” dynamic. We would have seen, rather been told, that Luciana was constantly being interrupted and would have been able to infer and internalize that dynamic.

The way it happened, Cora could have been abducted in the park near her house, and we would have gotten to the Google campus several chapters earlier, and not missed anything. The Google campus is Chapter 9, and this is when the story gets interesting. Cora is confronted by the alien in the woods, and then wakes up at Google headquarters. The alien psychically tells her to try to get into the server room, and Cora is apprehended by security. The power in the building goes out, and Cora escapes. She finds Bard’s van magically in the parking lot with the alien inside, and Cora escapes with the alien.

From here (once the alien wakes up) Cora and the alien, nicknamed Ampersand, are able to communicate. Cora needs to rescue her family from the CIA who may or may not be brainwashing them to make them forget about the alien in the living room, and Ampersand needs to rescue his friends. They agree to work together. I can’t critique much about Cora’s and Ampersand’s relationship because it’s layered and confusing to both of them and builds up believably over the rest of the book.

I say “believably”, but again, not in a wish-fulfillment way. In a wish-fulfillment way, we’d find Ampersand to be extremely sweet and super relatable and we would start to root for him. Instead, his voice is mechanical due to the device he uses in order to communicate with Cora, and there’s a lot about himself that he can’t explain because his culture is so different from hers, and he’s been pretty brutal to humans in the past (including Cora). Similarly, there is a lot that he doesn’t understand about Cora. Also, as an interesting point, he has physical vulnerabilities that, despite his size and strength, makes him afraid of her.

I think that my only dispute with the way that their relationship progresses is that she is later shocked by certain revelations about Ampersand’s choices both before and after she met him — like killing humans. Also, that Ampersand was the one brainwashing people who knew about aliens, not the CIA. These revelations, to me, seemed obvious and shouldn’t have been confusing to Cora at all.

I think, in these areas, the device of setting the story in 2007 was supposed to camouflage some of these “surprises”. Because Roswell wasn’t yet a TV show (twice), Cora could be naive about certain things. But the reader is still in 2020, and is very familiar with aliens. Hell, I’ve never watched a single episode of X-Files, but I still know who Mulder and Scully are, which of them is the skeptic and the believer, and whether or not Mulder was ever vindicated (no, but Scully got to meet lots of aliens and she still didn’t believe in them). I also know that there’s a dude with a cigarette in a lot of the episodes, for some reason.

So, the rift between Cora and Ampersand when she finds this out feels poorly contrived and just sad. It’s interesting that Ellis, who is a brilliant video essayist, could have pointed this out as a reader, but missed it as a writer. Also, having gone the traditional, rather than self-published route, I have to wonder where the hell her editor was for this part of the book. It’s also frustrating to know that she had bestselling authors who were direct mentors and who wrote blurbs for the book, who didn’t point any of this stuff out to her. It seems cruel, knowing what a large platform Ellis has and the amount of backlash she’ll get from non-fans, for these bestselling authors not have nudged her in more dimensional directions with her book.

Also, speaking of editors, Ellis uses two to three words where one will do. Okay, here’s another un-requested confession: I still don’t understand the technical difference between an adverb and an adjective. I do know that they both describe stuff, I can use them correctly, and I know that using two or three where one will do is frustrating to my critique partners, so I’ve tried to cure myself of that. This is not something that Ellis’ editor seems to ever have pointed out, so there are a lot of unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, or both. I do understand that too many can undermine urgency, authority, and conciseness but other than that bad habit, I found the writing to be clear, organized, and enjoyable.

Overall, I liked the progression of the book, and I will definitely read Ellis’ next book. This is partially, but not entirely, due to being a fan of her video essays. I think that she has a lot of interesting things to say and this book barely skated across the tip of the iceberg. I think that a lot of the disconnect I felt toward the story and the characters had to do with a combination of my audio comprehension issues and her determination to make her first book “perfect”. This a) isn’t possible, and b) is an attitude that snuffs out creativity at the spark. One of my favorite things about reading Inkitt or Wattpad stories is that the stories are un-apologetically over-the-top, ridiculous, and — fun.

I used to look back at my earlier writing and cringe at some of the more unfeasible aspects of the plot, but I looked at my first real attempt at a fantasy novel a couple of years ago, and actually found it charming. Directionless and silly, but surprising in ways that I hadn’t allowed my writing to be in a long time. I think that this fear of seeming silly while writing a love story between a human and an alien is probably the biggest flaw in Axiom’s Edge. I hope that as Ellis continues to grow as a writer that she’ll feel freer to embrace the absurdity inherent in creating any kind of story.

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.

First 500 Words: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

So, Lindsay Ellis is one of my favorite YouTubers. She does video essays, mostly about popular fiction, movies, and TV shows. She’s smart, funny, and thought-provoking, and any time she uploads a video, I watch it as soon as possible. Her first novel debuted on July 21st, and I’ve been listening to it on Audible. I thought it might be fun to do a First 500 on her book. This is the first time I’ve chosen to do a book that I’ve a) purchased and b) actively wanted to read. I actually pre-ordered this in December of last year, I think.

In between chapters, there are “leaked memos” written by the MC’s father. I’m going to skip the one that precedes Chapter 1, partly because it’s so prologue-ish/foreshadowy that critiquing/editing it wouldn’t do much and partly because I prefer to just jump into the beginning of the story. Here are the first 500 words of Chapter 1:

On the morning of the second meteor, Cora’s 1989 Toyota Camry gave up the ghost for good. The car was a manual transmission with a stick shift its previous owner had wrapped in duct tape years ago, a time bomb the color of expired baby food that should have gone off sooner than it did. At $800, she had paid more for it than it was worth, but back then, she had been a freshman in college and desperate for a car. In the two years since, she’d grown accustomed to the ever-loudening squealing of the fan belt, but on this morning, after she put her key in the ignition and the engine turned, the squealing turned into a hostile screech. A disheartening thunk thunk thunk followed, then a snap, then an angry whirr, all before she could react. But by the time she turned off the ignition, it was clear that the car, her first and only car, was dead forever.

And she was already late for work.

As the Camry went into its final death throes, Demi, who was locking the front door on her way to work, froze mid-motion as she beheld the scene, wearing an expression of disappointment, but not surprise. Cora’s feeling of horror that this was even happening quickly hopped to embarrassment before settling into her old standby: numbness. She got out of the car, with no choice but to leave it on the street despite it being street cleaning day, approached her mother, and asked, “Can you give me a ride to work?”

Demi looked at her like she had just lost their house in a drunken bet. “Sure.”

It was the last word she said to Cora for about half an hour.

In short order, Cora was suffering the indignity of her mother driving her to work through the vehicular sludge of the 110. In any other circumstances, Demi would have told Cora she was shit out of luck, that she should have gotten the car fixed months ago, and that she could find her own damn way up to downtown LA. But it had been through PMT, the temp agency Demi worked for, that Cora had her temp job, and it had been Demi who had vouched for her. And so, here they were, crawling under the 105, Demi sacrificing her own punctuality for her negligent daughter’s.

“What happened to the $200 I loaned you?” asked Demi just after they passed Rosencrans, her anger now cooled enough that she was capable of speech. “You were supposed to replace the belt and get your hair done, and you have done neither.”

Cora resisted the urge to pull her hair behind her ears, as though that would hide her mess of a dye job. She’d bleached it blond several months ago, before she’d dropped out of college, but about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in since.

“I had to use it for gas,” lied Cora, keeping her gaze

What Works: The book is set in 2007 and is centered around a young, college dropout who is estranged from her father who she thought was crazy but may actually be correct about the government trying to hide extraterrestrial visits from the public. Nice and angsty, and even though I like fantasy better than sci-fi, but I probably would have tried whatever genre of fiction Ellis put her hand to.

The way that the story starts is good in that we get to experience the strained relationship between the MC and her mother, a sense of her financial status, and overall priorities. Just after the first 500 words, we find out that Cora spent the money her mother lent her on a concert. She’s feeling disenfranchised and is ready to grasp at fleeting happiness, because of an assumption that investing in her future won’t pay out.

What Needs Work): There are a lot of wasted words. For instance, the first 500 words describes the MC’s car dying and needing to get a ride to work from her mother. This is a great start to the story because it gives the reader a glimpse at the dynamic between the mother and daughter and a snapshot of how the MC’s life is going. However, the first interesting thing that happens in this chapter is that Cora realizes that her mother’s car is being followed. AND that her mother has seen the car before. But the best part is that neither woman is surprised. This is about 600-700 words in. So, anything before that should be a lot more succint.

Another issue I have with the first part of Chapter 1 is that Cora’s father has made the news. Unfortunately, the author holds back this information until later. In the scene, Cora’s father is referred to just by his name. When his name is mentioned on the radio, Cora’s mother changes the station. Cora indicates that she doesn’t mind having the station changed, but we don’t know why our viewpoint character doesn’t want to hear about this “Nils” person. We find out pretty quickly that Nils is Cora’s father and that their relationship is estranged, but I would have felt more engaged if this had been mentioned when his name came up.

One of the quickest ways to separate me from the MC’s experience is for the author to create purposeless mysteries. It’s a weird power-play a lot of authors like to perform. Terry Pratchett is the only one I can think of who does this effectively, but that’s because the information that he does let the reader in on is at least as interesting as what he’s purposely holding back. For most authors, it’s more effective to have the reader on the same page as the viewpoint character, rather than constantly lagging behind. The story should (generally) be a mystery that the reader and MC are solving together.

Anyway, with my edit of the first 500 words, I’ll focus on condensing the beginning so that we can get to the interesting parts quicker, without losing the dynamic between Cora and her mother that the author has set up.

My Version:

Cora was already late for work when her 1989 Toyota Camry went into its final death throes. Cora’s mother, Demi, in the middle of locking the front door of their three-bedroom house, turned, her attention attracted by the last, furious screech of the Camry’s transmission. Cora winced. She could feel Demi’s glare though the grimy, bug-spattered windshield.

If Cora hadn’t gotten her job through the temp agency Demi worked for, Cora would have been shit out of luck. Then again, she wasn’t feeling super lucky as her mother’s immaculate, but ancient, Olds Cutlass trudged through morning traffic on the way to downtown LA.

“What happened to the $200 I loaned you?”

This was how Demi chose to break the silence after — Cora glanced at the dashboard clock — twenty-seven minutes.

I had to use it for gas,” Cora lied. Demi had wanted Cora to replace the fan belt on her car and get her hair done. She’d bleached it platinum blond before she’d dropped out of college, but, since then, about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in.

First 500 Words: Shifting Greer’s by K.D. Bledsoe at Inkitt

(This story was found on Inkitt. I present the first 500 words as the author wrote them, provide notes on what works and what needs work, and then re-write the first 500 words. I try to keep the author’s voice but edit for clarity, formatting, spelling, grammar, etc. No offense in intended toward the original author. This is a writing/editing exercise that I thought would be fun, since this is something that I do mentally with everything I read — until I get lost in the story, that is.)

Original:

How do the stories begin? Oh, right, with once upon a time.

So, so here it goes:

Once upon a time, there was an overlooked, beautiful girl who longed for someone to come and notice her. Along comes a handsome prince on horseback to save her. They live happily ever after in a ginormous castle.

Well, you know what I’ve got to say to those stories? Bullcrap.

Fairy tales are stories written by lonely people that want to deceive the minds of the youth. But listen up kids, no one ever gets their happily ever after. Some messed up shit happens in life. Did you get that? Are you taking notes? You could be because I’m a prime example of someone not getting their happily ever after. Heck, I would even settle for Cinderella’s life before she met Prince Charming or whoever.

Because right now, my story belongs in the tragedy section of the bargain bin.

My castle comes in the form of a one-story house, parked on the side of a busy street, in a small crater in the earth in Washington.

And it’s freaking raining.

I stare up at the brick ranch style house with a scowl on my face. My one suitcase is on the wet ground at my feet. My brunette hair is soaked to my skin. I’m not wearing a jacket, just a think t-shirt. There’s a black pickup truck parked in the driveway. It has a bumper sticker for the high school in town. I can’t help but laugh. I haven’t even been to the school yet.

I can’t get my feet to shuffle up the cracked walkway. This doesn’t feel real. The last few months, I’ve been basically sleepwalking through my life. Standing here in front of my new home starts to wake me up a bit.

“You’ve been standing there for ten minutes now, are you going to go in?” Says a deep voice from beside me.

I gulp, “I’m working up to it.”

“It won’t bite, you know?” He chuckles.

I turn to look at the older man standing to my right. A shot of pain grips my chest tight as I look into his sparkling blue eyes. Leo looks almost identical to my mother. I wonder how long the pain will last every time I look at him. I wonder if it’ll ever get easier.

He gives me a forced smile as he noticed the look on my face, “One step at a time, remember, Greer?”

I nod. It all seemed so simple on the drive over here. I pumped myself up the whole plane trip. I told myself I could do it the whole car ride from the airport. So why couldn’t I do it now?  Why was this such a hard thing to do?

I vigorously nod, shaking myself from my stupor, and put one step in front of the other. I drag my suitcase behind me on its wheels. Leo keeps a safe distance behind me and…

What Works: First, the style is great. The beginning may sound a little cliched with the “once upon a time stuff” but, to be honest, even as a full-grown adult, a story that starts like this will still get my attention right away. Generally, when this opening is used, it’s in a romantic-comedy context, so to have it in the Action section, with the story description being that Greer is a teenage girl in witness protection after her parents are murdered is a fun switch. Also, I just like the voice of the character right off the bat.

What Needs Work: For a book in the Action section, absolutely nothing happens in the first chapter (I read ahead). The author also hints around about “the incident” and how she has a different last name now but if you read the summary before reading the book, this is not a mystery to the reader and it’s frustrating to have that reveal dragged out for so long.

Although the author is good at setting a mood, the writing could be more concise.

Also, the title should probably be “Shifting Greers” instead of “Shifting Greer’s”.

My Version:

How do the stories begin? Oh, right, with, once upon a time…

Once upon a time, there was an overlooked, beautiful girl who longed for someone to notice her. Along came a handsome prince on horseback to save her. They lived happily ever after in a ginormous castle.

Well, you know what I’ve got to say to those stories? Bullshit.

Listen up kids, no one ever gets their happily ever after. Life is full of some messed up stuff. Watch your parents be murdered and then tell me how there is such thing as justice, let alone happiness.

Right now, I’m standing in front of a red brick, ranch-style house, in a small town in Washington.

And it’s freaking raining.

There’s a black pickup truck parked in the driveway. Uncle Leo’s new truck. There’s already a sticker for the high school I haven’t started attending yet stuck on the tailgate.

The wind whips dark, wet strands of hair across my face, casting diagonal prison bars across the view of the house. I’m not wearing a jacket, just a thin, black t-shirt. There’s a sweater in the suitcase next to my feet. The material of the suitcase is not waterproof, so the sweater is probably as soaked as I am.

The cab dropped me off ten minutes ago, but I can’t get my feet to shuffle up the cracked walkway.

The front door opens and Uncle Leo steps out of the house. He fwoops open an umbrella and then jogs down the walkway, toward me. 

I love Leo but I have to fight the urge to run away. This can’t be real. It can’t be my life now.

Leo stops in front of me and tries to hand me the umbrella. I don’t budge, so he hovers over me awkwardly, using the umbrella to try and cover both of us.

“How long have you been out here?” he asked, sounding concerned and exasperated. His voice is deep, nothing like my mother’s, but his eyes are the same exact shade of blue as hers. A stitch cramps up my chest, like when I run too fast without warming up first.

A wry smile quirks my uncle’s lips, though the wrinkle between his brow still displays his worry. “Are you coming in?”

I nod, but don’t move.

His smile turns encouraging. “One step at a time Greer,” he says.

I take a deep breath and step forward. He moves aside and walks with me, still trying to hold the umbrella over both of us as I wheel my suitcase up the path.

First 500 Words: Angelfire by GT_Cooper at Inkitt

Original:

Pain ripped through me as I heard the crack of the whip. Again and again and again. I could feel my blood oozing from my slashes, hot and wet. I fought against my restraints, my wrists burning as the metal cuffs chafed them. Then Mordecai, the traitor, came around to face me, and ask me questions. Once I didn’t know the answer to. So he tortured me.

After I burned the ice away from Aquaia, and passed out from exhaustion, I woke up to find myself here. And at the mercy of Mordecai Gregori, one of the most trusted council members.

I couldn’t escape using my powers either since, I guess, I burnt out. I can’t feel it anymore. It’s like I had no power to begin with. At least that’s how it was when I first got here but now I can feel creeping back in everyday.

And today I think I could use it. That I could escape. So I let Mordecai think I was still weak, that I didn’t have my power yet. But I was waiting for the perfect moment to get out of these chain, and kill him. Because he would help the enemy. And he had probably injured many more before me. The sadistic bastard.

So today, I was trying to escape. And when Mordecai came to caress me, as he usually does which was extremely weird and creepy, I grabbed his arm and let the fire free. He was ash on the wind in no time. Then I burned through the cuffs, the hot metal burning into me. I peels off the hot metal, and rubbed my raw, bleeding wrists, trying to soothe them. It didn’t help.

I took two daggers from the assortment of knives, and daggers. They were about the same size, and light enough for my weak body to wield. I hadn’t had a proper meal in weeks, maybe months. And I was so hungry. I was starving. I had been fed a small meal everyday. And it wasn’t enough to feed me, as well as keep my strength, my power. Finally I had enough strength to escape.

I went out the door, having to route around in Mordecai’s pocket for a key to unlock, the door. Gross. Once the door was unlocked I walked out to see that there were guards lining the hallways, and when they saw me all of them unsheathed their weapons, most of the weapons two handed swords. Not as efficient as my dagger, but that’s why I was able to keep my stamina and agility up. After that long time chained up all of the muscle had disappeared and it was a wonder that I could even walk or hold the daggers in my hand.

They attacked, and I slashed. I had killed maybe five guards, most of them different kinds of dark creatures. Then ones of them slashed my leg. I hissed in pain, and hurried to get this fight over with. I…

What Works: The hook; captured and tortured hero has to escape a formerly trusted bad guy. I like that we start on action and betrayal.  This is a really compelling way to introduce readers to an unfamiliar character; put them in utter peril and let them fight their way out.

What Needs Work: This is a lot of tell, not show, there are some grammatical and spelling errors, and certain things don’t make sense, like burning Mordecai to ash and then going through his pockets. Also, there is a random switching between past and present tense, so I’ll have to choose one.  

Obviously, I don’t know the entire story, so I’ll have to fill in the blanks myself and maybe my changes wouldn’t work for the overall story. For instance, I would have Mordecai burn to ash, including his clothes, but have the MC dig through the pile of ashes to find the key. If this is a world in which the MC can burn through flesh but not clothing, that wouldn’t work. 

 My Version:

The whip cracks. Pain rips through me again. And again and again. Blood oozes from my slashes, hot and wet. I fight against my restraints.

It’s the silence that tells me that Mordecai has stopped. My back feels no less ablaze as his boots echo against cement. The whip slithers against the floor, trailing streaks of blood. He turns to face me.

“Tell me where to find the crystal,” he demands.

I glare up at him through eyes streaming with tears. It’s not just the pain in my back or my wrists, or my knees, which have been kneeling on concrete for weeks. It’s the betrayal.

“We trusted you,” is the only answer that my cracked and bleeding lips have to give.
When I burned out my power saving Aquaia, I had blacked out and woken up here. Weeks of torture have broken my body, but given my magic a chance to replenish itself. I feel it rise as I glare at Mordecai’s blurry figure.

I flinch back as Mordecai steps toward me. He reaches forward and tenderly sweeps a greasy, sweaty hank of hair out of my face, pushing it behind my ear. It’s a gesture as familiar and natural as my own mother’s touch. My stomach clenches as I wonder where she is, if she’s okay, or if Mordecai killed her like —

I let the fire free.

Mordecai’s mouth opens in surprise as he screams in pain. His clothes are the first to burn to ash, then his skin and his hair. The last thing I see of him are the eyes that had gleamed with pride with my first step, my first word, my first fireball.

The metal that binds my wrists heats as I concentrate my magic on them. The locks melt and the chains fall free. I slump forward. My thighs hit the cold ground, and then my belly, my chest, my face. The cement is cool against my skin, and I revel in the relief of being able to lie down properly for the first time in too long. The slashes in my back shriek in agony with every breath, so I try not to breathe, try not to think.

Distant shouts make their way through my foggy brain. Claws scrabble in the passageway outside. Mordecai’s minions must have heard his shouts, felt his death. They won’t last long without him, but they’ll certainly last long enough to tear me to shreds if I don’t get up. Now.

I push myself up and groan. I might let them rip me to shreds. It can’t hurt any worse than scrambling over to Mordecai’s ashes on bleeding knees. I plunge my hands into the dust he left behind, and pull out a key. It’s one of the only artifacts in any of the worlds that can withstand my fire and it’s the key — to everything.

I stumble to the door and melt the lock. It swings open, just as one of Mordecai’s minions leaps at me. It’s an over-sized black cat with bat wings and glowing green eyes. 

I burn it to ash in mid-air. 

First 500 Words: Becoming His Male Empress by iLyna_chAn on Inkitt

Original:

In Tang Qin Shang dynasty strength was everything, Magic ruled the world, it was said that from birth a child could already sense the mana in the world and have an idea of which element they had an affinity to, be it water, air, fire, earth, light, darkness, space, time, wood etc., people with two elements were usually extremely rare, same with people with three element, as four  elements it was a legendary level.

A child was born useless, a total trash to such a world where power was everything and to make matters worse his face was disfigured, his unfortunate circumstances made his father General Lei despise him, to General Lei this child was cursed, a stain to his unblemished name.

General Lei strongly believed that this child was sent by the heavens as punishment to him for betraying his one true love by having an affair with a low born despicable, conniving servant who once tended to his beloved needs.

The pitiful child without a name knew fully well that his father was not been fair to his naïve and innocent mother, she could never have seduced him because she wasn’t that type of person, Although General Lei tried to paint himself white by plastering dirt all over that child’s mother the truth could never be hidden forever and there where people who knew that he was the one that forced himself on his wife’s servant girl and the fruit of this ugly was the child without a name.

The child knew the truth and felt his mother’s grievance but just like her he couldn’t voice out his resentment and pain.

When the incident was found out by the legitimate wife of the Lei’s manor she ordered that both mother and unborn child be thrown out of the Lei Manor and going forward this pair that only had each other were made to live in a deserted thatched house by a hill in the forest.

“Mother why don’t I have a name like other people, please give me one” The child had once pleaded and his mother shown a solemn expression, one that he had gotten accustomed to and hated seeing the most on his mother’s face.

“Don’t be sad mother, I don’t mind not having a name” the child said as he tugged on his mother’s sleeves and tried to smile to lighten the mood, she ruffled his hair and smiled back while saying, “I am sorry for been so useless son, I am so sorry” a tear fell down from her eyes and she quickly raised her sleeves to wipe it off, she had to be strong for her precious son.

The powerless child soon got to find out that the reason he could never bear a name was because his mother had been told by his father’s beloved wife not to give him one and his father stood strongly behind his dear wife despite his mother pleads.

After the child’s mother’s death when he was…

What Works: This is the beginning of a classic Cinderella story although the title suggests a bit of a twist. The author is good at setting up the pathos of the characters and there is plenty of drama in being the ugly, magic-less bastard son of an army general.


What Needs Work: This is all info-dump backstory with very little action. A lot of this information is interesting, but lacks finesse in the way that it’s presented. Also, plenty of typos and a lot of repetition. This is also told from an omniscient point-of-view which always sounds a little impersonal. I’ll take it as part of the challenge to keep the same POV.

My Version: 

“Mother, why don’t I have a name like other people?” the child had asked once, clinging to his mother’s knee.

She didn’t answer but he saw tears fall into the dough that she was kneading. The dumplings were salty that night, the mood somber. The child never asked that question again.  

He also never asked why they no longer lived in a manor, why they had moved to a dusty shack at the edge of the forest. In the end, he found he didn’t mind the change, once his mother had chased out the spiders and rats. He helped drag water, bucket by bucket, from the nearby stream, growing stronger and freer with each trip. Out here, there was no one to glare at his disfigured face or tease or kick him for not having any magic.

His mother scrubbed at the wood of the walls until it gleamed golden with the light from the stove. She patched up the thatched roof and wove flowers into the fresh, new straw. She swept the dirt floor free of debris and covered it in rose petals. She filled the bed with freshly plucked feathers, and, every night, she told her beloved child stories of magic rings and grand destinies until he fell asleep.

Then, one day, his mother died.

First 500 Words: Dragon’s Princess by C. Swallow on Inkitt

Original:

I jogged at a steady pace through the jungle while howls of many dragons filled the sky like haunting music. Dragons only howled in extreme circumstances, and right now, many of the dragons were being injected with a deadly poison from a local tree frog in this area of the Patter Forest.

The King, Ross the “Great” wanted all dragons tamed and controlled by local Warlords to be loyal pets under the Kings dominion. It was far fetched, reckless and just plain stupid that Ross the Great had gone to such lengths to make his dream come true.

I myself tagged along on this newest mission to lure the dragons in with a strong peace scent so I could disable as many traps as possible. It was treason, yeah, but I couldn’t live with myself by not doing anything. I was allowed to come because I was a natural Healer, I could heal by drawing power from the earth. I could help any of the injured that would indefinitely come with this suicidal mission to bring the dragons under control, so I was using this opportunity to my full advantage.

I was meant to be back at the main trap site but I already had an excuse planned for later when I’d be questioned where I had disappeared to. I had disabled two outsider traps already, and there were at least 16 traps altogether. The central traps had already been successful so I only had a chance at disabling one more trap on the outside perimeter before it’d be too dangerous to be out in the open, especially with blood thirsty, revenge seeking dragons flying above. The only protection I had was the dense coverage which made it harder for the dragons to land.

I saw the last trap ahead of me and quickly went down on my knees to smother the rock that emitted the peace scent with mud. It would effectively counteract the scent and be disabled completely. It was as I finished smothering the scent rock that I realized just how quiet it was. In fact, it was deadly silent and that only meant one thing.

Every so slowly I raised my head and looked ahead, nothing, to my left, nothing, the slowly to my right. A glowing pair of blue-green eyes level with my head was staring straight at me. I sucked in a breath, fear closing off my throat and making my heart start to race at surely an unhealthy speed. I slowly made out the outline of the humungous black head, and the long glinting fangs, the length of a short sword. I closed my eyes in silent acceptance.
I was going to die.

Technically, this is only 450 words but it’s the full first chapter, so I’ll work with this. 

What Works:  Great hook; the protagonist is working to protect dragons, which is treason, but the dragons don’t know that she is on their side, so when she’s caught, she thinks the dragon will just kill her. Great start. 

What Needs Work: Oh, so very much telling instead of showing, too much set-up, not enough action. Some awkwardness with the phrasing, too, although in general, the story is easy enough to follow. 

My Version:

The air hung heavy with the earthy promise of more rain mingling with the spicy musk of dragons. I jogged at a steady pace through the forest as dragons haunted the darkening sky, their howls eerily musical.

King Ross “The Great” had wanted me to accompany his army, knowing they would need a Healer. I had agreed, planning to commit treason.

I followed the scent of peace extract to a small boulder that came to the tops of my knees. It took several minutes to cover it with mud, but the forest floor had plenty to spare. There were at least a dozen more of these dragon traps, so I searched for the next one, hoping it would be smaller.

The clash of swords against dragon scales rung through the forest. I would be missed soon, as the dragons fought back against the king’s army. The dragons hadn’t started this war, but maybe, with my help, they would win it.

For me, if I didn’t want to be branded the traitor I was, and exiled, I’d have to maintain the appearance of fealty. The screams of warriors joined the dragon howls as I moved through the forest. The next trap was a rock only about as big as my foot. I kicked mud over it and moved on.

Peace extract was ensorcelled perfume. Ladies used it to calm themselves when their corsets got too tight, and men used it in battle when their broken limbs needed to be re-set or cut off. It was currently being used to trap dragons in a part of the forest that was too dense with tree cover to escape by flight.

The next boulder was half as large as the first. I coated it with mud as quickly as possible, fighting the urge to lay down next to it instead. At this moment, I had three enemies; the army, the dragons, and the weapon I was trying to diffuse.

I was already tired, and already needed back at the base. I was lured to the next boulder almost against my will. It was twice as big as the first one, almost as tall as me, and nearly perfectly round. This would take forever! I didn’t even know if I’d be able to resist the scent long enough to cover it up. I kicked the boulder in frustration. It wobbled and slid an inch or so on the muddy ground.

My breath caught. Could I – just roll it over? I nudged it with my shoulder and praised whatever gods might be listening when it spun away from me, almost as though it was eager to help. A few more nudges and a hefty shove later, the peace scent had been neutralized. I sagged against the side of the muddy boulder in relief.

This was definitely the biggest threat against the dragons. I could detect smaller threats close by but I wondered if it would be safer for me just to return to base.

Before I could decide, I realized that the forest had gone silent. Distant shouts and clanging persisted, but all of the forest sounds; rustling, chirping, slithering — had ceased. I turned slowly, bracing myself against the boulder with one hand and reaching for my dagger with the other.

My hand froze as I stared into a glowing pair of blue-green eyes. The dragon was jet-black with tiny scales that glimmered like freckles across his nose. His fangs, as long as my forearm and as sharp as my dagger glinted dangerously, inches from my face.

I closed my eyes in silent acceptance.

I was going to die.

First 500 Words: Devil Vs Alpha (The Millennium Wolves 01) by Sapir Alexandra Englard at Inkitt

Original:

London, England

May 16, 2014

The clock ticked midnight and I closed my eyes, letting the sound of the Big Ben echo through the square, the neighborhood, the quiet city of London. The sound was rich and bombastic, carried away by the slapping wind, and I would’ve smiled at its familiarity had I remembered what it was like to smile from the heart.

Another sound invaded the quiet while the bells began to diminish. That sound was rougher, rugged, that of a motorcycle. Across the square from where I was sitting, a bike appeared, its rider draped in dark leather clothes, thinking himself to be a cool gangster, but I knew better. He rounded the square dramatically, riding over puddles on purpose so he could splash water like the little kid he was, and then stopped right next to me. Show-off, I thought disapprovingly as he removed his black helmet and, as if he was in a hair-conditioner commercial, flipped his dark gold hair so the silky locks wouldn’t simply be messy, but orderly so. Then he opened his gold-flecked brown eyes that seemed like molten honey that melted many a woman, and gave me a grin full of dimples and sin.

Killian Darrow was nothing if not a charming son of a bitch, but no one should underestimate him; he might be a pretty boy, but he had a mind sharper than a scalp, held ruthlessness within that he mostly concealed, but let pop out here and there. All in all, though, he was good people, and he was one of mine. That, including his intelligence and the excellent job he was doing for me, made him of deep value to me.

He was also my ward.

“You look just the same as you did a couple of years ago,” he said as a way of greeting while I rose to my feet. He scanned me from head to toe and back, and his lips curled into a mocking smirk. “Your fashion statement also stayed the same.”

I glanced down at my black hiking pants, black cape on top of black, baggy tee, black hiking boots, and black scarf and gloves, and knew he was right. “It’s necessary,” I responded dispassionately. “It helps me blend better.” Because if I were to wear what I truly wanted, I would’ve attracted too much attention, and that wasn’t acceptable.

“I know that,” he said, tucking his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. “I just wish I could see you in other clothes, because as far as I’m concerned, your wardrobe consists of this outfit only.”

He wasn’t wrong but talking about my attire was not the reason we were meeting tonight in such a secluded part of the city, with no one around but us. “Killian,” I said, giving him my hard stare, the one that had once made his knees shake, but now only made him arch an eyebrow. “While I love talking to you after so long…

What Works: The first two paragraphs are about as perfect in introduction of a first chapter as one could ask for, and is particularly refreshing in a Prologue which is usually just a fancy word for Infodump. Unfortunately, the prologue turns into that after the first 500 words, but it starts out great. Still, the last line of the first paragraph stabbed me in the gut, the second paragraph made me smile, and the first sentence of the third paragraph almost made me laugh out loud.

What Needs Work: The story kind of drags after the first two paragraphs, the writing gets less sharp, and nothing actually happens in this chapter except for a frustratingly vague conversation and then a giant infodump. There are also some romantic overtones, which, considering that the MC is Killian’s ward and she’s known him since he was 16, could be pretty creepy, depending on how old the MC is. In my version, I’ll probably focus on editing a lot of unnecessary or repetitive description and/or dialogue. 

My Version:

London, England

May 16, 2014

The clock ticked midnight and I closed my eyes, letting the sound of the Big Ben echo through the square, the neighborhood, the quiet city of London. The sound was rich and bombastic, carried away by the slapping wind, and I would’ve smiled at its familiarity had I remembered what it was like to smile from the heart.

Another sound invaded the quiet while the bells faded. The new sound was rougher, rugged, that of a motorcycle. Across the square from where I was sitting, a bike appeared, its rider draped in dark leather clothes, thinking himself to be cool, but I knew better. He rounded the square dramatically, riding over puddles on purpose so he could splash water like the little kid he was, and then stopped right next to me.

Show-off, I thought. He removed his helmet and, as if he was in a shampoo commercial, flipped his dark gold hair. Then he opened eyes the color of molten honey and gave me a grin full of dimples and sin.

Killian Darrow was nothing if not a charming son-of-a-bitch, but no one should underestimate him. He might be pretty, but he had a mind sharper than a scalpel, and a ruthlessness that most people who met him would never even glimpse. All in all, he was good people, and he was one of mine.

“You look just the same as you did a couple of years ago,” he said as a way of greeting while I rose to my feet. He scanned me from head to toe and back, his lips curling into a smirk.

I glanced down at my black-on-black outfit of hiking pants, cape, baggy tee, and hiking boots. I shrugged. “It helps me blend.”

He acknowledged my response with a jerk of his head and another full-body scan.

“Killian,” I said, giving him my hard stare, the one that had once made his knees shake, but now only made him arch an eyebrow. “While I love talking to you after so long…