Every great fantasy novel is a journey into mystery and wonder. And the best fantasy writers set the tone of discovery with the very first sentence. Especially in these days of online book excerpts and Amazon.com previews, the opening sentences of a book can cast a spell — or cast readers out of the book, forever.
Here are 39 of the greatest opening sentences from fantasy novels!
Top image: Smaug and his Treasure by Shockbolt on DeviantArt
This is sort of a Comic Con tradition — every Thursday of Comic Con, we always do a post that celebrates great books. In previous years, we did great opening lines from science fiction, great last lines from science fiction novels, great character descriptions from SF & fantasy books, and great advice to live by from SF and fantasy books.
"Diaries are kept by men: strong brushstrokes on smooth mulberry paper, gathered into sheaves and tied with ribbon and placed in a lacquered box."
— The Fox Woman, Kij Johnson
A beautiful image that sets a tone of elegance and also establishes indirectly that this isn't a culture where diaries are written in hardcover blank books. Plus you're left hanging to find out what women do.
"Let me tell you why I wished to buy a meerkat at Quin's Shanghai Circus."
— Veniss Underground, Jeff Vandermeer
The conversational opening sentence is always a great notion — the narrator speaking directly to the reader. And the word "meerkat" just sort of pops out at you. Apparently there's a long story about this meerkat? At the circus? Curiosity: engaged.
"Because she was Chalice she stood at the front door with the Grand Seneschal, the Overlord's agent and the Prelate, all of whom were carefully ignoring her."
— Chalice, Robin McKinley
Starting your first sentence with a subordinate clause is always a risky move, but this sets up our curiosity about what it means that "she was Chalice"... and then we wait through the impressive list of titles to find out that this means that everyone ignores her. We instantly want to know more.
"Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes."
— The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander
Lloyd Alexander is one of the great underappreciated fantasy writers, and this is a terrific opening. It sets a humorous tone, but also establishes a conflict in the very first sentence. That semicolon cuts like a sword in itself.
"Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree."
— Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
As we'll see further down the list, setting up a generalization and then overturning it is always a brilliant way to launch a story. Plus this is just such a funny, sharp opening.
"They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the color of buttermilk, but I saw him walk out of the wood."
— Winter Rose, Patricia McKillip
Also great: Contrasting the myth with the reality. And we can totally see the buttermilk-colored horse in our heads, only to find out there's no such horse.
"The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."
— The Princess Bride, William Goldman
And here's another funny opening sentence that totally defuses the mythic tone by telling you the most beautiful woman in the world is some other person, not the story's heroine.
"There are plenty would call her a slut for it."
— Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
Lovely rhythm here, plus you immediately want to know what "she" would be called a slut for, and why there's apparently debate over this.
"'A burning map. Every epic,' my friend Jack used to say, 'should start with a burning map.'"
Vellum: The Book of All Hours, Hal Duncan
Why is this map burning? Wait, is there actually a burning map, or is this just a rule of thumb that we may or may not be following this time around? Is the story we're reading an epic? So many burning questions.
"If I could tell you this in a single sitting, then you might believe all of it, even the strangest part."
— The Limits of Enchantments, Graham Joyce
Again, the narrator addresses the reader, and lets us know this is a long, weird story — that will carry us along, if we get swept up in it. Also puts you on notice that you're going to be up all night reading this book in one go.
"When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of Aylesbury Pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country."
— The Dunwich Horror, H.P. Lovecraft
This is a great example of setting a mood. Lovecraft is known for his adjectives, but these in particular are sparse and evocative: "wrong," "lonely" and "curious."
"A tendril of the strange fragrance spiraled up from the great stone block. Kenton felt it caress his face like a coaxing hand."
— Ship of Ishtar, A. Merrit
Okay, so this is two sentences. There's a couple more like that below. In any case, a "tendril" of fragrance is a perfect descriptive term — no need for adjectives or embellishments, you feel the fragrance caressing you.
"When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options."
— The Steel Remains, Richard K. Morgan
Another rule of thumb, another totally bugshit circumstance — introduced, this time, in a very matter-of-fact tone. You know instantly that the main character fancies himself a judge of character, too.
"The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault."
— Blood Rites: A Novel of the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
Again with the burning — things on fire is always a great start to a story. And this raises the strong possibility that it could have been Dresden's fault, which is always interesting.
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
— The Gunslinger, Stephen King
This is the classic of all classics. I think we might have included this under science fiction openings too, but it bears repeating. It gives you action and mood — and a character who's badass enough to wear black in the hot desert.
"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians."
— Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Nice setting of a nineteenth century, fairytale-ish tone, without saying "once upon a time" or anything. And you instantly want to know more about this magician society.
"All children, except one, grow up."
— Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie
Rule of thumb, subverted. This is like one of those "six word stories," except you want to see where it goes after this.
"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversations?"'
— Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.
As with the burning map thing, this is a great opening that talks about books and stories by way of launching the story — and now you know that this book will have both pictures and conversations, and that Alice is a restless child.
"The circus arrives without warning."
— The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Another short, grabby sentence — what kind of circus is it, that you don't see coming from a long way off, or that doesn't show up with lots of fanfare?
"Locke Lamora's rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim's trust forever."
— The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch
You instantly feel like you know a lot about Locke Lamora, master con artist, and his cunning tricks. You are learning the ways of Locke, right from the first sentence.
"One cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten."
— The Darkness That Comes Before, R. Scott Bakker
Another rule of thumb, but this one sounds ominous — you hear it in a sonorous, stentorian tone. You already know that whatever has been forgotten, it can't be good.
"Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity."
— Elantris, Brandon Sanderson
Once again, this is an opening that establishes conflict instantly, and you want to know why this prince is damned.
"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god."
— Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
Like a few of the others here, this sets up the plot in just a handful of words, plus the elaborate name instantly conjures a whole image of fancy robes and ceremonies.
"With my hand on the doorjamb, some buried-alive instinct thumps within my chest: this is going to hurt."
— Heroes Die, Matthew Woodring Stover
Present tense! The tension is instantly there, because this scary shit is happening right now. Plus the phrase "buried alive" is instant terror. And then you find out there's pain in the immediate future.
"I am not as I once was."
— The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin
Another stark, simple opening sentence that makes you wonder. What happened? What was this person once like?
"The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone."
— The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
Instant fairytale gold — the phrase "lilac wood" conjures a whole set of images without a string of adjectives. And then the sad "all alone."
"Once upon a time - for that is how all stories should begin - there was a boy who lost his mother."
— The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly
And here's one that actually does the "once upon the time" thing — but makes it work, by being arch and a bit meta, and then hooking us totally with the "boy who lost his mother" thing.
"Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo's child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me."
— Kushiel's Dart, Jacqueline Carey
This is more elaborate, and definitely sets the classic Jacqueline Carey tone, with the mock-Elizabethan language like "cuckoo's child" and "wrong side of the blanket" — but it also carries you along and makes you want to know what "House-born" means and what exactly the "Night Court" is. And then there's the ominous, sparky "for all the good it did me." This is someone who's had serious misadventures.
"Kaiku was twenty harvests of age the first time she died."
— The Weavers of Saramyr, Chris Wooding
We're reckoning time in "harvests" instead of "years" — that's instant strangeness — and then you have to know why Kaiku died more than once. And how that's not the end of the story, instead of the beginning.
"Matt Black met the moss man on Christmas Eve."
— A Red Heart of Memories, Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Nice use of alliteration, and the "moss man" sounds instantly fascinating.
"The irreducible strangeness of the universe was first made manifest to Anthony Van Horne on his fiftieth birthday, when a despondent angel named Raphael, a being with luminous white wings and a halo that blinked on and off like a neon quoit, appeared and told him of the days to come."
— Towing Jehovah, James Morrow
"Despondent angel" is a great turn of phrase, which also happens to be the opposite of what you expect angels to be like. Plus there's the grand sweeping question of the "irreducible strangeness" of the universe.
"The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards."
— A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Amazing imagery — this both sets the scene and launches the story into motion, with a single vaulting sentence.
"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
— The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
Who could be so bad as to come close to deserving that name? Lovely wry humor, with a kick to it.
"I've heard it said girls can't keep secrets."
— Wildwood Dancing, Juliet Marillier
Another rule of thumb, that carries the seeds of its own subversion. It's been said — but is it true? And what sort of secrets are we going to be hearing here?
"In the spaces of calm almost lost in what followed, the question of why tended to surface."
— The Summer Tree, Guy Gavriel Kay
You have to re-read this sentence a couple times to really get the sense of it, but you immediately get the sense that something major has happened, and there's — almost — no time to ask why. The curiously odd phrasing is provocative as well as a bit poetic.
"You're reading the advertisement: an offer like this isn't made every day."
— Aura, Carlos Fuentes
The use of second person is daring, but then you're drawn in by the notion of a rare offer, and the conversational, fabulist tone.
"There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye's handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight."
— Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook
This is more than one sentence, but it's too great not to include. Wry and cunning, this gives us a sense of eavesdropping on a whole conversation — and once again, people are doing some soul-searching after a terrible event. Oh, and One-Eye is instantly a memorable character.
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."
— The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
And finally, the classic opening — two sentences rather than one, but it's packed with images. Tolkien spends so much time telling us what the hole isn't, before finally letting us know that it "means comfort." And we're left to find out just what that means.
Additional reporting by David Reinecke.