High fantasy as a genre plays by slightly different rules to other genres. There is invariably more world-building, more exposition, even at the beginning of the book. When is enough enough, though? It’s sometimes difficult to tell. This opening is unusual because, although there are elements of world-building, there’s much more focus on character, which is a better bet to hook a reader or agent’s interest.
Language: British English
Synopsis: To the world, Brünhilde is the legend behind the god-axe, Ashakahn. Adventurers have made sport of climbing her mountain and challenging the veteran warrior for the mythical weapon. In truth, she is a reclusive farmer, a failing mother, and a suicidal drunkard, cursed to kill those who hunt her axe.
Kylianna gripped her blood-soaked sheets and screamed into the near darkness. The muscles in her back and legs tightened as a stronger contraction seized her.
A storm whipped around her hut, a tempest of rain and sleet, howling winds and thunder that shook the mud-packed walls. Venn, god of sky and sea and storm, roared at the same time she cried. Somewhere beyond her little farm, lightning struck close enough to paint her bedroom in coal and ivory.
“Be strong, woman!” Mort said.
He knelt between her legs, the sleeves of his robes soaked with blood. Reverence brightened his wide eyes. “They are here with us. Can you not feel Them in the storm? Venn and Sian are here. You must not shame Them. ”
Kylianna stifled her cry between shuddering breaths. Sweat turned her hair to brown clumps that hung over her eyes. As she raised a hand to sweep them back, another contraction arched her back and pushed a wail between her clenched teeth.
Her husband – Bronomir – hugged himself in the shadows, fists knotted beneath his arms. As if witnessing childbirth would be the worst thing to happen to him tonight. She locked eyes with him for only one pain-soaked moment, saw the hopeful lift of his brow, and shut her eyes before the urge to forsake her duty overtook her.
That she had not told him the price of loving one of her blood was a guilt she would carry to the end of her days. Too late now. Like a storm cloud swelling, her daughter bloomed in her womb, clawing, fighting, snatching at every piece of life running from mother to child.
Brünhilde, she would name her.
A name fit for a life lived on the edge of a stranger’s axe. As if in approval, Venn put thunder in the clouds and struck the mountains with his whip. Bronomir ducked as a bolt of lightning cracked through the sound of her moans; it struck so close she felt the charge in the air, raising the fine hairs on her arms.
She laughed through her cries, through the tears that were only partly from pain. Mort lifted his eyes to her, full of the wonder only a priest like him and a wise-woman like her would ever know.
“Oh, she will be a marvel,” Mort said, clutching her knees with hands white at the knuckles. “Peerless. Powerful. Blessed indeed.”
“Save your ramblings priest,” Bronomir yelled over the pelting of hail. Fear shrunk his tall frame and hunched his ample shoulders. “But for you, we would have a midwife here and I could rest easy.” He drew his axe and levelled it at Mort. “Deliver my child, Priest, or I will strip your hide and swaddle the corpse in your skin.”
Bronomir. Sweet, strong, ignorant, impotent Bronomir, who laughed at the horror of her family tales as a child laughed at ghost stories. Who threatened a priest and did not know that he had sired the next great Valkyrie of Wassa. Kylianna disentangled her fingers from the sheets and made the ancient ward against evil over her brow. Her husband, faithless as he was, deserved some semblance of a heaven, even if he blasphemed at the foot of a birth bed.
“Be calm, old warrior,” Mort said, his voice never rising, but cutting through the storm all the same. “Be still and appreciate this moment, that you stand at a tipping point in the world’s history.”
Kylianna looked down at her smiling priest, sobering him with a dark look. An unspoken question raised itself on the lift of his brow, one she had spent a year hardening her heart to answer.
“Bronomir,” she said, trembling, as her muscles poised to tighten themselves one last time. “Come here, my love. Help me through this. You must.”
Her fingers trembled as she held a hand out towards the shadows. She dared to hope he would simply split the door hides and walk away forever, but he dropped his axe and came forward. Of course he would. He was a man who saw his wife giving birth to his child; he did not see a witch spilling out a curse.
His fingers twined with hers. Through the roiling ache that ran the length of her body, she found comfort in the callouses that padded his palm, the dirt that lined his fingernails, and the smell of earth and wood smoke that clung heavy to them.
She lay her other hand on the nape of his neck and brought her face close so that she filled his vision. He smiled a white smile beneath his black beard; he did not see Mort sneak around behind him.
Candlelight ran along the edge of the priest’s dagger It punctured once through Bronomir’s heart, again through his liver, and cut a line along his throat. His lips parted. Blood poured over them. Kylianna shut her eyes, but she heard his body slump to the floor, and felt his fingers fall away from hers.
The next contraction struck like a hammer to her spine.
As the storm in her belly swelled to bursting, she cried out for the birth and the death that twined in her hut tonight.
Mort washed his hands in Bronomir’s still pouring blood and came to kneel before her. “His sacrifice will not be in vain.” His smile was gone. “Are you ready?”
“No.” Her muscles torqued in anticipation. “But she is.”
Bronomir’s blood welled beneath her bed like a red lake. It steamed in the cold, raising vapours like ghostly hands as another lightning bolt hit the earth. This one struck close enough to blind her and singe the air. A deafening crack, then silence ate up the world.
In that soundless and sightless place, she felt the giant eye of heaven turn to towards her, so close that when it blinked, its lashes raked her skin. She squirmed beneath it. Patiently, it waited.
Even as Brünhilde pushed her way into the world, Kylianna mourned.
Editorial comment: It’s perhaps a bit of a cliche to have a woman giving birth at the apogee of a storm, but fantasy is very forgiving of cliche. What matters more is to have an original slant on the story, compelling, complex characters, perhaps something unique about the world that you’re building. The nice detail here that raises this above the quotidian is the betrayal and sacrifice of her husband. It’s led into very subtly, “As if witnessing childbirth would be the worst thing to happen to him tonight” and this adds depth to the entire scene. Although our attention first focuses on Kylianna and her birthing pangs (the natural tension there—will she survive the birth? Will the child survive the birth? What is the child, anyway?), it is slowly but surely refocused on the suspense about what’s going to happen to her husband.
This sacrifice adds depth to the Kylianna character. She’s about to become a mother, natural life-giving force of nature, but also a betrayer, a killer. At this moment we don’t know what forces or beliefs make her sacrifice her husband, but we do know that she obeys them unquestioningly. Our natural sympathy for Bronomir (slightly too close to Boromir, from LOTR?) as being the “useless hanger-on” at a child-birth adds poignancy to his brutal end.
Any false steps in this opening?
I note that this is the birth of Brünhilde, the main character. That leaves me feeling slightly nervous. As your main character, I doubt that the interesting part of her story is her formative years, so I’d be a little worried that we’re going to spend a couple of chapters watching Brünhilde growing up, excelling at axemanship, or whatever it is that she turns out to be good at. Is this a prologue in disguise, or genuinely the beginning of the story?
There are a few other small things that threw me a little. Bronomir is described as both “impotent” and “faithless” on occasion. This took the edge off my sympathy for him as a character. Is he impotent? In the context of a scene opening with childbirth, this made me wonder if he was indeed the father of her child? If he isn’t, we begin to wonder what he’s doing there, who the real father is. I think this is all just a distracting sidetrack, but I’m not quite sure. The indictment of “faithless” is a little more troubling. Although it probably means that he just hasn’t got the same faith that Kylianna has, again we’re distracted by the idea that Bronomir has somehow betrayed her.
The last thing that I’d bring up is the sudden PoV shift, at a critical juncture, between Kylianna and Bronomir when you say “he did not see Mort sneak around behind him.” The entire scene has been from Kylianna’s viewpoint up until this moment. This line is definitely not from her PoV, since her face is close to his, and, since he didn’t see him, is not from Bronomir’s either, but apparently from a suddenly present omniscient narrator, who has been blessedly absent until this point.
I think this is a very good opening to a fantasy novel. I have a few quibbles, which is why this isn’t a gold star, but the major concerns I have about this story, about where it’s starting, may be answered in the next few pages, so I would probably, if I were an agent who dealt with fantasy, want to read on. Job done, as far as the author is concerned.