I thought I’d take a look today at how a first person POV novel supports the same elements of introducing setting, characters, and conflict (preferably without data dump). Here’s a sample from Talyn by Holly Lisle (Tor 2005). I happen to count this as one of my favorite fantasy books and have read it twice. First I bullied my library into buying the hardcover, then read it, and when the paperback came out I bought it and read it again. But…I hadn’t analyzed the opening before, and I’m curious what you think:
Pada and I stepped out of the Shields building at twenty past the Dog on the last day of Madrigas to find shreds of the moon peering out from behind scattered clouds offering the only light on the dock. The air bit into me–my light uniform had been enough when I went in, but while I worked, early spring had given way to tenacious winter, and I was not more than three steps away from the warmth of Shields when I wished I had my cloak.
“Lamplighters are late again,” Pada said. Pada has a great gift for stating the obvious. Conversations with her include such statements as “Ah, the tide is high” and “Well, the streets are certainly crowded today,” which makes her wearing company to keep.
The whores who clustered by the front door late at night, hoping for safer custom than from sailors in port, gave us good even, and we nodded acknowledgment. We in Shields guard all the taak, and the lands beyond, and we thus represent all.
Beneath our feet, the ancient boards of the dock creaked and shuddered. Beyltaak has no money for renovation, but I wonder every time I step out the door of Shields, if this will be the time the boards concede defeat and dump me into the icy bay. To our right lay the warehouses–looming hulks of black against black, since the lamplighters had not been through. To our left, the ships–and I couldn’t help but notice how few rose and fell against the wharf, their wooden hulls bumping softly at their moorings, their furled sails flapping in the wind off the bay. Poor business, and in spite of that, the inescapable stink of fish.
When we were past the whores, Pada picked up the thread of her previous narrative in midsentence. “…and then he said, “I would that you would, with me, just once, for I dream even when waking of knowing the pleasure of you.'” Pada rolled her eyes. “And then he offered me whole bolts of fine ribbed velvet in red and purple, as if I was some street tart who’d flop on my back for his bedamned rags.”
I watched Pada from the corner of my eye. Even in the dark, I could see her fury. She’s prettier than me–delicate and blond and fair, with huge blue eyes and the features that gather men’s glances like flowers attract bees. She takes all such adulation as her birthright–as her due. But she thinks men should just admire her from afar, and give her things. “If you don’t want him to make such offers, stop leading him around by the nose.”
Pada stopped dead on the dock and stared at me as if I’d slapped her. I was watching the whores behind us, and the dark cluster of bones players before us, and movement at the mouth of the alley just beyond that, and I thought perhaps, whether we were in uniform or not, we might keep moving. None of those on the dock at that moment were the best of company. But no, Pada would have her dramatic piece.
“I?! Leading him around by his nose?! He clings to me like a motherless calf. And for this, I should take his cloth and bed him?!”
I decided to get moving again; unlike Pada, I do not trust the Shielder uniform to keep away all evil, any more than I trust my looks to turn all men to pudding. I’m tall, with nice eyes and features that people call either strong or angular–or sometimes handsome. My mother was a great beauty in her day, but all I got from her was good thick auburn hair. The rest of me is a female version of my father. It’s a look that works much better for my brothers.
Some authors can’t find a decent way for the first person character to talk about how they look, but I think Holly pulls it off fine with Talyn (not that we know her name yet–that’s still to come). Even in a tight third person pov it’s hard to work in a character description unless the character is quite vain and thinks constantly about every hair being in place. These folks are more common in chick-lit than in fantasy, where the emphasis is generally much less on fashion. Come to think on it, that might be one reason un-fashionable me likes fantasy better!
From Holly’s opening page, we get a solid feeling for the setting and quite a bit about how the main character thinks (mostly by comparison to her companion, Pada). And there are hints of conflict to come. I’ve already admitted to this being a favored book of mine, so I guess it’s obvious I don’t think the data was dumped, but I’m curious what you think–and whether or not you’ve read Talyn.