"Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat."
To follow Shannon Hale's Squeetus summer book club for Princess Academy, here is the blog post for the first chapter she discusses:
Squeetus summer book club: Princess Academy, chapter 1
There was something about the visual from that very first sentence that made me like the book immediately. And the visuals continue with all the detailed descriptions throughout, describing the home that Miri lives in, the rest of the mountain, as well as the people living on the mountain.
One thing that I love about Shannon Hale's prose is her attention to detail (and lots of it) that let you see what's unfolding rather than just being told about action by one of the characters. The descriptions and analogies are awesome, and I only wish my vocabulary were that good.
The chapter begins with a narration describing life on Mount Eskel, a typical day, as well as diving into Miri's own personal belittle-ments (I know that's not a word, but whatever). The people of the mountain mine Linder for a living and almost everyone takes part in this work. Miri yearns to join her father and the rest of Mount Eskel in the quarry for this important work, but for her whole life, has been denied the opportunity. And because of this, she has always felt small and worthless (talk about a belittling complex).
We get a lot of visualizations of the beauty that is Miri's home village, from the quarry to the homes, and even the surrounding scenery. We meet a lot of the village girls immediately (also with strong visual descriptions unique to each girl) and then we even get to learn about Quarry Speech.
The chapter right away leads us into the main plot device of the book after giving a rather smooth, quick introductory of Mount Eskel and its people. We even get to meet Peder Doterson, a young boy who would be Miri's love interest, as we note the descriptions of how Miri feels those changes taking place like a school girl and her first crush. Of course, this side romance is set aside for later when the Princess Academy is formed and Miri, as well as all the young girls aged twelve to seventeen, will be taken to the Princess Academy to prepare for the Prince's decision.
Not being able to see each other all the time equals: no main romance. But for this particular plot device, it works even for a hopeless romantic like me.
I don't really have much to say about the first chapter that I didn't already say. It's very well paced and I am forever in love with Shannon Hale's prose and style. Of course, at times the dialogue reminds me that this book was written in the form of a fairy tale since a lot of the speech seems too formal and too unnatural to be "the way people actually talk." This isn't a book based on modern day society after all, so it's appropriate; it's more of an historical fairy tale type of book.
The humor, however, could be very easily lost on a lot of people. I, personally, am a person of dry sarcasm or smack-in-the-face simple humor. When you create a character who likes to make people laugh, the most difficult task is making sure that what this person says and does actually comes across as funny. Unfortunately, not everyone finds the same things humorous; and while silly stories about Bena's grandfather smashing a fly against his mouth and leaving it there might sound strange and cute, it may only elicit a laugh from few.
I like to think that, sometimes, when the character isn't purposefully trying to be funny... that's when the hilarity ensues. It's a natural humor that only seems funny because of the seriousness of the situation attached to a single sentence or moment that just stands out like a tickle.
For instance: In Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days there is one particular scene that had me chuckling. Dashti is fretting about the entirety of the situation wherein she and her lady are stuck in a tower with a depleting supply of food because now there are rats creating havoc. On top of that, Dashti has decided that escaping the tower and facing the guards who may no longer be present again is better than facing a starving death. And so in her writing she denotes the following:
[...] Just now, rat meat sounds as tasty as winter antelope.
Rat meat is not tasty.
What really got me about this particular entry was simply the way it was expressed. You have one day where she is exclaiming that rat meat sounds tasty and the very next beat (the next day) she confirms that rat meat is definitely NOT a delicacy. Maybe the entire context of the situation needs to be read to get the humor. I don't know; call me strange, but I found it funny as I also find a lot of Dashti's narration entertaining and humorous at all the right places. For the most part, it's because she is stuck in such a dire situation, but still has time to be sardonic about it.
But anyway, I digress...
As I already mentioned, the biggest factor of a Shannon Hale book that won my heart has always been her attention to detail and her smooth descriptions. The details, even the littlest of details, shows a reader that this author is indeed paying attention to the characters, setting, and culture she's created to go along with the story. It's not just the story line propelling the characters and the reader along, it's the little things that make you forget that you're reading a fictional telling of a bunch of characters "doing whatever the author has decreed." In Shannon Hale's case, her characters are typically living the stories to completion rather than just being dragged along for the ride.
First chapters are hard to write; if not done properly, it doesn't give the reader that hook that's necessary to continue on. While a lot of us have patience to give the book at least three or four chapters before dooming it, others don't have that kind of time. And so in terms of a first chapter scale which managed great introductory as well as plot progression and descriptive story telling, I would give Shannon Hale a rather high score. The first chapter isn't an immediate hook, but it doesn't drag on the set-up and is written beautifully.
The rest of my book blogging about Princess Academy will not necessarily be a chapter at a time, dependent on my mood and convenience. I'm probably going to try to read and enjoy it normally (and slowly) but I won't be blogging everyday just for the sake of blogging. I'll probably end up batching up a few chapters at a time every Monday or something like that (whatever works my fancy).