Anatomy of a Book Opening: Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

A good novel will hook its reader from the first page. A great novel will lay out the themes and central conflict(s) within the first chapter. Here, I take a look at some of my favourite books, explaining why I believe their openings work so well.

Daughters of Night is the sequel to Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s award-winning debut Blood & Sugar. It features some of the original cast, but centres on a new murder mystery that takes place a few years after the first. The setting is late eighteenth century London.

Opening Lines

In the wrong hands a secret is a weapon.

Daughters of Night, page 1

While this opener doesn’t blow me out the water, it does succinctly convey what I’ll find in this historical crime novel: deception, peril, mystery, opposing (manipulative/hidden) forces.

Establishing Setting

Taking a ginger comfit from her enamelled pillbox…

Muslin, lace and brocade hemmed her in on every side; jewelled buttons flashing on embroidered waistcoats; pastel shades of periwig and kid glove; silver buckles glinting in the light of a thousand beeswax candles that filled the domed roof of the Rotunda with their honeyed scent.

Daughters of Night, page 1

Fashion and lighting are an easy way to establish time period for the reader. From this description of clothing we know we’re in the Georgian period: pre-gaslamp lighting, periwigs and embroidered waistcoats. It’s not subtle, but it’s not supposed to be. In the opening lines the author wants to set the tone of the book for the reader without causing confusion. I also know that this book is set in Georgian high society, since it seems to be opening with a depiction of a fancy party.

Her skin was hot as Hades.

Daughters of Night, page 2

In her Historical Note at the end of the book, Shepherd-Robinson explains that the Georgian fascination with classical mythology is one of the themes of her book. Deploying a classical metaphor in the opening pages is an obvious way to alert canny readers to the fact. The party that Caro, the protagonist, is attending is to celebrate the exhibition of an artist’s classical paintings.

The Authorial Flex

Before Caro stretched a fantasy-land: ten thousand lights adorning the trees and the supper-boxes and the Chinese pavilion.

Daughters of Night, page 2

Part of the reason we read historical fiction is to get lost in another era. Readers want a sensory experience; one that is accurate to the period in question. With her description of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Shepherd-Robinson is showing that she’s done her research into Georgian London and can deliver the sensory detail readers crave. I don’t just get a historically accurate depiction of the gardens: Shepherd-Robinson manages to evoke the wonder visitors would feel walking through the Gardens at night.

Her lips parted, her words a whisper: ‘He knows.’

Daughters of Night, page 6

This is a hefty paperback book at 559 pages, but within the first 6 pages we’ve witnessed the inciting incident: a woman murdered in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

Introducing the Protagonists

Walk away and do it like you mean it.

Peregrine Child rose from the table and crossed the tavern floor. Eyes focussed on the sawdust-strewn floorboards, he counted the seconds as he walked. One…two…three…

‘Thirteen guineas,’ Jenny Wren said.

Daughters of Night, page 7

My favourite fictional character is Samuel Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. So it shouldn’t be surprising that what really hooked me into Daughters of Night was the action-packed introduction of Child in chapter 2.

What I mean is that I love complex, cynical, morally grey, washed-up dudes slightly past their prime, who still manage to kick ass because they’re still sharp under their mountain of flaws. Child appeared in Shepherd-Robinson’s preceding novel as a minor character, so I was excited to see he’d have POV chapters in this one.

For me, this chapter is where Daughters of Night goes from having my curiosity to having my attention. Although the first chapter introduces Caro, we don’t get that close to her: we learn she has a dangerous secret, and that she has a bit of disdain for the high society she seems to be a part of – but that doesn’t do much to illustrate her personality or goals. The purpose of chapter 1 isn’t really to introduce Caro as a character, so much as establish the stakes (Caro’s unspecified secret) and the murder that kicks the story off. And I mean, I picked this book up knowing it was a historical crime thriller in which somebody was murdered, my reaction to the inciting incident is ‘Yup, that looks like a murder – good job, exactly what I was expecting to read about.’

In the 5 pages that make up chapter 2, we see Child successfully negotiate with a thief to get his client’s watch back, land a punch on a pickpocket trying to grab his purse, then get beaten up and threatened by Irish moneylenders.

‘I might be drunk,’ Child said, ‘but I’ve thirty years’ practice. Diligence in what you do, lad. That’s the key.’

Daughter of Night, page 10

We learn Child is a disgraced ex-magistrate, that he’s an alcoholic (which leads to lapses in his judgement), that he’s tough and streetwise, and that he’s a smart-arse.

That does it for me.

We also get a simple, compelling motivation for Child: he’s in debt, and has a week to find enough money to repay his vicious creditors. Even if we don’t know what Cato wants (yet), her male counterpart has enough motivation to carry the early chapters.


While the Georgian London setting is a little unusual, Shepherd-Robinson hits the key murder mystery beats within the first 10 pages that set the story in motion, with a nice tie-in to Daughters of Night’s overarching themes.

Published by standrewslynx

International Chemist and Adventurer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: