Brandon Sanderson's novel Mistborn: the Final Empire begins with a brief italicized passage, spoken by the protagonist, which contains this sentence: "They say I will hold the future of the entire world on my arms." Wait — shouldn't that be either "in my arms" or "on my shoulders"? In idiomatic English people don't hold things on their arms: they might have tattoos or mosquito bites on their arms, but that's about it. What mental image arises when you hear the phrase "She held her young daughter on her arms"? Nobody goes to fantasy novels for literary style, of course, but still!
Lord knows I have perpetrated greater errors, but this kind of thing annoys me, especially when it comes at the beginning of a book, because it compromises my confidence in the writer’s attentiveness to his task — and readers need that confidence, especially when they're starting books by writers new to them.
Something similar happened to me a couple of years ago when I picked up the one-volume abridged edition of William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down. Here are the first two sentences of the book: “Death is ordinary. Behold it, subtract its patterns and lessons from those of the death that weapons bring, and maybe the residue will show what violence is.” Okay, let me work this through: Vollmann is asking me to take death tout court, death altogether, and subtract that from deaths that are brought about by the use of weapons. That is, he wants me to subtract a complete set from one of its subsets. Doesn't this leave the conceptual equivalent of a negative number? He can't mean what he’s saying here. He can only mean that if you subtract “the patterns and lessons” of nonviolent death from the patterns and lessons of death altogether (the whole set) you will be able to learn something about violent death. (Note also that he is equating “violent death” with “death caused by weapons,” which is wrong but at least is a comprehensible statement.) In other words, Vollmann didn’t even come close to saying what he meant. Didn't get within a mile of it. And this is how he starts his book!
How much farther did I get into Rising Up and Rising Down? That’s it. No further. Which is probably foolish of me. But I just didn't have any confidence that a guy who can so completely butcher the first sentences of his book would take significant care with the rest of it.
I’m moving ahead with Sanderson, though. A hundred pages in, the story has real potential, even if he writes in that wooden way that’s so common in fantasy and science fiction. I’m not totally unforgiving. Besides, in the first few pages a character was introduced who has a curious network of scars . . . um . . . on his arms. So maybe that fifth sentence of the book wasn't a slip after all? Maybe it's possible to pass judgment too quickly . . . ?