Monday, October 15, 2012
Seraphina - Rachel Hartman
Hartman’s first novel is bracketed as YA Fantasy – which is odd, since it feels so adult to me. And not in the sense of adult content (there's none of that, sadly) but in the sense of polish and scope. I was reminded of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, mainly in the elegant and effortless way Hartman world-builds without piling exposition onto the reader. This is a rare, rare talent, especially in fantasy, and startling in a new author.
Seraphina is Assistant Music Mistress in the royal court of Goredd, the countries capital. The city has been strained in the last forty years due to the humans new – and delicate – peace treaty with the dragons; mathematical, practical and ruthlessly efficient creatures who transform into human shape in order to better deal with their human allies. Things are at the point of boiling over when the story begins – a prince of realm has been discovered murdered in a way that implicates dragon involvement, and relations are starting to get ugly. Seraphina, in the midst of all this, hides a secret that isolates her from all her peers and binds her into permanent seclusion, with only her strange old friend Orma for company.
Seraphina as a character is a rare treat for those of us worn down by endless lines of clumsy, shy, remarkably unremarkable female protagonists – she is solitary out of necessity, has maturity befitting someone in a position of authority and is wary and smart. The aspects of her life that are non-human are handled by her with a sense of steely-eyed efficiency – when her mind, which does not function in a normal way, starts to become disarrayed (this makes more sense when you’ve read it), her distress is understandable but not overdone. She is older than her years, a touch socially awkward due to her self-imposed exile and her judgment calls and decisions are completely understandable.
There’s a strong political vibe to the text, and not in a negative way – the conflicts, when they happen, are rarely physical and the strained relationship between the humans and dragons reverberates through every interaction. And it’s a wise choice. Seraphina is a young girl and a musician and as far from a fighter as could be, and the story never stretches feasibility by having her suddenly capable of defending herself, a common mistake with fantasy (and to be fair, mainstream fiction).
My principle gripe has nothing to do with the story at all. Hartman does a wonderful job of building up and playing coy about the nature of Seraphina’s secret for many chapters, building the suspense as she goes. My copy – and the most commonly seen copy, as far as I can tell – reveals the secret on the front cover. It’s the absolute first thing you see. It’s an epic mistake and a mystifying choice.
My copy bears a commendation from Christopher Paolini, which amused me since this novel is so superior to his work. I do wish (selfishly) that Hartman had geared it older and added the extra level of grit that I think would have elevated this into fantasy must-read: it’s definitely in the league of the Robin Hobbs and Fiona McIntoshs. Sadly I think many will overlook this book because it’s been visually designed as a YA text and it’s common to assume that this excludes adult readers. I’d urge adult (and teenage) fantasy fans to pick this one up – a tentative sequel has been announced for 2013 and I for one am absolutely gunning for it.
Literary merit: 4.5/5, Guilty pleasure: 5/5.