Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Hooray! I read an almost-contemporary book!

And now I have to feel all nervous about reviewing it, as the author is neither incalculably rich and famous nor too dead to use the internet. Ah well. As normal in these cases I’ll try to give a fairly straightforward and to-the-point opinion so as to reduce any potential offense.

 

What is this?

It’s a relatively low-magic fantasy novel, set in a typical faux-European world, this time with a time period that feels sometime around the renaissance. It’s hard to say exactly – military elements suggest later middle ages (they don’t use guns, for instance), but some court elements suggest early modern, even enlightenment. Perhaps ‘generic historic Europe’ will do. The distinguishing feature are the dragons who live in areas neighbouring the setting country. These are unusually depicted as… well, Vulcans, to be honest. We could say “people with generic sort-of-Asperger’s”, but yeah, no, they’re Vulcans with wings. Who can take human shape.

The protagonist – and first-person narrator – is a young woman, a musician, and the story is just as much her personal story as it is a story of the world around her. She is very unique and special, but has dificulty recognising her own wonderfulness. There is also a man present for her to fall (almost) instantly in love with, though a number of misunderstandings complicate their relationship.

It’s not advertised as part of a series, but apparently there is a sequel. Certainly going by the ‘external’ plot it feels overwhelmingly like the start of a series… but the protagonist’s ‘internal’ arc feels at a point by the end of it where I wouldn’t have been wholly shocked if the author had left off right there.

It’s sometimes advertised as a YA novel, apparently. I don’t know why, but then I don’t understand YA. The protagonist is young, I guess, but is that really all it takes these days to be YA? After all, going by that, 90% of classic fantasy should be called ‘YA’… anyway, I guess there’s nothing egregiously non-YA about this, so whatever. [Not that I really know what’s non-YA either, to be honest. I don’t think I was ever a Young Adult in the marketing sense. I just read whatever seemed interesting]

What is good about this?

Hartman has a (generally) unpretentious, easy style, with some good moments of prose. It has dragons in it, and music, although to be honest I wasn’t entirely convinced by the music-talk, and I’d also have liked it to have been more important. It is generally well-constructed; its greatest asset is its pacing, with short chapters and constant events (even if not all of them are important) pulling the reader through. I stayed up later than I should have done to finish it. Hartman also has a number of good ideas along the way, mostly about setting but some about character; the plot is nothing new, but it feels fresh enough and it’s handled well (though it got a bit by-the-numbers at the end). I thought one of the characters was interesting. The author does at least attempt to write dragons as alien intelligences. The focus on characters and relationships is welcome; it reminded me at times of Robin Hobb in that regard – without, certainly, the brilliance of Hobb, but then this is apparently Hartman’s first novel, so some latitude maybe should be given. The characters are all generally likeable.

 

What is not good about this?

I was more reminded of Anne McCaffery, and not wholly in a good way. The protagonist reminded me of a much less sympathetic version of Menolly – the musical elements help in that regard, of course, though they’re more convincing in Pern – who could easily have wandered onto screen at any moment. That is, Seraphina is a bit of a Mary Sue, instantly wonderful at everything – sometimes naturally, sometimes preternaturally. She’s not the worst example of this by far, certainly, but it is an element there. And, like Menolly, her effusive and continual expressions of self-doubt do not quite cover over the basic arrogance of her actions.

It occurs to me that this is a bit like those job interview questions. You know, where you’re asked “what’s your biggest weakness” and you say “I work sometimes work too hard” or something else that isn’t really a weakness. Likewise, I find the excuse “I’m not a Mary Sue – look how humble and self-effacing I am!” unpersuasive. In fact that makes it much worse. If someone’s just great, I can move on – maybe we’re reading about them because they’re great. But the humble greatness – it means we constantly have to have everyone else in the book telling us how great she is. Until (spoiler!) eventually she agrees. Come on book, yes, I get that she’s the best person in the world and I can accept that for the sake of a good story, but that really isn’t the aspect you want to be harping on about every couple of the pages.

Maybe that’s what’s YA about it. Maybe it’s meant to help teenagers confront their self-doubt. But then it would have made more sense to have made the character likeable but ordinary (like most people). Having a character being able to defeat their self-doubt because really they’re already wonderful and intelligent and talented and good and nice and wonderful and perfect, and everybody else knows this… that kind defeats the point, doesn’t it? Likewise the elements of prejudice, where on the one hand the prejudice is sort of there to justify her self-doubt, but on the other hand nobody important would have those prejudices obviously so (at least so far) it’s never of any actual (rather than imagined) significance. Prejudice is fine for a book, but at least make it have real practical effects, not just through excess self-doubt. In particular, I’m just not sure that a book featuring a self-harmer that sets out from the beginning to show how self-harm might actually be a good idea and make sense in some cases is really a great idea. I’m torn between not liking this element because it feels fundamentally wrong-headed and supportive of self-harm, and not liking it because it feels shoehorned in to be ‘relevant’ to a teenage crowd who it is to be imagined are all into that sort of thing. And either way I felt that it was in a way only skin deep (no pun intended, for those who have read the novel): Seraphina reads like a teenager who is overly popularity-conscious, she doesn’t really read like someone who has been living with debilitating self-esteem issues her whole life. For intance, she’s friendly, forthright, outspoken (but not in a bitter or arrogant or even defiant way), not risk-averse at all, and willing to put herself in potentially awkward social situations that even most normal adults would quail at. Now, on the one hand I do get that she’s helped by a lifetime of lying about things – but you can’t sell me the crippling self-doubt when she’s clearly only afflicted by it at plot-convenient times. I just don’t buy that – I don’t buy her as a carefree, ‘fuck it all’ risk-seeking conman sort of girl, and I don’t buy her as a tearful self-harming ‘but what will the boys think of me’ second-guessing woe-is-me-I’m-not-special type either, in large part because I don’t feel Hartman even tries to sell me on how those two interpretations are meant to fit together (nor on the idea that they’re not meant to). Instead it feels like some teen angst slapped on the side of an otherwise flawless character, but carefully not in ways that would get in the way of the plot. A serious deep-seated psychological problem could be interesting, but a ‘problem’ that doesn’t really define the character and that can in the end be quickly done away with without seemingly transforming the character in a major way is just… angst for the sake of angst. [Though perhaps this point may be redeemed somewhat if a sequel shows us a very different Seraphina once she has digested these events].

Similarly with prejudice. This could be a book about facing prejudice, or about social outcasts, or about the construction of ‘deviant’ identities, and culture clash and inheritence and maybe even colonialism if she wanted… but it isn’t. Which is a pity because actually I’ld like to read that book. But instead that side of things is all just… skin deep, again. Superficial. [There are so many hooks that are left underutilised here!]

Anyway, all this would probably be fine for me in the background, but as the central arc it felt a little façile. Likewise, the romance. Now, to be fair, there was a span of about twenty pages where I thought she might take the romance in an unexpected direction, and I’m not totally sure that she isn’t going to go there in the sequel. In which case, chapeau. But for the most part it’s a totally uninspired, by-the-book and predictable business. More importantly, it’s too central. Not that a romance can’t be central to a book! Despite being a male reader who says ‘bah humbug’ a lot and is scornful of romcoms and romance novels and the like… I actually like romance plots. Actually, I really like romance plots. [And several of my favourite films are romcoms… they just aren’t films that people normally think of as romcoms]. The problem is, this romance plot doesn’t deserve to be as central as it is. This isn’t primetime material, this is ‘that minor romance that the sidekick is having in the background’ level of material. In particular, I’m struck by what seems to be the how little authors seem to think of women in novels. If the protagonist were male, at least a little effort would go into showing why he’s in love with the girl – sure, it would be simplistic and probably involve her being unrealistic, perfect-yet-mysterious and so on but it would probably be there. But a female protagonist? Well, he’s male, he’s pretty in a nondescript way, he’s not offensive to talk to, he seems interested, he’s got a sword and horse and probably a large penis… what more could you want, girls? Any faint hint of characterisation (beyond one derivative monologue about his childhood near then end of the book)? Oh, and a tendency to stalk the heroine? He must be perfect romantic material! [In his defence, he was a creepy stalker mostly when they were both children and he saw her once at a distance and got obsessed with her, and I don’t think has done a lot of stalking of her in recent years… but even so, I’m still a little baffled that “we haven’t met but I know all about you did you know what your grandmother’s gravestone says I do because I researched you as a child and I sent someone all the way to another country to make rubbings of the headstones of your relatives for me even though nobody else in this town has any idea who you are” is apparently considered an acceptable, even romantic, line for a first or second date! But apparently it is. Can I say ‘bah humbug’ again at this point?]

Anyway, this isn’t a romance novel per se, but the romance subplot is too prominent for its depth. Which in some ways is a shame, because a brief glimpse we get of another romance shows that Hartman can write good romantic material – just not this time. [Come to think of it, the main pairing is at the very most only the third most interesting romantic duo. Possibly fourth? And none of the others get much more than a paragraph, so that’s not saying much]

But then, in defence of the character I’ve just impugned… this lack of depth basically applies to everybody. Aside from the protagonist/narrator, who isn’t all that interesting but narrators/protagonists get a bit of a free pass, there’s one, arguably two, vaguely interesting characters, and even they don’t feel totally unique. Everyone else is absolutely familiar, and almost entirely devoid of depth, complexity or interest. The fact that most people are likeable is also a problem: because everyone (except maybe some dragons) is either basically good (almost everyone), in which case they’re also basically likeable, or just plain bad (a few people), in which case they’re just plain bad.

Maybe that’s what they mean by ‘YA’. ‘YA’ these days does seem mostly to be used as an excuse – oh, it doesn’t need three-dimensional characters, it’s YA. But there’s no warning label on my copy saying “do not read if you have more than three braincells”, so I reserve the right to grumble, damnit.

[Oh, hang-on, maybe it does. The author-quote on the front is by Christopher Paolini. To be honest, that would probably have been enough to have ensured I never read the thing, if I hadn’t hear such glowing recommendations from others]

I was unconvinced by her dragons. Now, to the author’s credit I was much closer to being convinced by the end of the novel than I was at the start. A fair portion of which conversion was due to the single description of dragons as “feral file clerks”. But I never actually got to the point of being convinced. Part of that was that I didn’t feel dragon society as depicted really made sense or felt deep or real – although it certainly did have a couple of great ideas behind it. And part of it was just that the “non-humans who are super-intelligent but cannot understand emotion, metaphor, sarcasm or humour” is sooo cliché, and so fundamentally ridiculous (well, I’ll maybe grant you the humour bit) that it would take a really good treatment to sell me that one. Hartman gives it a better go that I was expecting, but not good enough to sell that.

Speaking of cliché, a minor but to me highly annoying thing was the sheer fantasyness of the names. I know it isn’t important, but please pick what you’re going for, don’t have names and words from random different languages stuck together, it makes it look a bit silly. [At least, if you do that you need to do a better job of explaining the cultural differences]. On which note, the horrible eye-accents, please no. [And Lars? We know you’re not really Lars, you’re really Igor, and you have wandered in from a Pratchett novel’s parody Transylvania]. And sort of related to this: I’m not entirely sold on the narrative voice, which seems at one moment very archaic and/or elevated (e.g. refering to someone’s “sinister hand” rather than their “left”) and at another sounds very contemporary and down-to-earth.

Finally, one part of the book is based on a big gimmick, and it feels like the beginning of a big gimmicky-quest based on a gimmick, and it also leads to some WTF moments in the plotting near the end. As it turns out, it’s basically entirely superfluous to the plot (other than providing yet another reason why the heroine is Wonderful and Important) – but in a way that’s worse. As with the Mary Sue thing – OK, a cheesy gimmick is sometimes necessary for the plot. But when you’ve got a big cheesy gimmick that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the plot… why do we need it? [It’s possible that that’s going to be the basis of further installments. In which case I’ll sigh and go along with it, because I can see how it can provoke some good plot points, and some enjoyable moments.]

 

So what do I think?

Err… despite all the above, I mostly quite liked it. Like I said above: likeableish characters, some good ideas, pacing keeps things going by too quickly to really get caught up too much in the flaws. It’s a generally likeable, enjoyable book.

I’m struck, coincidentally, by the comparison with the last book I read, Dance of the Dead, another book about a strangely wonderful young woman with a prominent romantic subplot, but from twenty years ago, in a different era of the genre. In almost every technical way, Seraphina is a better book. But which will I look more kindly on when I look back on them? As a book – that is, discounting the possibility of Seraphina being the start of a better series – probably Dance of the Dead, to be honest. For one thing, other than the setting, the Ravenloft novel seems to have thought about each element just a little more than Seraphina (the villains are certainly more memorable, and the stupid love plot actually has some reasoning behind it). Plus the stakes are much, much higher and there’s more willingness to go dark (because it’s Ravenloft!). But the big thing may be that Seraphina takes itself more seriously. It’s got good ideas, it’s got relationships, it’s got a whole heck of a lot of angst. [OK, it probably doesn’t help that the whole “I don’t think people would like me if they knew all about me… therefore I don’t like myself” thing is an emotional beat I literally cannot empathise with in the slightest. I get not living up to your own standards, and I get being worried about being judged by others… but self-loathing on the grounds of what other people think? I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but that’s just something I viscerally do not understand the concept of.]

But a dumb adventure with a sky-high deathcount is an easy thing to approach with a certain swagger and a certain disregard for finesse. When you’re dealing with relationships and angst, I think you need more depth – partly because these things are character-based which means you need to base them on actual characters, and partly just because angst is just something that invites more thought and scrutiny than adventure.

But maybe part of that is just me. What I will say is that this is a proficient novel, for a first novel, and that there is enough promise shown here to suggest the possibility of the author’s later novels becoming very good indeed. This one, however, is in my opinion just an enjoyable read if you like this kind of stuff and are willing not to be too critical as you read. I can’t say I understand the effusive praise that has been lavished on it – not so much because it’s offensively bad, but just that I think it’s clear how much untapped potential there is in it, how many ways it could have been better. In some ways, that “yeah, but I wish…” thing is more frustrating than an objectively worse book that is all that it can be. If you tried to make Dance of the Dead a better book you’d mostly have to write the whole thing from scratch, which sort of forces you to take it as it is. Seraphina could have been a really good book if it did what it did but a little bit better. And that’s always going to be galling. But of course, untapped potential goes both ways: there’s a lot more promise about this book than there was about Dance of the Dead. I want to see where she goes from here.

[Tangentially I suppose, the book this most reminds me of is Blue Moon Rising, by Simon R Green, and I wonder how that book would be received today. The direct parallels are few, so I’m not certain why I’m linking them… I think it’s the way that Green is taking some cliché generic fantasy and pushing it just a little harder, and taking some fairly bland, shallow characters and making them go just a bit further, and mixing the generic fantasy with more interesting, specific notes. And maybe the fact they’re both debuts. Seraphina certainly isn’t as good as that novel in its good bits; on the other hand, it lacks the really annoying attempts at genre humour that Green indulges in, and is more consistent overall.]

So where am I? I’m left not regretting that I read it, but not praising it to the rafters either. I’m left pretty sure that I’m going to read the sequel, and I’m left with Hartman in the ‘authors to observe with interest’ column. I think it depends where she chooses to go from here: if she takes the good and leaves the bad and wants to improve, I think she has the talent and imagination to go exciting places. If she just wants to keep writing books at this level, though, I suspect she’ll be one of those authors whose books I always sort of enjoy, but where I just loose interest and wander off after a couple.

 

Scores:

Adrenaline: 4/5. Never really a thriller, but it dragged me through at an unflagging pace.

Emotion: 3/5. The emotional predicaments did hit home… but their lack of depth prevented them from landing as hard as they might have done. In particular, angst is a lot more powerful when you have more consideration of its origins, or when you have more consideration of its consequences. Yes, in theory there were logical reasons for the angst here, but they felt so distant and shallow and unthreatening that it mostly came across as “I’m a teenager look at me be angsty and self-harming because I’m worried boys won’t like me… but don’t worry, I’ll get over it later and everything will be good. Oh, what’s that, the fate of the entire world is at stake? Yeah yeah that’s interesting but let’s talk a bit more about my angst…”.

Thought: 2/5. May be a little harsh, maybe not. The themes aren’t interesting or novel, the plot is fairly predictable (the halfhearted whodunnit element no more succesful than halfhearted whodunnits normally are – I think a good mystery is something you have to throw yourself into, not tack on to the side). The dragons end up looking like they could be interesting in a sequel, yes, but we don’t explore them enough in this book.

Beauty: 3/5. There were one or two times I went ‘hey, that’s a good line’, and one or two times I went ‘hmm, that wasn’t the best line’, and most of the time it was pleasant but unremarkable. Nothing particularly poignant in the plot or striking in the imagery that I can remember.

Craft: 3/5. As I say, a mixed bag. On the one hand, a whole bunch of problems. On the other hand, it worked surprisingly well for a book with that many problems: it’s a very easy read, and as someone who’s tried writing I know how hard it is to write an easy read! It feels natural, which is almost always a sign of great labour and sophistication.

Endearingness: 4/5. Yes yes, I know, I’ve been very critical. But it was an enjoyable light read, and it’s just…. strangely likeable. Irritating, but strangely likeable.

Originality: 2/5. Making dragons into Vulcans is a little bit new, though not entirely. Plot and characters were very familiar. On the other hand, the style of the thing – more focus on the personal than the epic – was interesting, and likewise the first-person narration.

 

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. My awareness that there’s a degree of not-for-me-ness to this book I think for me nudges it over the line from ‘not bad’ to ‘good’… but only just. This may seem odd, given how critical I’ve been (that ‘short and inoffensive’ thing didn’t really work out, did it?), but actually that’s maybe the point: I can point out where it went wrong, but have a hard time pointing out where it went right, even though clearly it did. I think that – due either to luck or, I hope, to the ability of the author, the novel excelled its limitations. I just wish those limitations hadn’t been there in the first place to weigh it down.

I think this is an example of a theory I’ve long had, which is that a good book can in theory be a very simple thing: a vaguely likeable character, a vaguely interesting plot, more or less unobjectionable prose, and a not-offputting narrative voice (and it really does help here, I think, that the protagonist is also the narrator – I get the feeling she would be much less sympathetic in the third person)… and [spoiler redacted]’s your uncle! You don’t have to be perfect to be good.

So as a book, taken as it is, this is a good book I think. Certainly I enjoyed reading it, at the time. It’s just that unfortunately it’s not as good as it sometimes thinks it should be (or as good as some reviewers think it is, in my opinion), and that’s left me a little frustrated with it.

But you know, there’s a great cure for the frustration a reader can feel at the potential squandered by the first book of a series: writing better sequels! I’m almost certainly going to be reading the sequel to this, and I guess that’s an endorsement in its own right.

Finally, despite my humbuggery about the whole ‘YA’ thing above… this book probably will appeal more to teenagers. A lack of broader reading experience would probably make this seem more original than it is, and children are always apt to confuse raising a topic with addressing it, which would probably make the book seem a lot deeper than it is as well. And on a social point of view, while I have no time in the slightest for the ‘you have to write more books with female protagonists or you’re a misogynist’ line of thought, I do think it’s good to have fantasy novels with likeable young female protagonists who (self-harm and stalker-cipher love-at-first-sight aside) aren’t total idiots.

Although in that regard it probably doesn’t help that I’m reading Jingo at the same time and can’t help but imagine what Angua’s reaction to Seraphina would be. Or indeed the reaction of Susan, Granny, Nanny… even Agnes for that matter though there’s more crossover there. [Maybe I’m just a hell of a lot more sympathetic to those who conquer their fears about the opinions of others with “hey, it doesn’t matter so long as I like myself” than those who do it with “oh, everyone DOES love me! That’s OK then!”]

Anyway, this would probably appeal a bit more to a younger audience. [Though let’s be honest, I like it now but when I was a teenager I would have hated it. I’m a lot more childish now than I was as a child, and a lot more sympathetic toward childishness. I wonder if the real market here would not be young people themselves (who are often eager to become older people and as a result can be scathing of those who try to infantilise them), but older people who want to recapture what they imagine they were like as young people…]

AND FINALLY: as a Robin Hobb fan, I’d just like to say that while I’m irritated by the facility of the book, I’m glad that it’s possible to make bestsellers out of this more personal style of fantasy. As I may have made clear above, I’m not convinced that this is the way to go about writing a character-focused fantasy novel, but I am glad that people are at least trying.

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