Friday, 21 February 2014
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Early on, I thought this could be a 5-star book. It almost missed out on the fifth star, barely, because it somehow wasn't as compelling as I felt it could have been, but on balance I awarded the extra star for beautiful writing, an admirable protagonist, good worldbuilding and a well-constructed plot.
It's certainly a well-edited book. I spotted five errors: two sentences joined by a comma-splice; an excess closing quotation mark partway through a speech; the use of the word "palpated" in place of "palpitated"; a missing comma before a term of address; and a missing apostrophe in the phrase "goat's beard". If you follow my reviews, you'll know that it's usual for me to find a number of errors in double figures even in books that have been professionally edited, so this is a mark of an author who makes few errors, an editor who catches many, or some combination.
In addition, the language is often beautiful, going beyond efficient prose to something more literary. There's even one of my personal favourite things, a made-up phrase that is clearly a cliche in the setting, though it isn't one in our world: "Don't pay Pau-Henoa until he gets you to the other side," which in context means "don't count your chickens before they're hatched" or "don't jinx it".
The voice of the first-person protagonist, wry, even sarcastic, is wonderfully done. She's a pragmatic person who doesn't take herself too seriously; when she falls off her bed while ill and wakes up on the floor, the first thing she notices is that she needs to clean under the bed more often. She's decisive, practical and courageous, and I never felt that other people's admiration for her was forced by the author (as is far too often the case). She merited admiration.
She has a secret, the kind of thing that you have to conceal from everyone lest they despise you, and the author does a fine job of putting us in the head of someone in that situation: the constant vigilance, the threat of exposure, the self-doubt shading to self-hatred, the lack of trust in others. "I couldn't tell her that lying wasn't so much something I did as something I was," she says. The story isn't just an adventure, it's a story with meaning beyond itself, a story about the human condition as well as about these particular people.
That brings me, indirectly, to what I thought was weakest in the book, which very nearly lost it the fifth star. Even though the plot involved plenty of conflict and threat and taking action to avert bad consequences (sometimes unsuccessfully), I felt it lacked a sense of urgency somehow. I can't put my finger on exactly why. Clearly, a book can't simultaneously have literary depth and be a fast-paced thriller (at least, I've never seen this done, and I can't imagine how it would be), but the pacing, or the emotional tone, or something seemed a bit languid to me, despite the high stakes (personal and political). Maybe the wry, pragmatic tone of the narration works against the urgency that a more self-dramatising narrator would convey.
The worldbuilding is interesting. Even though a lot of elements clearly come from Renaissance Europe, they're given sufficient twists that it's not just cultural copypasta; it's "inspired by" rather than "based on". There are hints that the dragons have a high level of technology, beyond what the humans are equipped to understand. (I didn't mention the dragons? There are dragons. They're magnificent, even when taking human shape, and they struggle with the relative value of rationality and emotion.)
The ending, while a resolution, isn't a neat, everything-tied-up resolution. It has dimensions and layers and possibilities and built-in conflict for the next book - which I will definitely be looking for.
"We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful," says Seraphina, near the end. That's the book in a sentence. Read it, and find out why.
View all my reviews