Realistic fantasy

Mark,

I just finished reading (listening to, actually) Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. This is a book that you mentioned to me back when we started this blog two months ago.  In fact, looking back at that post, I see that you mentioned it right after discussing Margo Lanagan’s Brides of Rollrock Island. I find that interesting, because I think the two books have a lot in common, despite very different stories.

Both books are what I think of as “realistic fantasy.” That is, they are clearly set in fantasy worlds, i.e., worlds that are not our world. Yet both are set in worlds that are only a little bit different from our world. In Rollrock, it is, of course, the selkies, and the “witch” who is able to call the women out of the seals to become the brides for the islander men. In Seraphina, the world contains dragons, but not just any dragons: dragons who can be very dragon-y one minute, and can take human form the next. Yet in both cases, the worlds are close enough to ours that we can accept the fantasy elements and incorporate them into our minds without needing to constantly go back and look at a map or a glossary or some other aid.

I liked both books enormously, and we can talk about Rollrock in more detail later, if you like. But here are some of the things I thought were done well in Seraphina. For starters, the world-building was exceptional. As you (and Thomas) talked about in your post about Garth Nix, it is world-building that doesn’t take center stage, but that serves the story. I felt that I could see the places and things and people Hartman described: the town, the castle, the countryside–not to mention the dragons and the “grotesques” from Seraphina’s mind-garden. But despite the fact that she had to use made-up words to convey things like saarantras and  Pygegyria I didn’t get confused. I felt I learned a little about how the court worked, and about music in Goredd, and various other things, all in service to the story.

The story was great, as well, containing some mystery, some intrigue, some adventure, some romance, and some really terrific characters. There was a whole host of characters who were multi-dimensional. Seraphina, of course, and Kiggs, but also lesser characters, like the princess Glisselda, Seraphina’s father, and her tutor Orma.

It’s a great coming-of-age story, as Seraphina learns to accept who she is, and becomes willing to share that information with others. I liked that when Kiggs learned about her dragon blood, he went through a realistic process of coming to accept it–and her.

Thomas has said to me before that one of the flaws he finds in fantasy books is that the “magic” (whatever that is in the context of the book) is so often trite or inconsistent or flawed in some way. This is another place that Hartman excels. The dragons show that, but also Seraphina’s own version of “magic”–her ability to see the other half-breeds in her mind, and to converse with them. It’s just enough to make her unique without going overboard. And the way all of the half-dragons had some dragonish scales somewhere, but all in different places on their bodies–I loved that, and thought it was fascinating to think about how each one had had to come to his or her own way of disguising the scales and living with the differences.

And the writing was wonderful–gorgeous. Here’s a paragraph from the prologue:

My mother left me a complicated and burdensome inheritance. My father hid the dreadful details from everyone, including me. He moved us back to Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, and picked up his law practice where he had dropped it. He invented a more acceptable grade of dead wife for himself. I believed in her like some people believe in heaven.

So much here! Wonderful phrases: “a complicated and burdensome inheritance,” “a more acceptable grade of dead wife.” And in five sentences we learn a lot about both Seraphina and her father. Seraphina is different somehow, yet has a bit of a sense of humor about it all–or at least a sense of fatality. Her father is a lawyer, but has a past that he is hiding–maybe even from himself.

I’m not generally a big fan of series books, especially series fantasies, but I’m actually really looking forward to the future adventures of Seraphina, as she finds more of the half-dragons. I’m curious about what their skills are, and about how Hartman will weave those into another exciting story.

I’ll stop there, but I’d love to hear your thoughts–maybe you have some observations about the novel’s politics?

– Mom

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Realistic fantasy

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