Seraphina’s Lament by Sarah Chorn: Beautiful, moving, and brutal. You haven’t read anything like this fantasy.

I just reread this, and it doesn’t cover everything I wanted to, but it’s approaching that length where it becomes untenable — and I really don’t have time to add the 3-5 paragraphs that I want to (and who knows what else I’d think of when I open the floodgates). It’s a good start, anyway…

Seraphina's LamentSeraphina’s Lament

by Sarah Chorn
Series: The Bloodlands, #1

eARC, 342 pg.
2019

Read: February 12 – 15, 2018


I just don’t know that I can do an adequate job describing this book — actually, I do know that I can’t do an adequate job describing this book. But I can sort of explain things enough that you might get an idea if this book is for you. Maybe.

This takes place in some sort of Fantasy World, one rich in magic — elemental magic. There are those with Fire Magic, Earth Magic, Animal magic — and so on It’s hard to tell just ow the various people use their magic — but you get an idea that the world was full of a lot of magic that just isn’t working any more. The planet seems to be dying and one of the first signs was that fewer people were showing signs of magic and those who had it couldn’t use it has they could before. That right there is a great hook for a fantasy story — but for this book, it feels like it might be the seventh or eighth most important thing to know.

There’s a little bit of chicken and egg to this situation — did the economic and political upheaval happen because of the dying magic, or is they dying magic a response to the upheaval? I don’t think the book answers the question and I think I could argue for both positions (I’ve only read the book once, and I might be forgetting the one or two lines that definitively answer this question). The dynasty that had ruled The Sunset Lands was toppled by revolutionary forces — collectivist rebels seeking to remake not just the government, but society as a whole. After the Revolution, the Premier ends up pushing the citizens into collective farms and mines to provide for the nation as a whole. This is met with resistance, counter-revolutionary movements and problems. As the world dies, as the magic that aided people in both industries fades, the situation gets worse and people are pushed to desperate actions — and things that are even beyond desperation — just to survive.

In the midst of all this we focus on a few people — one farmer who lost everything, his home, his family, his hope. Seraphina, the title character, a personal prisoner of the premier, a slave that he spends years tormenting and crippling. Her twin brother, who escaped from the premier because of Seraphina’s sacrifice. We also meet others who offer aid and succor to as many as they can — food, shelter, assistance fleeing from the government’s forces — they’re dubbed counter-revolutionaries, and while they might aspire to that, they basically just help people live a little longer. We also, of course, spend a lot of time with the Premier — who can do nothing to prevent the collapse of his world and his society, but puts all his efforts into it. Lastly, we see the sleeping gods of this world awaken to watch the approaching end. I don’t feel comfortable enough talking about the characters in any more detail than that — they will grab your heart, break your heart, inspire and frighten you.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews that use the phrase “grimdark” to describe this book. Maybe I’m being restrictive in the way I use the term, but I don’t see the book in that model. It’s a different kind of dark, if you ask me (there’s a torturer that I can imagine Abercrombie’s Glotka accusing of going too far). This novel feels like it’s a few steps beyond dystopia, when the status quo of unjust society, environmental woes, extreme poverty are looked back on by people in a sense of “remember when we still had a chance to turn things around?” One character prepares for death and thinks back on his full and happy life. My notes focused on that “happy” with an all caps, “HOW?” Yet somehow, and I wish I could give a reason for this, somehow the book never becomes burdensome to read, you’re never thinking, “I’ve got to trudge through how many pages before we can get to some resolution?” You don’t want to see more tragedy befall the characters you know, you don’t want to face another interlude where you see the horrors that other characters face, where society breaks down further, where taboos disappear like a mist. But you can’t stop reading this book, you can’t help but read on.

This comes down to the way that Chorn tells the story, the language she uses to talk about the heartbreak, the horror, the tragedy, the atrocities, everything. So often, she’d be talking about life being pain, and death being the release in ways that elevated the idea, that seemed new and revolutionary, yet so true, so familiar that you intuitively related to the sentiment. It’s not right of me to talk about this without examples — but I have an ARC, so I can’t quote from it (and even if I had a published version, I don’t know that I could’ve picked just one or two examples — I’d have had a hard time limiting myself to a dozen favorites). There’s a lyrical, poetic quality to the language. There’s a humanity that infuses every nook and cranny of this novel in a way that I can’t imagine not appealing to readers.

Before I forget, I want to talk about this cover a little bit. Is that not one of the most disturbing images you’ve seen lately? When Chorn’s publicist approached me about reading this book, I (mostly) jokingly said something about having to read this book just to get the image out of my brain — like you have to listen to an earworm all the way through to get it dislodged from your brain. It’s a perfect cover for this book.

This isn’t a perfect book — there were times I wondered if she’d gone to far with the depravity expressed by one character or another. The repeated uses of “closure” as in a character getting or needing “closure” or “moving on,” seemed out of place for this world — the same for “survivor’s guilt.” And honestly I have no problem with the conventional wisdom of a world like this having a concepts similar to those, but talking about it in the psychological language of late 20th/early 21st century seems odd to me. The Yeats allusion really struck me as unsuitable. (any of these might have been addressed in the final edits and might not appear in the final copy). None of these ruined a scene or a moment for me, but they did all cause me to take a beat and ask, “really?” It’s nothing significant, but they all felt inappropriate in this setting.

Time and time again while reading this book, I was struck by how unique, how unusual this experience was — I hadn’t felt like this since I read Darrell Drake’s A Star-Reckoner’s Lot a couple of years ago. Which doesn’t say much to most readers, because it’s a criminally unknown book. So I stretched my memory some more and came up with N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as having a similar impact on the way I thought about the story, and how unusual it feels compared to other fantasies I’ve read. The experience of reading this isn’t something I’ll forget any time soon.

Now, this is the first book of a trilogy, and I’m left totally unprepared for the second book. The middle book of a trilogy is where things are supposed to take a turn for the worse, leaving the reader wondering where the story is going to be able to take a turn for the better. I don’t see how things can get worse from this point, how there’s more chaos, more destruction, more peril possible. Which means that Chorn’s going to have to cast off traditional story structure, or pull a rabbit out of her hat (well, probably a few nests’ worth). Maybe both. I’m eager to see how she accomplishes book two.

But to focus on this book — this is a special fantasy. Beautiful, moving, and brutal. Read it.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this novel from the author, it didn’t impact my opinion beyond giving me something to have an opinion about..

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4 1/2 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

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Chalk by Paul Cornell

ChalkChalk

by Paul Cornell

Kindle Edition, 206 pg.
Tor.com, 2017

Read: May 5 – 8, 2017

There are kids who went through school experiences like mine who will never watch football, and there are those who end up playing for Arsenal. Okay, who will end up with season tickets. Stockholm syndrome will only take you so far.

Enough about what I am now. That comes later.

Everyone keeps talking about this as a story about bullying — sure, there’s a little bullying here. But mostly, that’s like saying that Hannibal Lecter enjoys an unconventional diet. What happens to Andrew Waggoner is so far beyond bullying — it’s flat out assault (but with a psychological component that matches bullying). After a Halloween dance, Waggoner is forced into the woods by the school bullies and is assaulted. Somehow, his trauma links him to some long-dormant forces who take the opportunity to reassert themselves. One manifestation of the mystical/magical works with (compels? coerces? convinces?) Waggoner to take his revenge against those who permanently scarred him mentally and physically.

And over the next 12 months, that’s just what happens — Waggoner and/or his mystical companion (it’s never clear exactly how much is done by each) exact their revenge — Waggoner vacillates in his commitment to this project, and comes close to stopping on many occasions. In the midst of this, he becomes a writer and makes a friend based on shared interest, rather than just being social pariahs. In short, he starts growing up.

Meanwhile, the ancient forces tied to Waggoner are in open conflict with the dominant, more modern/contemporary, forces/beliefs. The school — and the students’ lives — become the major battleground for them, the final conflict coming on the anniversary of the attack that changed Waggoner’s life forever.

I kept seeing the school as the school from Sing Street (except, in the West Country, not Dublin — but roughly the same era), which I know is inaccurate, but I couldn’t stop myself. Pop music plays a large role in the story, and as it’s set in the early 80’s I didn’t have to google most of the songs (there were a couple of tunes that didn’t make it to Idaho that long ago) — which was a plus for me, and probably most readers.

You can tell (well, you can guess) that Cornell and Waggoner had similar experiences in their early lives — the language he uses to describe the bullying speaks to that. But more than that, the way he describes how the bullying shaped him, both then and when Waggoner reflects on those events from the vantage point of adulthood, resonated with me, and will with many readers.

The characters — bullies, victims, other children, or adults — were all wonderfully constructed. I’m not sure that I liked any of them (including Waggoner), but I was drawn into this world, and was very invested in what happened to each of them.

This was intense, gripping, strangely something (I want to say beautiful, but that doesn’t seem right) — there’s a je ne sais quoi about Chalk that inspires and repulses at the same time. I know I haven’t done a good job describing this book — I’m trying hard not to ruin anything for future readers. It was one of the more affecting, compelling books I’ve read this year. Cornell does a masterful job of mixing our reality with his fantasy — as he’s shown in the Shadow Police and Lychford books — this time you add in a layer of childhood horror and wonder to that combination.

This is something special, you won’t read much like it.

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4 Stars

The Story of Lucius Cane: Book One by Vanya Ferreira

The Story of Lucius CaneThe Story of Lucius Cane: Book One

by Vanya Ferreira

Kindle Edition, 27 pg.
Vanya Ferreira, 2016

Read: February 23, 2016

This first installment is a tale of a couple of atypical takes on supernatural staples.

It’s London in 1794 and we meet a different kind of vampire (for reasons that are sort of explained), but except for one little quirk of personality, he seems like your typical pre-Victorian Vampire. The quirk does seem to save lives, so it’s endearing.

Jack ‘The Hound’ Estenborough is lycanthrope-ish. A former pirate, now loanshark (and his own leg-breaker). A man as synonymous with violence as he is with body hair.

The two are manipulated into a showdown, and face-off in a knock-down, drag out fight which is the kind of thing everyone who watched a Lon Chaney flick as a kid wanted to see.

This was a quick story, so there’s not a lot to say, not much time for character development or anything like that. It wasn’t the most skillfully told story, but it got the job done and kept you reading.

There was a good chunk of info dumping with one character, where he only hinted at things for the other. Obviously, the treatment of the other primary character was better — but I didn’t mind the info dump too much, the title tells you the story’s not about The Hound, so no need for gradual reveal — also, it was a fun, quick info dump.

Ferreira made some odd vocab choices — some words (especially in idiomatic phrases) that are almost, but not quite right. But when someone living in Serbia writes in English, I figure that’s a risk you run — and it’s never too distracting.

There were a few questions left by the story, but you can tell that Ferreira has an answer ready for them, he just needs the space to relay them. That, and the cliff-hanger ending, demand a series of these stories (as does, the title, I guess) — or a novel. I don’t care which, as long as I get to read it.

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this story by the author in exchange for an honest review.

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3 Stars