A Few Quick Questions With…Sarah Chorn

So I just posted my thoughts about Seraphina’s Lament and now we get to hear from the author herself, Sarah Chorn. By the way, if you haven’t checked out her blog, Bookworm Blues, you should fix that. But before you do, read this. Chorn knocks it out of the park here.

I don’t know how to ask about Seraphina’s Lament short of handing you a dozen and a half spoiler-ific questions. And, boy howdy, do I have questions. Still, I hope you don’t mind if I don’t touch on the book too much – would you care to start things off with an elevator pitch?
I pretty much fail at elevator pitches. Here goes nothing. Seraphina’s Lament tells the story of a group of people trying to survive in spite of the fact that the world is dying, magic is changing, there’s widespread famine, and the government sucks. They are all tragically flawed and completely unready to face what is happening to them. Basically, I take a handful of the most unprepared, wrong-for-the-job people I could possibly dream up, and just push them and push them and push them until they break and then… things get interesting.
For what it’s worth, I think that’s a pretty good pitch.

While you talk on your site about a long-standing desire to be a writer, this is your first novel after years of reviewing and editing. Was it just a matter of coming up with the “right” story, or was there something that made you decide it was time for you to give it a shot? How do you think years of reviewing shaped your novel?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. First, I’ve written novels before, but they are all terrible. I mean, T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. This isn’t really my first book, it’s just the first one I think is ready to see the light of day. The rest will live on eternally in some dark corner of my hard drive.

It was also a matter of coming up with the right story. All the elements were there, but it took me a really, really long time to figure out how they all worked together, and build the world (this took an absolutely insane amount of research) and characters. Once I had that all sorted, the book really just burst out of me.

I think editing and reviewing has been essential to my writing process. I’ve been reviewing for about ten years now, and editing for almost three. Editing and reviewing has taught me how stories are told, how sentences flow, how to use words, add details, build a world, keep a story moving and so much more. People talk a lot about how to write a novel, and I don’t think there is any one answer. We all do it differently. I can say, my book never would have been written, at least not the way it was, if it wasn’t for all that reading and picking-apart of books I’ve done over so many years. Knowing how words work, and how stories are shaped, was crucial to my writing.

I don’t want to ask “where do you get your ideas?” But combining a magic-filled fantasy world and a Stalin-esque character? How do you get to that? It’s brilliant, by the way, I can’t shut up about it.
Oh, I do so love my tortured Stalin-esque character. I had great fun writing him.

I do a weird thing when I can feel a story brewing in the back of my brain. I head to the library and check out just about every historical nonfiction book on the shelves that I haven’t read yet. About two years ago, this happened to be a bunch of books on Russia, the Romanov dynasty, Stalin, Lenin, and the Holodomor. Well, something in this mélange of books completely unlocked whatever was stewing in the back of my brain. Suddenly, these elements to this story I wanted to tell but couldn’t figure out just sorted themselves out.

Specifically, the Holodomor. It’s a tragic, horrible genocide that took place from 1932-1933 in Ukraine that I knew literally nothing about until I started reading books about it. In the process of reading these books, I came to the idea that sometimes events are so big, so powerful, so dramatic that they become characters in and of themselves, and so two characters in the book were born, both of whom represent the Holodomor. One, the physical aspect of it – the starvation and wasting away, and the other represented the more soulful aspect—a sort of loss of spirit and heart due to tragedy.

Eyad, my Stalin-esque dude wasn’t actually in my first draft. In fact, my first draft of this book was really dialed down on the communism and all these elements of the book. He never had a perspective. I think, if I remember right, I had some lord in a castle who never really had a face or even a name. Then, when I was getting ready to do my rewrite, I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of, why are all the fantasy worlds set in these medieval countries with kings? Where’s the communism? Where’s the industrialization? I read that tweet and I realized that communism was the entire aspect that was missing from this story, and I really, really needed to have someone driving the government. And you know, there aren’t many fantasy books featuring communist government systems so why not give it a go?

Insert my Stalin. Now, I humanized my dude a bit, and I took some liberties, but I really wanted to bring him to life, to show his perspective. Villains very rarely realize they are villains. Stalin was a horrible person, but he thought he was doing the right thing, and man, trying to bring that to life in Eyad was hard. There’s a scene in the book where he’s talking about grain requisition quotas and it just about killed me to write that because I’d read about it. Stalin had to know what he was doing, but he did it anyway, and in the process, he damned millions and millions of people who didn’t deserve it.

It took a ton of research to write all of this. I’ve got a series of books on Stalin on my bookshelf that clock in at a grand total of 6,000 pages, and that’s only a fraction of what I’ve read on him. Probably equally as much about communism in Russia. There aren’t as many books about the Holodomor, because the research is fairly new and it is, unfortunately, not an acknowledged tragedy to most of the world, but I read every bit I could get my hands on, and talked to some people who either survived it, or had relatives that did.

The magic itself came about because I’m personally fascinated by the idea of elemental magic, but not the kind where you point and fire shoots out of your finger. Man has been controlling fire for as long as we’ve existed. I’m fascinated in the idea of, what happens when fire controls man?

When it came to writing Seraphina’s Lament what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV!”
I was really amazed by how much research I had to do into the Holodomor, communism, and Stalin in order to write this book. I use barely a fraction of what I learned, but once I got started writing, I realized that in order to put so many things in context, I had to understand what happened before. I had to know about the things that laid the groundwork for this particular situation. For example, you can’t understand Stalin without understanding Lenin (and life in Georgia). You can’t understand Lenin until you understand elements of WWI, and Tsar Nicholas. You can’t understand Nicholas until you understand the two Tsars before him (at least). And then I had to understand how all of this impacted the average person living in this area of the world, so I ended up falling down all these really wild rabbit holes about village life in Russia, and turn-of-the-century Russian culture.

I had to do this with Ukraine, as well. In order to understand the Holodomor, you’ve got to understand the politics in Ukraine, into the relationship between the Ukrainian people, and the Russian people (which goes back well over a thousand years and is really, really interesting). I had to learn about how Ukraine is the breadbasket of that region (and the gateway to the West), with fertile soil and lush crops, and how the insertion of Stalin’s obsession with modernization fundamentally impacted life, cultures, and traditions. I had to read about land owners, and village life, and so much more.

All of these things mixed together to give me a ton of context that I could use to hopefully give events in my world a bit more grounded, well-rounded look to them.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
I have a toddler and a seven-year-old. The past five years of my life has been filled mostly with Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig.

This is going to be a boring answer, but there are a lot of authors I admire and learn from, but I’m glad they’ve written the books they wrote because those books just need to exist, and I probably couldn’t have done it half as well as they did.

Lastly, I (mostly) jokingly told your publicist that I’d read the book because it was probably the best way to get that cover image out of my mind. That’s one of the most striking covers I can remember – did you have any input on that, or did your designer just hit you with it? I don’t know how to ask something coherent about it, so let me just say – what would you like to say about the cover
Pen Astridge is the bomb. Seriously. I sent her the first few chapters of my book (which I ended up rewriting in edits). She asked for some inspiration, if I had any, and I basically drew a blank. I told her something along the lines of, “basically everyone dies and it’s really dark so just death this sucker up.” I think I attached a picture of a dead tree and some skulls, too. I mean, I impressively suck at that sort of thing. Somehow, Pen took all that total crap and then handed me this book cover.

I say it in my acknowledgments, but I’ll say it here, too. Everyone should hire her. Pen is the absolute best in the business, and I am beyond lucky to have her create my cover. It was better anything I could ever imagine and exactly what the book needed.

Thanks for your time, I hope you nothing but success with Seraphina’s Lament and I hope the work on volume 2 is going well.
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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
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