Reading: Rachel Hartman — Seraphina

Embossed crimson titles seem to be the form for mid-2013. Four books in close succession — one of which is completely outside the genre of the other two — are afflicted with this skin condition. Not that I’m especially opposed to it; mainly it seems a little cheap, more in keeping with airport novel ‘best sellers’. The remainder of the cover though, thankfully has progressed far beyond that embarrassing trope of fantasy art, and no hoary, airbrushed romantic royal babe plus dragon and/or castle is to be found. Dragon and castle, yes, but in beautiful ink line drawing with cross-hatching. I quite enjoy reading it, just for the cover. And within, there is the very nice touch of page numbers being set in the outer margin mid-way down the page, I think the first time I’ve seen this, and well-suited to the story.

Which I can’t remember where I first read about, and thought, ok, I’ll give Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina a whirl, even though fantasy is all too often a disappointment (about which I’ve blabbed on in the past multiple times). It is fantasy, yes. It has dragons and monarchy, though that’s about as far as it goes down that tired road. The dragons are rather handy with advanced (compared to the stuck-in-Middle-Ages humans) technology, while the humans are blowing the minds of said dragons with Art and Music! (That was not a sarcastic use of an exclamation mark, nor capitalisation.)

The eponymous Seraphina – and this is where I think this work differs from the usual blah of fantasy – is not a neutral actor. By that I mean she is not default normative, and spends a deal of her time covering up skin and elucidating not a small amount of anxiety and loneliness at her unknown outsider status. That is to say, perceived as normal, indeed exemplary by those around her, yet those same all too often display a bigotry that she would be on the receiving end or worse, were her truth to be known.

So we can describe this quite clearly as a feminist, civil rights, human rights, queer (though I want to wash my mouth out at that word lately) rights work of fantasy. Curious, no? I’d largely avoided fantasy precisely because it tended towards such vacuous reactionary conservatisim, yet so much of the sci-fi I’ve read recently (and I know that genre is also awash in bigotry, but I’d managed to find the good ones) is patently dross when it comes to getting it right on these matters (even 2312, which won the Nebula doesn’t escape this), and conversely, works like Among Others, even Throne of the Crescent Moon are works in the broader sci-fi/fantasy genre I would point to and say get it right.

Turns out it’s also of that mangy sub-genre, YA – Young Adult, which Among Others, Railsea, and quite a few of my recent favourites have landed in. Let’s be clear: I’ve read far more ‘Adult’ books that comprehensively fail on basic things like misogyny, heteronomativity, and orientalism, something which YA (blargh, what a fucking condescending term) authors whom I’ve read understand before they set down the first words. Well, if the last third of Seraphina is as good as the first two, I’ll be buying everything Rachel Hartman writes from now on.