Seraphina’s Lament, by Sarah Chorn

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Publication date – February 19, 2019

Summary: The world is dying.

The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.

In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake.

First, you must break before you can become.

Review: I’ll start off by saying that Seraphina’s Lament is a very hard novel for me to review. Mostly because while the story itself is fascinating, the characters interesting, most of what I want to do is gush over Chorn’s writing style.

But one step at a time.

Seraphina’s Lament takes place in the Sunset Lands, a place that was previously a monarchy but that had its ruling power overthrown in a revolution. Now in charge is Premier Eyad, head of the collectivist government, maker of the laws that have resulted in overfarming and the resulting famine. As with most people who attained power in such a way, he’s paranoid about counterrevolutionary elements, and oddly sees “failure to grow food where food won’t grow” as a punishable offense. People are fleeing, to escape a life of starvation and cruelty. But problems in the Sunset Lands run deeper than that. An army of skeletons approaches Lord’s Reach, dying people infected by hunger until their very humanity has been eaten away, led by what was once a man and who now calls himself the Bone Lord. Magic in the form of elemental talents seems to be dying, except in those for whom it grows wildly and out of control. Old powers stir. People are changing, becoming something new, something different.

And before you become, you must break.

While the book is named for one of its characters, the story goes far beyond Seraphina herself. She is a slave, owned by Eyad, scarred and in chronic pain and possessing a fire talent that seems to be growing in strength. There’s Neryan, Seraphina’s twin brother who escaped slavery, possessing a water talent that is Seraphina’s opposite and complement, bent on freeing his sister from bondage. There’s Vadden, who grabs the title of My Favourite Character from early on and keeps it through the story, determined to remove Eyad from power and atone for the wrongs he committed in playing a part to overthrow the previous government and pave the way for Eyad to take the abusive stance he has. Every single character is broken in some way, holding themselves together against overwhelming odds, and none of them are perfect, which is what makes them all so compelling to read about.

I mentioned Chorn’s writing style, and it’s that which makes this book really memorable, at least for my part. Her writing is incredibly evocative, poetic, concerned with metaphor and simile that sets the mood in a way that physical descriptions can’t always manage. Instead of mentioning the phase of the moon, for instance, you get lines akin to, “The moon was a scythe meant for killing,” a description that conveys the phase to the reader anyone (for those looking for clear imagery to picture), and also sets the tone of the scene without any further words. The book has been categorized by many as being grimdark, and that word alone tends to conjure images of blood and violence and death, and yes, those things are definitely present in Seraphina’s Lament, but in ways that are more horrifying (at least to me) than someone being hacked to death with swords and axes. Instead, you have chilling depictions of people eating their recently deceased neighbours, sometimes children, acts born of starvation and desperation in a dying land. Much of the poetic prose is beautiful, which serves as a counterpoint to the events that, inspired by history, horrify and disgust.

This is the sort of book that largely defies proper description, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that to really understand it, you have to read it. Reviews and summaries really only scratch the surface, and I know I’m failing to really do Seraphina’s Lament justice here. Chorn is a rising star in the grimdark world, a star worth tracking, and I, for one, am excited to see what she’ll do next.

(Received from the author in exchange for review.)

How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on tor.com at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)