Seraphina’s Lament is a grimdark tour de force.
Sarah Chorn, the author of Seraphina’s Lament, is a very well-known, highly decorated author, editor, and blogger, who has a reputation for excellence in all of those aspects. A two-time Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) semi-finalist, and considered to be a top grimdark writer herself, she is also the editor of Grimdark Magazine.
Popular authors, irrespective of gender, etc. get on one’s radar, and then it’s all about when is the opportune time (i.e. based on mood, etc.) to read that particular author’s book. Yet since my February TBR is dedicated to #FebruarySheWrote, where I would be reading and reviewing exclusively authors using the pronouns she/her, I felt the time was auspicious to read Chorn’s work.
Best-selling authors like Mark Lawrence (of Broken Empire fame), and Micheal J Sullivan (best known for The Riyria Revelations) provide endorsements on the cover Chorn’s debut novel, Seraphina’s Lament. This made me only intrigued me more to read the book. So I took the plunge into this dark, sometimes disturbing, yet brilliant novel.
Part of the book appears to be inspired by the Holodomor Genocide (also called the Terror Famine), which occurred in the 1930s. Holodomor means, in Ukrainian, essentially, “kill by starvation”. In that horrific chapter in human history, it is estimated that approximately four to seven MILLION of Ukrainians died. The belief is that these people died due to a Russian-manufactured famine, designed on purpose for mass murder. It is presumed by many historians that Russia, at the time, forbade outside aid, seized household food, and curtailed movements of Ukrainians trying to flee the situation, in order to ensure Ukrainians died in staggering numbers.
But there is much more to the novel than perhaps an indicting commentary on this unfathomable atrocity.
“The goal had been to throw of the oppressor’s yoke, not trade one form of slavery for another.”
The Sunset Lands, setting for Seraphina’s” Lament, is a harsh, vicious, unforgiving place. But things are turning from bleak to portentous. In the beginning of the book, an immortal wakes up in his barrow, after sleeping for an eon, and wonders where his three other companions are, and if they still live.
Meanwhile, a starving man turns into essentially a zombie-like creature, driven, desperate by hunger that has morphed into something more sinister, during a famine, to kill, and to consume human flesh. But the consumption does nothing to satiate his hunger, it only makes him crave more.
Finally, in the affluent principal city of the Lord’s Reach, a crippled slave – Seraphina – with enormous magic, is constrained by a man even more powerful than her. That man who literally keeps her on a leash, is the Premier Eyad, who has ruled for ten years after violently overthrowing the previous noble regime. The totalitarian Eyad rules with an iron fist, surrounded by loyal ministers, completely committed to doing his bidding.
“It had started with small erosions of liberties years ago. First the Premier had imprisoned all the land owners, and sent them off to labour camps. He was ‘liberating the peasants’, he’d said, and how Taub rejoiced! Then he forced the peasants, farmers like him, to move onto communal farm plots where the government owned everything; from the grain they grew, to the tools they used, to the cows they milked, and the houses they lived in. They were given one small row of dirt to grow their own food on, and everything else went to the state, to be divided as the Premier saw fit. Ration cards were supposed to keep everything fair, but that didn’t last long either…”
Eyad’s vision of a world where the state reshapes the land into a perfect society, has failed miserably. Though, fanatically, he thinks his dream is coming to fruition. Famine is sweeping the land, and citizens are dying in droves.
There is little hope, mass refugee movement, forced labour camps, state-sanctioned slavery and execution of anyone who opposes Eyad’s regime. Eyad, with the help of his subordinate ministers and cronies, has disbanded religion, making it essentially a crime, is hunting down any opposition, labelled counter-revolutionaries and criminals, and is imposing a reign of terror. As the earlier quote indicates, Eyad’s idealism in deposing the former Lord and Lady of the Sunset Lands, has turned him into an even worse dictator.
One of Eyad’s other challenges, besides those who are defying his rule, is that there is new talent scarcity, among young intiaties of magic. Seraphina was part of an elite breeding program of magic-users, whereby her and her twin brother, Neryan, were selected amongst other slaves, to serve the needs of the Sunset Lands.
Seraphina’s power over fire and Neryan’s control over water are coveted assets by Eyad. But Seraphina, five years earlier, enabled her brother’s escape. In a fit of rage, Eyad assaults Seraphina, crippling her.
But now one of the counter revolutions is being led by Neryan, and the former husband of Eyad, named Vadden, and Neryan’s surrogate daughter Mousumi – known as Mouse. Yet the existential threat posed by the god awakened in his barrow, and those like him, could destroy everything everyone holds dear.
This book had almost everything I looked for in a novel. The characters were exceptional, flawed, and their arcs were in doubt, as to whether they would end up closer to hero or villain. Yet, every relationship, and the terrible things, and injustices, that happen to the characters, even the minor ones, will break the reader’s heart.
Chorn has a distinct knack of making you care about characters with conflicted and ambiguous morals. That is a rare skill. Fair warning, don’t tie your emotions to anyone in this book, for you will be devastated.
If you have ever read my reviews, you know beautiful prose will get me every time. In Seraphina’s Lament, the prose was, in many places, simply terrific, ineffable.
“Carve your pain into your bones and move on.”
The themes were riveting, and as mentioned, very very grim. If this is too much for you, look elsewhere. Cannibalism, obsession, torture, starvation, murder, enslavement, madness, despotism, the purported evils of communism, revolution, oppression, and more abound on the pages of the book. There are times the book feels like more horror than fantasy, but it is a subtle, addictive blend of the two, when it does.
Chorn is inventive and confident in her approach to these themes. For example, she takes some elements of real-life history (think America’s history of slavery) and flips them around, for example, involving race. The oppressors – the former revolutionary leaders-turned- dictators, are dark-skinned. The slaves are fair skinned. For example, liberated slaves are referred to at times as “freed-pale”. Chorn sensitively and adroitly handles disability in the book. Seraphina is disabled, yet perhaps the most potent character in the book. The way these elements written are indicative of a very skilled writer.
The magic system is surreal, harrowing, captivating. I have always loved the concept of elemental magic. Chorn depicts water, fire, and other elements wielded by those with talent, hard to control, and always threatening to destroy those the wielders wish to protect most. Moreover, magic is such a commodity, that even those with no talent have “null” marks on their faces, to delineate them from more valuable tools in society.
The book has a relentless plot, with lots of twists, and that feeling of dread hanging over the pages that pushes you to read just one more chapter, because you NEED to see what is coming next, while you are SCARED to see what is coming next. Yet somehow, it’s also a slow-burn read, that you want to soak up every beautiful word, the lovely, evocative writing.
Could this be yet another possible top ten book for me of 2022? I would not bet against it. Seraphina’s Lament is a grimdark tour de force. This is an extraordinary, incredibly well-written, and extremely haunting book.