Seraphina's Lament is a darkly beautiful book, full of gloriously nightmarish imagery. Sarah Chorn has a narrative voice so polished, it seems impossible that this should be her first full-length novel. You can't help but walk away from it wondering how many 'good' books she discarded along the way to arrive at the 'great' book that she brought to publication. The last time an author's voice confronted me so powerfully, and got me so excited about a book, it was Michael R. Fletcher and his own grimdark masterpiece Beyond Redemption.
On the surface, everything about this plays against what I look for in a fantasy. It is grimdark, rather than epic. It forgoes the very English forests and villages of traditional fantasy for a Russian-inspired landscape that's cold and barren. It places themes over plot, and powerful personal conflicts over grand external battles. There is nary a sorcerer, a dragon, or an amusing halfling thief to be found, but there are gods - both ancient and newborn - that dominate the world. Finally, the whole story stresses the telling of things over the doing of things, with dialogue being more crucial than narrative. It's precisely the kind of book I would normally say was easier to appreciate than enjoy, except I did enjoy this - in fact, I enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed what I read.
What I think struck me most about Sarah's writing, however, was the way in which she detailed horrible acts of decadence and depravity, without celebrating them or glorifying them. I had not really given it much thought before, but I think that is one of my biggest issues with grimdark genre. When monstrous orgies of rape and cannibalism are written to be exciting, or are thrust in your face for nothing more than shock value, we all-too quickly become tolerant of them. Here, those moments are presented as evidence of how the world is failing, and of how humanity is falling. We're not meant to be excited, we're meant to feel anger and sorrow, with the narrative going so far as to validate those feelings by casting judgement on its own atrocities. It's a story that almost seems self-aware, without being artificial or contrived.
Seraphina, the tortured slave with agony-fueled thoughts is one of the best characters I have come across in ages. She is not your typical heroine or protagonist. Driven less by noble motives, and more by the all-consuming hunger for revenge, Seraphina draws the reader like a moth to the flame. Her brother, Neryan, is more the kind of character you might expect Seraphina to be, complete with his role as a father-figure to Mouse, but so much more than that. As for Premier Eyad, he is unquestionably the villain, a man we want to see burn slowly and painfully, but he is not a scene-chewing cliché, he is a brutal revolutionary whose began with reasonable ideas, if not necessarily good ones.
I am trying very hard not to say much about the plot, because I know I wouldn't want spoilers to derail a moment of my obsession, but know that those gods I mentioned earlier, and the notion of Becoming, is central to it all. So often we see the notion of Becoming equated with heroism, sacrifice, and redemption, but not here. In a world where religion has been outlawed, to Become means to be Broken, not raised up, and one's purpose is not to save the world but Break it.
None of what I am saying, however, really captures Seraphina's Lament. I am tempted to say the story is far more than the sum of its parts, but the truth is that it's all about those parts. No one piece works on its own, or can be fully appreciated in isolation. It's in how Sarah Chorn constructs the story, and in how all those pieces fit, clash, overlap, and strain across the gaps between them that the experience of reading this falls. An extraordinary novel with an even more extraordinary voice.
Kindle Edition, 398 pages
Published February 19th 2019 by Sarah Chorn
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this title from the author. This does not in any way affect the honesty or sincerity of my review.