Seraphina's Lament: The Bloodlands #1
by Sarah Chorn
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Sarah Chorn is one of the first book reviewers I followed when I got on Twitter. Her blog is Bookworm Blues. She also offers editing services to other writers, and over the past few years she has assisted Mark Lawrence in judging the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off entries. She may have to recuse herself from the next round since her debut novel is likely to be entered into the competition.
Seraphina's Lament is an impressive debut, with well developed, uniquely different characters, and the action is well paced. But be warned, it is very dark, very violent, very disturbing, even while it is compelling and immersive. It has been described as falling within the Grimdark sub-genre of fantasy, of which I'm not that familiar, but based on what that term sounds like to me I'd say it's an apt categorization. It's no wonder, since parts of the story were inspired by the Holodomor, the genocide by starvation in the Ukraine by the Stalin regime in the 1930s. That's the main reason it took me longer to read than it should have. Some scenes were so dark and depressing I had to take frequent breaks from it.
A lot of the names of both people and places in the Sunset Lands sound Russian, and its history is similar too. A generations-long monarchy overthrown by collectivist revolutionaries, whose idealism evaporates in the wake of paranoia of counter-revolutionaries. There are two major fantasy elements. A small percentage of people have talents associated with the traditional elements of earth, fire, water, and wind. The government tests for these, utilizing the talented for different functions, including finding water, fire for clearing land, moving earth for farming, etc. Premier Eyad has another talent, that of mind-reading and mind control. He and his husband Vadden were the leaders of the revolution, the assassins of the Lord and Lady monarchs. However, when Eyad killed the infant heir to the throne, Vadden recoiled from that excessive action. He ran away and has been in hiding from his husband. That was ten years prior to the main action of the book. The other fantasy element is of demi-gods (or demons?) who call themselves The Ascended. They have awoken and are calling to the strongest of the talented to assist them for an as yet unknown purpose.
Seraphina and her twin brother Neryan are both strong talents, she of fire and he of water. They are of a minority group subjugated by the majority. She is enslaved and has been tortured by Eyad. He escaped about five years before, and is now friends with Vadden and other counter-revolutionaries, although none are aware of Vadden's connection to the premier. Another interesting character is Mouse (Mousumi), Neryan's adopted daughter. Chapters alternate between the perspectives of all the main characters, although the narrative is all third-person. There is a ton of plot, most of which I will not detail, but just as important is the dialogue and the inter-connections between characters. Each is dealing with their own internal struggles, how their problems affect those around them, as well as how they are affected by what is going on in the country as a whole. The Sunset Lands are dying. Drought has choked the land, what little crops are grown can barely feed the farmers and their families, much less provide for the excessive taxes imposed by the premier. Are the people being punished for the sins of their government, or is what is happening to them designed to destroy humanity? The stated intent of the "gods" is of fixing the Earth. Is that their genuine purpose, or do they have another motive?
The frequent use of simile and metaphor is at times appropriately evocative, at others it seemed forced and weak, but that's a minor complaint. I wondered about the series title of the Bloodlands, as opposed to the Sunset Lands, but I suppose that is more appropriate for its grimdark nature, and maybe an indication that the talents are inherited through blood. And of course, lots of blood is spilled throughout. The cover art by Pen Astridge is beautifully macabre, but doesn't reflect Seraphina, not indicative of her fiery nature. It's more appropriate for Mouse, but even more so for a male character, Taub, a farmer who later becomes the Bone King. Everyone's story is grim and dark, excessively so for Mouse and Taub. If you like lightness and positivity in your fantasy, you'll probably want to steer clear of this one. But if you're not opposed to tragedy, where even the most sympathetic are damaged and hurt along the way, and sometimes act in ways that seem counter to their best interests, this may be what you're looking for. Keeping those caveats in mind, it is recommended. I can't wait to find out what happens next.
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