Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Studying Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman: The first person narrator is a young lady living in a kingdom that used to be under siege by dragons, but she has grown up in a time of peace. She's recently been named music mistress (and music plays a large role in the story), and so she's moved into the castle with the royals and nobles just prior to a big festival celebrating the anniversary of the dragon treaty. Of course, she has a secret: she's half human/half dragon (in this world, the dragons can assume a human shape). If anyone finds out, she'd be labeled an abomination and her (human) father could face severe legal repercussions, maybe even execution. As a result of being half-dragon, she has vivid and complex experiences with dreams and visions, which gives the book an Inception-esque quality. So I'd pitch this as Inception with dragons in an medieval castle while trying to prevent an assassination.

When I was given my agent edits a few weeks ago, I was also given a gentle nudge to read Seraphina. It's represented by the same team I signed with last month. I took on the assignment, trying to glean what I could about how it was constructed and what made it work. The only downside was that it was so good I kept getting transported and forgot to study.

On the surface it seems like kind of a strange thing for me to be studying right now. I write speculative historical fiction (and not, like, medieval stuff, like 1800s stuff). Seraphina is pretty solidly fantasy. On the surface, my work doesn't resemble this book at all. No common world or plot points or character traits. Seraphina is told in a first person girl voice; my main character is a guy.

So I was hesitant to take it on while I have so many other assignments. I mean, this book is long. Like, late era Harry Potter long (see Seraphina pictured below, with the sequel Shadow Scale and other big huge books shown for scale).

But I'd had this book recommended to me before. The entire front cover is a list of awards it won. So I accepted my mission and read the book, and the thing that makes it so special - that I want to incorporate into my own work - is that it's a beautiful, flowing experience. There's a compelling story, a series of mysteries that build upon each other, and a sweet almost courtly romance. But the thing that really stands out is that I was never tempted to skim or hurry through any sentence/paragraph/page in order to get to some big payoff faster. There are big payoffs - multiple big payoffs scattered throughout. But the journey through the book never makes you feel like you need to hurry, which is a really, really cool quality. When I was in school and had to read a lot in a hurry, I remember only reading dialog and feeling like that would be enough to give me the basic idea, and once in awhile I catch myself slipping back into that nasty habit. I don't often think about that "no rush" quality when it's not there; I can't think of many other books that made me feel that way (though I do remember saying something similar about Bitterblue years ago).

The sequel Shadow Scale just came out, so that's next on my "to read" list, and it's also late era Harry Potter sized, but now I look at it like a fancy multicourse meal, not an intimidating thing. One of my favorite podcasts, Grantland's Hollywood Prospectus, once used the terms "slow food" versus "fast food" to describe similar TV shows (for example, they described the TV show The Honorable Woman as the slow-food version of Homeland). Seraphina is a slow-food book, where you sit down at a table with real silverware and cloth napkins and they bring you appetizers, soup/salad, a main course, and dessert.