One of the things I really regret now that I am no longer at work is that I haven’t kept up with what’s new in the field of literature for children and young adults. I’m still an active member of communities working in my other areas of interest, language studies and Shakespeare, but there is no children’s literature department in the University I’m now associated with and gradually my knowledge of what is current has begun to falter. I would probably do more about this if I wasn’t aware that recent trends in the field aren’t particularly to my taste. I’m not big into vampires and some of the more gritty realism is a bit too gritty for my liking. However, over the past couple of months I’ve seen several excellent reviews for a first fantasy novel by an American born, Canadian resident, Rachel Hartman. Called after its teenage heroine, Seraphina has won acclaim from critics and readers alike and has been shortlisted for several awards. Now, fantasy I do like and so I put a claim in for this as soon as my local library ordered a copy. It hasn’t disappointed.
I sometimes think that for fantasy to work it almost has to out realism realistic fiction. While the world created might differ substantially from our own, it is imperative that we believe completely in the internal logic of what we are reading about. The setting has to be consistent, we have to be able to see it in our mind’s eye and find no gapping holes in the fabric constructed. The characters have to be three dimensional and if their circumstances dictate that they behave in ways that wouldn’t be possible in our reality they must at least be acceptable in theirs. Psychologically their thoughts and acts need to bear witness to their back story and be seen to result from what happens to them as the story progresses. The plot doesn’t simply have to hang together, it must have an inner rationality true to the probability laws of the setting in which it takes place. And, perhaps most important of all, there needs to be an unswerving ethical thrust, because if fantasy is about anything it is about asking the reader to question the moral stance of their own society and culture. Let one of these slip in the world of fantasy fiction and you’re lost. Readers might just forgive an act of inconsistency in a realist novel (do better next time) but one false step in the world of make believe and the edifice the author has striven so hard to build in the mind of his or her audience will crumble irretrievably.
Hartman does not stumble.
The world she offers us is one in which the warring factions of dragons and humans have lived together in an uneasy alliance for forty years following a treaty made by Queen Lavonda and the Ardmagar of the dragons, Comonot. But, Lavonda is old and Comonot is loosing the support of those dragons who regret the loss of their traditional hunting grounds and their traditional prey. So, when the Queen’s only son, Rufus, is found dead with his head missing there is concern on both sides. Was the murder committed by a rogue dragon or was it the action of the Sons of St Ogdo who, emphatically opposed to the treaty, might well have staged the crime to implicate the dragons and bring the fragile peace to an end?
Into this investigation, however unwittingly and unwillingly, steps Seraphina, daughter of the lawyer most closely concerned with maintaining the treaty and, as a court musician, witness to much of the heart searching and intrigue that the murder reveals. Seraphina is talented, intelligent and deeply lonely, lonely because she carries a terrible secret which prevents her from allowing any but her closest family to come too close.
And there I have to stop, because if I say any more I shall give away too much and spoil the pleasure you might have if you choose to read this book. I did, however, want to say just one thing about how Hartman manages to create a world that is so alien and yet so completely real because I think it says something about the different ways an author can set about presenting his or her world to the reader. Basically, you can show or you can tell.
J K Rowling takes up the latter option. By creating a hero who himself knows nothing about the world he enters she has the perfect excuse to have other characters explain everything to him and thus to us at the same time. Think about the scene on the island when Harry first encounters Hagrid. The gentle giant kindly explains enough about the wizarding world for both Harry and the reader to make sense of what the young wizard is about to encounter and what he misses out Ron Weasley soon fills in for us.
Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, however, opts to show us. His opening words, Lyra and her daemon, thrust the reader into a world which needs no explaining to the characters that inhabit it and it is up to the author to provide enough information, at the right pace, for the audience to build up a picture they can understand. No one ever gets round to telling us precisely what a daemon is. Why would they? They all know.
Hartman follows the same path as Pullman and she does it very skilfully. To give just one example: the musical instruments in this world include the flute, the ord and the megaharmonium. Now, I know very well what a flute is and I’ve heard of the middle eastern, lute-like ord, so I am moved from the familiar, to the unusual, to the invented, which I have no difficulty in accepting because it has its place in a set I know and can connect with. Besides, a megaharmonium is exactly what the word says it is and the noise is superb – at a distance.
For a first novel this is a very well crafted work and I’m only sorry that I have to wait until September for the next instalment. Which is probably the best thing of all about really good fantasy, it never comes single handed.