Dissecting a Debut: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Genre: YA Fantasy
Page count: 451
Publisher: Random House Children’s
ISBN: 9780375866562
Pub Date: 7/10/12
Agent: Dan Lazar
In Brief: A shaky peace exists between humans and dragons in Seraphina’s medieval kingdom, where dragons walk the streets in human bodies, so as not to frighten people. Prohibiting dragons’ natural form is one of the many rules outlined in the treaty signed 50 years ago. But when a royal family member is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion, just days before the treaty anniversary celebration, Seraphina must be careful to hide the truth about herself, even as she comes to realize that she’s the only one who can help the village maintain its peace with dragons.

I had heard fantastic things about this book from other people in the publishing industry. I was expecting some awesome writing, the kind where you read a sentence and then pause to think, wow. What a beautifully crafted sentence. It’s hard for a book to live up to such high expectations, of course, and this one didn’t make that kind of impression on me. The writing is very good, but it’s not something you notice sentence to sentence. It’s in the world-building, which is crafted as well as any immaculate sentence, and strong world-building is on most SF/F editors’ wish lists.

The kingdom of Gorred in Seraphina is a strange medieval town, where knights have been banished and dragons walk around as people, with only a silver bell to distinguish them. An additional “garden” within Seraphina’s mind is even more complex with grotesques who each have unique talents that keep the garden clean and tidy. The outlying lands beyond Gorred, home to dragons or to foreign people of eastern cultures rather than the typical european that you see in SF/F, complete this fascinating worldview so unique in YA fantasies (with the exception of a few authors, like NK Jemison).

As unique as Seraphina’s world was, Rachel Hartman crafted it in a way that felt natural. (I mean, of COURSE there’s a secret speakeasy where rogue dragons and humans drink beer together!) This is something that takes time and understanding. It’s very similar to crafting a deeply character-driven novel. The author must get to know the characters and write them the way they demand to be written. In the same way, Hartman knew every inch of the kingdom, its politics, stereotypes, religion, and customs.

In an interview with The Enchanted Inkpot, Hartman said she had been writing in this world for eight years. She wrote a comic set in Gorred with different characters, so she has characters in the world that never made an appearance in this book, but she knew what they were doing, and what was happening in their kingdoms. This knowledge about every piece of the the society allowed her to show the world to the reader without explicitly explaining how things worked in Gorred. I encourage you to really think outside the plot as you’re writing. Develop minor characters to find out what their ticks are, build neighborhoods that your leading lady might get lost in down the road, and let your imagination, not your plotline, determine what happens as you explore the world you’ve created.

It’s hard to review this book without giving too much away, because with each page, the reader learns something new about the plot. But I think I can say this much. Seraphina’s mother was a dragon and her father was human, which makes the girl’s very existence something immoral and illegal among both species. As the kingdom’s music mistress, she’s right in the thick of politics and fear when the royal prince is found dead without his head. She must hide her tell-tale scales, but a little bit of romance, and a lot of concern for her kingdom and its people prevents her from staying in the shadows. She’s a true heroine in a fantastic conflict between dragons and humans, emotions and logic, art and intellect, love and persecution.


Dissecting a Debut: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Dissecting a Debut is a feature that is similar to book reviews, but I want to focus exclusively on author debuts and consider why each book was embraced by the publishing community. My hope is that these posts will give the sprouting authors a bit more buzz, offer readers book suggestions much like any other review would, and perhaps most importantly, help other writers understand what’s grabbing the interest of publishers these days.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Genre: Adult Paranormal Romance
Page count: 592
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670022410
Pub Date: 2/11/11
Agent: Sam Stoloff
In Brief: Diana Bishop, a witch who has shunned her magic to focus on her academic accomplishments as a historian, unlocks a hidden bewitched manuscript that all creatures — witches, vampires and demons — have been seeking. The manuscript’s secret is tied to her own magic and to her relationship with an ancient vampire, who protects her from the other creatures who start following her after she returns the manuscript. Diana has to learn how to use her magic and unravel the mystery of the manuscript.

The main thing that stood out to me about this book was that I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Granted, it was a poor choice to experiment with an Audible edition. I kept wanting to read faster, but the narrator keeps up a nice slow and steady pace. With the length of A Discovery of Witches combined with the constant feeling of suspense it invokes on the reader, I spent an entire week carrying around my kindle and earbuds as I did the laundry, made dinner, and commuted back and forth to work.

Have you ever heard the comment from editors or agents that they know a manuscript is good when they miss their subway stop while reading it? That’s why this book got attention. There’s nothing particularly beautiful about the writing, and the characters feel like pieces of other characters we have read in other vampire, witch, demon, and other otherworldly stories. But from the moment Diana pulls out the bewitched manuscript, which she is holding in the very first sentence of the book, the reader is constantly aware that something is about to happen and must keep reading until it does (at which point, something else is about to happen).

Part of that is because Harkness uses two different genres of suspense. She deftly balances the suspense of unknown danger (a la Harry Potter series) and the suspense of romance (a la Fifty Shades). It’s hard to miss the similarities between Matthew, the ancient, wealthy vampire who is naturally protective and falling for Diana against the odds, and the Fifty Shades dom Christian with all his wealth and controlling habits. As sales have proven, this sort of passionate but dangerous romance catches a reader’s attention.

But even without the romance, the plot is captivating, and it follows a very clear line from rising action to climax and then denouement. Other witches are menacing, Diana’s magic is sparking, her aunts are worrying, and a vampire who hates witches is helping her. Diana starts to become more physically active, Matthew becomes more protective, witches send death threats. Diana escapes with Matthew only to be captured and tortured to the brink of death, wherein she discover’s a major piece of the secret.

Personally, I was wooed by the historical details, how Diana is related to Bridget Bishop, the first to die in the Salem Witch Trials, how Matthew has lived since 500 AD has known most historical figures since that time, how the manuscript is the otherworldly equivalent to Darwin’s Origin of Species. The historical details feel like bonus, but they’re what would make this book unique to me in a market flooded with vampire romances. They’re also what make this author stand out. Harkness is a historian with a doctorate from U.C. Davis. She has published a history book on alchemy (among others) and has won several awards for her research. Actually, aside from her character’s tenure at Yale, she sounds a little similar to Diana Bishop…although she clearly doesn’t avoid magic judging by this debut novel, which made it to No. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

The second book in this series, Shadow of Night, released this summer, and I would argue that it is better. I definitely see improvement in the writing and I think Harkness was really in her element as a historian in the second book since it was set in 1591 rather than present day. Harkness’ work is an excellent example of a writer molding her academic or professional strengths to a commercial purpose.