Seraphina's Lament is one hell of a debut.A word of warning: This book is grimdark as grimdark goes. It is not exactly the bleak and nihilistic kind, but it is grimdark so if you are looking for a dark, gritty story with some disturbing scenes and highly damaged characters, this is your thing. If you love Mark Lawrence books this is definitely your thing. For one it opens with a killer prologue featuring abject cannibalism. There is violence and gore but it is not a gorefest -the grimdark is more in the characters. Every single one of them is broken and the main theme of the book is "You must break in order to Become" it is quite a thing to see these broken characters getting even more broken. Sarah Chorn takes broken to a whole new level. I gotta say this is one of the best grimdark debuts I've read.
The story is highly inspired by the Holodomor starvation massacre engineered by Stalin (not to mention the villain is literally Stalin!) The setting is a secondary world based on the early period of Soviet Russia with the addition of magic, slavery and a rigid caste system. Holodomor is pretty much unknown in the Western world since it has been covered up by the Soviet regime for decades and the world never got to hear about it. Some of the darkest things that takes place in Seraphina's Lament are unfortunately not fictional, such things happened to real people and that is what makes it disturbing. So this book is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Then there is the prose. Oh my gods the prose. It is so stunningly beautiful and savagely stunning. I highlighted so many quotes it's not even funny, had a real hard time selecting quotes to feature in this review cause there are too many. Here is one:
“She wondered if she would shatter. If she’d spray shards of herself into the ether. Perhaps all of her jagged edges would shine in the night sky like stars, glittering and beautiful, each of them a priceless jewel crafted from the fabric of her soul.”
Sarah Chorn's vivid imagination is ubiquitous throughout the whole story, even in beats like this:
“Silence stretched between them, pulled tight and then snapped.”
“Sometimes that quiet space between heartbeats says more than a scream ever could.”
Then there's those that hit right in the feels:
“Love is the only thing that can kill a person, and keep them alive enough to feel that death at the same time.”
She tells the horribly dark and brutal things with such beautiful words in an incredibly poetic and elegant way. I talked about the beauty of the prose but Seraphina's Lament is mainly a character driven story and the characters are all complex, more or less damaged and various shades of grey. They are all compelling one way or the other, they surprise you with different facets and choices.
I have to say Seraphina is the best disabled character I've ever read along with Abercrombie's Glokta. And she has a FIRE CANE! This will show up later on (not a spoiler) and absolutely badass. She shows how one can be broken and still kick serious arse.
“I am broken,” she murmured. “I used to think that was a bad thing. Now, I realize that the stars are pinpricks in the night, holes in the heavens. Even the sky is shattered and more glorious for it.”
This one in particular is my favorite description of Seraphina's nature:
“She had been in a dark place, planted there like a seed. Now, she was blooming. She was a flower. Though when her petals fell, they fell like daggers and the earth shuddered when they struck true.”
Seraphina is literally a force of nature, so broken yet so tough. She is physically disabled and lives with excruciating pain but she is the toughest character. Her twin brother Neryan is nothing like her and their conflicted relationship adds interesting twists to the storyline. Neryan's friend and rebel comrade Vadden was one of my favorite characters, he is one of the most virtuous figures in the whole book but not without skeletons in the closet. No one is entirely good or evil. Even Premier Eyad the chief villain is not pure evil -there are the glimpses of his humanity and the gut-wrenching love story between him and Vadden add hell of a lot of depth to his character.
The magic in Seraphina's Lament is elemental and mind magic, it's not a formulated system like Sanderson's magic systems but so powerful and enthralling when it shows up. I loved the stunning and sometimes terrifying displays of magic. Then there are the mysterious Ascendants, the sleeping gods waking up to see the world dying and manipulate things behind the scenes. Lyall is the coolest of them all, he is so enigmatic and awesome, I reaaaallly hope to see more of him in the sequels. I have a feeling the Ascendants will take a bigger role in the next books and a lot of interesting things will be revealed.
One of the most compelling characters is Taub, grimdark star of the prologue -a peasant farmer who loses everything and becomes the personification of dread famine. The passages describing him are haunting and lyrical:
“He’d shrugged off his humanity. He’d eaten his morality, chewed it up and swallowed it long ago. That had been his last true meal, and it had gone down as smooth as perfectly aged wine, disappearing into that black void never to be seen again.”
His POV chapters read like a horror story and season the plot with super grimdark ghost pepper sauce. I hope this book takes off and they make a movie of it, cause Taub the would make such an epic eldritch horror character on the screen. Neryan's adopted daughter Mouse is a great one as well. Who doesn't love a street urchin? I have a soft spot for thief kids and street urchins in fantasy books, but Mouse is soooooo much more than that. Her inner conflicts were some of the most touching parts in the book.
Seraphina's Lament is a literary grimdark gem with gorgeous prose, kickass plot and a perfect mixture of action, emotional depth, epic magic and unforgettable characters to say the least. I'm so looking forward to reading An Elegy of Hope, the next book in the series. I have a feeling this series might end up as one of the top reads of the grimdark subgenre.