Wise as a serpent


Rachel Hartman Seraphina Ember 2014 (2012)

In Hebrew and Christian tradition a seraph (plural seraphim) is a winged celestial being, sometimes imagined sometimes as an angel (from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger’), sometimes as a serpent. It mayn’t come as a surprise, then, to find that this fantasy’s protagonist, Seraphina, partakes of a little of each of these attributes — as author Rachel Hartman, with a degree in Comparative Literature, will surely have known. Young Seraphina often acts as go-between as well as having an affinity for those mythical winged serpents called dragons; and fittingly she is, as St Matthew has it, as wise as a serpent (though not necessarily as harmless as a dove).

In Goredd and its surrounding states humans have kept a truce with the ancient dragon species for many year, thanks to the foresightedness and bravery of its aged queen. But dragons, as we mostly see them, have developed a particular ability over a millennium: they are able to transform into the semblance of humans, though sharing human emotions is not something that comes easily to these reptilian creatures.

(I wonder if Hartman was influenced by the popular concept of the so-called triune brain, where human basal ganglia are characterised as the ‘reptilian brain’, supposedly responsible for the instincts demonstrated by aggressive and dominant attitudes as well as territorial and ritual behaviours.)

With dragons able to pass as humans the stage is set for human fear of the outsider and antagonism towards their kind. In Hartman’s late medieval, tending-towards-the-baroque world the there is an uneasy equilibrium between reason and emotion, science and superstition, innovation and the status quo. Alarmingly, some humans seem to have those ‘reptilian’ responses in abundance while some dragons seem to have a predisposition towards ‘mammalian’ traits — such as a sense of familial responsibility and higher faculties like complex culture, as evinced by art, music and language.

So much for context. But mostly the interested reader will want to know about the story: is it gripping, do we care about the characters, are the relationships believable? The answer to all of these is in the affirmative: despite an initial sense of confusion, where there is a lot of expository material in the form of info-dumping and a long gallery of characters, the narrative proper soon gets going, all seen from the point of view of said Seraphina. I confess I was already predisposed to like her for her innate musicality — we first meet her as Music Mistress at the royal court, assistant to the Court Composer — but her ability to think on her feet and understandable human failings additionally made her a sympathetic protagonist. When she stumbles upon evidence of a conspiracy to destroy the decades-long peace she finds that falling in love (plus a dangerous secret of her own) complicates any investigation of the guilty parties.

I really enjoyed this, both for the sheer fun of reading an involving story and for the delight at the world-building and descriptions of relationships. The author has cleverly integrated musical themes in the plot, with narrative strands almost like fugal subjects and pacing like the ancient baroque dances that also feature in the tale. In addition she’s successfully introduced a panoply of outlandish terms to pepper the text, and a pseudo-medieval gallery of curious saints. On top of that come the visions Seraphina is subject to and the meditations that she uses to keep her sanity, which all hint at a complex psychology for Hartman’s heroine, an inner world which impinges on the girl’s own reality. And while the story is complete in itself, the stage is set for further complications to be addressed in the sequel Shadow Scale, the title of which includes a clever pun on music and on dragon attributes as well as a hint of darkness to come.

sword of peaceSpeaking of puns, one of the dragons is called Orma. Now, Hartman mentions somewhere that the name is derived from a one-time acquaintance called Norman, but with the ‘n’s removed. But I’m sure you will have noted that Orma is suspiciously like the Norse Viking word ormr, meaning dragon, serpent or reptile as well as the humble worm, so Orma is most apt. This edition includes, in addition to the customary map, a necessary glossary, a Q&A session with the author, an extract from the sequel, a short story prequel and a list of dramatis personae. It’s also nice to note that Hartman’s favourite authors include British writers George Eliot, Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones, though of course her style is all her own.

Alphabetical author: H

4 thoughts on “Wise as a serpent

    1. Thanks, Lynn! All those touches added depth to what could so easily have been just a competent run-of-the-mill YA fantasy in other hands, especially one dealing with dragons, a staple of the genre along with werewolves, angels and their ilk. Along with her clear familiarity with and love of music (she gives a playlist of pieces at the end ranging from prog rock to Breton folk music) the impressions of dreaming spires and historic town centres she took in on a year-long stay in England (she’s an American now residing in Canada) come through strongly on every page. I note that it regularly features in top-ten YA fantasy lists online, and I’m not too surprised.


  1. Another good one. I’ve always found names fascinating – they’re never simply jumbles of letters that create words. They have background. Meaning. Whether they’re character names or those of places. I smiled at the ‘Orma’ derivative. It put me in mind of ‘Edward Woodward’ – take the Ds out and you have ‘Ewar Woowar’. If you, too, have an interest in names in general I can recommend Michael Wood’s ‘The Story of England’. The focus of the study – a town in middle-England – lies at the point where Scandinavian occupation reached its furthest extent, beyond which were the Saxons. Here the naming conventions of two disparate cultures can still be seen. Whilst the book is non-fiction, Michael Wood’s writing is captivating. You know … I may just read it again.


    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Steve, I’ve had a soft spot for Wood’s (should that be Woo’s?) TV docs since he did ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’ in the 70s (though I baulked at the muted atmospheric shots of ‘Celtic twilight’ forests and landscapes) even as I found his voice soporific by the end of one hour. Still, better than Simon Sebal Montefiore any day — respect his scholarship but, hell’s bells, he uses every TV trick in the book to hammer home the obvious.

      Yes, to get back to the naming of names — so important in fiction, isn’t it? I read a review of a study on the significance of names in Austen novels, and while some of the examples seemed a bit obtuse to me many made absolute sense. If each fantasy fiction writer is a kind of demiurge for their created world, then they’re also a kind of Adam-and-Eve combo, naming all the plants and animals in their Eden, or dystopia, or whatever.


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