One of the many advantages conferred upon readers by library membership is that frisson which is added to the literary experience by having to read a book before a certain time. In most cases this is a frisson of minimal proportions, as one is able to renew one's lendings, with laughable ease, via the twinkling magic of the internet. This marvellous facility is offered, I am sure, by most library services today, and is certainly available in Hertfordshire, to pick at random the county in which I live. In rare instances, however, one's book will have been reserved by another library user, and the race between reading time and the return deadline is very much on.
This is one of the reasons why I'm reading Seraphina as quickly as possible; the other being that it is the best Science Fantasy book I have read in a good long while (since the Passing of The Second Age and the Fall, (or was it Awkward Stumble) of Folizar The Lilac, in fact). Seraphina, recently published in paperback as a Young Adult novel (but equally suitable for the Wizened and all other varieties of Adult), is a book about dragons. I have flown over many lands and through countless ages with these beasts, from Tolkien's Smaug (which we now know is Elvish for Benedict Cumberbatch), via the doughty dragon-riders of Pern to the sublime mysticism of Earthsea. They are, in short, an SF staple, and highly dangerous in the wrong hands for that very reason. Rachel Hartman handles this trope with such assurance and skill that it is difficult to believe this is her first fantasy novel.
The book is narrated by the titular young woman who is the product of an illegal and unusual inter-species relationship (although the female dragon was in the human form which these creatures can assume) and Hartman uses Seraphina's perspective to draw a world in which the two species are about to celebrate the anniversary of an uneasy truce, and in which suspicion, hostility and prejudice vie with the desire for peace, reconciliation and tolerance. Hartman's attention to detail, sense of humour, deft characterisation and sheer writing ability all combine to make this scenario not only credible but utterly absorbing and moving, with the allegorical and moral overtones never being overplayed. One of the enriching threads is the role and significance of emotion and music to both cultures, with the dragons possessing a Vulcanesque aversion to the former and providing many of the book's excellent comic moments in doing so. When a priest stomps angrily away from Seraphina's father, her uncle (also a dragon in human form) asks:
'Did he leave because you convinced him his religion is a sham? Or was he ......what's that one called? Offended?'
Religion is another very well-played card, with the human belief system - based around a pantheon of colourfully-named saints - described well at both the higher and populist levels. It was, in fact, a very early baptism scene in the book featuring a psalter in which a heretical saint had not been concealed, which made me feel I was going to enter a world of rich imagination and excellent writing. Mind you, any novel which starts as well as this one:
'I remember being born.
In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart's staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion.'
has already gone a long way to engaging my attention. Not only does the imagery prefigure the profound importance of music in the book, but the deliberate bathos of 'indigestion' reveals a writer who makes most authors in this genre sound like they're using writing by numbers kits.
This book is so good that I may (especially if I haven't finished it before the Library Bell tolleth) even confer upon it the ultimate honour of buying a copy. Mercifully, the paperback cover, unlike the hardback, does not suggest that a fantasy novel has had a nasty collision with Mills and Boon.