Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina is one of those books that is incredibly ambitious in the themes it attempts to address, and inevitably falls short on some of them because no one is perfect. I wrote a rather long review of it, in which I considered some of these issues. Goodness only knows why the book is being marketed as YA (other than the fact that it is written by a woman), because it tries hard to examine some really serious questions.
Despite the fact that it didn’t have any trans people in it at all, aspects of the book resonated strongly with me. I wrote at the time that I didn’t think that Hartman had done this deliberately, that I thought it was probably a happy accident. Recently, however, I saw an interview with her about the sequel, Shadow Scale, in which she talks quite a bit about gender, and in particular about designing a six-gender language system for a country in her fantasy world.
Needless to say, I snapped up a copy of the book immediately. It even found its way into my paper for the Trans Studies Now conference.
I should talk generally about the book before diving into the gender material. My review of Seraphina was fairly spoilery, so I’ll try not to make things too much worse.
Shadow Scale gets off to a fairly slow start. Our heroine gets sent off around the world to seek out fellow half-dragons for plot reasons, and for some time it appears that it is going to just be a travelogue. Thankfully the second half of the book is much tighter, and we get to learn a lot more about some of the aspects of Seraphina’s life that were left mysterious in book one. There is also a resolution of sorts to the love triangle that the first book sets up. I am smiling mysteriously about that in the hope that it encourages you to read the book.
Structurally I think that the villain of the book is perhaps a little too powerful, and the ending consequently a little too contrived. Certainly the tension ramps up well towards the end, and things do get wrapped up, but it all seemed a little artificial to me.
Interestingly for a book marketed as YA, Shadow Scale is actually quite critical of the target market. Seraphina is a young woman, not a teenager. There aren’t any major teenage human characters, but there are some teenage dragons. Being teenagers, they are naïve, arrogant, moralistic, quick to anger, and sulky. Having been raised amongst humans, they are not socialised well as dragons. Here’s a bit immediately after Brisi, the main teenage dragon, has just stormed off in a huff.
Somewhere deep in the house a door slammed. Ikat released a slow breath through flared nostrils, then said quietly, “It’s hard for her. The [human] playmates of her early childhood are not merely grown, they’re grandparents. She won’t reach intellectual and sexual maturity for another five years. She doesn’t understand our ways, and we’re a long way from understanding her.
If the Internet existed in Serpahina’s world, Brisi would have a Twitter account called @AngryDragonGrrl and would spend her time denouncing other dragons as a steaming heap of FAIL.
But Brisi is not the character that I’m interested in. She just happens to live in Porphyry, the country with the afore-mentioned six-gender language system.
The six genders are as follows (and note that these are definitions of grammatical genders, which is why the terminology is a bit stilted):
- First we have Naïve Masculine and Naïve Feminine, which are essentially for cis people;
- Then there are Emergent Masculine and Emergent Feminine, which can be adopted by people who choose to identify with them;
- There is also Point Neuter, which is for people who identify as having no gender;
- Finally there is Cosmic Neuter, which is the most interesting of the lot. It encompasses all genders. It can be adopted, but it is also used for gods (because gods contain multitudes), for eggplant (no, I have no idea either), and for strangers.
It was the strangers bit that caused me to sit up and take notice. Hartman illustrates the use brilliantly in a conversation between Seraphina and her Porphyrian friend, Abdo. (The speech is emphasized because they are communicating telepathically.)
Abdo gave me the expected fish-eye, but for an unexpected reason: Wrong gender. You use cosmic neuter for a stranger.
I glanced at Rodya; he leaned to one side and spat on the ground. He’s not a stranger anymore. If anyone embodied naïve masculine, surely Rodya—
You use cosmic neuter for a stranger, Abdo insisted. And he’s a stranger until you’ve asked, “How may I pronoun you?”
That’s brilliant. No matter what someone might look like, or how they might be behaving, you can’t know how they identify until you have asked them. Until you have done so, it is rude to ascribe any gender to them other than the most general one. Well done, people of Porphyry.
Of course the system isn’t perfect. I may have misunderstood it, but it appears to me that trans people are required to adopt the Emergent genders; they can’t identify with the Naïve genders because those are reserved for cis people. That strikes me as very wrong, and is likely to encourage cissexism. I’d appreciate some clarification from Hartman on that point.
Inevitably there is a trans character in the book. Her name is Camba, and this is how she is introduced.
At the bottom of the stairs, four liveried men set down a litter that they were carrying. A jewelled hand parted the curtains and a statuesque woman emerged, dressed in an exquisite saffron gown, pleated and high-waisted. Her strong shoulders were bared to the breeze; the hair piled high on her head was almost architecturally elaborate, with a gold circlet woven through it.
At first glance that might seem insultingly over-the-top. However, there is more than a hint of 18th Century France in Porphyry. In fact the city reminds me a lot of Paris, in that the locals assume that all foreigners are uncouth barbarians (and most of them are).
Camba turns out to be brave and resourceful, though not a match for the aforementioned villain who turns out to be a vicious transphobe (amongst her many other failings). Kudos to Hartman for having said villain indulge in petty transphobic actions while most other people have no issue with Camba. It’s not remarked upon, it is just there, because it shouldn’t be remarkable.
Overall, I was fairly pleased with the book. I think that Hartman might have been a bit over-ambitious again with regard to the gender system, but I applaud her for trying and the book is very clearly pro-trans. While the ending is a bit contrived, it is also powerfully emotional. It looks like there will be at least one more book. I’m looking forward to it, and hoping for a bigger role for Camba in it.
“For young readers”? What are you thinking, Random House. Adults need to read this sort of thing. They need educating more than youngsters.
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