Seraphina - Rachel HartmanThis year’s Crawford Award went to Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath, which made me very happy. However, it was a close run thing. Many of those involved with the award also loved Rachel Hartman’s novel, Seraphina, and in truth I would have been happy to see either book win. The next I heard of Seraphina, however, was Aliette de Bodard taking the book to task on her blog for its poor handling of mixed race characters. Whoops! Was this yet another example of white privilege completely blinding us to the point, or was something more complex going on? What follows will not be so much a review of Seraphina as a discussion of how people’s personal circumstances can radically change how they view a book, and also the dangers of fantasy fiction as a vehicle for allegory.

There will be spoilers. You have been warned.

I should begin by giving you an overview of the world that Hartman has created. It has two intelligent species: humans and dragons. The dragons are, at least in Western terms, more civilized than the humans. They have more advanced technology, their culture is more sophisticated. And, of course, they are a very different species. It could well be that the average dragon has a much bigger brain, and far more acute senses, than the average human. The humans, however, are more numerous, breed faster, and are generally busier as a species. They have succeeded in pushing the dragons out of much of their traditional territory.

A few decades ago there was a war. Peace has now been declared, and an uneasy truce reigns. Right wing forces on both sides are spoiling for a return to conflict. On the human side, they are represented by religious extremists. The Sons of St. Ogdo are a group of thugs who do everything in their power to stir up hatred against the dragons. On the other side the political pressure is more subtle, and is exerted mainly through the action of an agent provocateur.

One of the many talents that the dragons have is shape-shifting. They can disguise themselves as humans, and are largely undetectable in that form. What no one suspects, however, is that when in human form a dragon can interbreed with humans. Were such a mixed race child to be found, it would undoubtedly be declared an abomination and killed.

Our heroine, Seraphina is, of course, half-human and half-dragon. Her mother lived amongst humans in stealth, married a human man, and was only discovered when she died giving birth to Seraphina. The distraught father managed to cover up the story, and raise his daughter as a human girl. But there is a problem. Half-dragon children always have a small area of scaly skin somewhere on their body that they must never let anyone see.

The novel begins with Seraphina, now an adult, getting a job as the assistant to the master of the Queen’s music. Her dragon genes make her an exceptionally talented musician. Now she will play a major role in organizing the celebrations to mark a state visit by General Comonot, the dragon leader who was the architect of the peace treaty on their side. (The aging Queen Lavonda played that role for the humans.) The Sons of St. Ogdo are determined to disrupt the visit. And the Queen’s son, Prince Rufus, has been murdered while out hunting, possibly by a rogue dragon. Seraphina wants to help maintain the peace, but she dare not risk discovery.

I’m sure that one of the reasons I missed the issues that Aliette picked up on was that the book is so very clearly anti-war, and pro inter-species harmony. The bad guys in the book are the Fascist-like Sons of St. Ogdo, and the vicious old dragons who are plotting against Comonot in the hope of getting to go back to hunting humans. The good guys are Seraphina and her friends. The idea that the book might be in some way racist just didn’t occur to me. Plus, of course, this is not an obvious allegory of the issues faced by mixed-race people in our world, because dragons are very clearly not human.

Aliette, however, is mixed-race. What’s more she had people writing to her recommending Seraphina as a book that deals well with mixed-race issues. So she read it, and was not happy. I can quite see her point. In our world, mixed race people are not generally undetectable save for some small part of their body they have to hide. They do not grow up believing that they are probably the only one of their kind. And, at least these days, they are not regarded as an abomination that will be killed if discovered.

It is entirely understandable that Aliette should be sensitive to the portrayal of mixed-race people in books. I’m the same way myself with the portrayal of trans people. In fact, one of the reasons I missed the whole mixed-race issue was that I was too busy thinking of Seraphina as a book about trans people.

Pardon? What is she on about?

Go back a couple of paragraphs. What did I say about Seraphina and those like her? Undetectable save for a body part they need to hide? Believe that there is no one else in the world like them? Will be regarded as an abomination if discovered? That’s me as a young person. The world is a lot more friendly to trans people these days, and in particular there are many fabulous role models out there for young trans kids. But that is what it was like for me when I was young, and in reading the book I was sucked right into that narrative.

There is also the whole thing about “passing”. The idea of “passing for white” is something that causes a huge amount of anger and distress in non-white communities. Seraphina’s mother passes for human, very successfully. Trans people may also be described as “passing” in their preferred gender. Radical Feminists often use this to suggest that trans women are traitorously gaining advantage in the way that someone who passes for white might do. Also the idea of passing is used to caricature trans people as liars and deceivers.

I liked the way that Hartman dealt with this. Seraphina and her father have every reason to be angry with their mother, Linn. And indeed Linn’s dragon family disowned her for what she did. Linn’s mother was so ashamed of the whole affair that she committed suicide. And yet, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that Linn did what she did for love of her human husband, and perhaps to help maintain the peace. Apparently, when dragons take human form, they acquire emotions along with the body. Hartman makes it clear that a decision to live in stealth (who noticed that I used that phrase earlier on?) is not necessarily a simple intent to deceive. Nor does it mean that you have turned your back on your own people.

It is also worth considering that there is a big difference between passing for a member of a privileged class, and passing for a member of an oppressed class. Trans women are not gaining social and economic advantage by living as women, they are giving it up. Equally Linn was not gaining social and economic advantage by living as a human. She was a member of the dragon nobility, and gave that up to marry a middle class human.

This brings me to one of the aspects of Seraphina that did trouble me a bit. In some ways it was very clever of Hartman to portray humans as the less advanced, less powerful civilization. That might make white people think more deeply about what it is like to be threatened by a technologically superior enemy. But at the same time it puts Seraphina in the position of arguing that an oppressed, potentially colonized group should not fight back against their oppressors. I can see people getting upset about that.

The way the dragons in the book view the humans is very like the “overrun by foreigners” narrative that is at the root of “yellow peril” scares and the current conviction of right-wing America that Europe is being overrun by Muslims. Hartman has managed to make this narrative true for the dragons. While having humans doing the overrunning might make us stop and think, it also gives the idea that it might happen to us credence.

I should note also that I do take Aliette’s point about the mixed-race characters all having special powers. It might seem a nice thing to do, to give your oppressed minority abilities that help them transcend their situation. However, that’s escapism. In real life it doesn’t happen. In real life, no matter how badly you want special powers, or even need them, you don’t have them. To someone who grew up wishing that they, and people like them, had some means to fight back, giving them super powers in a book can grate. I know what it feels like, because I had a similar reaction to one aspect of Laura Lam’s Pantomime, for exactly the same reason.

I’d like now to talk a bit about the dragons. I love them. They are genuinely alien. Yes, they are scientifically and culturally advanced. But they are also largely emotionless. If you can’t make an argument in mathematics, they are not interested. I felt that Hartman did an excellent job of portraying their alienness. Yes, it is an idea lifted from Star Trek, but I thought it was done better. Dracoforms make much better Vulcans than humanoids.

Then I noticed Rachel Swirsky getting angry, because as she saw it the dragons were an unflattering caricature of autistic people.

Who am I to say that she’s not right? I know very little about autism. Rachel obviously does, and in much the same way as Aliette picked up on the mixed-race issues, and I picked up on the trans issues, she has found one of her own interests in the book. I hope she’ll write about the issues she saw.

There are a couple of lessons that I think we should take away from this. Firstly, everyone reads a book through their own filters. Just because one person sees something in a book that you don’t, that doesn’t make them “wrong”, or make you “wrong”. It means that you are different people, with different life histories, who are sensitized to different issues.

Secondly we need to be very careful in attributing intent to authors. Is it the case that Hartman intended her book to be “about race”? I think it is fairly obvious that she did, and that her intentions were good. Did she intend it to be about the lives of mixed-race people in our world today? Probably not, but the book has clearly been read in that way, and perhaps that should have occurred to her. Although, of course, when doing a complex piece of worldbuilding it is pretty much inevitable that you will miss something. I certainly don’t dispute the right of mixed-race people to see themselves in the book, and be unhappy about how they were portrayed, but equally I have some sympathy with the author who I still think, on balance, did a good job.

Did Hartman intend the book to reflect the experiences of trans people? Again I suspect not. After all, trans people are not a separate species that can interbreed with humans, or result from cross-species breeding. I think that the resonances are a happy accident. Did she intend the dragons to be reminiscent of autistic people? I have no idea.

There are times when it can be enormously productive to use fantastic fiction as a means of illuminating issues in the real world, but it is very easy for those resonances to break down. It is also easy for a reader with specific interests to see resonances that the author didn’t intend. We need to be aware of that when writing reviews. Ideally we should review books as we read them, not as we think the author intended them, or as we think others should read them.

We also need to be very careful when recommending books to others. I’ve lost count of the number of times that books have been recommended to me as “good” on trans issues, but have turned out to be either laughable or actively transphobic. I hope I wouldn’t recommend a book to Aliette as “good” on mixed-race issues. Rather I might say, “here’s a book with mixed-race characters, does it handle them well?”

As for Seraphina, I really enjoyed reading it. Having heard what Aliette and Rachel have to say, I now see issues with it that I had been blind to before. I still think it is well worth reading. After all, if a book can generate this much thought and discussion, it has to be worth investigating.

Purchase options

book cover
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository
Amazon US
Amazon UK