Seraphina’s Lament is a grimdark novel written by longtime book reviewer and blogger Sarah Chorn (Bookworm Blues). I’ve always been a fan of her reviews and was interested in what she might have created as a first-time author. Much to my surprise, I found it was an apocalyptic dark fantasy that uses elementalist magic, a fantasy version of Stalin’s oppression of the Ukraine, and a zombie apocalypse to tell a diverse LGBT+ friendly story.
The premise is that the Sunset Lands’ royal family has been overthrown by the dictator Eyad. Eyad is a lunatic who has forced the population into collective farms, his enemies into gulags, and taken all of the food to distribute at his leisure. Starvation has become a massive issue due to their disruption of infrastructure as well as Eyad’s indifference. Historically, I’m of the mind Stalin deliberately used starvation to suppress the Ukraine but this interpretation is perfectly valid for her world.
The big difference from the historical Soviet Union is the time period is compressed. Eyad is the one who conducted the revolution rather than the inheritor of a fantasy Lenin and Trotsky. It is also a fantasy land that uses magic in place of guns or explosives. Gods and supernatural powers are overtly interactive with the world as well. Eyad’s cruelty and wickedness brings down a punishment of Biblical proportions with the starving rising from the dead as undead horrors.
The primary point of view is Seraphina, Eyad’s personal slave. Eyad finds her pleasing and conducts innumerable head games with her. Eyad is notably a gay man but he is not the only gay character in the book. Another major character is Seraphina’s own brother and Eyad’s former lover who defected from the revolution when he discovered what a monster the ruler was. Seraphina is close to her breaking point and her discovery of magic gives her the potential to change the world.
Part of what I love about Seraphina’s Lament is that it manages to show grimdark and horror do not have to opposed to progressive ideals. This is a world that does not share our moral values on things like sex, relationships, or races but is still a terrifying place. Too many authors design their alien and fantasy worlds that are identical to White Christian Europe, either with modern values or exaggerated Medieval cruelties. Sarah Chorn is not afraid to color outside of the lines and the book is stronger for that.
The magic system of the book is really good. Elemental systems are always compared to Avatar: The Last Airbender and while there’s some similarities, it works very well as a well-developed system that has been part of the world’s history for thousands of years. Indeed, the suppression of the magical arts is a major reason why the famine is so destructive. Elementalism is not the limit of the magic in the setting either.
Some grimdark fans may not respond well to the blending of dark fantasy, modern history, zombie horror, and elemental magic but I think this worked very well. It reminds me a bit of The Poppy War. I strongly recommend it and am interested in seeing what Sarah Chorn writes next. She strikes me as someone who has a long career ahead of her.