by Alex Khlopenko
Before delving into the review, it is important to establish my bias towards the premise of “Seraphina’s Lament”. I was recommended this book because I’m a Ukrainian and the novel is based on the Soviet genocide of Ukrainians called Holodomor. I was excited and highly suspicious, and naturally so – western writers, even those diligent in their research, usually butcher any topic that is not in their high school curriculum.
Fun fact for the uninitiated – Joseph Stalin and Soviet government in 1931-1933 used artificial famine to suppress the growing unrest, labour strikes, rise of Ukrainian intellectualism, and other fun counterrevolutionary activities. They called it collectivization and used the stolen collected food supply to sell to western democracies in exchange for technologies and machinery. Thus, happened the Soviet miracle of industrialization which cost roughly 10 million lives. My grand grandfather was a head of a kolhoz and was shot for distributing grain to people. My grandmother lost four siblings to starvation and never let a bread crumb fall.
Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by how Sarah Chorn approached the issue and, not without certain reservations, executed the premise of the book.
Sarah Chorn assumes the role of Tolkien’s Queen of Valar – Nienna, who endlessly wept, turning the grief into wisdom
“Seraphina’s Lament” follows a diverse cast – from a farmer who resorts to cannibalism in the face of starvation, to a group of counterrevolutionaries, to the head of revolutionary government Premier Eyad. Giving a POV to every party and strata of the conflict, not limiting it to lamentations and whining of the oppressed (the Ukrainian literary style of writing about any tragedy) or the power fantasy of the oppressor (the American way). This balanced approach lets the reader delve into the minds of everyone involved, thus blurring the lines of good and bad, further defining the grimdark genre alignment of the novel.
The plot develops in a crescendo, from the degeneration of the common folk and resorting to cannibalism, to the eventual death of the world in a blaze of glorious birth of the new gods. Literal cleansing of the world, and letting it start from scratch is a symbolic offer of a way to deal with a tragedy like that, once again, considering the premise and reality of Holodomor – the nation was not cleansed, there were no consequences for the perpetrators and not justice for the victims.
Inadvertently, Sarah Chorn assumes the role of Tolkien’s Queen of Valar – Nienna, who endlessly wept, turning the grief into wisdom.
Grimdark fantasy has been famous and often criticized for glorifying the over-the-top violence, rape, huge-ass battles, and gore overflowing the pages. It is not always entirely true, but many of the authors are sinful in this regard.
“Seraphina’s Lament” does a wonderful job of not glorifying the atrocities it is depicting, without playing the outside neutral spectator. It shows and condemns the crimes against humanity, without resorting to unnecessary apologism that can be seen in regard to real events (i.e Churchill or Stalin apologists).
Sarah Chorn doesn’t shy away from describing collectivism, enslavement, torture, and what touched me the most – children eating children (this one will stay with me for a long time), in great detail, yet in good taste.
I found Chorn’s idealistic approach to the communal understanding of the nuclear family as a cell of society
At the same time, from my perspective, it feels like there was a lot more to use from the premise – the period of establishment of Soviet power had much more to offer in terms of human drama, the conflict between a person and the repressive system. More than just the backdrop. And yet it is 100% more coverage and use of the underlying topic than ever before, which deserves praise and respect.
Chorn’s prose may be my biggest reservation about this book. The novel declines to fall into the general trend of using simplistic, straightforward sentences and goes all in on Proustian grandeur. Multi-layered metaphors, repetition, callbacks, and purpleness of the prose rivals that of Abercombie or even Anna Smith Spark. It works in lush descriptions of the emotional distress of the characters, the desolate landscape of the Sunset Lands and Lord’s Reach, but when the same toolkit is used in dialogues they sometimes fall flat, sounding like something written by Terry Pratchett or, god-forbid, Tommy Wiseau.
The novel signals a significant shift of interest for western English-speaking SFF writers and their audiences. Increasingly more of them turn from beating the dead horse of Tolkien’s legendarium and Arthurian mythos, to cultures and histories less explored. Sarah Chorn is maybe among the first to pay attention and depict the atrocities of Holodomor in genre literature and it warms my heart.
“Seraphina’s Lament” offers a fresh setting, interesting characters, and researches into Holodomor, an issue generally disregarded by western audiences and writers and is a precisely executed novel with a few caveats could be easily disregarded by the reader not familiar with the issue before.
“Seraphina’s Lament” by Sarah Chorn is available on Amazon.