Beside the tasks all novelists take on—compelling characters, a plot that moves, prose that’s clear or fascinating or both—large-scale secondary-world fantasy and science fiction come with needs of their own. Such stories require a world with its own geography, its own history, its own fauna and flora, and (usually) its own magic system, different enough from our Earth that the differences matter, yet not so different that they make no sense. That same writer also has to say something about our Earth, without falling into predictable allegory, or (worse) into racial stereotypes. Moreover, characters must grow and change and follow their stars in ways that do not just pass through a new world, with its dragons and harbors, but illuminate that world. We Earthly readers may start out baffled, but by page 300 we have to learn, along with the protagonist, something about how this society, or ecosystem, works, and how its big stories affect the lives we know.
That’s a tough set of asks, but the best writers rise to them. One of those writers is now Rachel Hartman, who has built one continuous, intricate, and inviting world in her four novels so far, beginning with Seraphina (2014), making it deeper and wider and more morally complicated each time out. Seraphina was a book of palace intrigue and coming out, set within the borders of one nation, indeed half-inside one castle’s walls. Shadow Scale (2015) told a story about found family and international travel, and about how remote (telepathic, psychic, or—in our world—internet-based) friendships can go murderously wrong. Tess of the Road (2018) was a picaresque, a story about the rejected and the despised, and a twenty-first-century take on overcoming sexual trauma, taking its young heroine and her non-human companions from her inland hometown to the water’s edge.
Hartman’s new novel begins where the last one left off: it’s a nautical adventure in an age of so-called discovery, concerned with colonizers, First Peoples, and empire, and with the ways in which Native nations need or don’t need non-Native allies. It’s beautifully self-conscious about its own point of view, and its characters’ points of view: it’s both an exciting series of scrapes and exploits, and a sharp riposte to all those white savior tales in which outsiders, point-of-view figures for a non-Native reader, swoop in and save the day.
And it reads best if you know what happened first. Seraphina and Shadow Scale constitute one continuous tale: in it our heroine Seraphina Dombegh, a castle-raised, spotlight-shunning musical prodigy, discovers that she is one of a few half-human half-dragons, though she (unlike most) can pass for a full-human girl. Like most half-dragons, she has unique powers (hers are psychic; others are physical). Those powers link her both to the world of full-dragons, who live in the mountains beyond her nation of Goredd, and to a network of other hybrid half-dragons, one of whom has the power, and the desire, to possess people and start a war.
The sentences above are spoilers, but they won’t ruin the books, whose pleasures are many: Seraphina’s introverted self-searching; the complex religion of Goredd, with its demanding Saints; the variety of human settlements and geographies, from the rough pine forests of Samsam to Italianate Ninysh to the Alexandrian city-state of Porphyry; the oddness of dragon society, where everything has to be logical and spelled-out, and where—by human standards—everyone is rude. Hartman’s dragons recall Star Trek Vulcans, but even more closely track some autistic people, who have our own rules and obsessions and can’t abide subtext. The half-dragons, meanwhile, might recall mutants from X-Men comics or real-life trans people. Many of us feel monstrous as children. Only some of us can pass. And most of us need to find a community, especially if (like Seraphina) we grow up believing we’re alone. (Yes, there are literal trans people in the books, too; if you dislike how the first one ends, check out the second.)
By the end of Shadow Scale Hartman has completed an unrivaled tapestry of secondary-world fiction about coming out and coming to terms with your place on the autism spectrum, about transness (allegorical and literal), about what to do when you feel like a teenage monster, and about the way that virtual, nonlocalized communities—whether created by magical psychics, or by Discord or Twitter or Instagram—can save you or elevate you or ruin your life.
She’s also established a fictional geography broad enough for other characters to play in, and to learn things Seraphina had no way to know. When Shadow Scale came out I told my friends that Hartman’s two books (so far) were about me, a transgender, gifted, and rather gay child of privilege, making bonds with other misfits, all too easily recruited to their passions and their (perhaps dangerous) cause. Tess of the Road, on the other hand, described my friends: Seraphina’s half-sister Tess, in Hartman’s third novel, sets off on foot to explore Goredd and the adjacent, richer nation of Ninysh, fleeing sexual shame, patriarchal oppression, and a family that saw no place for her, accompanied by her loyal friend the quigutl Pathka.
Quigutl may be Hartman’s greatest creation. (They are certainly her most fragrant.) They’re six-limbed, fire-breathing, lizard-skinned creatures with eyestalks. They look like dragons’ distant relatives, but they behave like dragons’ opposites: low to the ground, grubby, practical, and intuitive. They’re mechanics and engineers, where dragons are scientists. Dragons are big and aloof and prefer clear rules and boundaries. Quigutl go for togetherness, sleeping in piles: when they want love, they say “be nest.” They also go through biological sexual (as well as social gender) transitions: they are comfortable with change. Quigutl’s low prestige means that few humans ever bother to learn their language, though Tess has made herself fluent. That language has a “contradictory case” (p. 140) ending in -utl, for statements that are both true and not true (p. 331).
None of my friends are quigutl, or live with quigutl, but more than a few are nonbinary. Some are religious, or spiritual, at home among apparent contradictions. More than a few have settled far from home; some have survived sexual trauma and shame, including (like Tess) unwanted pregnancies and reprehensible, powerful, hard-to-catch exes. Reading Shadow Scale and Seraphina, in other words, showed me myself. Reading Tess showed me my queer found family. And rereading those volumes showed me Hartman’s predecessors, not only in modern fantasy and science fiction but among the Victorians. The epilogue to Seraphina mentions George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2): you can see in Hartman’s prose Eliot’s sympathy for almost all her characters in her books, her sense that we need to know how they see themselves. The studious and cloistered Seraphina bears some resemblance to Eliot’s heroines Dorothea Brooke and Maggie Tulliver. Tess, on the other hand, looks more like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), whose sexual shame prompts her own travels in rural England, though Tess Dombegh can be a hero, repeatedly; she also finds high quality sex education, as Hardy’s naïve Tess, alas, never could.
Hartman’s intrepid Tess not only gets to be a hero—she wants to be one, and that wanting gets her in trouble, first when she makes a scientific discovery that Ninysh and Goreddi adults turn to bad ends, and again in the carefully braided nautical tales that make up In the Serpent’s Wake. The first three novels took place in the Southlands and in cosmopolitan Porphyry. This one unrolls south of the Southlands, on the islands where Tess and her shipmates make landfalls in their attempt to reach their world’s South Pole. There they hope to find the creature, long thought mythical, called the Polar Serpent, whose mystical properties might heal Pathka when nothing else will. Their voyage on the Avodendron recalls the nineteenth-century British journeys of discovery—say, the voyage of Darwin’s Beagle—and like those journeys it proves inseparable from imperial projects. Tess’s mentor and protector Countess Marga wants to avoid the power plays: “science must be apolitical” (p. 117). So, at first, does Tess. Can they find the Serpent? Can any Southlanders? Should they?
Like Homer’s Odyssey, like C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), In the Serpent’s Wake is an adventure full of strange creatures, whose story beats match its series of islands. Unlike those revered books, it’s a tale whose white or white-coded viewpoint characters have to learn what First Peoples need, how to acknowledge ignorance, and how to avoid the trap of the would-be white savior, without ignoring the carnage that colonists bring. (Marga is literally brown, not white, being half-Porphyrian, but imperial privilege follows her too.) It’s a book whose heroes learn not to play the hero. And it’s a book about, and principally for, non-Native readers, giving advice best framed in fiction if that fiction involves made-up worlds.
Hartman lives in Vancouver; I’m tempted, being American, to say that her new novel feels Canadian, since many Canadians who descend from colonizers undertake land acknowledgements, and notice Native histories, more readily than we ignorant New Englanders. But the Canadians I know might not welcome this sort of backhanded compliment: it’s not like Canada, or any other settler colonial nation, has truly done right by First Peoples, or even decided in public what “right” would be. The island that the Ninysh call St. Remy, with its estates and plantations and open cruelty, has aspects of colonial-era Jamaica, as depicted by (say) Marlon James, though the introduced “sheep and wheat and settlers” suggest Aotearoa New Zealand (p. 307). Hartman’s circumpolar nations share a dependence on the open sea, a talent for long-distance navigation, and a panoply of boatbuilding styles, which point both to Aotearoa and to the tropical and subtropical Pacific. We also encounter, in stories within stories, the trickster demigod Vukharai, whose exploits echo the Oceanic demigod Maui’s. As for the development of white settlements, a working-class Southlander’s decision to settle where “a servant may yet be master” (p. 338), speaks to Earthly colonies and their logic as imperial safety valves, from Brisbane to Baltimore.
Hartman’s sea-girt nations—the Tshu, the Jovesh, the Ggdani, the Sesh—are not real. They cannot be, since a white author copying real Native lore would commit the kind of violation against which Hartman writes. Instead, Hartman synthesizes, embroiders, tells travelers’ tales, and energetically makes stuff up. The Aftisheshe put woven ornaments everywhere, defend themselves with packs of dogs, and live alongside tiny pets that look like balls of fluff. Their historical enemies the Tshu enter coastal battles with ice tigers trained to swim long distances. A quasi-nation of priests called the Katakutia ride from island chain to island chain on artificial wings and stilts, taking advantage of spittle trails left in the ocean by sacred, sentient, seal-like animals called sabak, though the Southlanders call them sabanewts (pp. 66, 153). Here as throughout the book, imperial colonizers call everything by the wrong names (p. 257), and Tess has to learn what to call them instead. (“The simplest way to obliterate us is to deny us our names” [p. 256].) Island-based supporting characters get the chance to correct (or refuse to correct) Southlanders’ errors. Young people, natural history buffs, and professional sailors can usually stand corrections, while “anthropologists” (p. 274) prove irredeemable.
Tess must also learn what she cannot know. And the greatest discovery Tess and her non-Native allies make, over and over, is that they do not belong here, on these islands, at all. The hypercanonical literary novel that stands behind Hartman this time is, perhaps, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1899-1900), though Hartman’s vision of what we ought to do, what restitution and forgiveness mean, and whether anyone can do it, stays less grim than Conrad’s (she is writing for teens, as well as adults: these novels are marketed as YA). It is also a vision of distance, and of respect. There are stories only some people can tell, and creatures (such as the sabak) that only some nations can touch, and practices only some people should perform. Only a deeply misled visitor, or a villain, would try to record those stories, or pursue those creatures, or put those things on display (p. 202).
“Our obligation is to dig into our own hearts and expose the truth there,” says one Tshu storyteller. “Sometimes our hearts are full of monsters. It takes valor to look them in the eye” (p. 442). Those monsters might be the legacies of settler colonial nations, and the benefits that settler colonies bring to settlers’ descendants like me. Because she writes secondary-world fantasy, Hartman can frame those monsters alongside wonders we readers permit ourselves to enjoy, since we have not literally stolen them: the sea-traversing sabak, for example, and the mystery of the Navel of the World, and the magnificent cliffs of Edusuke, and the algae that give the Tshu an insulated second skin. And because she writes about people—especially Tess—who have themselves read nautical adventures, Hartman can slip in jokes about pirates and sailors and what it means for Tess to be one, as in her absurd enthusiasm for swabbing the deck (p. 47).
I mentioned Conrad, but a better precursor here might be Ursula K. Le Guin, another writer of seagoing secondary-world fantasy, whose novels also ask non-Native people to step back and consider inaction, and (in Hartman’s words) to “determine what we can offer that would actually help” (p. 430). Like Le Guin, Hartman weaves through all her novels questions about what stories do, and why we need them. (Some of those questions arise in Hartman’s “translated” verse, which is as good as it needs to be.) Like Le Guin, Hartman neither rejects scientific curiosity wholesale, nor embraces its Enlightenment lens: the sympathetic though wrongheaded Countess Marga claims that sabaks are “part of nature and belong to everyone” (p. 359), but the first phrase need not imply the second. Whales, for example, don’t belong to anyone.
Like Le Guin at her best, Hartman balances wholly made-up sources of wonder with transparent, politically charged analogs: there’s nothing like a quigutl on our Earth, alas, and nothing like Katakutia, but there are colonists seeking a better life, and colonial officers who don’t mind a mass murder (p. 416), and Native peoples who view one another as rivals until the advent of something like a pan-Indian movement (p. 437). Hartman is one of the white people talking to white people about race and white supremacy, so that Native people, and people of color, can do something else.
Since In the Serpent’s Wake is a Rachel Hartman novel, it’s also about sex and gender. Here is a misfit dragon adopting a pronoun: “Spira pulled that gender over and around herself like an old quilt … It wouldn’t last forever—she was only borrowing it, after all—but for the moment it was real enough to keep her warm” (p. 408). Rereading Hartman’s novels means seeing how each one enfolds the discoveries of the novels before. Spira’s gender, and her dragon-specific disability, are callbacks to Shadow Scale. So is Porphyrian grammar, which identifies a sympathetic sailor as transmasculine in such a low-key way that I almost missed it (p. 41). And—given the resonance of the word “monster” for Seraphina—so is Tess’s anguished conversation with a winged Katakutia about whether she, Tess, might be monstrous too (p. 323). (“It turned out you could follow the laws and still be a monster” [p. 150].) Pathka’s relationship to his, or her or their (quigutl gender is complex), hatchling Kikiu permits more callbacks to Tess of the Road. So does the uncompromising #MeToo subplot, where egregious, secretly violent authority figures (including priests) must be unmasked: in one of Hartman’s few obvious puns, she names a bosun Mr. Darvo (p. 354).
Gusts of wise advice run like a Gulf stream through the currents of this novel: “the urge to swoop in and save people is strong” (p. 387), as Seraphina and Marga and Tess all know—after all, they’ve done so in times past. But it’s an urge they must set aside as they learn what to do instead. Those lessons are hard. They take a whole novel to learn—for Tess because she wants to make up for her own painful mistakes, for Marga because she carries so much aristocratic and academic privilege. They may take a while for readers like me to learn, too, and they are never the only thing we learn: as the trustworthy adults, and the talking sea creatures, keep saying, you can apologize, or shut up, or go home, but “don’t let that be all you do” (p. 252). In among these moral and political lessons come other, lighter ones: fencing techniques, “Porphyrian nautical hand signs” (p. 218), rock-climbing and crossbow mechanics and submarine-building and, yes, diplomacy.
We read fantasy and science fiction to undertake vicarious adventure, to grow, to escape, and to put ourselves, sometimes, in a protagonist’s place. We also read SFF to seek out new worlds, explore new life, and (as Marga’s fiancé puts it) to “go—dare I say boldly?—where no one has ever gone before” (p. 133). SFF can incorporate that spirit of historical and scientific discovery. When that spirit retreats, SFF has often found a second wind in the spirit of horror: some mysterious things turn out evil, or eat you, or are Not for Us to Know.
That second wind fills the sails of Hartman’s fourth novel, but only if “Us” means “white people,” or “non-Natives.” Hartman gives us Shesh and Aftisheshe and Ggdani spies and leaders and fighters and healers, but we never learn all that they know; the story takes place largely through Tess’s, and Marga’s, and Spira’s eyes. If you want large-canvas fantasy by, for, and about Native people, read Native writers: Darcie Little Badger, Rebecca Roanhorse, and far more. By contrast, In the Serpent’s Wake takes care not to be, and not to try to be, their competitors. Hartman has instead written a magnificent, exciting, wise, engaging novel about colonization from the viewpoint of the colonists and their descendants, who need to grow up, ask how and whether and where we can help, and then get the hell out of the way.
Editors: Reviews Department.
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.