Author Rachel Hartman has been with us as a featured guest all week long, but today’s content is perhaps the most fascinating yet: the author sat down to write an exclusive blog post for Lytherus! Rachel was asked to write a guest blog post with any length and any topic — all of our featured authors are given this option — and returned with a fantastic article on her take on genre bending and the unique dragons in her world:
On genre bending and writing Seraphina
A couple weeks ago, I learned my novel Seraphina had been short-listed for one of the Kitschies Awards, the Golden Tentacle, for best debut. Anything tentacled is right up my alley, of course, but I had never heard of these awards before. Now that I’ve learned a bit more about them – past winners include China Mieville and Patrick Ness – I feel tremendously honoured, amused, and intrigued.
The Kitschies go to what their website calls “the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic.” The emphasis seems to be on boundary-pushing first and genre second, making them what an article at The Guardian calls “a broad church.” That is to say, there’s a lot of quirky ways to qualify, and this excites me to no end.
I love speculative fiction. It echoes the way my brain works, always asking what if? I can’t imagine anything else keeping me that engaged as a writer, and I have a good imagination. But here’s something that may not be so obvous: I am a genre anarchist. Any time the world tells me there are rules to genre, my knee-jerk reaction is, We’ll see about that.
I have a love-hate relationship with the very idea of genre. Oh, I understand what it’s for, from a marketing standpoint and a practical one. Genre can be a useful barometer for how likely I am to enjoy a particular book, comic, or movie, and I appreciate that that saves me time. But it can shackle me just as easily. How many wonderful things do I miss because they’re in the “wrong” genre? To paraphrase economist Tyler Cowan: the best works in a genre I “dislike” are surely, by definition, better than the mediocre crap I’ll settle for in my comfort-genres.
It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, that I have such mixed feelings. Seraphina is most often considered straight-up high fantasy, and I’m generally content to let people think of it that way because arguing the contrary earns me some strange looks. Being nominated for this award emboldens me just a little, however. This nomination says to me that I succeeded in bending the genre in some interesting ways, and that it’s something readers have noticed.
The most obvious bend – and I’m not the first to have done this – is that I have thrown out the quest traditional to High Fantasy and replaced it with a mystery. This switch doesn’t seem to bother readers much, although it bothers some, as does the inclusion of some comedy-of-manners, Jane Austen-esque romance. These are small things, though, surface details. The place where Seraphina really bends genre, in my opinion, is less obvious: it’s in the underpinnings of the fantasy world itself.
My dragons were inspired by neuroscience. A few years ago some challenges in my son’s life led me to read extensively on neurological disorders, and this in turn got me thinking (as one does) about dragon brains. I had already created a world of shape-changing dragons, but it struck me that this raised some interesting questions. Would dragons in their natural form have different senses? Would they have emotions? How would they cope with the bombardment of unaccustomed sensory input they would receive while in human form, to say nothing of that chemical fizz of human emotion? This was a really fertile line of questioning, and one that shaped every aspect of the world, from history, to law, to religion and culture.
I think of my work as Science Fantasy, honestly. Like Star Wars, although that work fits the genre in opposite ways. Star Wars takes mysticism and dresses it up in technological trappings; my book takes neuroscience and psychology and gives them the form of dragons and princesses. And ok, I concede that my dragons break the laws of physics just a little bit, but no more than lightsabers.
It’s probably just as well I’m not in charge of marketing my own book. High fantasy is also technically correct, and less eccentric. I’m just pleased to have had this little bit of recognition that Seraphina, like its eponymous heroine, is not entirely one thing or the other, but stands in the space between and brings the worlds together.
– Rachel Hartman, author of Seraphina