How to write a youth fantasy: introducing Serafina
by Rob Neufeld
Begin in the basement of the recently constructed Biltmore House with a girl who’s been in hiding there from infancy to her 12th year—for good reasons—and follow that lead to a media sensation that seeks to join “Frozen” in fandom.
Robert Beatty’s new novel, “Serafina and the Black Cloak,” published by Disney-Hyperion, which also publishes “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” marks another stage in the golden age of fantasy.
“Serafina’s journey,” Beatty has revealed, “grew out of my desire to write a story about an unusual and heroic young girl for my three daughters,” who, in the meantime, have started a robotics company that earned them a trip to the White House as young, entrepreneurial role models.
You can read about it all on Beatty’s website, Robert-beatty.com. And you can meet the author at a series of book launches that follow the book’s release, Tuesday.
The rise of fantasy
Today’s elders had read about Alice, Frodo, and Narnia in their childhoods. But, up until 1983, fantasy had been a sub-genre of a side genre (science fiction) in the general fiction arena. That’s when Stephen Donaldson’s “White Gold Wielder” joined Stephen King’s horror novels on the bestseller list.
A look at bestsellers through the years shows a remarkable shift in reading interest. The blockbusters of the early 1960s had been books by Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, John Le Carre, J.D. Salinger, Daphne du Maurier, and Katherine Anne Porter—literary authors. James Michener had been the indulgence read.
When Jacqueline Susann dominated the charts in 1966 with “Valley of the Dolls,” Truman Capote nearly had a fit. But he hadn’t seen nothing yet. The current “Grey” variations are even topping audio sales with the movie soundtrack; and there are only five shades of genre fiction at the general store.
Meanwhile, another trend came along—the young adult thirst for literature, the milestone year being—you know it, 1999. It took a little while to catch on, as the second Harry Potter book, “Chamber of Secrets,” hit No. 1 in sales before the first title, “Philosopher’s Stone,” had caught fire.
High fantasy writers Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Terry Goodkind, along with vampire gothic mistress Anne Rice, had previously made incursions into the central marketplace, but mainly with adults and precocious young nerds, not the Brady-like bunches.
Then the golden age emerged, bringing us Brian Jacques’s Redwall; Orson Scott Card’s Ender; Phillip Pullman’s dark materials; Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl; and also, you’d have to say, despite the controversy surrounding its now commonplace eroticism, Laurell Hamilton’s vampire hunter, Amanda Blake.
I provide all of this prefatory material because, over ten years later, writers such as Beatty, looking to create great fantasy, have all the templates laid out. Their tasks are to give them fresh turns.
Intruder in the basement
The most significant choice a fantasy writer has to make today is how to present evil. We’re not talking about Judy Blume-type personality problems; we’re talking about worldwide and universal malevolence.
Sorry, parents. Kids are scared about the future, and are coming to grips with it. Zombie apocalypses. Amoral medievals a la George R.R. Martin.
“Serafina” chooses the dangerous but ultimately manageable “Lord of the Rings” model. Like the ring, a black cloak seduces and warps its users.
You don’t have to wait long before Serafina encounters her demon. On page 14, the girl, prowling the big house at night, hears—not a rat, the tracking and capturing of which was her specialty—but “something much larger...Someone was walking through the corridors of the basement. Her basement...Whoever it was, he wore what sounded like hard-soled shoes—expensive shoes.”
Then: “Increasingly curious, she followed the stranger, careful to avoid being seen.”
Contrary to Aesop’s warning, curiosity does not kill the cat in fantasy fiction. Instead, it’s a prerequisite for heroism, helped by some form of invisibility, motivated by a heroic calling, and signaled by a marked birth.
Serafina’s special birth—she’d been found as a newborn abandoned in the woods—is one of the secrets and original features of Beatty’s novel. So no spoilers. But you can begin to get a sense of weirdness in the description of her physical attributes.
Girl with amber eyes
“Her long hair wasn’t a single color like normal people had” (well, that should be “as,” not “like,” one of my minor pet peeves), but it was “varying shades of gold and light brown,” Beatty writes.
“Her face had a peculiar angularity in the cheeks. And she had large, steady amber eyes. She could see at night as well as she could during the day. Even her soundless hunting skills weren’t exactly normal.”
On page 24—I’m mentioning the page to show how early and constantly the action comes, making it hard to avoid spoilers—Serafina, running from the man in the black cloak, takes advantage of her unusual body type to press herself into a hiding place.
“When Serafina was born,” Beatty explains, “there had been a number of things physically different about her. She had four toes on each foot rather than five, and although it was not noticeable just by looking at her, her collarbones were malformed such that they didn’t connect properly to her other bones. This allowed her to fit into some pretty tight spots.”
Another essential for a fantasy heroine: feeling like a freak, or an outcast. So when Serafina meets her partner in adventure, Braeden, the invented, tragedy-surviving nephew of George and Edith Vanderbilt, you have the always joyful thrill of seeing two outcasts bond.
And yes, “Serafina and the Black Cloak” takes place in the Biltmore House and on its grounds, with circa 1900 social life milling around. The setting is a coup.
If made into a movie, “Serafina” could be spectacularly visual.
Sat., July 18, 9:30 to 1 p.m., Serafina event and book signing at Biltmore Estate Carriage House Bookstore (Stables); annual pass-holders enter Biltmore for free, and other visitors pay normal entrance fees (225-1454).
Sat., July 18, 2 to 4 p.m., book signing at Barnes & Noble in Biltmore Park, Asheville (687-0681).
Sat., July 25, 3 to 5 p.m., Serafina event and book signing at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville (254-6734).