Sophie Masson,
Serafin
(St. Mary's Press, 2000)

Serafin, by Sophie Masson, was originally published as Carabas in author Masson's home, Australia, where the poetic quality of the writing and the transcendant appeal of its story was enough that an American publisher saw fit to give the book the wider distribution it deserves.

This fantasy novel is set in late 17th/early 18th century France during the time of King Louis XIV, and draws inspiration from the old fairytale Puss-in-Boots and from legends of descendants of angels who have mingled with mortals.

In a rural village, the local outcast girl, Catou, threatened with lynching by a mob who claims she is a shapechanger and a witch, is saved by Frederic, the young son of the town's miller. This altruistic deed gets Catou and Frederic both exiled -- a witch and her ally will not be tolerated by the ignorant villagers. Grateful for her rescuer's kindness, Catou is bound by the code she follows, the Law, to repay him -- which she tries her best to do, for her power is not only that of the matagot, (a were-cat who can transform from human to feline and back at will), but greater than even she knows. Catou and Frederic are forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence roaming from town to town, struggling to survive aided by Catou's power which she uses to "acquire" just enough food, clothing and small coins to get by.

Life suddenly seems to offer hope of better prospects when a handsome, charismatic stranger named Balze, in the service of the mysterious Lord of Tenebran, enters their lives. Frederic fails to realize how dangerous Balze is, but Catou does and her efforts to protect themselves lead to adventures that will eventually take the protagonists all the way to the court of the Sun King. Before they get there, though, Catou manages to disguise Frederic as the noble Marquis of Carabas from Spain, and herself, (cross-dressed), as his faithful servant Serafin, enabling them to come under the patronage of the brother of the Lord of Tenebran, Monsieur de Saint-Cotin, whose lovely daughter Elisabeth inevitably becomes romantically entangled with the erstwhile Marquis.

Serafin/Catou, in her efforts to spread kindness in accordance to the Law she follows, runs afoul of Balze, who by his nature is opposed to everything she represents and is using his pose as the steward of Castle Tenebran to spread his own type of corruption and decadence to the dismay of the Monsieur and his daughter when Serafin's deeds awaken them to Balze's mischief.

Masson fully develops the characters of Serafin/Catou, Frederic, the Monsieur, Elisabeth, King Louis the XIV, the Lord of Tenebran and Balze as they represent her version of the Eternal Struggle which can never be won without cost. Masson's gifts as a storyteller are considerable, enabling her to deal with spiritual and moral issues in the Judeo-Christian tradition in a thoroughly entertaining manner -- using a fairytale plot, setting and characters to deliver her message in a poetic, unique prose style that only in a few places towards the end comes just this close to preaching but not enough to spoil enjoyment of a very imaginative and original re-working of centuries-old folkloric themes. Marketed as a young adult novel intentionally designed to be uplifting, Serafin succeeds in doing that but it also tells a beautiful, atmospheric tale that effectively evokes its 17th/18th century French setting in the process and is written well enough to be satisfying to fantasy-loving adults as well.

[ by Amy Harlib ]



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