This spoiler-free review is for Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. I first heard of this book from its sparkling starred review by Kirkus (called the best of 2012), as well as its listing among the Top Debuts of 2012 on the Publisher’s Weekly website. (Note: I glanced at both websites in passing– I’m not so much of a publishing nerd that I follow all the news. Nevertheless, both are reliable sources for good books.) In all the reviews I read, Seraphina was described as being an original YA fantasy about dragons– how could I resist? A few more favorable reviews from trusted sources followed, prompting me to pick up the book as soon as I saw it on the shelves. Here is the usual summary:
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.
Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.
Seraphina is a novel to be savored, and not to be devoured. I don’t know if I could have rushed through that book if I wanted to. The book was like a slow dance– a pavano, perhaps– intricate and emotional, but deliberate. The pacing seems lacking at the beginning, but it picks up as it nears the end, like a snowball. A snowball that some readers claim takes too much time to get rolling. I see what they mean, but I don’t think the book was any worse for it.
Indeed, it was well done. Well-written, with good characters and conflicts, the first-person storytelling was especially good for the level of emotion. It’s ironic that a story about so many emotionless characters and actions would be so full of feeling, but that may have been the author’s goal.
The story was secretive, reminiscent of a pretty bad book I once read called Eon, in which a girl masquerades as a boy in order to conquer her country’s inherent sexism. In this version, it was masquerading as a human in order to conquer racism. There are always a few close calls with over inquisitive minds in such books, the main character always falls into an impossible relationship, and, when the truth eventually comes out, none of the characters accept it for a good long while. When they do, the impossible relationship is impossible again. That, of course, leaves room for romance in the sequel. It’s all rather formulaic, but it’s always fun to watch the character’s closely guarded secrets become revealed one by one. Especially in first person, the emotions are quite real and quite interesting.
I enjoyed the fresh view of dragons. Though I have seen dragons that can turn human before, there was never such stress on preventing emotion and holding on to logical thought. I thought the draconic characters had remarkable depth in trying to analyze art and emotions without being sucked into the vacuum of living by impulses. In that respect, the dragons I knew were mixed with Vulcans and Observers. (The latter connection, I’m sure, will not be understood by many here.) But especially when the dragons mentioned being “emotionally compromised”, I thought of Spock.
The worldbuilding was over-explained in some places and under-explained in others. There were so many Saints, I couldn’t keep them all in my head. I didn’t try very hard, though– the important ones stuck, like St. Ogdo.
Mostly, the book centers on court intrigues– careless royalty, tactless ambassadors, and deeply buried plans for rebellion. I fell in love with this sort of thing in Dumas, but as with all court intrigues, there is a lot of romance going on behind the scenes. This is not a dragon-slaying story; it’s rather peaceful, in fact.
The point has been raised that one flaw is the book’s maturity. Though I agree that there were a few topics you couldn’t discuss at a birthday party, none of them were glaringly unnecessary. There was a slight overabundance of bad language in the book as well. It’s true that most of it could have been left out, but for the plot to actually work, most of those concepts had to be included. Indeed, for the purpose the book was trying to accomplish, all that stuff was necessary. The book addresses racism and fitting in with a hateful world, so the slightly mature topics brought up fit the theme of the book. None of those topics were more than lightly touched, however. One of the book’s charms is its ability to address difficult topics gracefully, and for that, I don’t begrudge its use of difficult topics in the least. But because of those topics, I wouldn’t suggest this book to anyone under fourteen, possibly sixteen. It’s a book for upper YA, not the middle grades.
I enjoyed the book. Though I can see where objections may lie, all of them are reasonably justified in my mind. I will watch for the sequel.