Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Release Date: July 10, 2012
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Source: Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
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.
In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.(courtesy of Goodreads)
Seraphina is one of those rare books that has something for everyone. Strong plot, incredible world building, and complex main and side characters. It is one of the most astounding high fantasies I've ever read. I can't believe this is Rachel's debut novel.
I know that many readers are huge fans of dragons and dragon novels. This was actually my first dragon-heavy book. Fear not all you dragon novices. You don't need to have read other dragon books to understand the dragon lore in Seraphina. Everything is well explained and doesn't seem to draw upon any other works.
Seraphina is the heroine of the novel. As much as anything, this story is about Seraphina's coming of age. She starts off the book grappling with a dichotomy of desires. She's an immensely talented musician and wants to perform publicly and is frustrated that her father is so against her expressing her artistic side. On the other hand, she has to hide almost everything about herself. Seraphina is half dragon in a society where dragons, even those who take human form, are feared and hated. If anyone knew she was part dragon, both she and her family would be ostracized and likely killed. Because of society's view of dragons, Seraphina is scared and ashamed of who she is. I loved seeing Seraphina develop pride in herself throughout this novel. Her growing confidence feels natural and admirable rather than some kind of moralistic after school special attitude that I see in a lot of YA.
While the book focuses on Seraphina, the side characters are extremely well developed. Orma, Seraphina's tutor and dragon uncle is my favorite. Like all dragons in Ms. Hartman's worldview, Orma is ruled by logic and shuns any kind of emotion, to the point of appearing rather cruel. Yet it's clear to us that he and Seraphina have a deep, close relationship. Then there are the royals, Glisselda and Kiggs. Glisselda starts off as a flighty, spoiled, snobbish princess who we discover is actually young and impressionable, but full of innate intelligence and empathy. Kiggs is the handsome hero of the book. I loved seeing how he and Seraphina interacted. Kiggs is perceptive, philosophical, and loyal but has an inferiority complex due to being a bastard royal child. All of the characters in this book are flawed, three dimensional characters. Even Seraphina's father, who starts out as a rather cardboard jerk, grows into someone who I both admired and pitied.
The world-building is astounding. It reminded me of medieval Europe with a strict monarchical social structure and strong ties to religion, particularly to the saints. While the society and religion feel familiar to us, they are unique to the novel. Ms. Hartman also does an incredible job of creating a complex history and culture around the presence of dragons. Treaties, politics, military, holidays, superstitions, and more are all tied to dragons. One of the trickiest parts about world-building is making it thorough enough so that the reader forgets it isn’t real. Many authors forget to incorporate things like cliches that people in the society says that seem inconsequential but in fact add crucial depth.
Let’s not forget about the plot. I tend to be someone who desires a strongly plotted book. Given how much I loved this book, it’s ironic that I had trouble remembering the key plot when I started this review (I’m writing it a month after reading the book, something I do not recommend). That’s not to say that the plot isn’t good. It’s fabulous. It’s more that the other parts of the book are so great that the book doesn’t depend upon the plot alone for its quality. Essentially, the story revolves around the tenuous peace between dragons and the land of Gorredd. The 35 year treaty is thrown into jeopardy when a member of the royal family is murdered. It’s unclear whether the murder was committed by a dragon or, even if it was, if the murder signifies a purposeful break of the treaty. Seraphina and Kiggs, as well as Glisselda, end up playing crucial roles in discovering the truth behind the murder and the future of dragon/human relations.
If I have any complaints about this book, it is the pacing. And even that isn’t really a complaint. Like most high fantasy books, Seraphina is slow. It took me some time to become invested in the book. There is so much world-building to be done as well as character and plot development that the book drags slightly. But once I got into the book, I devoured every word because I knew it was important. I’m still relatively new to high fantasy. If you’re familiar with the genre, the pacing probably won’t frustrate you; if you don’t read high fantasy often, it may take awhile to get used to the style.
Seraphina is a fabulous fantasy read. I now realize why so many people love dragons. But most of all, I love Seraphina and the other characters of this novel. I’m fascinated by the world in which they live and cannot wait to see what they’re up to next.