Random House, 2012.
hardcover, 451 pages + “cast” & “glossary”. own copy.
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.—publisher’s comments
The enthusiasm surrounding Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina may worry some readers. I certainly didn’t want to be disappointed, and I tend to be extra critical of an absence of negative reviews. But, as is often the case, it is the recommendations of certain reviewers that sway us. I, who never buys a book without having read it at least once, bummed a few dollars off the daughter and she let me carry it home. I wasn’t disappointed.
There are several words that become overused in writing about a book and “entralling” is one of them. The overuse dulls the effect, despite the sincerity. However, there are few better words for the fascination Seraphina continually held for me.
I was cooking dinner on day two of the read and I was trying to figure out why I could not put the book down. Sure one chapter draws you into the other, but not always with cliff-hanging devisement or other. This is where “thrall” came to mind. I was absolutely drawn into the world Hartman created; a story, thank the Lord, that wasn’t about setting everything up before launching into story. Perhaps it was my impatience (a virtue of mine) but she was a breath a way of frustrating me with the truth about Seraphina (I’d forgotten the jacket copy, is there a clue in there?). And this is one of the things Hartman does well: her decisions about what to conceal and reveal, and when. She throws things in and you are aware of a detail you should store for later, but you have to surrender to the story and you won’t mind it. Hartman has a gorgeous story-tellers imagination and what’s worse is she is able to translate it to the page. She doesn’t drown you in prose, or overwhelm you with youthful angst. You may get a bit giddy by all the big words. She carries you off and away and it feels effortless because the writing is that refreshingly good.
I have to admit, too, it was the garden of the grotesques that won be over completely. Okay, her introduction to the dragon lore bit (which she unfurls wonderfully throughout) probably played a key role there at the beginning, too.
Back to the refreshment-track. I do not read a lot of Teen or YA or YA-crossover (which this feels like) primarily because I’ve a daughter whose 12, and because originality is so hard-won. It just isn’t the formula I like to set on rerun, so Seraphina is a joy. A few reasons why (w/ possible spoilers—sorry):
–book one and how many following? Seraphina could stand alone. but there is a set up. The only time I mentally pulled away from the text was this Seraphina as Professor X image near the end there. Anymore, I reflexively cringe: can we not have a ya book that will please just start and finish in 450 pages or less?! I am looking forward to book 2 (and not for redemptive purposes). Thank you, Ms. Hartman.
–the first person Ask N, First-Person narratives are another reason I do not read much YA, but I have to share: Hartman does not overdo the I. There are some moments I slipped into the comfort-feeling I get with 3rd-omniscient. I think more authors of Teen/YA should make a study of Seraphina.
—triangles: not two guys and a girl, but two girls and a guy. And the other girl isn’t a horror; I kept waiting for it, and I suppose I am spoiling it here, but she just isn’t. This isn’t to say there aren’t a few close moments of “really?”, but it all plays into how painfully consistent Hartman is with her characters. Goodness knows Seraphina has her moments, too. Anyway, I expect complications will be just as heartbreaking into the next book…sigh.
—the bad ass heroine. Seraphina reminds me a bit of Caragh O’Brien’s heroine in Birthmarked. And perhaps it is because they are both females dealing with marks against their beauty and femininity. They are also both very intelligent and act courageously against all normal impulse: “I did sound pretty crazy, when he put it that way; only I knew how scared I’d been” (252). I think others try to create characters like Seraphina, but it just doesn’t carry off convincingly enough. Seraphina begins as someone rare and special, but not in a way that guarantees her a role as hero, nor is she the overwrought victim. Her rarity, paired with the impetus of her courage, propels her into the role of hero, and it is so nicely done that when the Prince lists the brave things Seraphina has done to earn his awe (well into the read), you are with Seraphina in realizing that maybe she is this badass heroine.
—swoon-worthy boy. Kiggs is a bit Sherlock Holmes (if Holmes could be distracted by girls) meets Prince Charming. The Holmes-Charming combination makes him a danger to Seraphina, which is a nice conflict to have. He is honorable and a blush, and tormented just enough to make him a heartbreaker. So I guess, not much differs there, except Hartman has yet to give them an easier way.
—absent yet haunting mother. The circumstances here, and her role in the story ages Seraphina in lovely ways; not painlessly, but appreciatively. I would love to hear the mother’s story in a volume; but I suppose we do, in a way, through Seraphina.
“I scrupulously hid every legitimate reason for people to hate me, and then it turns out they don’t need legitimate reasons. Heaven has fashioned a knife of irony to stab me with” (124).
Seraphina has to find a way to deal with who she is and what (and whom) made her that way. “I opened my eyes. The clouds had parted; the moon shone gloriously across the snowy rooftops of the city. It was beautiful, which only made me hurt the more. How dare the world be beautiful when I was so horrifying?” (276). There is this low moment where she hurts herself and she realizes, “I could not live, hating myself this hard” (277). Something had to give, she had to find a way to deal with all the emotions, all the grotesqueries sentient living things have to deal with. The book is fraught with these kinds of conflicts, of finding a way to live both in the body and mind, in the emotional and intellectual. Seraphina is a bridge; and on both sides we see characters struggle. She is hardly alone. And not being alone is a necessary message in the book. Those who’ve come before have experienced similar, if not the same; others in the present struggle as well. “Once I had feared that telling the truth would be like falling, that love would be like hitting the ground, but here I was, my feet firmly planted, standing on my own. We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful” (450).
“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily” (239).
Orma is one of my favorite characters. He threatens to overtake Seraphina as the most intriguing and most beautifully developed. If you are a character-driven reader, Hartman will not fail you, and if a cleverly strung plot is your spiked cup of tea, Seraphina will be a pleasure as well. Seraphina may prove difficult if you never mind an author slipping in an inconsistency to smooth the way for a tidier passage. Hartman follows courses you may desire to see averted. Seraphina’s decisions to lie or tell the truth wasn’t only a conflict her own. As a reader, I wasn’t sure how I would advise her. The complications engage the reader in empathic ways, and leaves the moralizing to whom? Compassion appears to be the better part of valor in Seraphina.
“The borderlands of madness used to have much sterner signage around them than they do now” (128).
I mentioned the garden and the grotesques. Hartman transports the reader into a variety of venues and populates these places with both the familiar and not. The saints, musicians, and philosophers are an inclusion not to be missed. (If you adore Frances Hardinge, like I do, you will like Hartman). Other authors came to mind at various points but in an affectionate way. Seraphinais like a breath of fresh air. A story this beautifully conceived and well-crafted should stand the test of time. Readers of fantasy or no, dragon lore or no, you’ll find this storyteller worth your time, just mind the hour Hartman begins to tell you about this girl named Seraphina and her world…or have a flashlight on hand.
Deanna at “Polishing Mud Balls”: review.
Steph at “Steph Su Reads”: review.
Grace at “Books without any Pictures”: review.