REVIEW: Seraphina

Rachel Hartman
seraphina (seraphina #1)
random house for young readers
young adult Fantasy
july 10, 2012

blurb via Goodreads:

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 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 first person narrated fantasy novel about a young girl hiding a terrible secret, surrounded by even more terrible malice and bigotry. For now, she holds a somewhat favored position at court as the assistant to the master of music (I’m sure his title is different, but I’m still trying to grasp and remember all the unique terms and words the author has coined) and her days are exhausting if not normal. And it’s extremely important that she be seen as normal. To keep her secret safe, she makes herself as unnoticeable as possible, a hard lesson learned after years with a stifling father. A hard lesson because here there be dragons, and people that hate them and intrigues and other such novelish shenanigans.

I was originally meaning for this post to be about my initial reactions as I was reading the book. And not just any book, but a book, finally, that I was really enjoying. What’s been going down at Casa de Lurv is a whole lot of mediocre reading. Stuff that never takes off. Or stuff that starts out great and gets way too full of itself.

Dune, I am looking straight at you.

But that aside, something magical happened after about the first half of Seraphina or so, maybe a little prior. I got completely sucked in. The kind of sucked in that allows you very little sleep. If I could have taken this book and myself back about ten years ago, when I could’ve still physically and mentally handled no sleep, I’d have finished the second half of this book in one night. During that first half I was beginning to get the Dreaded Feeling, as if I’d found yet another book that wasn’t going to play well with my interests. I started to get a little irritated at what seemed like way too much dwelling on elements like Seraphina’s obvious need to hide her true identity, her dream garden of “grotesques” (I was beginning to wonder if this was indicative of multiple personality disorder), the country’s general hatred of dragons and the tense, any-minute-now-lynch-mob air. It seemed as if it was all overdone because not much was happening as a result of them for some time. But then I got to a point in the novel where it was as if there was a jump start to its engine and from there it took off. All those elements that seemed overdone in fact felt paid off, and quite nicely, too.

A light went off and I took a step back and was like, “I see what you’re doing there, book.” Oh Seraphina, you are a clever thing. This is one of those young adult reads that offers a lot to readers of varying ages because of how almost timeless and ageless Seraphina comes to feel. Slowly but surely, she wasn’t merely this young adult character to me. Her own views on dragons aren’t exactly fairly balanced at first either; she’s just as susceptible as anyone else to the fears and prejudices against dragonkind as a whole. But she changes and undergoes some of the better development I’ve seen of a young adult character, transforming into a character type that is something readers of all ages can appreciate if they want to read good fantasy. This is especially important because of how she views herself and her secret, holding it close but detesting herself for it at the same time – an obvious side effect of a society built on stilts of hatred. There is a particularly painful-to-read passage where she physically tries to remove the evidence of her secret, and at no other point in the book is her self-loathing more evident.

Hatred tore at my insides. I was desperate to stop feeling it; like a fox in a snare, I’d have gnawed my own leg off to escape it. I drew the little dagger from the hem of my cloak and stabbed myself in the arm.

— pg. 277

She is constantly reevaluating herself, though, because of her secret, and it’s heartbreaking to read at times, but thankfully she comes to realize that her secret isn’t a weakness at all, and she develops a true strength that is beautiful to behold. She grows in awareness thanks to others as well, one being her relationship with the bastard Prince Lucien, head of royal security:

 He did not know the truth of me, yet he had perceived something true about me that no one else had ever noticed. And in spite of that – or perhaps because of it – he believed me good, believed me worth taking seriously, and his belief, for one vertiginous moment, made me want to be better than I was.

— pg. 174

Another way in which Seraphina is a clever read is the plot and the worldbuilding that is woven into it. The two work together seamlessly and when this happens, it’s a beautiful thing. I thoroughly enjoyed the almost Germanic Medieval atmosphere (for lack of better terms), the heavy emphasis on patron saints and the unique words the author coins supporting this (grausleine, for example, which I took to mean something like “madame” – “Do not think me mad, grausleine…” page 138), as well as a completely new-to-me order of knights with their dracomachia fighting style. While there are still some terms I’m not one hundred percent certain on (the terms associated with dragons a lot, saar and saarantras – I never really was sure what these meant; is the latter a dragon in human form??), for the most part the juxtopositioning of the human religion pitted against the severe emotional control the dragons insisted on maintaining was very interesting. Neither society is particularly accepting of the other, let alone its own people.

What all this blather is about, really, is that Seraphina is a book that makes you think about what you’re reading, and the bonus is you’ll have a lot of fun while you’re doing it. Other things that contribute to this are rare moments of humor. Characters with names like Sir James Peascod. Because who woudn’t love a double-take like that followed by an irrepressible snort laugh. And lines like:

“You’re not a villain,” I said. Or else we were two villains in a pod.

— pg. 259

Character-wise, I’d begun to fear that this would be one of those first-person deals where only the main character felt truly developed, but around the same time as everything else picks up and dragged me along for a spectacular read, so too did the characters. Favorites were the intuitive Prince Lucien, who knows something’s different about Seraphina, but who also looks past the typical upper crust desire to dismiss the “little people” and engages her help in state affairs. He see her as a valuable asset from the get-go, but he’s also poignantly sweet with her, too. I think we can guess where that leads.

Another character that deserves a shout out is the delightful Princess Glisselda, and if I’m remembering correctly, third in line for the throne. A lot falls on her young shoulders (Memory tells me she’s fifteen or so, a year younger than Seraphina I think?) but she handles everything with maturity and aplomb when it comes down to the wire. Any other time she is an excellent supporting character who, like Lucien, draws Seraphina out of her self-induced shell in ways that were funny, heart warming and not a little devious. I wasn’t sure about her at first and liked that she could have gone exactly the opposite, but instead the author chose to section out a female support base for her main character without it being cardboardy and fake feeling.

THEN there’s Seraphina’s dubious relationships with her father, and the strange one with her teacher, Orma. Both strong fatherly figures in her life, but for vastly different and complex reasons. I was so touched by them both and happy with how things turned out.

There’s a ton more that can be touted about this novel because it is so rich in detail throughout every aspect that creates a Good Book. Seraphina’s intense musicality, the importance of her dreamworld and its inhabitants, the intricate machine and tools the dragons create, their persecution in a supposed time of peace – gah! So much! Instead, I’ll leave off here with a strong, fervent encouragement to go ahead and fork over the cash or time to the library for this book.  There is an enormous amount of payoff with this first in a new series because, though it leaves some things unsettled, there are a lot of things revealed, answered and new things opened. It’s the kind of book that leaves me very satisfied and full. Now if only the second book was arriving sooner than 2014 (according to Goodreads, anyway)! As soon as I was finished with this one, I thought for sure the second must be out by now or would be soon. And that’s how good Seraphina was. I was ready for more immediately, but this is one series I am certain I’ll be just as ready for in another year. If there’s anyone left who hasn’t read this, go read it. If you love fantasy, you’ll forget this was ever a young adult novel in the first place and enjoy it for the plain ‘ole excellent story it is.

Rating: Five Scoops

series order:

  • Seraphina
  • Dracomachia (2014, date TBA)
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  1. I really liked Seraphina as a character and the detailed world Hartman has drawn but the pacing didn’t pick up enough for me in the last half to make this a great read. I probably also suffered from the hype surrounding it as well. I didn’t know there was a second book coming. I’ll probably give that one a try, notwithstanding my underwhelmed reaction to Seraphina.

    And nice review, Kendra. I’m happy that you finally found a book to keep you up at night. :)

    • Holly, sorry you didn’t enjoy it more! I understand. It was quite iffy with it and I there for a while. The pacing is indeed on the slow side.

  2. Well, hell. Another book for the list.

    Not enough money, definitely not enough time.

    But so happy the humdrum read streak was broken–here’s hoping for more memorable reads for you, Kmont!

    • Thanks, Azteclady! Thanks for stopping by! :) I hope life’s been treating you well and sending many good books your way! If you ever get a chance with this one I’d love to hear what you think of it.

  3. I just read this too and I enjoyed it just as much – so smart and well done. I was really surprised to find out that there’s a prequel about how Seraphina got her job at the palace. She goes through so much self-discovery in this book that I can’t imagine getting to know an earlier version of her.

    • I wasn’t aware there was a prequel either! I think I agree with you, though, at this point don’t think I want to go backwards with her character. Just looking forward to the next full-length book! Glad you enjoyed Seraphina, too! :)

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