Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman


August 9, 2012 by Heidi

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman book coverTitle: Seraphina [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Rachel Hartman
Standing: First in a new series.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: July 10th, 2012 by Random House Children’s Books
Hardcover; 467 pages
ARC from publisher via NetGalley
YA/MG Fantasy Challenge

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.

You ever feel like you showed up to a party at a really awkward time?  It’s just after everyone else got there, but too early to be fashionably late?  Yeah, that’s kind of how I feel about posting my review of Rachel Hartman’s excellent debut, Seraphina.  It’s like I’ve stumbled into the room decked out in sparkles and enthusiasm screaming ‘OMG you guys! DRAGONS!!!’ and everyone forces a smile and then rolls their eyes behind my back as they turn back to their little groups saying things like ‘yeah, we already covered that, honey’.  Because it has been covered–Seraphina is wonderful, and I’m quite happy to say it totally lives up to the hype.  As such, we’ll keep this one short and sweet.

So here’s my dirty little secret: I have never been afraid of dragons.  I feel like these days we’re living in a culture that likes to render cuddly and inert the creatures of nightmares, just look at How to Train Your Dragon or Monsters Inc. (two movies a freaking adore), but that wasn’t the culture of my childhood.  Dragons were still supposed to be scary then.  But then, of course, I started reading Anne McCaffrey when I was 12, so any chance that I would gain a healthy and proper fear of dragons went right out the window then and there.  So I’ve rarely been able to take the threat seriously.  I rolled my eyes at Smaug, I never blinked when facing the dragons in Harry Potter (Charlie worked with them, after all), so I was a bit surprised to find that the dragons first able to poke at my fear of the creature were in Seraphina, a book in which they don’t often look like dragons at all.

Seraphina is an excellent example of how it takes being human to be inhumane.  Rachel Hartman’s dragons are able to fold themselves into human form in order to better study and learn about those things dragon culture lacks–music and art, but this also renders them susceptible to emotions.  A completely logical creature devoid of emotions may be intimidating, but a creature inexperienced with emotions that suddenly has very strong ones thrust upon them is something to fear indeed.  How do you convince such a creature that love is not a disease, when as The Shins say, Caring is Creepy?

Seraphina is that archetypal character with a foot in both worlds and a place in neither, without whom these dragons would be totally beyond our understanding.  She understands dragons better than any humans–her mother was one of them.  Living her life carefully guarding this secret, Seraphina is full of the knowledge of the things she can never have, and until our story had never felt she needed.

For me, the strongest aspects of Seraphina were the growth of this character and the confidence that can be gained from knowing you are not alone.  I realize there was a romance (which was fine, but didn’t have me completely sold), and political upheaval, but where Seraphina truly shone was in its ability to instill a certain pride in oneself.  The ability to look at burdens as assets, to face the fear of the other and overcome, and to challenge our traditional notions of what it means to be good.  I absolutely loved that fact that Princess Glisselda was such a strong and likable character, which made the romance between Seraphina and Glisselda’s betrothed, Kiggs more compelling than it would have been if we could just hate Glisselda.  I loved the supporting cast of familiars and their real life counterparts, particularly Abdo and Lars (who in my head is always blundering about in a kilt).  Rachel Hartman has a way of phrasing things with a very subtle humor that makes you feel as if you’re sharing an inside joke, and quite frankly I found this book so utterly refreshing in a trickle (which is soon to be a flood) of mediocre young adult fantasy, I cannot wait to see more.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I shall make half courtesy and quit the room.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Unquestionably!  I was so happy with Seraphina and the fact that it was a nicely self-contained novel, but I’ll certainly be back to see where things go.

Recommended for:  YA fantasy fans–I know you’ve been burned a lot this year, and let’s face it, you’ll be burned a lot more as this trend is just ramping up, but trust me when I say Seraphina is worth the risk.

Real life repercussions of reading this book:
Well, I already mentioned it, so have a listen (I think Orma would approve):


Get a second opinion:
The Nocturnal Library
The Readventurer
Young Adult Anonymous
The Book Smugglers
Janicu’s Book Blog
Ivy Book Bindings
The Book Rat
A Jane of All Reads
Bibliophilic Monologues
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
Chronicles of a Book Evangelist
Steph Su Reads
Books Take You Places
Chachic’s Book Nook
Paranormal Indulgence
Good Books and Good Wine

I’ve also reviewed:
The Audition by Rachel Hartman (Seraphina .5)


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