Review: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman (July 2012)

Seraphina, by Rachel HartmanThe pitch: In Goredd, dragons and humans have kept an uneasy peace for forty years. Dragons fold into human shapes to serve as ambassadors and professors, but they are far from trusted. When young musician Seraphina takes a position at court, she is drawn into  the investigation of a murder and possible attempt to sabotage the peace. But if she helps  the Captain of the Guard solve the mystery, she might be forced to reveal her own dangerous secret.

The review: Oh, I adored this book! If you love complex, romantic fantasy, you need to read it right now. (Or, you know, in a month or so when it comes out.) Fans of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue will be particularly enamored of Seraphina and Goredd, I think.

I couldn’t stop seeing parallels between Seraphina and Bitterblue. Like Bitterblue, Seraphina is unsure of herself but takes her responsibilities seriously; she’s practical and mathematical; she finds making friends a bit difficult, but once she has them they’re core to her life and to the story. (I recently noticed how much I appreciate fantasies in which the protagonist has more than one friend. Fantasy heroines who go it alone, or alone with a lover or sidekick, seem more common, but I find them harder to relate to — any world seems so much richer with more relationships.)

Seraphina is a true introvert, which I found refreshing in a YA fantasy heroine: she hates parties and finds all the court schmoozing exhausting; she is far better one-on-one. That doesn’t change even after she opens up to her friends or becomes more comfortable at court. It’s not treated as a failing; it’s just part of who she is.

And the worldbuilding! Dragons who can fold up into human form — did you catch that bit? Hartman’s dragons are brilliant, logical, and orderly; they find human emotions and social graces baffling and useless. In human form, they’d probably read as on the spectrum. (I’m wary of saying that, because I don’t want to pathologize or “other” real-life people with Asperger’s — but I’m going to stick with it, because I think it’s the best description of dragon personalities, and the book itself never treats them as alien. Through Seraphina’s eyes, we relate to dragons at least as well as we relate to many of the humans in Goredd.)

The Goreddi religion is intriguing. They worship a set of saints, with many of the trappings of Catholic saints (patron saints of this and that, monks and lighting candles to the saints in church and all of that sort of atmosphere), but with no one God. The saints themselves seem to be the religious figures. We never get more information than we need about religion, dragon society, Goreddi mythology, other countries’ cultures, and whatnot, but it’s enough to see that Rachel Hartman knows her world inside and out.*

I’m wary of sounding like I’m damning with faint praise — because have I mentioned that I adore this book? — but the word I keep coming back to is charming. Sure, the intriguing mystery kept me turning pages, but I’ve read plenty of intriguing mysteries that weren’t half so enjoyable on a page-by-page basis. The characters just plain charmed the pants off me: Phina; Glisselda, the bubbly yet unexpectedly strong granddaughter of the Queen; Phina’s lovably prickly dragon tutor Orma; the handsome, perceptive Captain Kiggs. I had a sense (like in Bitterblue) that all of the characters would manage just fine in a contemporary setting; the fantasy world is rich and wonderful, but there is nothing inherently “fantasy” about its people (yes, even though some of them are dragons). A sequel is heavily implied, of course, and I can’t wait to spend more time in Goredd!

I’ve seen some question in reviews about why this is being marketed as YA. I absolutely think this would work for adult fantasy readers, but the themes are solidly YA: finding one’s place in the world, safely blending in vs. standing up for what’s right, disgust with one’s changing body, risky first romance. Not every YA reader will connect with the rich language and complex political subplots, but many will — or will read past the politics for the mystery, romance, and self-discovery.

* Which makes sense, because she’s been writing in Goredd forever. About halfway through I recognized a few of the odder names and realized that it’s set in the same world as Amy Unbounded, Rachel Hartman’s self-published comic that I read a decade ago! Amy is also charming, in much the same way, though Hartman seems to have grown as a writer since then. I want to find those old comics and re-read them to see how they fit into the story I just read! (Hartman agrees that she’s grown as a writer — here she politely but firmly explains why fans should quit asking her to write more Amy.)

ETA: And here Hartman writes a guest post at Intergalactic Academy, where she discusses Seraphina’s genre (one of my favorite topics, of course), and classifies it as “Science Fantasy, where what appears to be magic is really (in the context of the world) technology.”

Also reviewed by: Intergalactic Academy, The Night Bookmobile, Book Evangelist. (I’ve been working on my review for hours, and it’s still clunky and doesn’t scratch the surface of everything I could say about this book. Ignore me; read these other smart people instead.)

Review copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.

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6 Responses to Review: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman (July 2012)

  1. Karen says:

    Sam, since I can’t read Seraphina yet, I took this blog post as a recommendation to read Kristin Cashore’s work. I just finished Graceling about 10 minutes ago and loved it! Are the two other books as good? I checked out all three from the library but feel the need to take a short break before diving back into Cashore’s story world, since I found it so intense.

    • Sam says:

      Oh, I didn’t realize you hadn’t read them yet, Karen! Yes, absolutely. Fire is a more contemplative book; Bitterblue more of a mystery — in keeping with the nature of their protagonists. (Those are vast oversimplifications, of course.) Kristin just keeps getting more skilled, and all three are very much worth your time.

      • Karen says:

        I’ve now read Graceling and Fire in the last week, and they are both GREAT! I found them both really intense, and I cried a lot while reading the last part of Fire, but I’m just so impressed with Cashore. Great world creation. Wonderfully imbued with feminism that doesn’t feel like an added agenda but rather inherently part of the protagonists’ characters. An unusually healthy approach to sexuality. Romance that doesn’t follow the typical marriage plot. Just fabulous — thanks for the recommendation, Sam. Bitterblue is next!

  2. Pingback: One month + three days « Rachel Hartman

  3. Phoebe says:

    Oh, yay, you read Seraphina! Such loveliness. I recently begged a copy of the Amy compilation off Rachel and was surprised by how well-made her world was even a decade ago.

    • Sam says:

      I am such a sucker for a rich world with everything all worked out: history, religion, geography, politics… There are clearly so many more stories to be told in this world.

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