Thursday, March 5, 2015

Review Rerun: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Cover art for Seraphina, featuring a woodcut of a dragon flying over a medievalesque city.
A slightly different version of this review originally appeared on my old blog, Stella Matutina.

SERAPHINA originally made it onto my must-read-oh-god-oh-god list thanks to AMY UNBOUNDED, the self-published comic we discussed on Tuesday. When I learned the comic's creator, Rachel Hartman, was at work on a novel, I was a happy girl indeed. When I learned said novel was set in the same world as the comic, my excitement grew exponentially.

The happy dance may or may not have been involved. I ain’t saying, but you can draw your own conclusions.

Alas, traditional publishing is a slow beast, so it was four years before I at last got my hands on a DRC (digital review copy) of this most coveted novel. And y'all? It was more than worth the wait. I loved it so much that I proceeded to talk it up to everyone. I spent months upon months doing this prior to the book's official release date, and I ain't stopped since.

You need SERAPHINA in your life.

If you need to justify your need with reasons and stuff, read on.

Let’s begin with a wee summary, for those who require it. SERAPHINA is bloody difficult to pare down to its essential components, so I'm going to break with tradition and use the jacket 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.

There. That saved me a whole bundle of stress and told you what the book is about without revealing any spoilers. Win!

Now that that’s out of the way, let's return to our traditional mode and engage in a wee gush-fest before we start being all proper and organized.

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:

ZOMG you guys DRAGONS I love dragons especially different dragons and these dragons are hella different and so totally well-written and they aren’t even the best part that's Seraphina she’s a girl with guts and I love girls with guts she is awesomesauce and she’s also a musician and y’all know I love musicians I love them I love them I love them and Seraphina has a secret and I adore those too and part of her secret is a garden she keeps inside her head it's a mental construct and what is bad about that NOTHING THAT’S WHAT and oh there’s family issues and family issues mean SO MUCH TO ME and there’s all this utterly gorgeous stuff about the nature of emotion and some of the characters from AMY UNBOUNDED show up and ZOMG I’m just a hot mess over this book I loved it so much and you will oblige me, gentlefolk, if you will go read it as soon as you possibly can.

The Sensical Version:

SERAPHINA is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

The title character alone is worth the price of admission. Seraphina’s emotional journey is heartfelt, realistic, and so easy to connect with. Like all the best protagonists, she begins with one idea of how she fits into the world and ends with a rather different sense of what is or isn’t possible for her--fueled, of course, by everything she experiences over the course of the book. She’s a girl with guts; someone who knows that her unique perspective on the human-dragon conflict gives her a rare opportunity to help both sides, even as she fears what humans and dragons alike may do to her if they discover her secret. It would be far safer for her to stand by and let events play out around her, but that’s not a choice she could make without fundamentally altering who she is. So she does what she can, even though it places her in both physical and emotional peril at every turn.

I shan’t go into much detail on the nature of her life-threatening secret, though I’m sure many of you will guess it before too many pages have passed. Suffice it to say that it leaves Seraphina in an awkward position indeed. She’s utterly herself, albeit a self in progress, yet she can never truly show herself to those on the outside of her secret. This adds a wonderful level of tension to the thing; a constant give and take between Seraphina’s own needs and the demands of the society in which she lives.

It also feeds into a love story. Romance has become such a staple of YA fantasy--and of YA fiction, full stop--that I often wish authors would quit with it and explore platonic relationships instead, but SERAPHINA's romantic subplot is lovely. It involves one of those pairings that seems impossible, given both parties’ circumstances and what we know of their characters, but comes together beautifully. There are barriers on both sides--big ones--but there’s such depth of feeling between Seraphina and Kiggs that one feels they couldn’t possibly remain apart. Their relationship slowly deepens from that of casual acquaintances with a few things in common to true friends; and from there, the only question is whether they’ll deepen their friendship or slide along into love. I’m so, so pleased with how Hartman handled the progression. There’s no insta-love here; only two people who form a real connection.

During this most recent read, I was also struck by how very, very wonderful Glisselda is. Glisselda, the princess second in line for the throne, begins as Seraphina's harpsichord student and slowly becomes a true friend. Selda is bubbly and enthusiastic and blunt, which sometimes blinds people (which: Seraphina) to her intelligence, loyalty, and kindness. She's ever willing to expand her worldview and to examine problems from multiple sides to find the best solution. Given her smarts, I'm sure she must see what's going on between Seraphina and Kiggs (who is her fiance by arrangement), but she makes no move to keep them apart because she trusts them both and knows she'll be a more effective ruler with their support.

Selda is a lovely person. She might be my favourite. (I also hope she's in love with Millie, her lady-in-waiting.)

Then there are the dragons.

Hartman’s dragons view the world through distinctly non-human eyes and are prone to the age-old shapeshifter’s dilemma: when they take on human form to interact with Goreddi society, they fall prey to human weakness. Their eyesight and sense of smell are dampened, their exposed skin becomes horribly sensitive, and they feel a range of emotion that simply isn’t possible for them in their natural form. This last presents the biggest problem, as it forces them away from their own society's logic-based system and into a dangerous sphere in which things like affection, which appears a mere whim to them, hold sway. They respond by exerting a level of control that horrifies me, no matter how often I tell myself that I can't judge them by human standards. Most notably, they require dragons who’ve formed "unseemly" attachments to undergo a process that strips all memory of these feelings and the people who caused them from their minds.

This leads to many questions about the nature of emotion and the role it plays in all interactions, be they political, familial, or social. It’s almost painfully compelling stuff. I couldn’t tear myself away.

On top of the fantastic heroine, the sweet love story, and the dragons, Hartman gives us many smaller details that left me in a state of near-perpetual squee. Seraphina’s music is a continual source of delight as it bridges the gap between logic and emotion. The mental construct she designs to conceal her secret brought me much joy, especially since she utilizes a garden. (I have a thing for both gardens and mental constructs.) Queer folks and people of colour play a role, and Seraphina, at least, seems to regard their sexuality and skin colour as a non-issue. (The queer folks do encounter homophobia from other sources.)

And, perhaps best of all, there are overlaps with AMY UNBOUNDED! While there are differences between comics-Goredd and book-Goredd, a couple of characters from the comic play a role in Seraphina’s adventures, and I felt all smug and informed whenever I recognized a place name or an historical figure. I don’t expect those elements will be of much interest to those of you who haven’t read the comic, but if you have, they’re pretty durned cool.

Oh, friends. SERAPHINA is just plain delicious from start to finish. I want those of you who haven't yet read it to do so as soon as you possibly can. Me, I remain hopeful that Ms Hartman will someday come through here on a book tour so I can ask her to sign my copy of AMY UNBOUNDED (I have the e-book of SERAPHINA) and thank her for crafting this glorious world.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read SERAPHINA, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Kobo, The Book Depository, Amazon, or Audible. I get an extra month of Scribd if you sign up for a two-month free trial.


  1. My reading has slowed down this week so I haven't got to my reread. :(

    1. I'm limping along through SHADOW SCALE. It's good, but I just can't seem to concentrate on it. :(