Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Review - Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Short review: Seraphina is thought to be the only half-dragon in a world where most humans hate dragons. Then the Crown Prince turns up dead and everyone suspects a dragon did it. Things get more interesting from there.

Crown Prince Rufus dies
Killed by decapitation
Is war imminent?

Full review: Seraphina is a delightfully fun young adult fantasy bildungsroman mixed with some politics, some romance, and a murder mystery that ties it all together. Centered upon an engaging teen protagonist struggling to deal with a dangerous personal secret, filled with a well-written, interesting, and often quirky cast of supporting characters, as well as an interesting and fairly original take on dragons, this story is an almost pitch perfect piece of young adult fantasy fiction.

In the world of Seraphina, dragons are real, and have waged long and bloody wars against humanity. Forty years before the events of the central story line in the book, the humans of Goredd and its neighboring kingdoms made peace with the dragons of the northern mountains, entering into a treaty that ended the conflict and has allowed both sides to heal. Many dragons have mastered the art of transforming themselves into human form so that they can live among and interact with humans. Dragons in human form can be given away by their silver blood and for "newskins" who have recently taken to living among humanity, their unfamiliarity with most human customs. The laws in Goredd also require dragons to wear identifying bells, marking them out as dragons, and prohibit dragons from reverting to their natural form while they are in the country. Given the long history of enmity between the two races, many humans view dragons with suspicion or even outright hostility, a sentiment that many among dragonkind return.

The central character in Seraphina is, naturally enough, Seraphina, a talented musician who has, through a combination of hard work and family connections, secured a position as the assistant to the court composer to the royal family of Goredd. She also harbors a deadly secret: She is, in fact, a half-dragon, and when the book opens, as far as she knows, the only half-dragon. Given the prejudice against dragons harbored by many humans (most notably, the Son of St. Ogdo), Seraphina's heritage poses a threat her life should it become known, and thus she takes great pains to conceal the signs she inherited from her mother: A ring of scales around her left arm, and another around her torso. Seraphina also inherited her mother's memories, and got the benefit of the guidance from her draconic uncle Orma. And Seraphina needs Orma's guidance, because in the fantasy world Hartman created, dragons think fundamentally differently from humans, devoid of emotions or passions, and dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and learning. The study of music, a central element to the story, highlights the difference between the two races: Dragons can study the art, and become quite skilled, but they have no feel for it, and as a result, their performances are mechanical and devoid of the spark that is characteristic of true artistry. Dragons can be technically proficient musicians, but lack the soul that would elevate their work above the ordinary. Dragons who take human form for too long can begin to experience emotion, and are subject to sanction from the rulers of their race if they do so. Among the many other challenges Seraphina faces, mastering the complexities inherent to the dual nature of her own mind is one of the most significant.

Despite all of these benefits, Seraphina's life is complicated and often confusing. Despite her relatively prominent position, Seraphina must keep her distance from everyone, even those who she cares about, just to protect her secret. The tense situation in Goredd becomes even more so when Crown Prince Rufus turns up dead with his head removed - and everyone knows that biting off a victim's head is a particularly dragon-like method of killing someone. The mood in Goredd quickly turns ugly, including a mob forming almost immediately after the late prince's funeral to assault a passing dragon. The day is saved when Rufus' illegitimate nephew Lucian Kiggs arrives with the guard to disperse the mob, an event that also serves to introduce Seraphina to the handsome and clever guard captain. This incident only hints at the chaos, unrest, and violence that could erupt in the wake of Prince Rufus' death, and for most of the book the royal family of Goredd finds themselves trying to preserve the fragile peace between their land and the dragons to the north even while public opinion clamors for war.

As the story progresses, Seraphina finds herself pulled into the investigation of Crown Prince Rufus' death, and also finds herself pulled into a world of political intrigue and secrets as well as something of a one-sided romance. Along the way, she discovers that the world is bigger and more dangerous than she ever thought, and that others have even more difficult to hide deadly secrets than she does. Even though there is a murder to be solved and political machinations with potential nation threatening consequences, Seraphina changes and grows over the course of the novel, discovering that those she thought had perfect lives still face difficulties, and at the same time, there are those who face far more hardship than she could have even imagined at the outset of the book. It is this almost natural character development that sets this book apart from so many others - even though Seraphina starts the book as a fairly admirable person, she is still a child. Over the course of the novel, she learns and matures, developing from an awkward teen into an adult - an awkward adult, but an adult nonetheless.

Backing this story, Hartman engages in some excellent world-building that fleshes out the fictional world that Seraphina lives in. In addition to the fascinating take on dragons that she establishes for the setting, Hartman also creates a second type of dragon that, despite being essentially harmless, quite obviously fuel humanity's dislike of dragon-kind. Even small things serve as building blocks for the world: When Seraphina is to be blessed as an infant, the psalter flips open to the blacked out page of Saint Yirtrudis, who had been condemned as a heretic. The reaction of the priest, who flips the page an announces that Heaven surely meant for the book to open to Saint Capiti serves as a tiny but illuminating kind of world-building. Later, in an almost off-hand manner, the reader discovers that at least one of the nations that Goredd is allied with maintains the institution of serfdom, a fact that no one comments upon as being particularly notable (which is itself a bit of world-building). The entire book is littered with tiny nuggets of information like this that serve as the threads that weave together to create an intricately designed tapestry upon which the story can take place.

Overall, Seraphina is a brilliantly crafted work of fantasy fiction. Though the murder mystery itself is fairly straightforward, and the true identity of the murderer is readily apparent fairly early in the story, tracking them down proves to involve several interesting twists and unexpected turns. Given how well-done the murder mystery is, the fact that it is essentially the background for Seraphina's own personal coming-of-age story just highlights how good this book is. This book is an excellent young adult fantasy story, but even more than that, it is simply an excellent and well-crafted fantasy story, without the need for the young adult qualifier.

Subsequent book in the series: Shadow Scale

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

2013 Locus Award Nominees
2013 Nebula Award Nominees

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  1. This is a book I have wanted to read for a couple years. I really should get it off my wish list soon. :=)

    1. @fredamans: This was a very good book. I should be putting up a review of the sequel Shadow Scale in the next week or two.