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REVIEW: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Dear Ms. Hartman,

Your debut YA fantasy, Seraphina, set in a world based Renaissance Europe, is both a coming of age story and a tale of a clash between two species. Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh, the heroine of the novel, is the child of a human father and a dragon mother. The secret of her maternity is one she must hide at all costs.

SeraphinaIn this world, dragons are a logical, emotionless species, but they can take human shape and while doing so, experience human emotions – something they guard against vigilantly. A truce exists between the two species but there is also a lot of tension and bigotry. Most dragons in Goredd, Seraphina’s country, are required to wear a bell on their shoulder, although scholarly dragons are exempt.

From Seraphina’s narration, we learn that her father Claude had no idea his wife Linn was a dragon until Linn died giving birth to Seraphina. At first glance Seraphina appeared to be a normal human baby, and it was not until she was eleven that she discovered that she is not what she appears to be.

On that same occasion, Seraphina realized that her father’s odd friend Orma is really a dragon, her mother’s younger brother. Seeing Orma in his dragon shape broke open a cache of memories that Seraphina’s mother bequeathed to her. Seraphina passed out and had a vision in which she became her mother as she experienced one of these memories.

A distraught Seraphina returned to consciousness sick and feverish, and dragon scales appeared on her midriff and on her left forearm. Because of the bigotry and oppression dragons face in Goredd, Seraphina always hides her scales under layers of clothes. She is emotional and musically talented, two things dragons are not, so everyone takes her for human. It also helps that most humans and dragons don’t believe a half-human, half-dragon being such as Seraphina can exist.

Now, at age sixteen, Seraphina has become the music mistress in Castle Orison, assistant to the famed composer Viridius. Her father is unhappy about it; Seraphina is a brilliant musician and he is terrified that she will call attention to herself and the truth will come to light.

Seraphina feels isolated and alone with her secret. She does not dare get close to anyone lest that person discover the truth. The closest thing she has to a friend is Orma, and he does not express emotions. More than anything, Seraphina wants a friend, but for her own safety she rebuffs her fellow musicians and anyone else who attempts to befriend her.

Then, just as the treaty between Goredd and the dragons is about to be renewed and the nation awaits the arrival of Ardmagar Comonot, leader of the dragons, for that occasion, Prince Rufus, the queen’s son, is murdered.

Many suspect a dragon is behind the crime, and attacks against dragons increase. Prince Lucian Kiggs, a grandson of the queen and captain of her guard, is charged with investigating the murder. Lucian is illegitimate and was orphaned as a young child. Prince Rufus took him under his wing, so for Lucian, getting to the bottom of the truth is paramount.

An incident in which a dragon is attacked brings Seraphina to Lucian’s notice. He realizes how perceptive she is and begins to rely on her to notice clues. But Seraphina herself is a mystery, and mysteries are irresistible to Lucian. What will happen when he begins to dig into her life in search of answers?

Meanwhile, Seraphina herself has her share of mysteries to contend with. Not just who killed Prince Rufus, but also her mental garden of grotesques, a place peopled with beings whom she visits in her imagination, and who begin to show signs of independent life and thought.

Then there are the memories her mother left her, which Seraphina fears to allow herself to experience. And Orma and her father – are they what they appear to be?

But perhaps the biggest mystery of all is Seraphina herself. Forced to continually lie in order to hide her nature, she has no room to figure out who she is and how to be true to herself. Instead, she feels alienated from her scaly, “monstrous” body, from a mind which contains unwanted memories, from two societies that despise one another and from those who offer her friendship but whom she believes would hate her if they only knew.

Yet as Seraphina begins to accumulate clues to Rufus’ murder, to the garden of grotesques, to Orma, to her father, to her dead mother and to which friendships may be real enough to survive the truth, her alienation from her own body and spirit slowly lessens, and she begins to close the gap between the Seraphina she presents to the world and the Seraphina she is.

Thus, perhaps the biggest pleasure of the book is seeing Seraphina overcome obstacles which include her own dislike of herself, despite the bigotry she must face each and every day.

Seraphina is truly an impressive debut because the novel is strong on so many fronts. The worldbuilding is detailed and fresh, with well thought out cultures both in Goredd and the dragon realm.

There is an intricately plotted mystery which, in an interesting twist, is less about the whodunit question and more focused on the “Where is the killer?” question instead.

The novel’s pace is deliberate and thoughtful, but I wasn’t bored at any point. I’ve seen reviews by readers who felt that it was too slow, but I’m not one of them.

The characters are sometimes surprising and often intriguing, with Seraphina being the most layered of them all. Due to her standoffish aspect I only warmed to her gradually, but I also understood that her distance and deceitfulness were not parts of her nature, but rather, ways in which the prejudices she faced on a daily basis warped her behavior. Her brightness appealed to me and her isolation engendered my sympathy.

At times this book made for uncomfortable reading. Fantasy novels in which the characters must hide their true identity in order to escape persecution can be tough for me, and this book certainly fit that description. Seraphina’s feelings of being alien also reminded me of some experiences I had when I immigrated with my family to the country where I now live as a girl.

Ultimately, though, this was a well-written and rewarding novel. I can’t think of much negative to say about it other than that I guessed one or two plot twists ahead of time. I was reminded a bit of two favorite novels, Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief, with its poetic language, historic backdrop and dragons who can take human shape, and to a greater degree Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, with its intricate plot and mysteries, its themes of oppression, secrets and the search for truth. Both books have an unusual richness, and while this book is as different from them as it is similar, it has that quality too. B+.

~Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

26 Comments

  1. Liz Mc2
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:10:25

    I’m so glad you liked this and would just say “Yes! Me too!” to this whole review, though for me it was an A. I listened to it on audio but when it was on sale recently I bought the e-book so I could savor the language in a different way.

  2. Janine
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:24:38

    @Liz Mc2: Was it on sale recently? I wish I’d known. Thanks so much for reviewing it on your blog. I first got interested in it after seeing it on a list of recommended YA novels put out by some librarian’s organization, but your review reinforced my interest in the book.

    The main thing keeping it from getting an A- grade from me (I’m terribly stingy with straight A’s) is that Seraphina’s isolation was so well evoked that it made for a difficult reading experience. This is a point in favor of the author’s writing, though.

  3. Brie
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:28:44

    I bought this one month ago, so I guess I should stop stalling and start reading.

  4. Isobel Carr
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:37:05

    Maybe if it goes on sale again…$10 ebooks are only an option for absolute autobuy authors.

  5. Janine
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:43:43

    @Brie: I could be wrong, but I think you will like it.

    @Isobel Carr: One of the best things about hardcover YA novels is that they are easy to find in libraries.

  6. hapax
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 13:26:04

    Loved, loved, loved this book.

    I think your comparison to BITTERBLUE is spot on; both books deal with the themes of truth and lies and the terrible cost of both; and both books feature characters who — even when they make poor decisions — always act with rock-solid integrity.

    And since this *is* a romance blog, I’ll note that the romance was very believable but low-key, and definitely “bittersweet” at the novel’s end (but fingers crossed for the sequels)

  7. Janine
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 13:31:19

    @hapax: Bitterblue was the closest comparison I could come up with.

    And yeah, the romance was lovely and my fingers are crossed for them. I know there is at least one sequel in the works, titled Dracomachia. Are there others planned?

  8. Isobel Carr
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 13:52:04

    My wrist is so bad I can’t hold a hardback any more. :(

    But I might buy it in HB for my friend’s niece who loved Tooth & Claw. Yes, I know it’s strange that I have no problem spending $ on books for other people to read, but that I can’t justify it for *me*.

  9. Janine
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 14:04:47

    @Isobel Carr: Sorry to hear that. I know exactly what you mean about finding it easier to buy books for others. I hope your friend’s niece enjoys it.

  10. Janine
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 14:09:50

    Ack, I just realized I forgot to tag this with “Recommended Reads” so Jane would know to put the Recommended Read banner on it. Well, it is a recommended read regardless.

  11. Erin Satie
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 15:17:53

    Yay for recommending Seraphina. I absolutely adored this book.

  12. msaggie
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 15:28:10

    Janine, thanks for the lovely review of Seraphina. I read it three times over Christmas back-to-back as I loved it so much. The descriptions of music are wonderful. Rachel Hartman has a free short story prequel on Seraphina’s audition for her position as Viridius’ assistant and tutor to the princess at her website – perhaps you could link this into your review so that readers can get a taste of Seraphina’s character, and the beautiful telling of the tale?

  13. Susan
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 17:02:30

    @Liz Mc2: Darn. Wish I’d known about the sale as I’ve had this book on my wishlist just waiting for a price drop. :-(

  14. Nicole
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 20:08:45

    Oh my, definitely putting this on my wishlist. Sounds delicious.

  15. Janine
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 20:28:14

    @msaggie: I googled and couldn’t find this free short but feel welcome to link to it in the comments if you have the link.

  16. Maya S.
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 21:28:59

    Oh, I’m SO glad you enjoyed this too! It was definitely one of the best books I read in 2012. As soon as I finished it I was ACHING for the next book. I really need to read it over again. The characters were so beautifully constructed and written. Just a wonderful, wonderful book.

  17. Janine
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 21:34:26

    @Maya S.: It really was lovely, wasn’t it? I read it with my husband and he loved it too.

  18. msaggie
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 03:51:12

    @Janine: Here is the link to the prequel The Audition http://www.scribd.com/doc/97577759/Seraphina-Prequel-WEB. I got to it via The Book Smugglers’ review of Seraphina http://thebooksmugglers.com/2012/07/book-review-seraphina-by-rachel-hartman.html. Enjoy!

  19. msaggie
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 05:50:04

    @Janine: I posted a reply earlier with a link to Rachel Hartman’s free short story The Audition, which is a prequel to Seraphina, but it didn’t come through – was it rejected because I linked it to another review site? I got the link through The Book Smugglers’ review of Seraphina. Perhaps you could do it? (I tried! What did I do wrong?)

  20. Shelley
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 08:57:22

    Well this just looks downright intriguing even though I’m generally not into YA or fantasy as a rule. As I’ve gotten – ahem – older I’ve been on the lookout for new and interesting reading material. I’ve bought several books on y’all’s recommendation and haven’t been sorry. Thanks for the review!

  21. Janine
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 11:01:17

    @msaggie: It probably just got caught in our spam filter and one of my fellow DA contributors must have freed it. Thanks for posting it!

    @Shelley: You’re welcome. It is different, and really quite good IMO. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

  22. MaryK
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 14:44:24

    This sounds great. I put it on my PBS list after reading a different review, but you’ve got me hovering over the buy button at Amazon. I have TBR guilt though, if only I didn’t have some many already bought books that I need to read.

  23. Janine
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 15:04:32

    @MaryK: I know all about TBR guilt; my TBR pile is in danger of exploding. I hope you enjoy the book, whether you get it through PBS or Amazon.

  24. Angela James
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 17:06:49

    @Shelley: I don’t generally read YA as a rule either (but I do read fantasy), but I find that YA fantasy is an exception because the young characters seem to have a sort of implied permission to act older than contemporary YA characters, so there’s less dealing with some of the…behavioral? issues of contemporary YA heroines especially. Plus, the characters in YA fantasy seem to have much more autonomy and responsibility, quite often.

    All that said, I read this before it was first released, so my memories of it are a bit more vague, but I don’t remember having any problem with it feeling slow or like the pacing is lagging, and I’m sensitive to that as a reader, probably over critical of something being slow to me.

    What I loved about this was the uniqueness of the world and even the characters. Even while some elements felt familiar (like her longing to be loved and belong) the setting in which those elements take place is so unique and well-drawn that you feel you’re reading a very fresh story, that allows you to sink into the world building and the depth of the characters. I think your review is right on, Janine.

  25. Janine
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 19:38:54

    @Angela James: Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it too and I agree about YA fantasy often having mature-for-their-age characters. Seraphina (the character, not the book) reads a little older than sixteen year olds in our world, but it is believable within the novel’s setting.

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