a review by Evie Kendal
I am generally very fussy about the sub-genres I read. For example, I only like romances if they are paranormal, and even then only if they contain vampires. Likewise, of the SFF sector I generally gravitate toward the SF, while avidly avoiding the F. As such, when presented with a young adult fantasy novel complete with many of the classic tropes (Arthurian culture, dragons, mystical powers etc.) I was prepared for a painful ordeal. I am pleased to report, however, that Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina has forced me to reconsider my position on fantasy texts. This novel is very engaging and has a female protagonist who I found fascinating.
The fantastic world of Seraphina is very rich, with a well-defined culture, religion and geography. The central novum of the book is the existence of a dragon species living under a peace treaty with humans. These dragons are able to assume human form, however they are treated like second-class citizens and most are forced to wear identifying bells around their necks while in the human settlements. There is much uneasiness about these dragons among the human population, who it is revealed drove the dragons from their hunting grounds many decades ago. A widely held belief among the deeply religious and superstitious humans is that dragons do not possess a soul, and as such cannot understand art and emotion. Dragons on the other hand consider human emotion so dangerous they legislate against it, performing memory excisions on any dragon who becomes “emotionally compromised” while in their human form.
At the opening of the story, the Prince of the human kingdom is murdered and dragons are implicated, threatening to destroy the treaty that has been in place since the end of the war between dragons and humans. The protagonist of the story, a dragon-human hybrid named Seraphina, becomes involved in the murder investigation with the Prince’s nephew, Lucian Kiggs. All the while Seraphina must hide her identity for fear that if either the humans or dragons learned of the love affair between her parents she and her entire family would be put to death. Seraphina is also plagued by memories implanted in her by her deceased dragon mother, which require her to establish an artificial “garden” in her mind where she interacts with the spirits of some unusual creatures. This psychological element is particularly interesting, as is the exploration of serious issues such as self-harm and psychosis, which are handled very sensitively for the young adult audience.
It is almost impossible to provide any further detail on the plot of the story without risking serious spoilers, as the entire narrative is a slow reveal of interesting information. Suffice it to say the story it highly addictive and the revelations that occur throughout manage to remain unpredictable, a rare quality in a fantasy novel in my experience. The relationship between Lucian and Seraphina is also very engaging, and I particularly liked that the qualities he admires in her are things like perceptiveness, bravery and intelligence, rather than the traditional obsession with appearance. The first-person narration from Seraphina’s perspective also adds an element of humour and highlights how Lucian never casts her in the role of damsel-in-distress, even when she does herself. My favourite example of this occurs on page 178 when Lucian is discussing information Seraphina provided about the possibility of a rogue dragon hideout in the hills and the need to track down some banished dracomachia experts:
“To business,” he said. “My grandmother may think there is nothing to be discovered out in the country, but Selda and I think she’s wrong.” He leaned in closer. “You should carry on as planned. We talked it over, though, and we can’t let you go alone.”
I drew back in surprise. “You can’t let me go where alone?”
“In search of Sir James Peascod. It’s not safe,” he insisted.
My mouth opened, but my torpid brain had not formed any words for it to say. When I’d written that a visit to the knights was warranted, I meant Kiggs should go, not me! … How could anyone think it remotely possible that I intended to ride off into the countryside – alone, or any other way?
While Seraphina does not share Lucian’s faith in her ability at the beginning, she never loses faith in his skill and integrity. The story thus avoids the irritating misunderstandings that are so common in romantic threads and often lacking any credibility. The emotional connection between the characters has a genuine feel and the reader develops a firm sympathy for Seraphina and her situation as an outcast.
Regarding the technical aspects of the novel, the language and vocabulary are both of high quality and likely to have an educational advantage for young readers. The characterisation and fictional world-building are also of superior quality. The physical book itself is quite attractive, with a nice cover and good text size for easy reading. The numbers on the pages are in a very distracting place though, situated in the middle of the page along the outer edge on both sides.
Overall, I recommend this book not only for young adults but also older audiences looking for an exciting narrative that is quick and easy to read.