Rating: 4 STARS
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.
[This Book in One Sentence: In a fantastical medieval kingdom with dragons, knights, and courtiers, one secretive girl works alongside a heartthrob prince to rid the city of its bigotry.]
I was at my local independent bookstore (Changing Hands–the best in Tempe) when I spotted this literary gem. Seraphina was clad in its rich purple cover with a portrait of a dragon soaring over a vast medieval city. The cover art interested me enough to take a glance at the synopsis. As it turns out, every element of the story was an ultra-fave: dragons! magic! a clumsy girl with a secret!
Seraphina is an engaging work; the exquisite prose and complex characterizations made me want to jump into the story and become one of the main protagonist’s best friends. I really, really liked it–but I didn’t love it.
Hartman’s writing drops you straight into Seraphina’s world, and fortunately, this is a land that I’d actually want to visit long-term. Dragons and humans live side-by-side in an uneasy truce. It’s a medieval kingdom (probably inspired by feudal Western Europe) that calls young women “maidys” and has all the charm of warm apple cider on a cold winter’s day. Underneath the charm, though, trouble is brewing–bigotry on both sides along with a hearty helping of ignorance fueled by violence.
Seraphina is 16 years old and has just started a job as the court composer’s assistant. She frequently witnesses the political and social squabbles that occur throughout the kingdom of Goredd. She spends her days organizing musical performances, teaching Princess Glisselda on the harpsichord, and learning wisdom from her uncle Orma. However, Seraphina has a secret to hide and shouldn’t be anywhere near possible attention from princes, courtiers or peasants. And when an important member of the royal family is murdered, a fearful spark is ignited that may soon splatter the whole city with blood.
Seraphina is not just a fantasy about magic and dragons; it offers insight into so many aspects of modern society that humans continue to ignore. The main protagonist struggles to keep a secret that would horrify the ignorant populace. The characters must attempt to overcome adversity that sometimes seems deserved. They grapple with societal pressure coming from all sides. Human emotion is analyzed as a concept–not just as a given. This novel is abundant with interesting ideas that can make you think.
As a main character and heroine, Seraphina Dombegh is lovely. She’s no Mary Sue, and luckily I was not plagued by annoying descriptions of lustrous hair and seductive glances. Instead, she’s portrayed as a secretive, talented girl with thick dark hair and normal looks. Seraphina is smart, sometimes silly, extremely emotional, and lovably humorous.
Her most attractive quality as a character is the fact that she is realistic. I despise it when reviewers complain that a protagonist isn’t likable and then cite that he or she possess too many humanistic flaws. I mean, in some cases those complaints are warranted, but characters that are realistically painted have the luxury of not representing quixotic perfection. Like it or not, at least a few heroes look and act just like real people–who woulda thunk it?!
The book’s cover jacket contains a review from Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon:
“Beautifully written. Some of the most interesting dragons I’ve read.”
…although I detest the Eragon series and everything about it, color me surprised when I realized that Paolini was right. These dragons are top-notch. They have a treaty with Goredd and its surrounding kingdoms. Many dragons even reside in the city, taking human form and contributing to scholarly pursuits such as medicine, law, and philosophy.
The reptilian beings are fascinating and fierce, but they also have a clerky, intellectual manner. They hoard knowledge rather than gold and have made a habit of sitting on books as if they’re relaxing on legendary chalices and priceless coins. Every dragon is different with an incredibly perplexing personality. I won’t give anything away; you’ll see.
Humor is one aspect of this book that truly sets it apart. Although the prose is intricate and full of meaning, Hartman also includes a host of hilarious dialogue snippets and chuckle-worthy scenes. I found myself laughing out loud numerous times while reading Seraphina, and honestly, that’s often difficult for me to do.
However, there were a few big issues with the book: pacing and tone-setting. There was no foreshadowing or buildup to the climactic points in Seraphina. The huge scenes just happened at once with no warning whatsoever. These scenes were sufficiently shocking, but they lacked that delicious sense of doom that readers can get from a well-paced novel. There is supposed to be an established escalation, as well as gritty development, to the tough parts of a book–prose that can adequately create anticipation. Hartman is gifted with words, but she could work on setting the tone for high-stakes events.
Unfortunately, pacing is an essential aspect of every novel, and without proper pacing, the quality suffers. That happened in Seraphina; however, other aspects, such as the deep characterizations, societal commentaries, and well-placed comedy, propped this book up to make it a solid 4 stars.
I will be ordering the sequel, Shadow Scale, on Amazon. Seraphina was a pleasant surprise: beautiful linguistics and a fantastical kingdom that is both heartbreakingly real and elaborate.
I would recommend Seraphina to lovers of fantasy fiction and strong female protagonists. If you like magic, dragons, or medieval kingdoms, this is a great choice–however, I think that Seraphina could satisfy a diverse group of people with different literary preferences. Check this book out.
Seraphina was published on July 10th, 2012 by Random House Books.