Genre: YA, Fantasy
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
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.
In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina’s tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they’ve turned the final page.
This book – and new author Rachel Harman – is a gift to the Young Adult epic fantasy genre. Set during an alternate period of Medieval history in the Kingdom of Goredd, this debut novel combines elements of the historical with the fantastic. Religious fanaticism, antiquated medicine, and superstition are combined with masterfully developed elements of Drachonian (dragon) culture. In this rendering, dragons are more complex than any others I have read. These dragons have two main subspecies, attend universities, fight wars, and hold tightly to centuries-old grudges. In other words, they aren’t all that different from humans. In fact, they can even take human form!
When dragons take human form they are called saars, and they’re susceptible to human pitfalls including emotions and hormones. The saarantrai meditate and use cognitive architecture in an effort to control their emotions and remain rational; despite this, it becomes clear later on in the novel that not even saars have complete mastery over their emotional states. Here’s a hilarious quote from the novel illustrating a saars’ inadvertent display of emotion (made anonymous to avoid spoilers):
“I need to talk to you alone. I want to say goodbye while you still know me.” There was a very long pause, and for a moment I thought he had gone. I tapped the kitten eye in concern, but at last his voice came through, weakly: “My apologies, this body’s ridiculous larynx seized up, but it seems to be functioning again.”
Another subtle parallel between saars and humans is their shared reverence for higher pursuits. Although the dragons are not religious, they seek and hoard knowledge with a fervor that mimics the human populations’ belief in the Saints. Even Seraphina, who perhaps has more reason than anyone to curse the Heavens, makes the occasional hasty prayer. Seraphina’s relationship to the Saints is a point of intrigue in the novel: when she was a baby, the book that determines one’s patron saint fell open to a page bearing Saint Yritrudis, whose image was blacked out and is referred to only as “the heretic.” This event foreshadows Seraphina’s isolation, as it represents one of the first moments when someone feared and hated her for being different.
Seraphina is a character worth admiring, to be sure. A half-dragon, she possesses the best qualities of her two species: she has the fierce intellect and rationality of the dragons, and the compassion and gift for art that humans espouse. The discussion of music as an art form was a particularly impressive element of the novel; Rachel Harman is clearly well versed in Medieval music, because all the musical interludes throughout the narrative were accurate and true to the period. Seraphina’s musicianship, particularly her love of the flute, was a large part of why I liked her (I myself am a flutist, albeit not one of Seraphina’s calibre).
Unfortunately, the citizens of Goredd would not accept her if they knew her true nature. Being a half-dragon means that Seraphina’s identity is one that she didn’t choose, but nevertheless she must deal with the shame and the lies that come with it. Seraphina’s struggle for an identity outside of the forces beyond her control can clearly be read as allegorical for the current global struggle for improved gay rights. One of my favourite secondary characters is a Daanite (the patron saint of homosexuality) and a half-dragon to boot! That boy has got some serious strife in his future. Fruit Bat was another secondary character who blew me away – I wasn’t sure what to think of him at first, but he had completely stolen my heart by the end of Seraphina.
Rachel Hartman’s debut novel swept me away with its poetry, intelligence, and creativity. Seraphina and her comrades were all wonderfully two-dimensional, rooted in a complex and original world. I look forward to more from this promising newcomer to YA fantasy.