To be honest, it’s tough to get too excited about books involving dragons. I mean, when is the last time you read a truly novel take on the creatures? So a tip of the hat and a heartfelt thank you to Rachel Hartman, who manages just that in her YA debut fantasy Seraphina, an excellent first novel that leaves you wanting more at the end.
The book is set in the kingdom of Goredd as it prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the peace treaty between it and the neighboring dragon realm, a treaty signed only after a bitter and costly war between the two races. The peace has held for all that time, but uneasily, and tensions appear to be rising between the two groups, as especially evidenced by the growing power and popularity of an anti-dragon organization that doesn’t mind using violence to get its point across. A point of concern as the anniversary celebration will be marked by a state visit from the dragon’s leader.
The dragons are cold, rational creatures who, in order to try and better understand humans, have learned how to transform themselves into human shape. It is in their human forms that they move as ambassadors through the human cities, and as scholars given special dispensation to live amongst the humans in Goredd, where they do research and teach math and science. They are always on guard though against the emotions that seemingly come with the human form, even going so far as “excising” them by force if necessary if a dragon is believed to have become too emotional.
The title character, Seraphina, is a gifted musician, daughter of a well-known and respected lawyer (though his penchant for defending dragons doesn’t earn him many friends), and student to one of the scholarly dragons. Her musical job puts her in a position to interact with the figures at court (she gives music lessons to one of the princesses and is helping put together the anniversary entertainments) and when one of the royal family is murdered—in a way that looks like it was done by a dragon—she is drawn ever deeper into the ensuing investigation. Working with the head of security, Prince Lucian Kiggs, Seraphina will learn much that she hadn’t known: about dragons, about her mother who died in childbirth, about her tutor, about love and friendship, about her own past, and about herself at this time in her life.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot besides these vague generalities because I don’t want to spoil certain events, even those that are revealed very early. That said, I’d also say that plot is not the strongest nor most important part of this book. The story is fine—the mystery over who killed the prince and why stays a mystery for much of the book, the rising level of hostility between dragon and human adds some nice narrative tension. But really, the storyline, the “this happens then this happens then this happens” is not the reason to read this novel.
The true pleasure in Seraphina comes first and foremost in the characters and their relationships. It begins with Seraphina, who has up to this point led a very sheltered and circumscribed life. We meet her just as she is starting to stretch her wings (she’s just left home, has taken her first job) and it is a slow, stuttering process thanks to how she’s been sheltered and thanks as well to the fact that she has a deep secret she is hiding. One of the characters describes her as “prickly,” which is absolutely accurate from an outsider’s point of view, but because we are in Seraphina’s POV, we know that’s an oversimplification. She is indeed prickly, but she is wary of revealing too much and wary as well of being hurt.
She is a strong character, but also in many ways a weak character pretending to be strong or trying to learn to be strong. She’s not cut from the same cloth as so many YA heroes—bold and brash, impetuous and reckless, a devil-may-care anti-authoritarian. She is quiet and thoughtful and pragmatic and when she does act impetuously, it’s almost more because it’s the logical thing to do at the time rather than being simply an aspect of an outsized personality. And for every such step or two she takes, she steps backward a step or a half-step. She is a very believable, very relatable character and you find yourself rooting for her to find herself and to stop isolating herself, more so than rooting for her to solve the mystery or perform some great deed.
All of this relates as well to the romance aspect of the novel, which has got to be one of the best-handled, most palatable ones I’ve read in recent YA. To be honest, I’ve grown tired of the romance angle in many of these stories and so it was with a huge sigh of relief that I read one that felt utterly real and mature, one that allowed the reader to get to know the characters beforehand, one that allowed the relationship to grow slowly and naturally, one that also stuttered and moved forward and back as most true relationships do. Even better was the recognition that a relationship between two people has an impact beyond those two.
The other character to highlight (though all are all well-drawn, no matter the amount of page-time they receive) is her dragon tutor Orma. As mentioned, dragons disdain emotion—they don’t understand its purpose, they don’t understand the emotions themselves, and they find the whole concept generally disgusting. So much so that a group of Censors have as their job the monitoring of dragons (especially those who take human form) to both ensure they don’t become tainted by emotions and to forcefully excise those emotions if it is deemed they have been tainted.
When we first meet Orma, he is cool and rational and doesn’t understand, for example, Seraphina’s annoyance at his lack of a “hello” or a “how have you been” when the two of them converse. But it’s clear early on that Orma is evincing some feeling for Seraphina and watching that emotion slowly, very slowly, blossom over the course of the book, juxtaposed with the built-in tension of knowing what might happen to him if it does indeed blossom, was one of my favorite aspects of the novel.
While we don’t get a sense of the larger world beyond the city setting, the city itself comes alive nicely, often more so in atmosphere than in concrete physicality, though we get more than enough of that as well. It’s a light touch with regard to world-building, but an efficient and effective one.
The complex characterization is matched by depth of theme, as Seraphina is more than a simple coming-of-age story, though it is that and a good one at that. It deals as well with personal responsibility, with one’s role in a society, with discrimination and ignorance, with empathy, bridging the schism between rationality and emotionality, the place of art in a society, the allure of war to some and the frightening ease with which it can be encouraged, the corrupting effect of deception and others. Seraphina is not by any means a light book, though I wouldn’t at all call it grim or dark. Serious might be a better word.
And nuanced. Seraphina is a nuanced book in many ways, from the complexity of character to the layered portrayal of “other,” to the mature exploration of romance and of burgeoning relationships outside of the romantic. The prose too is nuanced, poetic at times, sparse at other times, with realistic dialogue as well as realistic silences. Here is an early example:
Superstitious fakery or not, the psalter’s message was clear: The truth may not be told. Here is an acceptable lie.
Not that St. Capiti… made a poor substitute saint… [she] carried her own head on a plate like a roast goose; it glared out from the page, daring me to judge her. She represented the life of the mind, utterly divorced from the sordid goings-on of the body.
I appreciated that division as I grew older and was overtaken by bodily grotesques of my own, but even when I was very young, I always felt a visceral sympathy for St. Capiti. Who could love someone with a detached head? How could she accomplish anything meaningful in this world when her hands were occupied with that platter…
My love of music eventually lured me from the safety of my father’s house, propelling me into the city and the royal court. I took a terrible risk, but I could not do otherwise. I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.
In that early passage we can see several of the themes/topics to come: truth and lies, the mind versus the body/heart, the changes of adolescence, love, loneliness. And one sees as well a bit of the poetic in that last line when she carries “loneliness before me on a plate.” It makes for a nice journey, watching Seraphina eventually put that plate down. Highly recommended.