Author: Rachel Hartman
Date Started: June 20, 2013 Date Finished: July 2, 2013
Rating (out of 5): ★★★ 1/2
Every book has a story: The thing about YA fiction is… It’s odd, you see. As someone who usually reads adult books these days – as someone who was a YA just as YA as we know it was getting its wobbly fawn legs – most of the information I get on YA fiction comes from what is overwhelmingly popular/what has the biggest display at my local bookstores/what it being made into a movie. From my not-terribly-education standpoint, the biggest players in YA over the past few years have been the Twilight saga and The Hunger Games trilogy. I read all of the Twilight books and I read The Hunger Games mostly to understand to appeal, to expose myself to the literary trends.
I just came off reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which has a seven-year-old protagonist, but is certainly an adult book. The story is only effective if you can look back at your own childhood and sympathize, and I totally dug it. It was a brilliant idea on Neil Gaiman’s part. That’s kind of how I feel about YA fiction. Good YA fiction should really be able to appeal to anybody who has the capacity to look at their own adolescence, whether currently or in hindsight. How many adult readers did Harry Potter attract? Like childhood, adolescence is something all of us go through and I enjoy indulging my teenaged-reader-self from time to time.
To stuff this readux with a few too many reviews, neither the Twilight books nor The Hunger Games were really my speed. One of my favourite YA trilogies when I was the target age for them was the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix, one of which had a heroine high school student/necromancer apprentice, the others a heroine librarian/psychic. The bookish, excluded types appeal to me because that was how many of my teenage years felt.
Which brings me, finally, to Seraphina.
I remember being born. In fact, I remember a time before that.
The kingdom of Goredd is approaching its 40th year of peace with dragonkind. A human queen and a dragon general struck the treaty together, ending the dragon wars and ushering in a time of humanities, philosophy, and academia. While in the human kingdoms, dragons must take human shape and must also wear a bell to identify them. The dragons have not embraced many of the human traits, such as love, guilt, or compassion, and in fact their emotions are monitored by censors who have ways of dealing with dragons who become too human. The humans, too, have not exactly been accommodating. Many are outspoken about their dislike for dragons and the treaty, but the peace has at least been maintained. Until now.
Our heroine is Seraphina Dombegh, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a lawyer father and a dead mother. She comes to court as an accomplished musician and assistant to the music master. With a father who specializes in dragon law and a dragon scholar, Orma, for a tutor, Seraphina’s loyalties are easily called into question when a prince is found beheaded in the woods, thought to be the work of a rebel dragon. This mystery comes to involve more and more people in Seraphina’s life and Seraphina must decide how many secrets she must keep to protect herself and her family.
I quite enjoyed the world of Goredd and especially the construct of the dragons taking human form. The dragons have replaced their hoarding of gold with hoarding of knowledge and it makes for an intelligent and interesting cast of characters. Even though dragons lack the most human traits of their humanity, seeing them through Seraphina’s eyes is enough to endear many of them, especially Orma. For all my “low” fantasy, grimdark tendencies, I do love it when a fantasy novel can work in dragons, especially as neatly as Hartman did here.
I cannot perch among those who think I am broken.
Seraphina is an intelligent and resourceful young lady with remarkable talents, oftentimes seeming as a young dragon herself. She keeps her fears and loves tightly restrained beneath a self-possessed exterior, though she does have moments that overwhelm her. She takes on the threats to her family and her kingdom with great gravity, willing to sacrifice herself to protect them. She may not swing swords or cast spells, but she is a heroine in a very real sense of the word.
Have I mentioned how much I love how intelligent this books is? Neither author nor narrator is willing to suffer fools. The main core of characters are scholars or otherwise accomplished in one way or another. Even the young Captain of the Guard trades philosophy barbs with Seraphina, who herself at one point says not to underestimate the seductive power of math.
A composed heroine, excellent world-building, a compelling story, and freaking dragons. This is my kind of YA book.