Jul 17, 2012

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - cover shows a dragon flying above a city with interesting architecture

“Emotions are addictive!” cries the Ardmagar. “They have no meaning: they are antithetical to reason. They fly toward illogical, non-draconian moralities.”
“They fly toward art,” I mutter.
Seraphina is a rare example of a book whose cover art1 manages to capture something essential about it – when you look at that image, don’t you want to immediately jump into the rich and intriguing fantasy world it conjures?

But let me tell you what Seraphina is actually about. Rachel Hartman’s debut novel is set in the kingdom of Goredd, where a tense peace has existed between humans and dragons for four decades. The anniversary of the peace treaty is approaching, but dragons and humans remain deeply suspicious of each other. The novel’s protagonist, Seraphina Dombegh, is a very talented musician who was recently given a position as assistant music mistress at court. But just as preparations for the celebration of the treaty’s anniversary are in full fledge, a member of the royal family is murdered in a particularly gory way that seems to scream “dragon”. Seraphina and Prince Lucian Kiggs are drawn into the mystery, and soon they uncover a plot with greater repercussions than they could have imagined.

At its heart, Seraphina is a mystery novel: one with intriguing clues, convincing red herrings, and a satisfying conclusion. It’s also a particularly accomplished example of the political-intrigue-at-court sort of fantasy novel I’m a sucker for – with dragons to boot!It takes a little bit for the plot to take off properly, but I didn’t particularly mind because Hartman’s worldbuilding sucked me in right away. Seraphina is the sort of novel that manages to evoke a much larger and richer world than you’re allowed to actually see in its pages; it’s also the sort of novel that manages to do so without ever resorting to infodumping. You sense that both the humans and the dragons in this world have a long, rich, fascinating history; that the people of Goredd and the neighbouring kingdoms have their own culture, art and philosophy; that there are interesting details to be uncovered at every corner. In short, this is the sort of world where you want to get lost.

Then there are Rachel Hartman’s dragons, which are very much her own: they’re highly logical, mathematically-minded creatures who are deeply suspicious of emotions and who see human beings as “sufficiently interesting cockroaches”. They also have the ability to fold themselves into human shape, but when they do this, they become susceptible to the rich emotional lives human beings experience. To avoid being overwhelmed by their emotions, dragons have to exert a level of self-control beyond the abilities of most humans. If they fail, they’re forced to undergo a process called excision that erases any inconvenient feelings and all attached memories from their minds.

Seraphina is (possible spoiler alert, though this is revealed fairly early into the novel) half dragon herself: she’s the product of a scandalous relationship between a dragon in human form, her mother, and a court lawyer, her father. As a result, she’s stuck somewhere between the cold rationality of dragonkind and humanity’s way of seeing the world. I don’t entirely buy into the logic/emotions dualism – I think the separation between the two is far from clear cut or inevitable. But the interesting thing about how Seraphina handles these ideas is that it captures something fundamental about how we see the world. This dualism may be a concept, but it’s one we believe in, and as such it as weight and consequences. Furthermore, the exciting thing about Seraphina as a character is that she integrates these two modes of thinking, experiencing, and making sense of the world – the cold and logical and the emotional and artistic. Seraphina’s dual nature makes her hyperware of her emotional responses, and this gives the narrative room to explore how emotions affect our perception of and responses to different contexts and situations. The following passage is a good example of this awareness (and also an example of why I so enjoyed Hartman’s playful writing):
Was I being punished for insulting her cousin? It seemed likely, and I deserved it, of course. I spent the rest of the day trying not to think about it. I went about my (sulking) duties to Viridius, drilling the symphonia on the (pouting) songs of state, supervising construction of the (glowering) stage in the great hall, finalizing the lineup for the (self-pitying) welcome ceremony, now just two days away. I threw myself (stewing) into work to stave off the (moping) feeling that descended when I stopped.
Another thing that particularly interested me about Seraphina is that when we meet her she lives in a state of permanent abjection, and the process of accepting herself is at the heart of her story. As I said back when I wrote about Chime, capturing this process in its full complexity without cheapening the struggles involved is no simple thing. But Hartman is wonderful at writing about the mental pitfalls otherwise intelligent people can fall into in a convincing and sympathetic manner. As the product of the union between a human and a dragon, Seraphina is seen as an abomination, and this is something she has interiorised. Seraphina herself doesn’t hate or dread dragons – her relationship with her uncle Orma in particular has challenged her prejudices. She also doesn’t see human-dragon liaisons as inherently wrong, and doesn’t think of others of her kind as monstrosities. Nevertheless, all the rational knowledge in the world can’t prevent her from she directing all the revulsion she spares others to herself, and Hartman describes this emotional response accurately and movingly.

Seraphina also has a romance subplot, which I found sweet, non-intrusive, and kind of incidental in the best possible way. The romance is important, but it’s not Seraphina’s main concern. It’s portrayed as one among the many things that are happening to her, which is an approach I always welcome in a coming of age story featuring a girl. Additionally (another possible spoiler alert), Hartman manages to prevent the romance from becoming a Love Triangle of Doom. Seraphina’s love interest, Kriggs, is engaged to Princess Glisselda, Seraphina’s music student and eventual friend. But the fact that she’s one of the things standing in the way of a relationship between them doesn’t turn the two girls into enemies. There’s no resentment or bitterness or competitiveness; just a lucid realisation that sometimes circumstances are difficult for all involved.

The ending of Seraphina leaves the door open for more books, but it also works as an open-ended but satisfying conclusion. I’ve been known to complain about being in the middle of too many series and to say that I wish more books were simply stand-alones, but for once I really hope this will be a series – I’d absolutely love to return to the world Hartman created.

They read it too: Stella Matutina, Magnificent Octopus, The Book Smugglers, Steph Su Reads, Wear the Old Coat, Charlotte’s Library, intoyourlungs, Books Without Any Pictures


1What’s up with this cover, though? *shudder*

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a review copy of this book via NetGalley.


  1. Could not agree more on the UK cover. It is hideous. And I'm sorry for using such a strong word, but I just can't see why a publisher would pick that one over the beautiful US cover.

    I actually read the latter part of the book, discussing Seraphina's mother and uncle and the general idea of dragons having to remove memories to keep from experiencing too many emotions as one that hinted towards an unsettling of the rigid divide between cool rationality and emotional responses. It is really interesting to read the book in this way. I somehow didn't think of it as a key point, but now that you pointed it out I appreciated it all the more, because I often feel the divide is too much taken for granted and could do with some more exploration. I definitely hope it will return in a second installment (surely there must follow one? I for one hope so!)

    I appreciated how Seraphina remains so true to herself despite the love triangle, how she realises love is part of her life but doesn't let it take over her life. Very well done and something I would like to see more of in YA fiction. Or, um, fiction in general. I particularly appreciated how the two girls remained friends and helped each other with their responsibilities despite the (perhaps?) growing awareness of each other's loving the same person?

  2. You touch on a lot points that make me like this book. Characters have flaws and situations are difficult, but the attitude of the telling is so balanced, reasonable, respectful, and as you say, lucid.

    The cover is perfect! (But that other one you point to... ugh.)

  3. Iris: Yes, exactly! I expressed myself very poorly but that's pretty much what I meant to say. I liked it so much because unlike many stories that evoke this sort of dualism, it actually goes on to challenge it. And yes, I loved that Seraphina and Grisselda remained friends as well, and would love to see more of that in fiction. Another good YA novel where two girls overcome that sort of rivalry (and challenge the idea that it's inevitable) is Anna and the French Kiss.

    Isabella Kratynsky: What could the publisher possibly be thinking?

  4. Agreed 100% on the romance. It doesn't get in the way of the rest of the story or overpower it; but rather, it forms a sweet complement. I like that it isn't a typical YA love triangle either.

  5. I am trying to work out why the cover is completely different to the one I have! Is yours the US or UK version?

  6. Don't worry - just read back and realised it was US. I do like the US one more.

  7. I am so glad you liked this book, too! I should write my review up for it today. It will definitely make my best of list for the year.

  8. I really didn't think this was going to be a book for me. Then I had to go read your review. :P This sounds so seriously awesome!!!

  9. eraphina is the sort of novel that manages to evoke a much larger and richer world than you’re allowed to actually see in its pages

    hmm that appeals to me. Also, this is the first review I've really read and the book does sound interesting to me, which surprises me ;) Hopefully I'll have the chance to read it someday!

  10. I agree with you on both covers. It is an enduring mystery to me why they have to be different in the U.S. and the U.K. ANYway.

    And so much about this book sounds wonderful - hope I can find it!

  11. This is such a fantastic review! I love your comments on the dualism between Logic and Emotions; it is something the Western world seems to take for granted, yet it's so much more complex than it's usually construed. Logic Vs. Emotion is used quite a bit in fiction these days (such as THE UNWANTEDS by Lisa McMann, but she doesn't challenge the notion in her text) and it's great to read something that highlights the complexities of the two, and their interconnectedness.

    And like everyone else, I am completely baffled by the UK cover.

  12. It's not a stand-alone, the second one's called Dracomachia. I was recommended this book a few days ago and shall read it soon :)

  13. This is not my kind of book but I bet my sister would adore it.

  14. See, this is why it's good to have a Nook, which I now newly do! I've just put a hold on the ePub copy at my library, and now I will get it whenever it comes in, because you and Memory have both had such sparkling things to say about it.

  15. I've been meaning to get this from the library since I read Memory's review! I will soon...

  16. Looks my kind of book and your review is just making me hungry for it :)

  17. I am SO glad this book got the Ana seal of approval :D And OMG the dragons sound so freaking cool and unique in this book!!! I want this now! I wanted this book before, but that was solely based on the cover :p Like you said, when you see that cover, you kind of just want to jump into that world…sadly, I didn't even know what it was about, but had an idea, it would be good!

  18. This book sounds right up my street :-)

  19. Oh my gosh, my daughter would love this book, and I am going to get it for her this weekend! She has an intense fascination with dragons, and even when we are in the craft store, she will search out plastic dragons and make up stories about them. I definitely need to buy her this book along with Her Majesty's Dragon. Thanks for the great review and for giving me something great to give my daughter for the summer!

  20. Unfortunately, at my store we stock more of the UK cover than the lovely US one. I was wondering if this was any good, and your review's made me consider it for my next promotion!

  21. I keep reading really good things about this one, I think it is definitely going on the wishlist!

    I can't believe they picked such an awful cover for the UK edition. The US one would compel you to pick it up, the US one, will just sink into the sea of similar covers.

  22. Wow! What a phenomenal review. I can't wait to read this. I am so glad to hear that there is no major cliff hanger. I am fine with wanting more, since that is a sign of an excellent book, but I want a complete book for my money. Thank you for your review.

  23. Grace: It was wonderful, wasn't it? (And I'm so sorry I missed your review even though it was one of the very first ones I saw. Added it now!)

    Vivienne: Yes, it's the UK cover. Usually I like UK covers better than US ones, but in this case, NO.

    Kelly: Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

    Debi: I ended up relating to the story in ways I wasn't expecting. Always lovely when that happen :)

    Amy: Aaand it's children's/YA fantasy, so hopefully the bad luck you often have with adult fantasy won't apply :P

    Jill: I know, right? And I hope you can, too!

    Michelle: Yes, exactly! When I started the book I was afraid she was going to approach it in that traditional and simplistic manner, but I needn't have feared.

    Ruby Scarlett: Hooray! Excellent to know.

    Kathy: I hope she does!

  24. Jenny: Enjoy! And hooray about the Nook :D

    Tasha: I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

    Alpa: Enjoy!

    Chris: lol, the Ana seal of approval :P The dragons are awesome and completely unlike any I've encountered before. Hope you have fun reading this one!

    Jessica: Judging by what I know of your taste, I think it is too!

    Zibilee: Sounds perfect for her, then! And Her Majesty's Dragon is amazing too.

    Marineko: Booo :( But hooray for the possible promotion!

    Darren: Yes, exactly! Not only is it ugly, but it's like so much of what's out there at the moment. I hope it doesn't affect the book's sales in the UK, because it really does deserve to find readers.

    FABR Steph: There are things that remain unresolved, but the main source of tension in this book is not among them. The characters solve the immediate crisis and the story leaves them in a place where the stage is set for the next one. Which is my favourite way for books that will have sequels to end, pretty much.

  25. I added this one to my wish list the first time I saw the cover even without a clue as to the plot of the book.

  26. EW, totally agree about the UK cover! I'm glad that this time around, the US has the better cover as we tend to come out the losers in that particular contest most times.

    I've had this on my wish list since I first heard about it, so I'm SO GLAD that it turns out to be just as good as expected! I feel like the brief mention of humans (at least, I *think* there were humans alluded to) in Tooth & Claw was ripe for more detail and exploration and I can't help wishing that Jo Walton had gone into greater detail about it. So I'm glad that HERE is an author who read my mind before I even knew it, and wrote just such a book!

  27. Trisha: It's the kind of cover that does that to you, isn't it?

    Aarti: I do often like UK covers better, but in this case I can't imagine what they were thinking. I hadn't thought about that aspect of Tooth & Claw, but you're definitely right! It's great to have found a book that goes in that direction. Can't wait to hear what you think of it :D

  28. I've only been hearing good things about this one lately and I think I have no choice but to pick it up at some point, although I've just gotten into Temeraire...

  29. Alex: To be honest I like Temeraire better (though then again I've had more time to grow attached to the characters), but this one is awesome too!

  30. I read this and really really enjoyed it! Comparisons are odious, but I have to say, I recently read Jessica Day George's first two dragon books, and Seraphina was similar in a lot of ways and better in all the ways. I'd be delighted if Rachel Hartman did a sequel. I want Seraphina to have more things to do.

  31. All I can say is that this book sounds AWESOME!!

  32. I finally got around to this one. And I totally agree about the covers. the UK one just doesn't fit at all with the book. It looks like a purely designed Mills & Boon book.

    I'm looking forward to reading more in this 'verse :)


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