“Emotions are addictive!” cries the Ardmagar. “They have no meaning: they are antithetical to reason. They fly toward illogical, non-draconian moralities.”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?
“They fly toward art,” I mutter.
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.