Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, has been available since July of 2012, is widely reviewed, and won this year’s Morris Award, so I will do my best not to restate what’s already been said.
I read Seraphina for School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kid’s Books. It’s up against Moonbird, which I thoroughly enjoyed. While I was skeptical about the premise (semi-spoiler: Seraphina conceals a dangerous secret of her own—her half-human, half-dragon heritage), Hartman quickly assuages my doubts about chromosomal incompatibility. Seraphina exists because dragons can take on human form, although not necessarily human emotions. As Liz Burns so wonderfully puts it, they’re like the Vulcans. But instead of “live long and prosper,” their tagline is “all in ard.” Ard being order.
Even so, they and most humans are in a general agreement when it comes to dragon-human offspring: utter repulsion. Thus, Seraphina, the assistant music mistress at court, spends much of the book teetering between hiding her secret and being on the brink of discovery. Unfortunately, she’s got pesky visions that unexpectedly infiltrate her head and render her unconscious, leaving her at risk of exposing her scales should helpful bystanders try to restore her circulation by loosening her clothes.
On the upside, Seraphina’s visions give her special insight into larger events that could very well shake the stability of her world, like Prince Rufus’ suspicious death, the Ardmagar’s upcoming visit, the appearance of a rogue dragon, and the renewal of a groundbreaking but controversial human-dragon truce. Privy to such special information, Seraphina ends up playing Nancy Drew with head of security, Prince Lucian Kiggs, a bastard in birth, not in character.
My primary problem with Seraphina is that there are simply too many plot threads vying for my attention. At first, I thought the book would be about Seraphina coming to terms with who she is–she tries to correct her royal friends’ narrow-minded assumptions regarding dragons, but she still stoically wears her self-loathing like armor. Then, there’s Seraphina’s intriguing mental “garden of grotesques” that she must maintain to keep her visions in line–so what does it mean when Fruit Bat, one of the mental grotesques, starts roaming outside his normal territory? But we don’t get an answer, because it turns out Seraphina’s grandfather is in town and in disguise. Not only did he strongly disapprove of Seraphina’s mother’s marriage, he’s a rogue dragon with an agenda. But just when I thought the focus would shift to working through family issues, Seraphina’s mental grotesques shows up instead. The last third of the book is devoted to catching her rogue grandfather and stopping an assassination attempt. The action never stops, but it’s frustrating because Seraphina would find out some information, bring it to Lucian’s attention, and they’d investigate, but not get anywhere and just move on because something new invariably pops up.
On a secondary note, despite her friendship with Lucian, it was a stretch for him to always allow Seraphina to join his official and sometimes dangerous investigations. He’s not the type who would needlessly put people, especially music mistresses with no security training, at risk. And for someone so determined to keep her family history a secret, it seems to me that Seraphina goes out of her way to expose herself to some dicey situations. Well, she’s lonely and in love.
Here is what I did enjoy:
- not all dragons think or behave the same. Score one for individuality within a race (or should I say, species?), especially the “enemy” species!
- Hartman is clearly musical and a lover of music, because music is central to Seraphina’s story
- Hartman’s prose is really special. It’s definitely fantasy prose, but it’s also unique
For the merest moment I couldn’t breath. Something inside me quivered, some oud string plucked by his words, and if I breathed it would stop.
He did not know the truth of me, yet he had perceived something true about me that no one else had ever noticed. And in spite of that–or perhaps because of it–he believed me good, believed me worth taking seriously, and his belief, for one vertiginous moment, made me want to be better than I was.
I was a fool to let myself feel that. I was a monster; that could never change.