Summary: Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.
Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.
(Summary Source: Goodreads)
Review: It’s hard to find a book that balances good world-building, well-developed characters, and an interesting plot. Seraphina is one of them.
To start off, it’s not much of a spoiler to talk about Seraphina’s “secret,” which is revealed to the reader fairly quickly. She is half-dragon, which leaves her with a number of abilities and traits that she struggles to conceal, considering that her society considers the idea of dragon-human hybrids an abomination. In this universe, dragons have the ability to take on human form, and even after years of peace and interaction with dragons, the humans are still very wary of them.
Seraphina tries to keep a low profile in her job managing the court musicians, but the prince’s mysterious death draws her into a web of intrigue as she helps Captain Lucian Kiggs investigate the murder. What makes Seraphina stand out is that it’s not a typical swords-and-dragons high fantasy book. It’s a good old court intrigue drama in a setting that feels vaguely like 16th-17th century Western Europe. All of the many characters (don’t worry – there is a glossary in the back) are fascinating, from the goofy musicians to the royal family to a group of exiled knights. Seraphina’s agony over acceptance and her dual heritage also rings very true.
In particular, Hartman creates a really interesting mentality and culture for the dragons. To make a Star Trek comparison, their logical, brilliant minds and rejection of emotions reminded me of Vulcans. Besides Seraphina, my favorite character in the novel definitely has to be her Spock-like dragon uncle, Orma. Early on, my brain decided to picture Benedict Cumberbatch portraying him, and that stuck with me the whole book. Weird and unintentionally funny as he is, he’s Seraphina’s only friend and confidant and therefore plays a very important role in her life.
Two final things I loved about Seraphina? It’s clearly the first of a series, yet the first book wraps things up enough that I was reasonably satisfied while still wanting to know what happened next. Finally a first book that is not just setup for the rest of the series. Sweet relief!
Second, there is romance, and it is appropriately agonizing, yet Hartman avoids the hair-pulling-in-frustration pitfalls common to so many other young adult series. The characters are flawed humans* yet they are also smart humans who do not do stupid contrived things to stretch out the plot.
Final note: This is the kind of YA book that adults would also very much enjoy. On that note, I will add that some of the content (references, though. Nothing too racy.) does mean that the target age for this book is older teens.
In short: Seraphina is a unique, excellently-crafted novel that is sure to entertain anyone looking for something a little different than your average dragon book.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Something similar: I’m not going to bring up Paolini’s work because I still haven’t gotten over how disappointing the last book was. Honestly, if you were anything like me in middle school, you’ve probably already read a ton of those dragon-centered fantasy books. At times Seraphina did remind me of Robin McKinley’s Pegasus. However, Seraphina is much more interesting in my opinion (though I still do love Robin McKinley).
Cover & Title: The name “Seraphina” means “fiery.” And the wood-cut-engraving-style cover couldn’t be more perfect. (However, I did just realize that the smudgy red ink/blood is actually part of the cover, and not from some previous library patron carelessly staining the cover of the copy I checked out. Wow.)
Where I got the book: Shelves of the local library.
*humans, dragons, human-dragon hybrids. To bring up Trek again, “Everybody’s human.”
Can you tell I’m behind on reviews? Two in one day, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review coming soon (hopefully).