Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Review of Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

It’s been a sad year, but a hopeful one as well. On the one hand, we’ve lost amazing writers like Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones. On the other hand, we’ve seen the arrival of new voices that promise to add something unique and wonderful to the canon of literature for children and teens. These newcomers by no means take the place of the voices we’ve lost, but they do bring their own magic to the field (which makes me think of the field of care in DWJ’s Enchanted Glass). This book is a good example of what I mean. Like Rachel Carson’s debut, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, another Rachel’s debut novel, Seraphina, has grabbed me and won’t let go.

I should confess that I am not big on dragon books as a genre. I only got through the first Christopher Paolini book, for example. But Seraphina is more about inter-species and international politics, not the care and feeding of dragons. In Seraphina’s world, dragons are a lot like the Vulcans in Star Trek. They are highly logical, math- and science-oriented beings who despise and even fear the influence of human emotions. They are also musically gifted, though their performances may lack nuance because of their lack of emotional expression. The dragons can take human form, though most are required to wear bells in public as a way of acknowledging what they really are. To call the truce between Seraphina’s kingdom and the dragon kingdom uneasy is an understatement.

As for Seraphina, she has a huge secret to keep. In a society that is dangerously anti-dragon, she is the ultimate abomination—the child of a dragon and a human. Most people don’t even think it’s possible for the two species to mix. There are ways in which Seraphina’s dual nature betrays her, certain procedures she must follow to protect herself. Her love of music has led her to become the assistant to the royal music master, but this puts her at even greater risk. On top of everything, she is developing feelings for a member of the royal family, and he is off limits for more than one reason.

Hartman’s depiction of dragon society and its interaction with the humans is skillfully drawn, as is main character Seraphina with her complex struggles. We learn that Seraphina has a cast of characters in her head that she must manage or she will lose her mind. At the very least, she will have headaches and seizures. Is she mentally ill because she is part dragon, or is there another meaning to her carefully cultivated garden of odd beings? Seraphina has named each character and learned ways to keep them under control. Here’s an excerpt showing a visit to the mind garden:
Sick and exhausted though I was, I could not put off dealing with Fruit Bat. I hauled my bolster onto the floor, threw myself down, and tried to enter the garden. It took several minutes before my teeth unclenched and I relaxed enough to envision the place. Fruit Bat was up a tree in his grove. I prowled around the trunk, picking my way over gnarled roots. He appeared to be asleep; he also looked about ten or eleven years old and had his hair in knots, just as he had in the vision. My mind had apparently updated his grotesque to conform to new information. I gazed up at his face and felt a pang of sadness. I didn’t want to lock him away, but I saw no alternative. Visions were dangerous; I could hit my head, suffocate, give myself away. I had to defend myself however I could.
Those who hate the dragons along with the dragons themselves become increasingly aware of Seraphina as she is drawn into the rising conflict. I will add that her relationship with her tutor is intriguing and poignant, especially considering his own difficulty finding out where he stands when it comes to Seraphina and the dragon kingdom.

The palace intrigue reminds me a little of the politics in a Megan Whalen Turner book, while the murder mystery ratchets up the suspense as the possibility of a rogue dragon turns a diplomatic mission on its head. You'll find plenty of plot twists in this one. Most of all, though, Seraphina is satisfying because its main character draws you completely into her strange world and her even stranger troubles. And isn’t that what Young Adult fiction is all about, whether it’s set in a modern high school or a distant palace in a land where there are dragons?

I’m not crazy about the book trailer, but you might want to watch it.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens and has a rather mature feel to it. There is some talk of affairs, along with violence, especially hate crimes.

Update: Check out this interview with Rachel Hartman at Enchanted Inkpot!


Charlotte said...

I went out and bought this one, and haven't had time to read it yet woe.

Lark said...

This has been on my TBR list for about a month -- but I've just moved it near the top, thanks to your review. I don't know if I can wait for the library copy any more!

Chel said...

I'm one of the few people who didn't like this book. I liked Seraphina's strangeness and I'm also into dragons and politics but something about this made it hard for me to read through. Maybe I have to read this again. Glad you love this though.

Brandy said...

Hahaha-the dragons made me think of Vulcans too. :)

I loved Seraphina as a character and I loved the complexity of the relationships all around.

KateCoombs said...

Charlotte--It's hard to fit all the reading in, isn't it?

Lark--Hope you can get ahold of it soon. :)

Chel--It's like dating; not everybody clicks with the same books. Though I'll admit I'm curious as to what your recent favorites are, seeing that Seraphina didn't work for you.

Brandy--See? Definitely Vulcans. And your second sentence sums it up in a nutshell!

Ruth Donnelly said...

This sounds like an interesting and different sort of dragon book. And complex relationships... I'm betting I'll enjoy this one.

LinWash said...

I'm reading Seraphina right now. I love it! What incredible world building!

KateCoombs said...

Ruth--I think so!

Lin--Yes, isn't it? Not because it's wildly bizarre, but because it just works in its own right.