Oh wow. So, Seraphina was one of the novels that made this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlist. It isn’t often that Fantasy novels reach these sorts of accolades (mores the pity), so it’s a testament to just how powerful & outstanding the story must be to get so well noticed, & Rachel Hartman’s book is very much outstanding.
Set in the mythical kingdom of Goredd, Seraphina takes us to a world where Humans live side by side with powerful ancient Dragons. After countless years of warring between the two species, the book opens at the anniversary of a long peace between them. The Dragons, for their end of the bargain, agree to spend their time in human settlements & owned regions in Humanoid form, known as their Sarantraas. At the beginning of the book, we meet the title character, the young music mistress, & assistant to the court composer, Seraphina Dombegh, as she goes about her day to day duties in arranging for the Anniversary concert. Seraphina has her own secrets though, strange powers & an unusual collection of scales on her skin… You see, Seraphina’s father may be a well respected lawyer in the city, but her mother was a Dragon in her Sarantraas form, who died shortly after Phina’s birth. Seraphina, a child of both worlds, is wanted by neither, & she would be outcast, or worse, if her half-breed nature were revealed to the world. So she must hide, keep covered, never allow herself to be seen as exceptional. In addition to her silver scales, she also possess maternal memories, & a strange psychic connection with creatures which she names “Grotesques”, mysterious entities who live in a garden in her mind, though Seraphina feels they exist in the real world somewhere. In the run up to the Anniversary, a member of the royal family is found decapitated in the forest, a sure sign of a rogue Dragon attack, & tensions begin to grow between the two peaceful peoples. Seraphina has a feeling the Dragon involved might well be connected to her in some way, & with the aid of her Uncle, himself a Dragon, & the Prince Lucian Kiggs, Commander of the Royal Guard, Seraphina is determined to unravel the mystery of the murder, & if she can, her own past. How can she do that though, with everyone watching her? Could she escape with her secrets intact?
Where do I start?! Seraphina is such a breath of fresh air in the Young Adult/Teen Fiction realm! Phina is a genuinely strong, well developed & interesting character, with a brilliantly fleshed out back story, without succumbing to the pain of needing a male character to give her justification for her actions. She acts purely for what is right, & for her own peace of mind, & whilst romance does crop up later in the book, it’s quite a way in, once Seraphina has been fully established, set up & developed, & it occurs slowly, organically & believably, seeming to be a natural advancement, as opposed to a device to drive the main character’s actions throughout the novel, an unfortunate staple of YA literature. I connected with Phina’s character straight away, being of a musical background myself, her passion for music, using it to put chaos into a beautiful structure & order, resonated very deeply with my own passion for music as a form of escapism. Her introvert, shy nature, her difficulty with opening up to people was also something that struck a chord with me almost instantly whilst reading. She manages to be strong, elegant, vulnerable & inquisitive all at the same time, & these facets made her a character that I just felt very at home with. Her mental garden, & her grotesques are a fantastic addition to her overall characterisation, very well demonstrating this young woman with a need to control her own world, & to cope with things in her own, very unique way. The mentioning & hinting at her banished grotesque was so amazingly tantalising & the mystery was never fully revealed, but it’s an aspect of the character that I really hope is built upon, as it’s something that will keep me coming back to future books in this series! (Rachel, if you’re reading this… I REALLY WANT TO KNOW, ‘KAY?!)
The next thing that needs to be brought up is the Dragons. Never before have I read such unique, well thought out & fully developed Dragons in Fantasy. The use of the Sarantraas human forms, allows them to interact with human characters in a much more natural way, but also allows the author to explore ideas of prejudice & racial tension in a very violent & at times, downright upsetting manner. I connected really well with their dispassionate, cold approach to emotions, & loved the interplay between their confused reactions to seemingly illogical Human behaviour, as well as feelings experienced in Sarantraas which they’re not yet used to feeling (it’s a little bit Vulcans from Star Trek, you see, but not really). The Dragon’s worship of higher mathematics, their ability to view & calculate speeds in the blink of an eye really helped set the species apart from humans, allowing for a great analysis of the pros & cons of emotions in general between the main Human & Dragon characters. The emotional development in certain Dragons was really touching & helps the reader grow incredibly attached to them, the prime example being Seraphina’s uncle Orma, who is a brilliant character who’s developmental arc is wonderful to follow. The Human support cast is superb in this book too, be it the charming, keen eyed Prince Kiggs, who has a sharp sense of humour, & manages to be a warm character, without falling prey to the fairytale stereotype; or his cousin the Princess Gliselda, who is greatly written, funny, elegant, playful & wonderfully rounded as a young woman. Gliselda actually became one of my favourite characters, her ability to be strong & regal as well as childish & silly really helped set her apart from a standard Disney Princess character type.
Finally, I suppose I should discuss the plot. One of the main criticisms I hear for the book is how slow a start it has. Could not disagree more. That slow start is how Seraphina has ended up with an entire cast of loveable & engaging characters, & is how we as readers care so much about them at the end. The mystery of the murder matches our own thirst for information on Seraphina’s shrouded past, & both are played off against each other at just the right moments of the book to keep them fresh & interesting. The action manages to be fast, exciting & steers away from the usual ridiculousness that can plague Fantasy writing as a genre, keeping a novel set in a Fantasy world with shapeshifting Dragons strangely grounded & familiar. There are enough plot twists to keep you guessing up until the final few pages as well.
So my summary? Seraphina is a wonderfully rich, beautifully character driven Fantasy novel, totally one of a kind, with a gripping plot that will keep you hooked right up until the very last page.
Thanks for reading!