Like so many other 16 year olds Seraphina, the eponymous heroine of Seraphina, struggles to fit into her world. Her mother died at childbirth and her relationship with her father is strained at best. She thinks she’s ugly and feels torn between two worlds.
Unlike other 16 year olds however, Seraphina also happens to be half-dragon. Rachel Hartman’s debut Seraphina is as enjoyable on a re-read as it was the first time I read it two years ago. (I re-read in preparation for Shadow Scales, the sequel).
Rachel Hartman’s world is one where an uneasy peace exists between humans and dragons. The story opens with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty looming on the horizon. To commemorate the event, dragon commander Comonot and his entourage are travelling to the human kingdom of Goredd.
While there is no outward conflict between dragons and humans, distrust runs rampant, with the two species viewing each other as alien beings with no common ground between them. To compound the matter, as the story begins, the human king Prince Rufus has just been murdered—in a fashion that is reminiscent of dragon killings.
At this point I want to talk about Hartman’s dragons. Dragons in Rachel Hartman’s world are not the fiery creatures of passion and emotion that one normally encounters. Quite the opposite in fact. Cool logic is their purview and they disdain emotional quagmires, looking at human beings as interesting cockroaches, as Seraphina puts it.
Seraphina’s character and the tension fraught world of Goredd reminded me of the world we live in. I love how the framework of a fantasy world makes the issues that are explored in the story feel non-threatening. The distance that the fantasy aspect provides makes it easier for me to approach the subjects that are being dealt with, and to think about them from a broader perspective than I would have been able to if those very same issues had been couched in a non-fantasy story. (And in fact this is one of the reasons why I think I love fantasy as a genre).
Seraphina is thrust right in the middle of all the intrigue. A gifted musician and the assistant to the court composer she comes to be in a unique position, one from which she can see clearly both into the human and the dragon heart. In her quest to understand the going-ons around her, she has to reach a measure of peace with herself, and has to stop viewing herself as one of the “grotesques.” As she comes to realize:
We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.
Are you intrigued yet?
The world that Hartman builds is very atmospheric:
The road, not wide to begin with, narrowed even further above us; the upper stories cantilevered over the street, as if the houses were leaning together to gossip. A woman on one side might have borrowed a lump of butter from her neighbor on the other without leaving home. The looming buildings squeezed the sky down to a rapidly darkening ribbon.
Or the vividness of the details that makes this bit come alive:
I did not just see it: I smelled fish and market spices, felt the ocean’s salty breath upon my incorporeal face. I soared through the pristine blue sky like a lark, circled over white domes and spires, and glided above the bustling dockyards. A lush temple garden, full of chuckling fountains and blossoming lemon trees, drew me in.
As you can make out from the above, the writing is lovely (and remains so through and through):
The music flew from me like a dove released into the vastness of the nave; the cathedral itself lent it new richness and gave something back, as if this glorious edifice, too, were my instrument.
I took one last look around this peculiar, smelly slice of interspecies coexistence, the treaty’s mad dream come to raucous life.
Seraphina is exactly the sort of fantasy that I enjoy the most—layered characters, evocative settings and thought-provoking writing. It doesn’t hurt that the plot sucks you in too.
There’s just one last thing that I want to remark upon before I go off to enjoy Shadow Scales. Though there’s just a whiff of romance in the story, I very much love the way that the sort-of-love-triangle that exists between Seraphina and two other characters, Princess Glisselda and Kiggs, is handled. Far from portraying one of the girls as an evil other-woman, Hartman makes the reader fall in love with both Seraphina and Glisselda. They complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses and share a friendship that has nothing to do with Kiggs. I just love that so much!
Anyway! Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:
The ocean was still there, but my music was a bridge, a ship, a beacon. It bound me to everyone here, held us all in its hands, carried us together to a better place. It modulated (ripples on the sea) and modulated again (a flight of gulls) and landed squarely on a mode I loved (a chalky cliff, a windswept lighthouse). I could make out a different tune, one of my mother’s, just below the surface; I played a coy melody, an enigmatic variation, referencing her tune without bringing it up explicitly. I made a pass at her song, circled, touched it lightly before swooping past once more. It would draw me back into its orbit again and again until I gave it its due. I played her melody out in full, and I sang my father’s lyrics, and for a shining moment we were all three together.