Review: “Seraphina” by Rachel Hartman

Title: “Seraphina”

Author: Rachel Hartman

Genre: YA, high/epic fantasy

Publication Date: July 10, 2012 (North America – Random House)

Source: NetGalley review copy

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.

In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina’s tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they’ve turned the final page.

☆: 4.5/5 stars – a wonderful new piece of YA high fantasy!

Review: There is so much to this book, it’s so hard to pin it down into one particular genre. Like a phoenix, it continually dies and burns and reinvents itself as the story progresses. “Seraphina” is a gorgeous new book to add to the YA epic/high fantasy canon. It’s a high fantasy tale, it’s a murder mystery, it’s a story of war and peace, it’s a romance, and it’s a coming-of-age tale. It’s all of these things, and Hartman weaves this all so skillfully that it’s hard to believe that this is her debut novel. If you’re looking for something wonderfully original this summer to sink your teeth into, make it “Seraphina”.

Where to start? The worldbuilding. Hartman does a fantastic job with building this world from how it looks, to how the politics flow, to religion and race rivalries/wars, to music. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone in this book, and I really hope it isn’t a standalone – there’s a lot left unanswered, and a lot more worldbuilding still to be done with other cities and countries named but not really explained. Just like George RR Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” injects a little magic and politics into adult high/epic fantasy, “Seraphina” does the same for the YA genre. We get a real sense of the strained tension between humans and dragons, and the short history of race relations between them. We also get an internal worldbuilding experience with Seraphina’s mental garden of grotesques, and her own character arc of how she struggles with being a half-dragon in a dragon-hating world – something so complex and so well done that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before period, be it in YA or in adult lit. The religious aspect also really impressed me – we have saints, but no sense of a god or multiple gods. The dragons don’t have religious practices, but they do have mental grooming behavior that seems similar to Buddhism with its mental gardens and emphasis on meditation to get the mind under control. That was a particularly nice touch, and I hope to see more of that in more books (if they’re coming). Hartman’s use of sensory imagery and language is absolutely great – I could feel, see, smell, and hear everything she described, from the feasts at the palace to Seraphina’s scales, to the heat of dragons spitting fire in my face. It was wonderful.

Damn, I wish I could write like that, is what I constantly thought while reading this book. I rarely think like that, and 2012 has been barraging me with books that have been making me think that. Everything about this book – characters, world, etc – was just simply rich with life.

Then there are the characters – none had anything left to be desired – even the most minor of characters had a realness to them because they had their own histories, no matter how small or brief they were in description. Each main cast character has a transformation/journey arc, and this opens up a LOT of material for future books. Even though we see everything through Seraphina’s eyes (first person POV), we also see other characters on their own journeys, all eventually meeting up in the climax of the book (which I won’t reveal here). Seeing all of these threads woven together, seemingly unrelated at first, was really great. What was even better? Even though there is a budding romance within the book, it’s not the majority of the book. If anything, it’s a bit of a footnote until the end. It focuses on Seraphina and her journey to solve this murder, try to keep her own identity under wraps, and to figure out the people/world around her all at once. It was simply refreshing to read this within YA lit with a female MC, where romantic love doesn’t devour (pun not intended) the whole story. And all of the characters, no matter how big or small, annoying or awesome, were sympathetic. And all of that? That’s hard to do.

On top of the combination of Holmesian mystery solving and high fantasy, Hartman also brings self-injury into the mix. Granted, this is not a large part of the story and it may fly over the heads of a lot of readers, but as a former self-injurer, watching Seraphina hurt herself hurt me, and I felt her self-loathing as my own. I won’t go so far to say it triggered me, but I definitely identified with those feelings and actions. I respect Hartman deeply for dealing with this the way she did – she didn’t put it in some YA contemporary sap about “tough stuff”, but rather something that comes about as a result of being overwhelmed about one’s own development as a person, an individual, and trying to balance all of that whilst still managing to function daily. This is a very small piece of the story, and me talking about it makes it seem bigger than it is, probably, but yes, it meant that much to me. And yes, Hartman did it all correctly.

Final verdict? This one has everything for everyone – fighting, politics, dragons, romance, high fantasy, religious exploration, war – and I think it’ll appeal to all ages. “Seraphina” has a place on my best of 2012 so far list, and its place there is very well deserved indeed, joining Leigh Bardugo and Jay Kristoff there for awesome fantasy YA reads for the year. “Seraphina” is out now in North America from Random House Children’s, so be sure to check it out! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

[edit] Late in writing this review, Hartman through twitter confirmed there is a second book in the works, “Dracomachia”. Jazz hands for all! I can’t wait for this next book, guys!


3 thoughts on “Review: “Seraphina” by Rachel Hartman

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! | birth of a new witch.

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