Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Pros: brilliant world-building, interesting characters, interesting politics, thought provoking


For Parents: no swearing, minor suggestive content, a few kisses, some violence, nothing graphic

Seraphina has a secret to hide regarding her mother.  Her distant father warns her to avoid calling attention to herself, but her love of music makes it hard for her, especially when she becomes the assistant to the court composer.  It’s a mere two weeks before the Treaty Eve festivities when the Ardmagar Comonot visits to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the peace pact between the Goredd nation and dragonkind.  Not everyone is happy with the peace, especially since Prince Rufus recently died in a suspiciously draconic way.  The Sons of St. Ogdo are stirring up the populace against the vile scourge even as members of the royal court make snide remarks behind the backs of the draconic embassy members.  The depth of Seraphina’s knowledge of dragons and her willingness to stand up for them in the face of prejudice, brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs, Captain of the Queen’s Guard, as more and more incidents occur.  As the days count down both her secret and the peace pact are in danger.  

This is a brilliant novel.  The writing is top notch and the world-building excellent.  It’s a pseudo-European world, but one that remembers there are other nations with other peoples, many of whom travel and have political and economic ties to each other.  The religion is obviously based on Catholicism, with a plethora of interesting saints (including St. Ogdo the dragon slayer).  I loved that the politics around the peace weren’t simple.  The racism of humans to dragons and vice versa is covered (in multiple forms), as is the peace pact between the human nations that came about beforehand, which allowed the humans to present a united front to the dragons.  I also liked that the book pointed out the uncertainty that people feel when forced to trust that their former enemy is trading in good faith.  

The dragons are coldly logical, refusing to allow feelings to affect them.  But when they take human form, they can have trouble dealing with the wash of emotions that come over them.  Dragons that forget themselves face harsh punishments - the excision of those emotions and any memories that could revive them.

Seraphina is a wonderful character.  She lies to protect herself, knowing that she’s hurting herself by doing so.  I loved that many of her lies are uncovered, forcing her to face the consequences of her actions and make difficult decisions based on them.  Lucian’s great, always asking questions and sometimes getting burned by the answers.  Princess Glisselda was fun to read about, with her obvious intelligence and political savvy.  It was refreshing to see a friendship develop between women that didn’t involve any backbiting or gossip.  I also loved Orma, who tries so hard to appear human but doesn’t quite grasp all of the intricacies involved even as he often has to prove he has no emotional attachment to Seraphina.  

The book has some great examples of how to stand up for yourself - and others - when facing bigotry.  It isn’t easy and Seraphina sometimes does the wrong thing, but it’s great seeing examples of how to deal with bullying behaviour head on.  It’s equally good that it shows the potential backlash and consequences that standing up for something can elicit.

I personally found the jump between the prologue and the first chapter very confusing.  The prologue shows Seraphina’s birth, which made me think the book would progress through her life, but the first chapter jumps several years ahead, and you have to read a few chapters to understand how she got where she is now.  Logically prologues tend to stand apart from the rest of the book so that was my failure of attention rather than a flaw in the text.

I loved this book.  The characters felt so real and Seraphina’s loneliness so heartbreaking that I cried several times while reading it.  The mystery is a little on the slow side, but I found the world and happenings so fascinating that I didn’t care.  If you love fantasy, get this book.

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