Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Monday, 6 January 2014

Rachel Hartman
Genre(s): dragons, fantasy, young adult
Published: January 1st 2012
Pages: 369
Rating: 4 stars

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.

Seraphina is unlike any other fantasy novel I've read. Partly because I've never read about dragons and partly because it read so much like historical fiction, rather than a 'typical' fantasy.

For starters, the whole take on dragons was fantastic. I've never heard of anything like it in relation to dragons, or any other mythical or fantastical creature other than werewolves (which I'm not a big fan of, so I honestly wasn't expecting much). The whole idea of saarantrai was well executed, very unique and highly enjoyable.

That being said, I do feel that the world building could have been improved on. We're given all this information about a treaty between the dragons and the humans, all these different saints that are allocated to a child during their christening, not to mention all the different nationalities. Although there is a glossary and list of characters at the end of the book, I feel that these things could have been more explained throughout the story, if only to make understanding everything a little easier. A map of the area, as well as perhaps some illustrations or diagrams of dragons, would have been nice to see as well.

I was pleasantly surprised with the characters as well. Seraphina in particular. I was (more than) a little worried that this book would be overtaken by romance and that the whole fantasy element would be shoved aside in favour of appealing to young adults by means of lots of kissing and sappy lines. That was not the case at all. Phina was strong and smart, level-headed and quick-thinking. And though she did annoy me at times (mainly when she wouldn't tell people the truth about herself when - I felt that - the situation really called for it), I can overlook that. Orma and Glisselda were another two favourites of mine too, for very different reasons. I loved how Orma struggled with his emotions as the story progressed, and how there was more to Glisselda than first meets the eye. I really enjoyed the majority of the characters, but those three stuck out the most to me.

While that's all well and good, I couldn't help but feel a little let down by the plot (in much the same way as the world building was a little lacking). I feel that there wasn't really a direction until the middle of the story, and even though it's a fairly short book, parts did drag and it took me a lot longer to get through the first half than I expected. That being said, it really picked up towards the end and I did not see the twist coming! It was well done and very believable, and I feel that Hartman deliberately led you on to distrust certain characters and think that they were responsible for all the bad things that happened.

All in all, Seraphina is an interesting read with an equally interesting approach to the dragon myth. While there were a few faults, it's still highly deserving of its four star rating.
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