“I didn’t tell her. Eskar has always known. She used to be with the Censors.”
My stomach turned; the Censors, a dragon agency accountable only to themselves, policed saarantrai for undragonlike behavior and routinely excised the brains of dragons they considered emotionally compromised. “Wonderful. So what have you done to attract the Censors’ attention this time?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly. “Anyway, she’s not with the Censors anymore.”
“I thought maybe they were after you for exhibiting undue affection for me,” I said, then added mordantly: “You’d think I would have noticed something like that.”
“I bear you an appropriate interest, within accepted emotive parameters.”
That seemed like overstating it, alas.
Author: Rachel Hartman
Synopsis: In the courts of the kingdom of Goredd, dragons take human form and mingle uneasily with humans, under power of a forty-year-old treaty. Dragons are rational and scientific; humans are emotional and artistic. Seraphina Dombegh, the young assistant Music Mistress of the royal court, is both.
With a long history of dangerous tension between the races, Seraphina must hide the scales on her arm and waist, as well as the truth about her silver-blooded mother. She’s risked her safety by joining the court, and when she discovers an assassination plot and begins working with Prince Lucian Kiggs to bring the would-be murderer to justice, circumstances jeopardize her life, her reputation, and her heart.
Notes: One of the oft-touted benefits of reading is the opportunity to experience the life and emotions of someone unlike yourself. Rachel Hartman’s appealingly-written debut attempts to offer this on both the surface and symbolic levels.
The fantasy genre allows for this particularly well, as readers must immerse in a character with supernatural complications to her life. Hartman succeeds here; the worldbuilding, while a little spare on the sensory side, creates a strong intellectual and political atmosphere, in which Seraphina partakes wholeheartedly. Music underscores the text, and while words are perhaps more unfitted to the description of auditory delights than any other kind, the reader feels Seraphina’s love for her flute and oub, harpsichord and choir. The scene with the megaharmonium—clearly a form of pipe organ—is particularly fun. Musicians will not likely go unmoved by that aspect of the story.
While noting that the novel works well as fantasy, I should add that it’s a rather good mystery, too. The combination of mystery and fantasy seems comparatively rare, with the Harry Potter books being a very notable exception; Hartman pulls it off. I actually grinned during the major reveal, thinking “Ah, this is well done.”
The important reader experiences are on the intimate, personal level, though, and Seraphina herself is generally very sympathetic. It’s nice to come across a brave, reasonable heroine who isn’t brash or physically forceful. Her feelings toward dragons and humans, music and study, her parents and her uncle and her love interest are all quite understandable and very well portrayed. The one place she fails to connect—though, to be fair, she will certainly succeed for some readers—is in her thoughts and feelings toward religion.
The religion in the story is an amusing composite of Catholicism and (I suspect) Hinduism, with bishops and monks and cathedrals on the one hand and on the other, an array of humorously bizarre “saints” who basically take the role of deities. It’s clear from the outset that Seraphina has an uncomfortable relationship to the beliefs, especially as dragons are presumed soulless. While Seraphina at first seems to fear soullessness, she moves in the direction of atheism.
Atheism is an understandable position for both author and character to take. (Hartman calls herself “one of those peculiar atheists who is fascinated by belief” and includes belief in a list of diversities she finds important; I appreciate her goodwill.) Religious readers, however, will likely get hung up on some of Seraphina’s comments. At one point I myself had to stop arguing with the protagonist to continue with the book, and at another I nearly put it down.
More problematically, the storyline involves many concentric circles spinning on a couple of related popular ideals: namely, Being Different Is Good, along with Just Be Yourself. There’s plenty to value in these ideals, which are underlying themes in nearly every modern YA story and some adult ones as well. They are, however, overly simplistic and almost universal in their failure to consider the right relationship of the individual to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
With the novel overall providing a very well-drawn ambiguity in confrontation, the simplistic point is a little surprising. The theme is played hard—too hard, really; it comes off as A Message For All People at times. It is emphasized by a focus on love, where that word takes on the limited definition allowed by modern secularism.
The conjunction of atheism and celebrating differentness climaxes overtly in a scene that would require spoilers to describe. Suffice it to say that this installment of Seraphina’s story (there’s a sequel in the works) ends, as it began, in secrets and lies, and this reader’s response to the shocking declaration that—paraphrasing here—romantic love is the heaven worth having was: “...seriously? And what of love for the friend you’ve just betrayed? If this is your ideal of heaven, I’ll stick with the beatific vision.”
That failure—that equating of sexual love and self-expression, both in disregard of rightness and loyalty, with immortal bliss—is a shame, because nearly everything else in the book is a success. All of the primary characters are likable and interestingly complex. There are several very redemptive character progressions, including self-sacrificial ones. Even in the scene I objected to, the characters involved are not without conscience, and one makes a sincere effort to retain what of honor he can.
It’s easy to understand why Seraphina has received the buzz and high reviews it’s been getting. For the religious, as well as for anyone who values loyalty over self-expression, the story will have its less comprehensible moments. But it’s a well-written book with a lot of depth to it, especially for its category and genre.
Recommendation: Read it for a thoughtful depiction of dissonant cultures learning harmony, along with interesting characters and some quality character progression.