Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
One of the chief things I measure in a novel is how it affects me when I read it. Do the book’s events wend their way into my dreams? Am I compelled to keep reading? How concerned am I with the characters? Are there any scenes I can return to and re-read, savouring the prose on my tongue or goggling about at the audacity of the images that the author presents?
In other words, does the book that I’m reading make me feel delight?
Seraphina did. This book was part of the bag of free books I got at the World Fantasy Convention. However, I didn’t look at it closely until after WFC was over and my fiance and I were evaluating our respective hauls. Rarely am I held fast and astonished by a book’s very first passage, but then I came across Seraphina‘s opening lines:
I remember being born.
In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.
Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.
I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.
Humans and dragons have been coexisting in uneasy peace for decades. Dragons, imagined here as keenly rational, analytical beings – think Vulcans with scales – have the ability to alter their forms to look like humans.
Such dragons, called saarantrai, live alongside humans and have carved out a respectable niche as teachers and academics. The heart of this coexistence lies in the court of Goredd, the kingdom that brokered the human/dragon peace treaty – the court that Seraphina Domberg, a talented young musician, now finds herself in.
However, merely weeks before the 40th anniversary of the treaty, Prince Rufus, the son of Queen Lavonda, has been murdered in a manner that looks suspiciously draconic. With tensions rising between the upholders of the treaty and anti-dragon zealots, Seraphina finds herself in the middle and teams up with Prince Lucian, the queen’s grandson, to uncover the truth behind Rufus’ murder.
Seraphina is caught in the middle in more ways than one. Not only is she a musician in a court composed of both humans and saarantrai, but she holds a secret that could lead to her death if it were found out: she’s half-human, half-dragon. Now that she’s joined Lucian’s investigation, she must find a way to preserve the peace and avoid the attention that her prodigious musical talent attracts.
I’m drawn to fantasy and science fiction because these genres examine interesting ideas in ways that others choose not to. In its own way, Seraphina tackles how racism affects people by taking it to literal extremes and imagining the external pressures faced by someone who is only half human. However, science fiction and fantasy also describe things that other genres can’t, like the internal pressures that Seraphina faces.
In particular, she experiences crippling migraines and strange visions, and the only way she can manage them is to spend time alone every day to meditate. Her meditation takes an extremely peculiar form, though, in that she visits a garden in her mind and talks to the people who live there – the people she sees in her visions, although she has no idea what is so significant about them. One of her vision-people lives in an orchard and litters orange peels along the ground. Another is locked inside a cottage. A third gazes up at a sky full of stars.
These people and these environments are all inside Seraphina’s head.
Think about this for a minute. How many mush-mouthed “important” literary works out there are willing to be as inventive as this? Would an author like Jonathan Franzen ever attempt to portray the mental state of one of his characters in such a literal fashion? More importantly, would they use such concrete imagery – orchards, observatories, ponds, walled gardens – to describe that state? Would they even consider the idea of the mind as a physical space, capable of being walked around in?
This is why fantasy and science fiction are important. This is what I look for when I talk about delight.
Hartman’s descriptions of the world her characters live in, and her unique depiction of dragons, are fascinating. Her world feels lived-in and filled with detail around the edges, like the fact that dragons bleed silver blood, and thus exhibit white bruises white when they get hurt. I also loved how hyper-aware Seraphina is of the draconic mindset, which is focused on patterns and angles and logic. Whenever she’s in conversation with a dragon, she automatically adjusts her speech so that it becomes more factual and less focused on intonation to convey meaning.
This highlights one of her greatest traits: her intelligence. She’s not only smart, but she’s determined, too, and uses her unique knowledge of dragonkind to become an important political player by the end of the novel. While she is prickly and unfriendly, this part of her personality springs naturally from her overwhelming need to hide her parentage.
However, this note leads me to my very few complaints about the novel. While she is considered prickly and often second-guesses herself, this is one of Seraphina’s only flaws. Otherwise, she’s a gifted musician who is brave and observant, and she even turns out to have psychic powers. (Hint: it turns out those people in her head are there for a reason.) In other words, she’s very close to being a Mary-Sue character.
In addition to that, Seraphina’s burgeoning relationship with Prince Lucian is telegraphed far too easily early on in the plot, and I despaired at the presence of the Obligatory Romance in this otherwise fine novel. Although Hartman sidesteps this by having Lucian choose to stay betrothed to his royal cousin, the potential for a romantic triangle is set squarely in place for the sequels. I wish that the relationship between Lucian and Seraphina stayed platonic instead. However, I will eagerly read the sequels in the hope that this development is replaced with something more satisfactory before the end.
Up next: The Universe Within, by Neil Turok.