Rachel Hartman
Seraphina Cover



YA fantasy is a bit of a mixed bag, to put it charitably. It's by turns excellent and absolutely shit, and it's difficult to navigate the good from the bad. Thankfully, Seraphina turns out to be an excellent read, filled with intriguing and interesting characters and best of all, dragons! Now, I like dragons on the whole and I've had A Natural History of Dragons on my to-read pile for quite some time. I like the dragons in the Realm of the Elderlings books, because they're different from the ones in His Majesty's Dragon who are in turn different from the ones in Tooth and Claw. Rachel Hartman has also come along now to bring her own spin on dragons and one I was absolutely ecstatic about. They are, in turn, both vicious flying lizards who spout flame and also strangely analytical and removed from human emotions, when forced to take on human form.

In the world of Seraphina, there is an uneasy peace between humans and dragons. However, mistrust still lingers on both sides and when Seraphina Dombegh joins the royal court as a musical assistant, she does so in the shadow of the murder of Prince Rufus -- and dragons are immediately seen as suspicious. She soon becomes embroiled in court politics and the investigation into the murder, alongside the perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs, captain of the Guard. With the forty year celebration to mark the peace treaty nearing and with tensions running ever higher, Seraphina has to balance her involvement with her attempts at lying low -- because if anyone discovers her secret, her life could hang in the balance.

I will admit, this did start off a little bit slowly and Hartman does try to throw you into her world without a lot of preamble. There are a lot of saints and philosophers, the names of different kingdoms to tell apart, all the stuff that Seraphina does with her "mind garden" (which could have been so much better with just a bit more attention to detail) and a few infodumpy bits. It's not a very long novel, but it does want you to stick around and pay attention a bit. I did also think the romance/love triangle is a little bit tacked on, almost as if someone told Hartman that YA needs a romance/love triangle to keep it going so she decided to add that in last minute. It's even more annoying considering Seraphina narrates the plot of the novel, so it's not like we're not with her from the get-go.

That being said, I didn't mind her as a protagonist. I found her brave, resourceful and intelligent and although she has a few moments of bewildering decisions and quite a few emotional breakdowns, she still manages to remain consistent and determined. I liked her empathetic side, despite her constant fears of being an abomination. Still, she clearly has a good heart and I can see Hartman improving a lot on her character in the sequel. The secondary characters are all varied and I liked that Princess Glisselda isn't just a pretty face, she actually has an iron will and resolve and beautifully comes into her own at the end of the novel.

The dragons themselves, when in human form, are a lot like Vulcans. They sift through information logically, they prefer logical explanations and they reject emotions as being compromising. I like how Seraphina portrays the gamut of dragons-in-human-bodies, from Orma, who clearly has integrated better, to the Ardmagar Comonot, who finds himself beset by feelings of guilt and remorse, without the right words to name them. I like how Hartman sets up her world and religion, its splinter groups and fanatics, along with the dragons who actually do try to understand the humans. The quigs were also a fascinating addition and one I wanted to see a little bit more of. Again, Hartman is able to convey that just because they're in human skins, the dragons are still massive lizards who can spew fire and that they would, were it not for the treaty.

Now, my understanding is that this is only a duology, but looking at reviews of Shadow Scale, it seems to be much more of a Marmite book. I'm still hesitant about whether or not I'll actually buy this (my library doesn't stock the sequel), but I would definitely recommend Seraphina. It's a brilliant read, it does what it sets out to do quite well and it certainly hits the spot if you're after a book full of dragons that actually kill.