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Seraphina

Review

Seraphina

When author Anne McCaffrey died late last year, it seemed inevitable that we had seen the passing of an era in fantasy literature about dragons. Readers who thought that everything creative about dragons had already been written by masters like McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin and others had no idea that a truly original vision of dragons lay right around the corner, in debut novelist Rachel Hartman's SERAPHINA.

"SERAPHINA is a dragon novel that seemingly has it all: political intrigue, an imaginative world that never overwhelms the suspenseful plot, a wry sense of humor, a genuine romance, and, as readers will be pleased to discover, not only a satisfying narrative arc of its own but also the promise of a sequel."

In Seraphina's homeland, Goredd, dragons and humans have established an uneasy but seemingly sustainable peace. Dragons, who can take human forms called saarantrai, even participate in affairs of court, even if they are not exactly integrated into the humans' social structure. But the kingdom's preparations for celebrating the anniversary of the treaty between humans and saar (dragons) are violently interrupted when the prince is found murdered, his head bitten off in what seems clearly to be a dragon attack.

At the center of this story (in more ways than one) is Seraphina. She is the assistant to the royal music master, and so is responsible for arranging much of the music for the royal celebration. And she is --- though few know it --- also uniquely situated between humans and dragons, as her father was a human and her mother was a dragon. Her teacher, who she comes to discover is also her uncle, is a dragon as well, and she possesses both the keen intuition and musical skills of a dragon as well as the emotional compassion of a human. But if anyone in the royal court were to know her secret, she would be ostracized as a monster, or worse. She is tormented by fears without and by anxieties within, personified by the grotesques who parade through the garden of her mind at night, and whose antics she must set in ard, or order, before she can find a moment of peace.

As Seraphina becomes more involved with the royal family --- particularly her student, the princess Glisselda --- she also finds herself increasingly attracted to the queen's nephew, and Glisselda's fiancé, Lucian Kiggs. Kiggs, both erudite and charming in a way that puts Seraphina at ease, also may be the only one who truly understands what it means to both feel and be ostracized, as he is also heavily stigmatized for being Princess Laurel's bastard son. But truly loving Kiggs would mean showing him who she really is, which is something Seraphina's shame might never allow her to do.

Rachel Hartman's debut fantasy is self-assured and ambitious, with a complicated plot that is nevertheless engaging from first to last. It also possesses a sly commentary on our own political landscape, as Seraphina urges her human companions not to paint dragons as evildoers with too broad a brush. Hartman also writes beautifully about music; Seraphina is truly gifted in the musical arts, and the author writes eloquently about both the shape and power of music: "My music was a bridge, a ship, a beacon. It bound me to everyone here, held us all in its hands, carried us together to a better place."

SERAPHINA is a dragon novel that seemingly has it all: political intrigue, an imaginative world that never overwhelms the suspenseful plot, a wry sense of humor, a genuine romance, and, as readers will be pleased to discover, not only a satisfying narrative arc of its own but also the promise of a sequel. The end of the book finds Seraphina satisfied, having found her own "place to stand." Readers will be eager to discover where she'll land next.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 21, 2012

Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman