Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman

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.
I'd like to thank every reviewer, blogger, and Twitterer who pushed this book. I wasn't planning on reading Seraphina (the cover didn't grab me, and I'm really over dragons), but everyone kept talking about it. I caved and picked up a copy from the library.

Holy guacamole, THANK YOU ALL!

For forty years, the human and dragon kingdoms have protected a fragile peace. Dragons, clothed in human form, live amongst the Goreddi and enrich its people with their knowledge of science, history, and mathematics. They also refrain from hoarding, plundering, marauding, and creating general mayhem, as outlined by the treaty constructed by the Goreddi Queen Lavonda and the dragon Ardmagar Comonot, "Ardmagar" being a dragon term that roughly means "supreme general." The humans, for their part, tolerate the dragons.

At least, they do until their beloved Prince Rufus is found decapitated in a field - a death that most assume was the work of a dragon.

Though set amid political turmoil and upheaval, much of the book is concerned with loneliness, fitting in, and what it means to be human. Seraphina is uniquely disposed to grapple with these issues. After all, she is the girl who remembers her own birth. She is the girl with two saints instead of one, the heretical Yirtrudis and the scholarly St. Capiti. She is the girl who can play the most beautiful music anyone has ever heard. She's also the girl with more than a few secrets, ones that keep her isolated from all others.

I love Seraphina. Her head is filled with numbers and calculations and analyses. They're what make her music so breathtaking, and they're what make her such an excellent liar. She's such a lonely creature, locked away amid her lies and her music, but I never once felt sorry for her. She never feels sorry for herself, despite her struggles. 

I love how detached and stalwart she seems sometimes, how she notices things others don't merely by being an outsider looking in. I also love when Seraphina's composure is ruffled, and some of her humanity slips through. She's erudite and fancies herself an island unto herself, but she's drawn to others. She needs Orma, her dragon tutor, and is drawn to him "the way cats gravitate toward people who'd rather avoid them." (Her words, not mine.) She also finds herself pulled toward Prince Lucian Kiggs, fiance of her pupil Princess Glissenda, though he's dangerously perceptive. She values the safety of her mind, but her mind is not her own. Instead, she shares it with the grotesques in her garden, visions of beings tucked safely (or not so safely) in a corner that she must tend regularly. Even in her mind, she is forced to care.

Seraphina, with her battling head and heart, stands in the gap between the humans and the dragons. The humans are the ones who feel. In the eyes of the dragons, human let their emotions run wild, making them slaves to their baser instincts. Dragons, on the other hand, keep all "in ard"; that is to say, in order. When in their natural form, the dragons are incapable of feeling emotion at all. They are beings of logic and rationality. In human form, they more resemble the Vulcans of Star Trek. While they are capable of feeling emotion, they would rather not. In fact, to feel emotion is detestable and a crime under dragon law, requiring a pruning of one's brain until all is in ard once more.

Though I'll mention other aspects of the book that I enjoyed in a moment, I think the dragons were hands-down the one element that completely sold me on Seraphina. Forget Eragon, forget How To Train Your Dragon, forget all those stories where dragons are pets or gratingly superior talking horses or boon companions or anything like that. These dragons are aliens in human skin. They're vast beasts with the knowledge of millennia stuffed into a frail form, still strong in mind but tempted by emotion and feelings. They're painstakingly literal at times, so controlled as to be dense when it comes to relating to humans. For the majority of the book, dragons seem to feel nothing at all except for slight annoyance, but they were by far the most fascinating and lively characters of the entire tale.

Seraphina also boasts one of the more intriguing and organic fantasy worlds that I've ever had the pleasure to visit. Granted, it took me some time to get my footing, thanks to Seraphina's somewhat convoluted narrative style in the first few chapters, but once I did... Wow!

Have you ever played with a really intricate virtual map? There are some of the internet where you can scroll out for what feels like forever on end and see the vast world stretch out before you in all its splendor, unable to reach its end. And then you can scroll in again, further and further until the details are just as crisp before your nose as the vastness was. That's how Seraphina's world felt. Kingdoms filled with their own unique customs and peoples thrived just off the page. Some books feel like tourist traps, bright and colorful but ultimately filled with facades that the readers are discouraged from peering at too closely. But in Seraphina, I felt that Ms. Hartman had thought of everything, down to the last detail. No matter what question I might ask, from the origin of the dragon race to how many tines on a Goreddi fork, the answer would be ready and waiting. That's what I mean by organic. Seraphina's world is like her mind garden - its denizens will continue to grow and build and change whether its minder is present or not.

One more thing, one very important thing. Something you'll hear again and again about Seraphina is how beautiful the language is. Because Seraphina is a musician, music and instruments color the descriptions throughout the book. Everything is lyrical and flowing and free. Ms. Hartman had such fun with her words that I caught myself grinning on several occasions. Really, how can I not like someone who skips the obvious ways to describe a drunkard and instead decides to say that said drunkard's breath is "tavernesque"?

Oh, and I can't tell you the last time I'd come across so many words that I'd never heard before. Even better, the words in question were used so casually, just thrown onto the page as if they were as common as "hat" or "flute." There were no apologies, no info dumps, no descriptive asides. The words were just there, and I loved it! If running into unknown words worries you, there's a glossary in the back with hilarious definitions, but I enjoyed myself without looking at all. (I mean, who can read the word "houppelande," find out IT'S A REAL THING, and not have fun?)

I did have a few gripes with the book, but they're only worth a mention in my "Points Subtracted For" section, nothing more. If you love fantastic language, read this book. If you like heroines who lie and make horrific mistakes and still manage to steal your heart, read this book. If you adore fantasy worlds that are so real that you can taste them, read this book. And if you cherish what it means to be human, to relish art and music and all the mistakes that make them beautiful, read this book. You'll thank me later.

Points Added For: Fruit Bat, Loud Lad, and the other grotesques; the words "houppelande" and "drachomachia"; the little oddities that are the quigutls (I hope they get more page time in the next book); the fantastic mix of the conventional (the psalter and the saints) and the advanced (Orma's earrings).

Points Subtracted For: An ending that I felt was unfair to Seraphina's character, a beginning that was a bit difficult to follow (chronologically speaking).

Good For Fans Of: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, a different kind of dragon tale, high fantasy.

Notes For Parents: The word b*st*rd is used several times in the literal sense (an illegitimate child) and once as an epithet. There is some kissing, but nothing too extreme. At least two characters are Daanites (followers of St. Daan; homosexuals).

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