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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

“Seraphina” by Rachel Hartman (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “SeraphinaHERE
Watch the Book Trailer HERE

After reading Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons (Reviewed HERE), I wanted to revisit Rachel Hartman's debut Seraphina, a YA fantasy that broke some new ground with dragons when it was released in July 2012. You can read more about Rachel Hartman on her website here: Those of us who love fantasy have all read various depictions of dragons, but, like with other fantastical races (when was the last time you read a really innovative elf or werewolf?) I was starting to feel like no one was really innovating with dragons. Then I read Seraphina and got excited about dragons all over again.

Hartman’s world-building doesn’t go into excessive detail, but you still get a sense of a well fleshed-out world, like the foreign dance accorded politeness due to its long history but is still considered scandalous, the individual patron saints, and the excerpts of song lyrics—enough to imply centuries of history, struggles, and unique culture without bogging down the story. Hartman also pays attention to the physiological elements of language and doesn't neglect technological innovations in her fantasy setting.

Dragons and shape-shifting have been done before, but the inner landscape of Seraphina’s mind was fascinating and innovative (I mean “landscape” somewhat literally, but I don’t want to spoil it). Characters’ unique magical talents surprised me every time. I did see the romance coming, but I loved reading its development. I could quibble about how easily Seraphina, the court musician’s new apprentice, becomes a trusted confidante of two royals, but I think the story made it work.

Seraphina is half-dragon, inheriting a combination of utter rationality from her dragon side and inspired recklessness from her human side. I felt Seraphina’s passion for music, and I understood her skill without the character making an issue of it. I loved the discussion of the difference between technically perfect music and music that moves people.

I've read some commentary and critique on Hartman's treatment of being biracial, most recently by Aliette de Boadard HERE and Laura Vivanco's response to her HERE. I would say if you're reading the story only for that reason, you might be disappointed. Hartman's handle of race issues can be argued effectively both ways; all I can say definitively is that during my reading I didn't have any problems with it.

All the characters in Seraphina, not just the half-dragon ones, struggle to balance emotion and rationality. They deal with unintended extreme consequences of good intentions, how people react to deep-seated fear, and the slippery slope of truth and lies, all with surprising bursts of humor. Seraphina doesn’t take herself too seriously—but when she does, the story cuts through her self-pity with sharp insight.

I was riveted from the first page. I'm not sure when the sequel, tentatively titled Dracomachia, is due out, but as far as I'm concerned it can't be soon enough. If you want to try a sample of the world and characters, check out Rachel Hartman’s free prequel short story, “The Audition,” on scribd HERE.


Anonymous said...

Seraphina's world was quite unique & fascinating for me as a reader. For me, the depiction of the dragons was the most unusual in literature since entering the world of Jo Walton's Tooth & Claw (a dragon laden social satire of Victorian society) (not that there's anything wrong w/books w/fire breathing reptilian flying cats).

Besides the social-political commentary on inequality & class system, not unlike Bachmann's The Peculiar & Walton's T&C, one of the most successful aspects of the novel are the perspectives of the various types of dragons & dragon shape-shifters.

I don't know if you are familiar with Autism Spectrum Disorders & Asperger's Syndrome, but if you are, you probably noticed a strong correlation between the
dragons' perspectives & those of Aspies' experiences. . Hartman did an excellent job on describing the dragons' struggle of being physically & socially different (but at the same time have a sense of superiority over neuro typical, err, non dragons).

If you aren't familiar w/Asperger's Syndrome, go online & search for the description of it & Sensory Processing Disorder as well. Then, go back & read Seraphina & find the correlation of those conditions & the dragons' experiences. I would love to read your perspective on this topic.

Thank you for your thoughtful review.

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