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 believe there are certain books that we read at exactly the right time, and Seraphina is one such book. I picked up a copy of this YA fantasy novel around four years ago, when it was still being talked about a lot across booktube and the blogosphere, and to be perfectly honest I forgot about it for a few years until a scroll through my kindle reminded me it had been waiting patiently for me since 2015.
I don’t know if I would have liked Seraphina if I’d read it when I bought it, or at least I’m not sure I would have liked it as much, because my reading tastes have changed in the past four years. I’m reading a lot more high fantasy these days, rather than only historical fiction with a speculative twist, and I’ve never been the kind of fantasy reader who’s sold on a book solely because it has dragons in it. If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m more of a unicorn girl.
The dragons that Rachel Hartman has created, though, are one of the types of dragons I love to read. I don’t know why but I’ve never been into the ‘dragon rider’ trope, which probably explains why I never got into the Eragon books, but give me either dragons acting and being treated like animals (like in The Memoirs of Lady Trent series) or dragons that can take human form and have societies alongside human societies, and I’m a happy reader.
Seraphina is a court musician in the kingdom of Goredd and music teacher to the future queen, Glisselda. Music is her passion in life; she understands it better than she understands anything else and she has a true talent for it, and it was so nice to see classical music right at the heart of a novel like this, but she keeps to the sidelines as much as she can because, in a kingdom that still carries a lot of resentment for a war between its citizens and dragons four decades earlier, Seraphina has a secret that could very well be the end of her if anyone were to discover it.
In the realms of fantasy, particularly YA fantasy, Seraphina isn’t the first character like her that I’ve come across, but she’s so genuinely written that I just loved her. There are some characters I meet in YA fantasy that make me feel like I’m following a character, but when I followed Seraphina I felt like I was watching a real girl. She’s clever and brave and talented, but nothing she does feels out of character.
In fact this novel is full of characters who could so easily be tropes but aren’t. There’s Seraphina’s uncle, who’s brilliant, her father, who grew on me throughout the novel, and the illegitimate prince, Lucian, who also feels real and not like every other YA fantasy prince. My personal favourite side character, though, was Glisselda. She seems like she’s going to be a certain type of character when we meet her, but Hartman doesn’t do her the disservice of writing her as silly. Like many of the other characters in this novel Glisselda has many layers, and her friendship with Seraphina was one of the highlights of the story for me.
What I loved most, however, was Hartman’s world-building. She’s in no rush to speed the plot along, instead she takes her time creating Goredd, from its history to its religion to its culture to the ways in which humans and dragons interact with one another, and how they feel about one another even though the war has been over for almost half a century. The war itself never ended for a lot of people, and I found it so interesting how the war is starting to feel less like a war between humans and dragons and more like a war between the older generation, who are holding onto their bitterness, and the younger generation who desire peace. Sadly, that rings true to a lot of feeling in our world today.
In fact Seraphina gave me a similar feeling to Six of Crows in that it easily could have been an adult fantasy novel rather than a YA fantasy novel. I’m hoping to pick up a copy of Shadow Scale soon, and I’m looking forward to seeing Seraphina again and seeing more of this world!