Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Seraphina Book 1)

SeraphinaI don’t entirely remember where I first heard about this book, but I distinctly remember feeling that it had come out of nowhere. I wasn’t aware of it prior to publication, and then all of a sudden people were excited about it and recommending it to me.  A co-worker provided the final kick that I needed to really get going with it, and Fantasy-Faction is reading is this month for their Fantasy Book Club, so it seemed a good as time as any to dive in.

 Seraphina is a young woman who has spent her life trying to keep a deadly secret to herself.  In a world where humans and dragons live in an uneasy peace, racism and prejudice run rampant and it can be very dangerous to be different.  Seraphina has easy access to the royal family as a music teacher to the princess, but her proximity to power often puts her in danger of having her secret revealed.  When the prince is murdered, tensions rise and Seraphina gets drawn into the mystery of his death and implications it will have for everyone.

 It’s also worth noting right off the bat that I’ve been hearing the most about this book from adults sources, not teen reviews.  It’s technically a Young Adult novel, but with such popularity among an older audience, I was curious to see what about the story made it appealing.  This isn’t to say that YA novels can’t appeal to adults, but I usually end up looking for what specifically is catching the eye of an older reader while I’m reading. Also, I’m not the type of person to pick up a book just because it has dragons.  Some people seem to be nutty for dragons, but not me.  The only thing that really saved them for me was the vivid culture that was created around them.  They are a much more realized aspect of the story than I have seen in other books.

 When it comes down to it, I think the overall quality of the novel (especially as this is Hartman’s debut) helps this book transcend it’s target audience.  The writing is excellent, the plot is intricate and deals with complex social issues, and the dreaded teen angst love triangle just doesn’t exist.  The protagonist is a teen, but since this is based in a medieval world, it makes complete sense for a younger person to be behaving like an adult and to be treated as such by other adults.  I think it can be easy for readers to forget that the idea of a “teenager” is a modern construct that has only been around for the last hundred years or so. Writing fantasy with a medieval feel has become quite popular, and while I’m not opposed, I was glad to see that this book took that framework and crafted a completely new society where dragons seem to fit right in. Where other books would downplay the fantastic elements, Hartman puts fantasy front and center and doesn’t shy away from how that impacts her storytelling.

 The counter to this has been pointed out by a number of reviewers.  Seraphina seems to have almost too much access to the royal family, visiting dignitaries, and parts of the castle that serve to move the plot along, but at times it can pull the reader out of the story.  Instead of just reading along and enjoying things, I stopped and thought about how the heck she got to where she was, and how she managed to find the time to slip away from everyday living to investigate a murder. It’s a minor grievance, and I’m easily accepting the existence of dragons, so perhaps I should stop worrying about reality so much!

It’s hard to write reviews for books you really liked because it ends up sound mushy and overly sentimental so I’ll leave it there.  Hartman was able to combine so many elements into her narrative and was able to keep the plot moving at a great pace without forgetting that quiet moments are important too.  Her characters are believable, and the world is a place that you want to spend more time in.  Highly recommended.

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