Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman

Ember (Reprint Edition), 2014

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The verdict: Original, stirring, epic in scope and intimate in nature, Seraphina pushes beyond the frontiers of dragon fantasy tales.

A friend recommended this book and promised it wasn’t just a typical YA novel, and after diving into the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, I admit that I’m a fan of Seraphina. Hartman’s novel is a true labor of love, showing years of her dreaming and patience in the complex world building and thorough characterization. What struck me even more so was Hartman’s lyrical prose, creating a story that’s not just intelligent but actually beautiful. Seraphina’s musical talent features prominently in the novel, and the chapters themselves contain a sort of melody, adding layers of emotion to a plot already ripe with tension and conflict on many levels.

In a world where dragons can blend into society by taking human forms, Seraphina is a rare half-breed—and she closely guards the secret of her dragon lineage. Her position as a palace music assistant places her in view of numerous characters, including Princess Glisseldsa, sincere yet naive in her entitlements, and her cousin, Lucian Kiggs, a closeted intellectual betrothed to the wrong woman and not quite belonging in the regal world. When a murder in the royal court presents potentially disastrous implications for the long-standing peace treaty with the dragons, Seraphina finds herself teamed up with Kiggs to solve the mystery, and they find more commonalities than first meet the eye. In a strict caste system where the scaly beasts are forbidden to relate too closely with humans, Seraphina’s very existence risks upending the societal detente, but staying silent may be more dangerous still. It’s a story about dragons, royalty, and romantic adventure, but it’s also a story about identity, forgiveness, and the necessary challenge of loving oneself.

“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Hartman’s novel is Seraphina’s “garden,” a mind palace of sorts where she mentally retreats to sort—and contain—the emotions and memories passed down from her dragon mother. In a land steeped in religious traditions, rituals, and moral rigidity, Seraphina’s struggle to belong starts off a bit run-of-the-mill, and readers could quickly tire of sharing her burdens. In the early pages, even her musical talent manages to make her a misfit. Yet several unexpected elements—including the mind palace—save Seraphina from whining too much about her self-imposed isolation, and a strong supporting cast keeps the narrative moving forward. Seraphina’s father is progressive yet cynical; her uncle is peculiar yet instructive. In several clever scenes, dragons must adjust to having not only human bodies but also human emotions, for better or for worse. Where Seraphina soars is in how the reader senses a clear right and wrong while at the same time hesitating to name any one character as all good or all bad. The action slows down enough for readers to form opinions as varied and complicated as the figures in Seraphina’s mind garden, and the challenge of knowing one must act but not quite knowing how to act summarizes the plight of human existence. Thankfully for fans, Hartman already has more in the series. A marvelous exploration of the sacred and profane, the dignified and the ugly, the truth of knowledge and the truth of experience, Seraphina should be on every fantasy lover’s reading list, human, dragon, or otherwise.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
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