I really have no good opening patter about Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. Like other books I’ve maligned on here, Seraphina dangled tasty treats in front of me. Unlike other books I’ve maligned on here, rather than pulling them away much like Lucy van Pelt conducts football practice, the book actually let me devour those treats, as a dragon would devour the head of a prince. Allegedly. And those are two of the book’s treats right there: dragons and murder mystery! Spoilers to follow…
All right, it’s not so much a spoiler that Prince Rufus dies, as the action of the book opens up at his funeral. He was beheaded, in a death that is suspiciously dragonesque. This is problematic, because title character Seraphina Dombegh’s land of Goredd has had a peaceful treaty with dragons for the past forty years. What’s really cool about this universe’s dragons, though, is that they can take human form. By and large, the human-form saars (dragons) are obvious in their draconian nature, from the fumbling newskins to established ambassadors (of course, it doesn’t hurt that by treaty, they’re required to wear identifying bells). Some, however, are skilled at passing to the point where they come off simply as socially inept humans (and/or get scholarly exemption from bells), like Seraphina’s mentor and music theory teacher, Orma.
Seraphina, like many a heroine before her, has special abilities. (You know, just once, my low self-esteem would like a heroine who is middling at best, who struggles but never succeeds at actually anything.) On the one hand, she has immense musical skill, a talent which her father insists she keep private lest people ask questions. On the flip side of that, however, is that she’s plagued by visions. Periodically she’ll find herself passing out and visiting a series of characters (upwards of a dozen) elsewhere in the world. Eventually Orma teaches her a draconian technique for keeping her mind “in ard,” or in order, and she develops a mind garden (her garden of grotesques, she calls it), where she can house representations of the people she’s seen, and by monitoring them routinely, can keep them in check and keep herself from suffering from visions and seizures and blackouts.
But this is where the world of Seraphina’s abilities and the world of dragons in human form (saarantrai) collide, because as it turns out, Seraphina’s mother Linn was in fact a saarantras, and Seraphina’s father Claude never knew until Linn’s death. That means Phina is half-dragon, which explains the visions, the musical talent, and the unfortunate eruption of scales on her arm and midriff somewhere around puberty. Claude is a lawyer who is the leading expert on Comonot’s Treaty, the forty-year-old peace treaty between saarantrai, but even he is not sure if marrying a saarantras is even legal, since it’s so largely unthinkable an act as to not be in the treaty. So he doctors up a fake identity and past for Seraphina’s mother and does his best to keep her and his daughter under wraps (including remarrying). Naturally, Seraphina rebels For the Love of the Music and runs off into the court to work for court composer Viridius.
Meanwhile, the heir to the Goredd throne, Prince Rufus, has been beheaded. This is bad enough on its own, but bastard Prince Lucian Kiggs (nephew to Rufus and Captain of the Queen’s Guard) suspects it’s dragon-on-human crime, the timing of which is pretty awful, considering that in less than two weeks is the anniversary of Comonot’s Treaty, and subsequent anniversary celebration, with the arrival of many dragons, including Ardmagar Comonot, the big cheese saar general. Tensions are high, especially with the Sons of St. Ogdo, an anti-dragon religious group (read: surly mob) running around. Seraphina has to work harder than ever to keep her half-dragon status secret, which means avoiding almost all non-work fraternization (although her reluctance to hang out ever does give her a bit of a reputation, go figure). Half-dragons aren’t even supposed to exist, and she has no idea what to expect during these dark times where being suspected of being a dragon supporter in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time means threats. Sure, it does help that she’s now friends and secret crime-solving buddies with Kiggs, but he is suspicious by nature and knows she’s hiding a secret.
The world-building on display in this novel is intense. I could not possibly hit every plot point, because there appear to be dozens, all happening rapidly and interconnectedly and simultaneously. There’s religion, philosophy, geography, and government. There’s Seraphina’s job as assistant to the court composer (which includes a variety of duties such as auditioning and scheduling the musical talent for various court affairs, and tutoring Princess Glisselda in the harpsichord), the mystery of Prince Rufus’s death, the mystery of Seraphina’s heritage, potential border disputes with neighboring countries, a romantic entanglement with an engaged prince, and uncovering a massive plot to overthrow the entire celebration and effectively render the entire treaty moot (thus encouraging it to be open season on humans and saar alike). Not to mention the part where Seraphina starts seeing the characters in her head, the people she’d previously considered to be merely visions, live and in person in her world, and vows to find them all. This all seems massively busy, but it comes together seamlessly. Never once did I feel like anything was getting short-changed. Seraphina gets a wonderful self-exploratory arc, and through some kind of crazy dragon magic, she also gets to explore a pseudo-relationship with the mother she never knew.* Hartman even throws in a helpful glossary at the end, but it’s completely unnecessary, because nothing gets lost in context, everything is always super clear (even to someone slow on the uptake such as myself) without being blatantly spelled out.
*On a side note, another thing I’m getting exhausted of in fiction is the prevalence of dead and/or absentee parents, particularly mothers. I suppose in the old-timey world of fantasy and fairytale-based universes, it’s perfectly logical that heterosexual marriages are the only marriages and that people die tragically young, particularly mothers in childbirth, kind of all the damn time, but the point is it isn’t historical and you co-exist with dragons so maybe we can dispose of the norms and try to break out of trope occasionally and have two gay dads or something. Or at least a parent who isn’t dead, therefore casting a tragic shadow over our hero or heroine. You can be tragic for a thousand other reasons. This is not actually a slam against Hartman, because I really love everything about this book, if that was not previously made clear. And it is worth noting that homosexuals do exist in this universe, called Daanites after St. Daan, who was in a relationship with St. Masha. Gay saints! Who knew. It’s really more of a complain-y observation in general against genre fiction in general, because I seem to come across this a lot. Maybe it’s just me and/or the things I’m drawn to? I’d say that maybe I should stop pulling books at random off the shelf at the library, but it’s served me semi-decently so far.
In any case, I want to throw this book around and say this is how you create a universe for yourself, with no stone unturned, but without overwhelming the reader with detail. It all comes across so naturally, and ends beautifully, while still setting up an entire glorious unknown future for the characters. There is, naturally, a star-crossed would-be romance, as always happens when a half-dragon and an orphaned bastard prince come together to solve inter-species crime. Kiggs is justifiably bitter but also has a sense of fun and a nearly narrow-minded quest for justice. His potential romance with Phina is held off by several mitigating factors: his engagement to his cousin Glissenda (whom Seraphina tutors), and Seraphina’s increasing secretiveness as she tries to hide both the fact that she’s half-dragon and how much she truly knows about the impending dragon threat, as she is covering Orma’s tertiary involvement (to the point where Kiggs suspects the two of them are romantically involved). I don’t know if I necessarily rooted for them romantically so much as I rooted for something good for Seraphina, whose life of loyalty and love of music is also one of secrecy and stress. I just want the poor girl to have something stable, for something to be in ard like she tries to achieve in her mind garden of grotesques. And at the end of all of it, she is in ard, in her own way. So much of the novel is about cloaking oneself in secrecy, about Phina’s need to hide her dragon half from her human life, but in the end she finds that the place where she truly and comfortably belongs is in the world of her half-saar brethren. Finding comfort in one’s own skin, making one’s own family, these are the important things to be taken from this. That, and some beautiful writing and an intricate story. Not some bad things to take at all.