I hate dragons. I can only explain why I decided to read Seraphina by pointing out a dearth in the YA fantasy genre (where fantasy does NOT mean 'drooling over the sparkling undead') and being SO DEPRIVED that I took it, dragons and all.
And what a fantastic choice that turned out to be. I love a book so rarely. I have not loved a book this much since Kristin Cashore's Fire.
Seraphina is set in a world where an uneasy peace exists between humans and dragons. Forty years before, a non-aggression treaty was signed between the species, ending the war, and allowing dragons to live in human lands, folded into their 'saarantras', their human shape. The logic-driven, mathematical dragons are fascinated by humankind's peculiarities, especially art...and emotion.
The eponymous Seraphina is a gifted musician. Soon after she comes to court, the crown prince is murdered. His body is found - but his head is not. An almost trademark dragon-kill, it comes days before the fortieth anniversary of the Treaty, and the arrival of the Ardmagar, the dragons' king. Seraphina finds herself drawn into the events at court, and more dangerously, at the hub of many of them. She has a secret to hide, and never has it been more important.
The problem with giving a synopsis for Seraphina is that you can't really give one without giving away some of the fantastic and suprising plot-points, some of which unfold in the opening pages. So instead, this: why is Seraphina worth reading?
Sometimes, especially in fantasy, you have to make a choice between plot-driven vs. character-driven stories. Seraphina? BOTH, and SPECTACULARLY so. More so for having a mythology that was so thorough and compelling. Let me reiterate that I am no fan of dragons - and yet, I could not help being fascinated just by the *description* of a dragon 'folding' itself into a human shape. What fantastic imagery.
Secondly: textured characterisation and paced exposition. The central characters (Seraphina, Orma, Glisselda, and Lucian) are all introduced right at the start, but they are slowly unfolded, with their histories and character, throughout the book - almost a metaphorical opposite of the dragons, which I find absurdly pleasing and symmetrical and well-timed. The character-events are tied very organically to the plot, so neither plot nor characterisation ever gets in each other's way - in fact, the opposite. The one draws the other ahead with each taking turns. This is so pleasing I am almost bursting with the artistic mathematism of it all.
Thirdly, again, I don't want to give anything away, but I do so like romance being a back-burner topic than a headline. Angst is so overdone. We all like a pinch of romance, but when we say 'a pinch', WE MEAN 'A PINCH', not nine yards and then some, and goodbye fast-moving plot with sympathetic characters and general all-round character-assassination. Baad.
Seraphina is likeable and relatable because she's strong, tough, smart, kind, gifted, blackly funny - and uncertain. It's her uncertainty that makes her human. Her social awkwardness, her occasional insecurity and quiet humility are all a result of her uncertainty - about herself, how she fits into her world, and at its core, how what you are defines who you are. Her voice is one you wouldn't mind in your head, because it's the voice of a friend, or perhaps another self. The secondary characters have so much texture to them - again, author-thoroughness - and you really become very attached to all of them; Orma is perhaps the most fascinating. And they all change and are changed throughout the course of the book, and maybe this is a big part of why it works. I mean, just compare where you are when you start the book, to where you are at the end.
I had one small quibble with something near the end, but I can't tell you about that. You'll have to read it. And the rest of the book made up for it. I had decided by about page 30 that I loved this book, so it almost didn't matter what happened after that. The prose is so clean - elegant, thorough, and somehow musical, as if it is exactly what it means to be. This is a book that reads nothing like a debut - it is all the reasons why I will read anything Rachel Hartman writes.
I would recommend Seraphina to EVERYONE, but maybe a wee bit more so to people who enjoy books like Kristin Cashore's (Graceling,Bitterblue, but FIRE especially - there's something about Seraphina that is very evocative of Fire). I'm actually a little bit surprised that this is classed as YA - but perhaps that's the beauty of it, to have this cross-genre appeal. That can only be good.