Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review - Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

In her New York Times bestselling and Morris Award-winning debut, Rachel Hartman introduces mathematical dragons in an alternative-medieval world to fantasy and science-fiction readers of all ages. Eragon-author Christopher Paolini calls them, "Some of the most interesting dragons I've read in fantasy."

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.

Seraphina boasts perhaps the most uniquely fleshed-out take on dragons that I've ever read.   It is a beautifully written novel with some wonderful characters and breathtaking scope for its genre.  It's the type of book that I ardently wish I hadn't been bogged down in a stubborn reading slump for the majority of, because I certainly would have devoured it greedily under normal circumstances.

Seraphina herself, despite being a half-dragon, half-human hybrid, is a hugely relatable character.  Though dragons and humans hold a tentative peace, both species harbor animosity toward the other.  Seraphina's very existence is something that shouldn't be possible, and something she is forced to hide diligently from everyone but her human father and dragon uncle.  This is made somewhat difficult by the presence of a band of scales across her arm and abdomen, and Seraphina has all but given up on living any kind of normal life or harboring any hopes for taking a lover.  A resignation that is made all the more complicated by her budding feelings for Lucian Kiggs, the bastard-born Prince engaged to her friend and princess, Glisselda.

As I said, the writing is beautiful in this novel.  Rachel Hartman has a gift with words, turning them into art and drawing her readers in with every sentence.  She gives us characters with amazing depth, and scenes charged with emotion.  One of her best creations has to be the dragon Orma, Seraphina's uncle.  Orma has been living inside of a human body, and battles with all the unwanted human emotions his species scorns so.  His relationship with his hybrid  niece is sweet and touching, and quite possibly the most sincere relationship of the entire novel.

So far, this sounds amazing, right?  Well, it is, but I couldn't call it a favorite.  My absolute favorite books are the ones I find during a reading slump, and force me out of it.  Seraphina didn't do that.  Since it's technically and critically so sound, and checks off almost every one of my boxes for what makes a great story, I spent a lot of time pondering why this is, and here's what I realized.  There are very few big moments.  There aren't very many of those chapters that left me gasping, physically and mentally unable or unwilling to do anything but keep turning pages.  The pace is nice and steady, the writing even and beautiful, and ultimately I think that ended up being Seraphina's biggest flaw.  As a whole, it was an amazing reading experience.  But actually reading it could, at times, be somewhat boring.  The biggest and most notable exception to this, however, is the end.  I found my inner bookworm in those last 50 or so pages, and raced through them with the greed and fervor I honestly think the rest of the novel deserved.

So, will I read the next?  Yes, definitely.  But will I proudly display this series debut on my prize shelf, with the other bookish elite?  Probably not, though it is arguably deserving of the spot.

4 out of 5 stars

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