Seraphina

Seraphina

Seraphina was first published in 2012 and was the winner of the 2013 William C Morris YA debut award. It was written by Rachel Hartman and is a high fantasy story, set in a world where humans live alongside shape-shifting dragons. Although the novel more than stands alone, it is actually a spin-off of the comic series Amy Unbounded. A sequel novel, titled Shadow Scale, is due for release next month.

For almost forty years, the people of Goredd have enjoyed a truce with the dragons. Although the peace treaty was necessary to end a bloody war between the two races, many humans consider it to have been a bad move. Even though the dragons can take human form, they are still calculating and emotionless. Befriending a dragon is taboo and any human displaying too much affection for one risks falling foul of the violent Sons of St. Ogdo.

For her entire life, Seraphina has been forced to hide a terrible secret. Although her father was human, her mother was a dragon who managed to fool him with her human disguise. Although she can hide her scales, Phina is forced to keep her distance from everyone in case they realise the truth about her. However, as a grisly murder shocks the royal court, she finds that she is drawn into the investigation.

Prince Rufus has been found dead – decapitated in a distinctly draconic fashion. As his death falls mere days away from the anniversary of the treaty, it seems clear that someone is trying to make a political statement. Suddenly, Phina’s knowledge about dragons is valuable and she finds herself accompanying Prince Lucian Kiggs as he seeks to uncover the culprit. How can she hope to keep her scales hidden when the eyes of the entire court are upon her?

There is a piece of advice that is handed out to budding fantasy writers again and again: avoid dragons. Dragons are always popular subjects for novels because they are so striking – huge, powerful and immediately recognisable. The problem is, every writer knows this. Dragons form a key part of a lot of fantasy fiction and, really, we all know what to expect from them. In order to use dragons and still have a novel that feels fresh and original, authors need to find a way to integrate them into the story in a unique way. It is in this aspect that Seraphina truly excels.

The dragons of Seraphina are incredibly memorable. They’re reminiscent of Vulcans in their clinical analysis of the world. Humans view them as being soulless but in actuality they just favour different values. Dragons love the pursuit of knowledge and view emotions as a weakness that is detrimental to academic learning. Consequently, they excel at mathematics, behave awkwardly in social settings and routinely allow their memories to be scoured of all unwanted human feelings. The fact that they rarely appear in their dragon forms also somehow makes them more alien. It would be easier to accept the dragon’s eccentricities if they were huge reptiles. Seeing them as poorly adjusted humans – with emotions ranging between clueless and sinister – nicely throws them into the uncanny valley and allows us to experience their species in a new and utterly fascinating way.

In terms of plot, Seraphina can be a bit of a struggle to get through at times. It is a textually dense novel, filled with the author’s original concepts and phrases, and so it is impossible to fully appreciate it without regularly consulting the glossary in the back of the text. It sometimes felt as though the author got so caught up in the fine details of her world that she forgot about the overarching plot. Although Prince Rufus’s death is first mentioned on page 5, the investigation into his death did not really pick up steam until halfway through the novel. While the second half of the novel is a lot faster moving, the first half mainly spends its time very gradually building up character and setting through minor events, exposition and flashbacks.

Among the most jarring of these was Phina’s “mind garden”. While I actually did like this as a plot device, it took me quite a while to understand what the function of this metaphysical place was. Although an explanation did come later in the story (as, in the beginning, Phina did not really understand it herself), I found the early jaunts into the garden to be very confusing as its meaning was so vague and the transitions to it often sudden and very jarring.

While I did feel that the first half of the novel really dragged in places, I can’t deny that Hartman is a master world builder. Every aspect of Goreddi life is outlined in great detail, from religion to music to clothing. Hartman’s written style is highly descriptive and her imagination really knows no bounds. These two things combined to make her universe incredibly immersive – after a few chapters I could really imagine myself in Queen Lavonda’s court.

The mystery elements of the story, when they eventually became the focus, were also incredibly satisfying and kept me guessing throughout. Prince Rufus’s death was suspicious from the very beginning but as Phina and Kiggs continued their investigation, it became clear that the motive behind it was far more complex than it initially seemed. I won’t spoil it for you here but I don’t think that anyone would be disappointed. It contains some very nice twists, political intrigue and goes a long way towards setting the climate for Shadow Scale.

In terms of character, Hartman also does very well. Seraphina is an strong and likable heroine. Although I did sometimes get tired of hearing her lament about her condition, I have to admit that it was at least very in character for her to do so. In her position, anyone would be worried about the violence that would befall them if they were discovered to be a half breed. Yet Phina never allows her state of being to push her too far down. She is intelligent and very capable of looking out for herself. Her approach to others never turns violent, even when she is faced with it. She confronts every situation with wit and charm and proves that she is even able to bluff an enraged dragon (which is no mean feat).

The secondary cast also really does shine in the novel. It was really nice to see Princess Glisselda gradually grow in confidence, forever dispelling the illusion that she was nothing more than an airhead. Orma (Phina’s uncle) also gains a magnificent amount of character development as he slowly begins to learn the value of human sentiment. While I did wish that Phina’s father had more of a role to play in the story, his brief appearances do have a great impact on the story (particularly as Phina slowly begins to understand exactly what her mother meant to him).

My only real issue with the characterisation in the story was Kiggs. It’s not really Kiggs himself – I found him perfectly likable and really appreciated the fact that he treated Phina as his equal, despite the fact that she was a musician and he was a Prince. What I didn’t buy into was their relationship. While Phina did start having vague feelings for him half way through the story, their love still felt very hurried and more tacked onto the story than anything else. It never really went anywhere and was ultimately unsatisfying in the end. Hopefully, more will be made of this in the next novel as I was left wondering if the romance needed to be there at all.

So, to conclude, Seraphina is a fascinating novel that offers a really new take on dragon lore. The story is written beautifully, has a fantastically memorable cast and is set in a staggering world. Unfortunately, it still had some problems. The plot was slow burning and often lost itself beneath the finer details of Hartman’s world. I also felt that the romance between Phina and Kiggs was ultimately pointless and could have easily been cut from the story. Yet, all gripes aside, I really did enjoy reading this novel and would recommend it to any fantasy fan.

Seraphina can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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