If you read only one novel this year, make it Rachel Hartman’s debut novel Seraphina.
I was first attracted by the gorgeous cover of the 2014 reprint edition, and then by this interesting article on inventing gender systems by Hartman herself. When I finally dove into Seraphina, the first book in the duology, it was thankfully much, much more than the projected sum of its parts.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Photo from Goodreads.com
Seraphina is about a teenage girl with a talent for music and a terrible secret landing a job as assistant to the court composer in an alternate medieval world of an uneasy peace between humans and dragons. Just as she arrives at court, one of the princes of the royal family of Goredd is murdered, and the mystery surrounding his death is a lot closer to her past and family than Seraphina would like. She ends up teaming up with bastard prince Lucian Kiggs, whose reputation as a skilled investigator and position as Captain of the Royal Guard make him the most likely person to ferret out Seraphina’s secrets. Together, they uncover a plot that could unbalance the world they know.
It’s been a long time since I picked up a novel, longer still since deliberately choosing a Young Adult fantasy novel as reading material thanks to a dearth of vampire romances and their copycats, and even longer still since I devoured a Young Adult novel featuring dragons from cover to cover. Seraphina breathes new life into the genre not only with its unique mix of fantasy tropes, but with how it treats the intelligence of its readers, who are supposedly aged 12 and above, with respect: the novel presents concepts in art, religion, philosophy, politcs, race, gender, and love, and fully expects its readers to engage with these.
The goal of any novel should be to prove to readers why they are taking time away from their precious families/friends/significant other/pets/internet/work/food/sleep for its sake. Seraphina accomplished this goal magnificently, in my opinion; every page had a new plot twist and every chapter ended in either a cliffhanger or a stepping stone to a spiraling event, resulting in my going to bed at 2:30a.m. on a weeknight and no regrets in the morning.
The writing itself flows smoothly, unimpeded by unnecessary words (although it does not shy away from big words, especially when dragons discuss math and music). It is also descriptive using only light touches, as with this quote from a Porphyrian philosopher that describes Seraphina’s mind’s garden:
“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.” (p. 442)
Which is a feat considering how many rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments the reader is introduced to (and some of which turn out to be actual medieval rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments, according to the author interview bundled with my edition).
There’s a great balance between exposition and being left to figure out what such-and-such is supposed to be or mean. The society is sufficiently complex: the novel contains some very realistic portrayals of racism and prejudice between the humans, dragons, and even the lesser dragon race of the quigutl, and this is dealt with in different tones. Take for example, this ironic quote:
“I scrupulously hide every legitimate reason for people to hate me, and it turns out they don’t need legitimate reasons. Heaven has fashioned a knife of irony to stab me with.” (p.124)
And this humorous passage:
An aged monk led me to the infirmary. “He’s got the place to himself. Once the other invalids learned there was a dragon coming, they miraculously got well! The lame could walk and the blind decided they didn’t really need to see. He’s a panacea.” (p. 429)
Nuances within each race are also present—for instance, dragons are emotionless (or are damn well trying to be), but that does not mean they are not complex creatures driven by a thirst for knowledge and bound by the philosophy of “ard” or order. Worldbuilding-wise, my favorite aspect is Seraphina’s ever-changing mental garden of grotesques, which houses others of her kind whom she regularly has visions of, and some of whom actually see her and try to reach out to her (not always in good ways). It also seems like an ideal technique for dealing with problems in real life.
Seraphina herself is a compelling character. Her struggle with loathing her body and self completely resonated with me. I think my two favorite things about her is that 1) her actions make her out to be a courageous young woman even though she never once felt courageousness in her bones, and 2) she can take jokes about herself, going so far as to refrain correcting those people and incorporating them into some lie or other that she built around herself. I sometimes wondered if she was snatched out of precarious situations by too many lucky coincidences, but I tended to forget that as I read on.
The supporting cast is full of characters to love or feel compassionate toward. Seraphina’s dragon tutor Orma is an adorable, socially awkward scholar (but then, all dragons are socially awkward, as they still don’t get the nuances of human interaction even after 40 years of walking in their skins and feeling their discomforts). Princess Glisselda could easily have been the typical flighty dimwit, but Hartman also makes her out to be shrewd in affairs of state as well as friendly. Even Seraphina’s lawyer father Claude was not the yelling, antagonistic person I had initially expected him to be.
I want to use Prince Lucian Kiggs’ character as a touchstone of an aspect of Seraphina I absolutely adored and which stood out for me the most: the novel’s treatment of relationships. As someone who plays a lot of dating simulation games and who ends up writing relationship-focused fiction herself, it was refreshing to watch the unfolding of a love story that began from a place of mutual respect and friendship instead of mutual disgust or mutual attraction. Kiggs and Phina’s—as he calls her when he isn’t upset with her—relationship trajectory is just as rocky as any of the great romances, but the bullheadedness and stupidity that often plunges them downward are more borne of the conflicts in their goals and their personalities instead of an authorial need to get the plot going. At their best, their respective intelligences dance in perfect step with each other, more than their actual bodies dancing the pavano, such as when they quote Porphyrian philosophy to each other while speculating or extrapolating on clues.
One of the best scenes starring Kiggs and Phina involved them having a private conversation at the steps of Kiggs’ “beastly tower”, a day or so after Phina insults Kiggs, who once again asked too many personal questions. The word “love” will not make itself seen until some chapters later, but you can really sense over the next four pages that Kiggs and Phina are falling for each other the more they discuss Porphyrian philosophers and their treatises. Afterward, when they bid each other good night and he closes the door, she turns around and stands with her hand on the the surface for a long time, wondering what Kiggs does up there, leaving only when one of her musicians walks by and asks if she’s all right. As I read the novel in both public and private spaces, I had to struggle to contain gigantic grins whenever I read a scene concerning these two (ultimately resulting in some weird facial expressions)—and I’m usually very difficult to impress when it comes to romances.
It isn’t just Kiggs that Seraphina has a strong, complex bond with, however. She also has a strong familial relationship with Orma. They never say the word “love” to each other, but it’s clear that even Orma—who should not be feeling love, as this is considered a disease in dragon culture—cares deeply for Seraphina. Seraphina could also have easily hated Princess Glisselda, who is her music student and romantic rival, and her father Claude for keeping her sheltered most of her life, but she reacts to them with compassion and understanding. Her relationship with her mother Linn, who left her a mind pearl of maternal memories, does have shades of anger in there for her perceived recklessness in falling in love, marrying, and having a child with her father—but that reaction does not end there. Seraphina eventually manages to find empathy for her mother with every new maternal memory she experiences.
These nuanced relationships also reflect on the world at large: yes, Goreddi society is flourishing after forty years of peace with dragons, but that has done nothing to ease the hatred and violence its members commit against the dragons in their human forms (called saarantrai in the plural). Yes, the ruler who forged the peace with the dragons is female and it seems that their long line privileges women in the seat of power, but clothier Thomas Broadwick can still insinuate that Seraphina is a “worm-riding quig lover” who will end up in a sack in the river after he sees her buying a figurine from a quigutl. Yes, Seraphina loves Orma and can understand dragon language and behavior, but she finds newskins or newly transformed dragons appalling to behold and refers to herself often as a monster due to her parentage. The child who picks up this book for the first time will be forced to ask questions while the adult looking for cultural, racial, and political realism will be satisfied—or at least, I was. I was so satisfied that I went looking for other similar Young Adult fantasy novels with the small hope that I would find something just as complex but would induce in me the same amount of sheer joy.
When I reached the end of Seraphina during lunch out with my family, just before diving into the 30+ pages of bonus materials in my edition and some hours before I ran to the nearest bookstore and bought a copy of the sequel Shadow Scale without a second thought, I laid my head on the table and told my sister, “You know that feeling you get when you realize that a book has wrecked you in a good way? This book has wrecked me.“