August 12, 2012

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Published: 2012, Random House
Series: Seraphina, #1
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Personal book

Once I had suspended over this vast space, hanging and helpless, at a dragon’s mercy. Once I had feared that telling the truth would be like falling, that love would be like hitting the ground, but here I was, my feet firmly planted, standing on my own. 

We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful. 

Sometimes people ask me in bemusement why I love the fantasy genre as much as I do. There are tons of arguments I have for the importance of the fantasy genre and I definitely mention those, but sometimes it's just best to let great fantasy books speak for me. The next time anyone asks me how I can really enjoy books that take place in a fantastical world and feature non-human characters, I'm going to recommend that he or she reads Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.

Seraphina Dombegh is the incredibly talented young musician recently chosen as the assistant to the court composer. Her recent appointment coincides with the countdown to the fortieth anniversary of Comonot’s Treaty, which established peace in the realm of Goredd between humans and dragons.

But life in Goredd is not as peaceful as it would seem. Prince Rufus was recently murdered, his missing head leaving humans suspicious of a dragon kill. Although those in the palace of the capital city Lavondaville work tirelessly in preparation for the dragon coalition, there’s a sense of unease in the air. Even after forty years humans and dragons refuse to coexist peacefully. As the court composer becomes ill, Seraphina’s own duties increase, all while she must hide the fact that she is half-dragon herself.

The worldbuilding of the kingdom of Goredd and its surrounding countries is incredibly well-done. Although the book does not have a map, I felt as though Hartman’s descriptions and the appendices in the back really helped give me a good understanding of the world. I treasured every new discovery about Goredd, from the mythology, the religion focused on saints, the history, and the place of dragons in the world. I also loved the role of music within the story. Reading so much about music made me wish that I had some musical talent.

Hartman’s new take on dragons is particularly well-done. Yes, through the book readers can tell that humans dislike dragons because their natural form is not human and because they can “hide” in human form. But the differences between the human and dragon cultures are much deeper than that. Dragons suppress emotions and try to maintain every aspect of their lives in ard. They appear superior as they strive for order and understanding, which gives humans reason to fear and hate them. Yet dragons are inferior when it comes to playing music. It seems like such a little thing, but they cannot properly express their emotions or improvise through music. I loved this flaw – at first it seems so little, but over the course of the novel this one flaw helped me better understand the dragon race.

Seraphina is a wonderful protagonist. She’s sensitive and hurting inside, yet she’s able to show such a strong and prickly exterior to others. My heart cried out for her in one scene where she literally tries to remove physical remnants of her heritage. Her dragon mother left her memories, so Seraphina does indeed have a better understanding of both the human and dragon races. But Seraphina is so alone – she really only has her dragon uncle and tutor Orma for support, and he cannot be there for her constantly. Despite the many difficulties present as she tries to fit in with the other Goreddis, Seraphina never allows her pain to control her or sinks into a depression. This is the kind of strength I love the most.  

All of the other characters are also very realistic and well-crafted. That’s not to say that I liked them all – but I did appreciate how Hartman made all of her character so three-dimensional. So many of them have to struggle between duty and personal beliefs, mirroring Seraphina in a way and yet also showing other aspects of her world. Although I like Kiggs’ character, I am not sure how I feel about the romantic relationship he develops with both Princess Glisselda and Seraphina. Neither felt one hundred percent authentic to me. Of all the characters, I also felt as though the antagonist is the least-developed character. I’m not quite sure if it was even possible to develop the antagonist more, however, and, if I had to pick, I would rather have had more emphasis is put on everyone else’s internal struggles anyway.

Other aspects of the book that I initially found discomfiting – basically everything related to Seraphina’s garden of grotesques and her mother’s memories – begin to tie together nicely as the novel continues. Hartman offers so many little details about this world that, while I wish there would be encyclopedias and histories and spin-offs written, I also feel like I knew enough while reading to be sufficiently content. I am satisfied with the ending and the hinted direction of the next installment of this series.

As I mentioned earlier, books like Seraphina are the reason why I love the fantasy genre so much.  This is such a subtle, well-imagined, and intelligent fantasy. Yes, it features a world of dragons and magic, but those all simply work to assist the bigger message. Seraphina is all about acceptance and the characters learning to overcome stereotypes. Not so much removed from issues we face in our world after all.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I really enjoyed this one too. It's a bit slower paced than a lot of fantasy which was harder for me, but I still loved it. I really did wish for a map though!
    Very well worded review!

    1. Yes, I agree Seraphina was slower. But I think it was intentionally written to be so - deliberate and subtle and all of that. I thought that even the slower parts had lots of meaning, and no detail was extraneous. But hopefully the sequel will be a little faster-paced now that the basics of the world and characters have been established. Thank you so much for the comment - I'm glad you liked my review!


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