Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Review by Kelsey Elisabeth Moorhouse

Doubleday Canada, Random House Canada, 2012

464 pages, hardcover, $21.00 CAD, 978-0-385-66839-2

Ages 14-18, Grades 8-12

Young Adult, Fantasy

I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.

Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.

Have you ever found yourself wondering how it would feel to be half-dragon and a teenager? Well Seraphina, the sixteen-year-old heroine of Rachel Harman’s debut novel of that name, could teach you a thing or two. This ambitious young adult fantasy sweeps young readers into a tale of court intrigue, music, and romance, based in a fantastical world where the line delineating dragons from humans isn’t as clear as you might think.

Seraphina is part human, part dragon, and all self-conscious anxiety about hiding this fact from the world. In the kingdom of Goredd where, despite four decades of peace between dragons and humans, dragons are scorned and distrusted, her self-perceived monstrousness could mean losing her position as Assistant Music Mistress in the Royal Court. As the anniversary of the Peace Treaty approaches, however, a member of the Royal Family is found brutally murdered in a suspiciously draconian fashion, and interspecies tensions mount. While attempting to hide her scales in plain sight and teach the Princess Glisselda how to play the harpsichord, Seraphina becomes tangled up in an assassination plot that could destroy the tenuous peace and incite war. With the help of her dragon-uncle Orma, the Royal Bastard and Captain of the Guard Lucian Kiggs, a few (not so) imaginary half-dragon friends, and the feisty princess herself, Seraphina must face not only her own secrets but those of her kingdom’s past, when they come frightfully to life.

In her lyrical debut novel, Hartman manages to craft a young adult fantasy that is as focused on the personal development of its young protagonist as it is on an epic plot. Goredd comes alive through the careful unravelling of its history, religion, government, and art, with Seraphina as the fulcrum upon which balances the interspecies conflict between dragons and humans. Additionally, in a genre that relies heavily on well-established tropes and motifs, Hartman crafts a tale that is as subversive as it is unique, with women abounding in positions of power and binaries razed to the ground. For instance, Dragons and humans are positioned on opposite sides of a logical/emotional binary, with Seraphina’s very existence demonstrating the possible union of the two, and the greater possibility for peace.

Seraphina’s narrative voice is strong all around, but nowhere is Hartman’s gift for descriptive and emotive prose more pronounced than in passages that reference music. Requiring both analytic and emotional prowess, music, like Seraphina herself, is positioned somewhere between draconic and human. Music therefore becomes a tool for harmonization and growth, both personal and collective. Consider the following excerpt highlighting Seraphina’s voice, and her struggle for identity as wrapped up in art:

“That’s the secret to performance: conviction. The right note played tentatively still misses its mark, but play boldly and no one will question you. If one believes there is truth in art – and I do – then it’s troubling how similar the skill of performing is to lying. Maybe lying is itself a kind of art. I think about that more than I should.”

Seraphina is a startlingly astute rumination on the healing power of art, the shattering beauty of first love, and what it means to negotiate identity in a broken world. Perfect for fans of The Hobbit and Eragon who are looking for their dragons with a hearty side of girl-power.

Kelsey Moorhouse is pursuing an MA in Children’s Literature, with a focus on Young Adult fantasy and the magic of creativity, emotion, and art. Her work has been published in NoD Magazine and Contiki 6-2. Having worked as a piano teacher, lifeguard, archival assistant, and barista, she is now dedicating her time to writing her YA novel.

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