by Rachel Hartman
“He released the last chord like a boulder off a trebuchet.” It always feels this way when ending a book. There’s a weight to the final words, then you let them go and they’re gone.
I don’t think I’ve read a young adult book quite like Seraphina before. Rachel Hartman has built for us a world so rich and unique that it is almost dizzying to walk into. Her world is swathed in dark colours depicting a tale of menacing dragons who advocate peace, a stiff but admirably stalwart royal family of Queens and princesses, mothers persecuted, abandoned children, a gang of grotesques, a population of almost-dragons living like scum on the outskirts of humanity, exiled knights, music, love, war, betrayal, identity, lies and truths, a people divided between acceptance and hostility towards the winged-beasts, and finally, those caught in between.
The story sweeps you off your feet as a dragon might clamp its talons on your shoulders and whisk you away. It’s a story of politics and race, a treaty created between dragons and humans. It has been 40 years since the war and both societies live in relative tolerance — until a prince’s ill-timed murder disturbs this veil of peace, and the animosity, simmering heatedly under the cloak of politeness and adherence to the new law, is given permission to seep out in full force.
Seraphina, our protagonist, is a musical protege. She is also half dragon. She is removed, out of necessity, in all ways a young girl coming into her own cannot afford to be ; she layers her clothes to hide her scales as she layers over her heart to protect her loneliness. Seraphina is quite a bundle of maddening sadness but it never feels too heavy because she is also dignified, intelligent, and wants always to do the right thing. Seraphina’s sense of alienation, of one who cannot fathom ever being loved, effectively evokes sympathy; a universal sentiment written with care and perception. It is a girl living in the shadows, looking out on all the things she’s missing. “Speak more, Seraphina,” they said. “Socialize more.” But it was hard for her to open her heart to happiness because with that came the risk of disappointment. But she does, and the path there is poignantly paved.
What took me by surprise, but not really considering the impressive writing, is how concrete many of the secondary characters turned out to be. They undergo development. Too many times are these characters treated like caricatures; jesters forfeited for the sake of dramatic enhancement of the lead. Hartman generously allows them their own struggles and triumphs and they are wonderful: a young, impressionable queen-to-be who surpasses expectations; a dragon in human form, guarded but beginning to accept what it is to love; and a bastard prince caught in a battle between history and identity.
There’s a lot about sacrifice here. There’s a lot about many things here, but that in particular struck a chord. Sacrifice in the sense of knowing and understanding where we stand in life and how at times we must give up a part of ourselves for the greater good — in whatever terms such situations may arise. Also courage; to pull ourselves from our heap of despair and become whole again. Staving off pain when doing something we do not want to but must. And loneliness. The grave acceptance that being alone just comes all too naturally; that you almost would rather be in solitude than let yourself be seen — worst of all, be wanted. But as Seraphina learns, that is not a way to live and that in fact, when you look close enough, you’ll realize you have more than you ever dared believe you did.
Hartman’s words are exquisite. Her imagination is expansive. Her world is detailed and fascinating. She has created laws, and religion, and a history. She has built architecture, painted landscapes, and constructed streets and alleyways. She has peopled her world with characters of different shades — from rebels to teachers, musicians to politicians, royalty, knights, outcasts and lovers.
Most bizarrely is Hartman’s use of her semi-imagined language. I cannot say how many words I had to look up, discovering that the ones I thought were make-believe were in fact real, and ones I simply thought were foreign were fiction. It was both frustrating and marvelous. Her world is so prosperous of information that characters have entire conversations about philosophers we know nothing about. It puts us on the outside, leaving us in confusion over whether to feel left out or in awe.
All I have to say is that it was about time Rachel Hartman came along. This was quite extraordinary. My paltry attempt at a review can never stress how much good this has to offer. It is passion, intrigue and adventure; eloquence, excitement, and emotion. It may have lacked action in the way that knowing this is a dragon book might lead you to believe, but it is only the first of the series. Hartman is still holding out.
Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars
This review also appears on Goodreads. An advance copy was provided by the publisher.