Saturday, 6 April 2013

book review: seraphina by rachel hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Genre: Fantasy YA
Rating: 7/10
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

The mark of good fantasy, at least in my mind, is that pretty quickly the mystical/fantasy element disappears and the world becomes as real as any other and on that front this book really works; the world was so full I never doubted its plausibility. In a sense that's helped a lot by the fact that the basic setting uses medieval/early modern Europe as a cultural touchstone so anyone who's read other historical novels/watched period dramas can pretty easily fill in any of the gaps. Because the foundation is so solid and the dragon-lore described is so comprehensive, the book never really felt like fantasy, it was just a historical novel with dragons!

It's obvious that Seraphina is the start of a series in the sense that the world-building takes precedence over plot and for some people that could be a turn-off but I really liked the world so was quite happy! Seraphina herself is a perfectly amiable protagonist and while she's exceptional in many ways, she is quite ordinary in others. There is a romance storyline but it's quite understated and is hardly the driving force of the story - I didn't exactly get weak at the knees over it (and I wish that it hadn't resorted to 'love' so quickly) but it worked in terms of character growth so I don't begrudge it at all.

By far my favourite thing about Seraphina's character and the novel in general was the way she talked about music. Being a music scholar music is Seraphina's livelihood and her world is structured around it - her life (and so the novel) is full of dances and instruments, rehearsals and performances. More than that though music is a huge part of Seraphina's personal history and something from which she takes a lot of joy and comfort and I always found Hartman's writing at its most moving when she was describing the power of music:
There are melodies that speak as eloquently as words, that flow logically and inevitably from a single, pure emotion. The Invocation is of this kind, as if its composer had sought to distill the purest essence of mourning, to say, Here is what it is to lose someone.

Overall, Seraphina is a gentle and enjoyable read that would appeal to both fantasy lovers and people who enjoy historical fiction. I'll definitely be reading the sequel!

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