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.
In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.
Seraphina is new to her job as assistant music mistress in the royal palace of Goredd, but she already loves it. After spending most of her life trying to remain anonymous, she’s on stage, performing music, and she’ll be noticed by those she’d rather avoid. For not only are there typical royal politics in Goredd, there are dragon politics. In two weeks a reaffirmation of the decades-long treaty between species will require everything Seraphina has and more, for she is not only a musician, but a keeper of secrets.
Seraphina is an excellent book. It is also a gripping one (as my all-night reading binge will attest), and it explores important themes while remaining true to the good of the story. Education and tolerance versus the traditions of the old guard, hiding and lying versus telling the truth, loving people as opposed to protecting them, and the purpose of art – these are all woven into the fabric of Hartman’s debut. Having said all of that, the world building is the strong point of this book. It is rich, interesting, layered and unexpected, and the accompanying plot is twisty.
Ultimately though, the ‘success’ of a book relies on more than world-building, plot, and big ideas. Were the characters well-drawn? Did I feel empathy towards them and witness growth? These questions are funny in a way, because the dragons of Hartman’s world do their best to remain uncompromised by emotion. They’re rather like the Vulcans of the Star Trek universe.
As for Seraphina, I believed in her as a character. She’s painfully transparent, except she manages to hide a great deal of herself, and she’s lonely with it. What is harder to accept are her various relationships with other characters. As a reader, I was sucked in and I willingly followed the progress of Seraphina’s thoughts and emotions, but I trusted only her relationship with Orma – I saw weaknesses in the interactions with Glisselda, Lucian and others.
The thing about being slow to believe in a major relationship in a book is that it makes you question your instincts. If you love everything else, why is it such a sore spot? I think it comes down to timing, feasibility, and the real (personal) effects of betrayal and truth-telling for the individual reader. I loved the book, but I think there’s room for improvement. I am looking forward to more (and even better) from Hartman.
Before I sign off, a quote from chapter sixteen which I think is both poignant and a great example of Seraphina’s voice:
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.
Recommended for: fans of fantasy, dragon-loving readers, and anyone who liked Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Jane Yolen’s dragon books, or Ann McCaffrey’s Pern.