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Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina (edition 2012)

by Rachel Hartman

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1,9171833,574 (4.13)172
Authors:Rachel Hartman
Info:Random House Books for Young Readers (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 480 pages
Collections:Teen, Read but unowned
Tags:identity, teen fiction, fantasy, politics, 2012, MockPrintz2013, self-actualization, dragons, logic, emotion, strong women, smart women, music, court, secrets, love, prejudice

Work details

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

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

Rachel Hartman has crafted an incredibly vibrant fantasy world in Seraphina. If you love some really good world building in your high fantasy, then you'll love this book. However, I think the intricate setting comes at the expense of the characters, who seem a little bland and boring in comparison. I prefer really interesting characters over world building, so that was a little disappointing for me, but your mileage may vary.

I found the romance aspect of the novel to be a little disappointing as well. Kiggs is all right, I guess, but I feel like Seraphina fell in love with him so quickly after not having any chemistry with him whatsoever. It would have been so much more compelling for Seraphina to have feelings for Glisselda, or even both Kiggs and Glisselda. The queer/poly possibilities are endless, but no one ever seems to want to write them. :(

Some things I loved: the religious imagery of Saint Yirtrudis, seen only as an outline through the glued-together pages of the psalter; Lars the gentle giant and his relationship with Viridius; Seraphina's mind garden; and most of all, her relationship with her uncle Orma. ( )
  captainmander | May 11, 2016 |
Seraphina is a delightfully fun young adult fantasy bildungsroman mixed with some politics, some romance, and a murder mystery that ties it all together. Centered upon an engaging teen protagonist struggling to deal with a dangerous personal secret, filled with a well-written, interesting, and often quirky cast of supporting characters, as well as an interesting and fairly original take on dragons, this story is an almost pitch perfect piece of young adult fantasy fiction.

In the world of Seraphina, dragons are real, and have waged long and bloody wars against humanity. Forty years before the events of the central story line in the book, the humans of Goredd and its neighboring kingdoms made peace with the dragons of the northern mountains, entering into a treaty that ended the conflict and has allowed both sides to heal. Many dragons have mastered the art of transforming themselves into human form so that they can live among and interact with humans. Dragons in human form can be given away by their silver blood and for "newskins" who have recently taken to living among humanity, their unfamiliarity with most human customs. The laws in Goredd also require dragons to wear identifying bells, marking them out as dragons, and prohibit dragons from reverting to their natural form while they are in the country. Given the long history of enmity between the two races, many humans view dragons with suspicion or even outright hostility, a sentiment that many among dragonkind return.

The central character in Seraphina is, naturally enough, Seraphina, a talented musician who has, through a combination of hard work and family connections, secured a position as the assistant to the court composer to the royal family of Goredd. She also harbors a deadly secret: She is, in fact, a half-dragon, and when the book opens, as far as she knows, the only half-dragon. Given the prejudice against dragons harbored by many humans (most notably, the Son of St. Ogdo), Seraphina's heritage poses a threat her life should it become known, and thus she takes great pains to conceal the signs she inherited from her mother: A ring of scales around her left arm, and another around her torso. Seraphina also inherited her mother's memories, and got the benefit of the guidance from her draconic uncle Orma. And Seraphina needs Orma's guidance, because in the fantasy world Hartman created, dragons think fundamentally differently from humans, devoid of emotions or passions, and dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and learning. The study of music, a central element to the story, highlights the difference between the two races: Dragons can study the art, and become quite skilled, but they have no feel for it, and as a result, their performances are mechanical and devoid of the spark that is characteristic of true artistry. Dragons can be technically proficient musicians, but lack the soul that would elevate their work above the ordinary. Dragons who take human form for too long can begin to experience emotion, and are subject to sanction from the rulers of their race if they do so. Among the many other challenges Seraphina faces, mastering the complexities inherent to the dual nature of her own mind is one of the most significant.

Despite all of these benefits, Seraphina's life is complicated and often confusing. Despite her relatively prominent position, Seraphina must keep her distance from everyone, even those who she cares about, just to protect her secret. The tense situation in Goredd becomes even more so when Crown Prince Rufus turns up dead with his head removed - and everyone knows that biting off a victim's head is a particularly dragon-like method of killing someone. The mood in Goredd quickly turns ugly, including a mob forming almost immediately after the late prince's funeral to assault a passing dragon. The day is saved when Rufus' illegitimate nephew Lucian Kiggs arrives with the guard to disperse the mob, an event that also serves to introduce Seraphina to the handsome and clever guard captain. This incident only hints at the chaos, unrest, and violence that could erupt in the wake of Prince Rufus' death, and for most of the book the royal family of Goredd finds themselves trying to preserve the fragile peace between their land and the dragons to the north even while public opinion clamors for war.

As the story progresses, Seraphina finds herself pulled into the investigation of Crown Prince Rufus' death, and also finds herself pulled into a world of political intrigue and secrets as well as something of a one-sided romance. Along the way, she discovers that the world is bigger and more dangerous than she ever thought, and that others have even more difficult to hide deadly secrets than she does. Even though there is a murder to be solved and political machinations with potential nation threatening consequences, Seraphina changes and grows over the course of the novel, discovering that those she thought had perfect lives still face difficulties, and at the same time, there are those who face far more hardship than she could have even imagined at the outset of the book. It is this almost natural character development that sets this book apart from so many others - even though Seraphina starts the book as a fairly admirable person, she is still a child. Over the course of the novel, she learns and matures, developing from an awkward teen into an adult - an awkward adult, but an adult nonetheless.

Backing this story, Hartman engages in some excellent world-building that fleshes out the fictional world that Seraphina lives in. In addition to the fascinating take on dragons that she establishes for the setting, Hartman also creates a second type of dragon that, despite being essentially harmless, quite obviously fuel humanity's dislike of dragon-kind. Even small things serve as building blocks for the world: When Seraphina is to be blessed as an infant, the psalter flips open to the blacked out page of Saint Yirtrudis, who had been condemned as a heretic. The reaction of the priest, who flips the page an announces that Heaven surely meant for the book to open to Saint Capiti serves as a tiny but illuminating kind of world-building. Later, in an almost off-hand manner, the reader discovers that at least one of the nations that Goredd is allied with maintains the institution of serfdom, a fact that no one comments upon as being particularly notable (which is itself a bit of world-building). The entire book is littered with tiny nuggets of information like this that serve as the threads that weave together to create an intricately designed tapestry upon which the story can take place.

Overall, Seraphina is a brilliantly crafted work of fantasy fiction. Though the murder mystery itself is fairly straightforward, and the true identity of the murderer is readily apparent fairly early in the story, tracking them down proves to involve several interesting twists and unexpected turns. Given how well-done the murder mystery is, the fact that it is essentially the background for Seraphina's own personal coming-of-age story just highlights how good this book is. This book is an excellent young adult fantasy story, but even more than that, it is simply an excellent and well-crafted fantasy story, without the need for the young adult qualifier.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds. ( )
  StormRaven | May 5, 2016 |
Enjoyable YA fantasy mixing dragons and humans. I could see some Spock in the dragon uncle, which really helped me relate to the non-emotional dragon point of view. Neat concept and fun read! ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
Enjoyed it :) ( )
  blodeuedd | Mar 2, 2016 |
Seraphina has always loved music, and she has achieved her highest dream: to work in the palace as assistant to the music master. But she is lonely and expects to remain so all of her life, because she has a terrible secret. Seraphina, the dowdily dressed, retiring girl, is half-dragon.

Until a few decades ago, dragons and humans were locked in continual war. But one human queen and one dragon general negotiated a peace treaty in secret, and since then humans and dragons have kept largely to their own spaces, although dragons do sometimes shape-shift to take the form of humans so they can teach math to humans or research human music. The anniverary of the treaty is coming up, and all the old prejudices start roiling to the surface. Seraphine is caught in the middle, hiding from both sides while trying to subtly cajole and threaten them into behaving.

Unique characters, a wonderfully fresh and novel take on dragons, and a main character who felt wholly real. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rachel Hartmanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Davidson, AndrewCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kolesova, JulianaIllustrator (Title Page)secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Palisi, HeatherCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In memoriam: Michael McMechan.
Dragon, teacher, friend.
First words
I remember being born.
I usually practiced smiling while I slathered my scales with goo, figuring that if I could smile through that, I could smile through anything. Today I really didn't have the time.
We were all monsters and bastards. And we were all beautiful.
(page 90)

"My faith should not come easily;
There is no Heaven without pain.
My days should never flutter past
Unnoted, nor my past remain
Beyond its span of usefulness;
Le me not hold to grief.
My hope, my light, my Saint is love;
In love my one belief."
(page 142-143)

The vagabond sun winks down through the trees,
While lilacs, like memories, waft on the breeze,
My friend, I was born for soft days such as these,
To inhale perfume,
And cut through the gloom,
And feast like a king upon peaches and cheese!
I'll travel this wide world and go where I please,
Can't stop my wandering, it's like a disease.
My only regret as I cross the high seas;
what I leave behind,
Though I hope to find,
My own golden city of peaches and cheese!
(page 144)

I'll ask my true love, and I'll hope she agrees,
How could she not, when I'm down on my knees?
My Jill, say you will, and don't be such a tease.
When it's time to eat,
I say sweets to the sweet,
My love, let your answer be peaches and cheese!
Last words
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375866566, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Teen Book of the Month, July 2012: In Seraphina, dragons and humans maintain an uneasy peace and for a woman who is both there is nowhere to turn for acceptance--not even within herself. Seraphina has spent her young life concealing the truth of her parentage and authentic nature, a task that proves ever more difficult when she is thrust into the spotlight of the royal court. Author Rachel Hartman’s dragons take human form but shun the messiness of human emotion by remaining “in ard” (a highly rational state of mind), while their counterparts cling to a dangerous assumption of species superiority. As the anniversary of the treaty between the two sides approaches, court intrigue reaches a fever pitch and hard-won truths, betrayals, and intricacies of the heart are laid bare. Seraphina is a beautifully complex fantasy that delves into the most basic of desires—to be loved, to belong, and to find peace in self-acceptance. --Seira Wilson

Guest Review by Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce is a best-selling author of fantasy books for teenagers. Her books, known for their teenaged girl warriors and wizards, have received critical acclaim and a strong fanbase. Her newest book, Mastiff, is the third book in The Legend of Beka Cooper series.

In Seraphina's world, coldly intellectual dragons can take on the shapes--and feelings--of human beings. Sometimes this results in a surprise. Seraphina's father married a beautiful musician, and discovered too late that she was a dragon. She died, leaving him with a daughter who confuses him and his new wife and children.

Now the half-dragon Seraphina is the assistant to the cranky royal music master. She is in charge of Princess Glisselda's music lessons; she books performers for the 40-year celebration of the peace treaty between dragons and humans, and she rehearses the rowdy court musicians. She has to hide the scales on her arm and around her waist, and she can never let anyone find out that Orma, her music teacher, is actually a dragon.

When she plays the solo for the funeral of the realm's murdered prince, Seraphina is suddenly raised into entirely new, visible levels of peril. People she always avoided are noticing her. She has to attend social functions, where she is caught up in court politics, between those who support the treaty and those who want to destroy it. She runs afoul of conspirators who want to start the war again--one of them may be her own grandfather. She even discovers that Prince Lucian, who is betrothed to Princess Glisselda, is not only very sharp-eyed but also very agreeable to be around. He appreciates her insights on intrigue at court and in the city and uses her as an unofficial investigator into the ongoing unrest.

The plot thickens. A new religious order plots riots and revolution. Exiled knights return to report an unregulated dragon flying near where the old prince was murdered. The dragons are trying to send Orma for corrective surgery--they think he's gotten too human and they want to cut those parts out of his brain. Seraphina fears that if she tells the prince and the princess what she is, they'll hate her forever, but their work to preserve the treaty celebrations is bringing them closer together. And all of them are terrified that the dragons will decide that humans are not worth the trouble, and will destroy them at last.

I loved this book even more the second time I read it than I did the first. The characters are interesting and engaging, and I love the new look at dragons. For all that she's half-dragon, Seraphina is a very believable human being, caught between different loyalties and just trying to keep everyone she loves alive. But don't take my word for it--read it yourself!

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:48 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In a world where dragons and humans coexist in an uneasy truce and dragons can assume human form, Seraphina, whose mother died giving birth to her, grapples with her own identity amid magical secrets and royal scandals, while she struggles to accept and develop her extraordinary musical talents.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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