Review: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina, by Rachel HartmanSeraphina, by Rachel Hartman (Doubleday, 2012)

What’s a young woman to do when she needs to be anonymous but has a musical gift that won’t stay hidden? Seraphina is an outsider. She doesn’t fit in, and she can’t risk letting anyone close enough to discover her secret. But her new job is to assist the court composer, direct the orchestra in his absence, and teach harpsichord to Princess Glisselda.

The story world has a mediaeval European or British feel, with kingdoms, castles and knights. And dragons who can look like humans. The dragon/human war ended in a truce almost 40 years ago, but there’s still deep distrust between the two sides. As the anniversary celebrations approach, hostilities are increasing.

Seraphina herself is a half-dragon, and that’s the source of her (and her father’s) shame. She looks human, except for a few scaly spots that she keeps hidden. She’s a biological impossibility, and an offense against both laws and morals. But the very things she thinks disqualify her from belonging may be the gifts she brings to keep the peace.

Because she understands both perspectives, she finds herself drawn into preventing a crisis that could plunge the world back into war. This means working closer than she’d like with Princess Glisselda and the handsome Captain of the Guard, Prince Lucian Kiggs. The more Seraphina cares for them both, the harder it is to deceive them about her true nature.

Seraphina is one of those rare books that I wanted to read slowly to make the story last. The characters, setting and plot weave a rich and enjoyable tapestry. They feel real, despite being so clearly not of our world. This is a novel I will read again.

Rachel Hartman has done a beautiful job of letting the characters struggle with issues many of us know intimately: belonging and truth. There’s no sense of a forced agenda or message-driven plot. The characters, especially Seraphina and Kiggs, live their questions in front of us, and we can relate.

There’s much more to the novel than I can describe in a review. If you’re at all fond of fantasy or historical novels and you’re not threatened by a quirky fictional religion, give it a try. And prepare to lose yourself in the pages. It’s a young adult novel by nature of the characters’ ages, but it’s a satisfying read for adults as well, especially those who may struggle with belonging or who love music.

Seraphina is, unbelievably, a debut novel. I’m glad there’ll be a sequel. You can learn more about Rachel Hartman and about Seraphina on her website.

[Review copy from my personal library.]