Friday, 18 January 2013

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Isn’t it great when a book completely surprises you? I was sent Seraphina in a pile of review copies and wound up leaving it until almost last before picking it up. This turns out to have been a good thing because, whoa, what a dark horse. Out now in a much cooler paperback, the cover design and blurb on the hardback copy I had didn’t really do the story inside justice, hence the part where I had left it to the end. In short: Seraphina is fab, and how awesome to see some really interesting and different fantasy emerging into the teen market. Goodbye lovelorn vampires and werewolves: this is the real deal and treats the teenage reading audience with so much more respect.

Seraphina is set in Goredd, a world where humans and dragons coexist. For centuries they have been two peoples at war with each other, but finally, within the last human generation, they have reached a tentative peace and are learning to coexist in a more true sense: in a fascinating twist of world-building, the dragons in Rachel Hartman’s world have the ability to take human form. Thus they can walk in the city and learn human ways; for the humans’ sanity though, dragons must identify themselves as such by wearing a small bell, for the dragons’ sanity, they must undergo regular checks to ensure they are not developing emotions: for dragons, logic is everything.

Into this world steps Seraphina, a young woman who has taken on the role of music mistress in the royal palace. Little does she know how big her role in framing the future of Goredd is about to become. The peace between dragons and humans is as tenuous as a spider’s web, and there are some who would gladly break it. For starters, the prince has been murdered and all fingers point to the dragons. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? With her impressive knowledge of dragons, Seraphina is drawn into the investigation and drawn into the life of the palace. But this puts her own safety at greater and greater risk, for she holds a powerful secret - can she keep it hidden? Will it be her downfall, or will she be the key to saving the kingdom?

Seraphina starts off strong, and then simply moves from strength to strength. The plotting is careful and intriguing, quietly introducing more threads and ideas as it builds and builds. Who is the traitor? Who can she trust? Medieval and modern all in one, there is murder and darkness, humour, a touch of romance, secrets and mysteries and political masterminding, and some really fabulous world-building to boot. The dragons are fully characterised, Hartman giving us a taster of both their natural form and their human, telling us the story through both up-to-the-minute action and flashbacks, all whilst encouraging us to consider certain moral and ethical questions. This is where fantasy works at its absolute best.

Seraphina is a book that absolutely deserves to have made it onto the 2013 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlist, but I would be at pains to point out that the quality and the storytelling is of such a standard that it is just as equally deserving of a place in the adult fantasy section. Dragon author Christopher Paolini made his name with Eragon and the Inheritance series; personally, I think Seraphina is better. Original and with a strong female lead who knows how to stand up for herself, there is little more I would ask of Hartman, except this: deliver an equally awesome part two please. Ten out of ten.

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