Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

by Rachel Hartman
Doubleday Canada, 2012
499 pages

The positive review is a challenging thing; it is hard not to gush praise all over the page and undermine one's own recommendations by sounding too enthusiastic to be entirely trustworthy. Thus, I've given myself a couple of days of distance from the book and its ending and I'm hoping that will help me at least be balanced.

According to my notes, I first became convinced I needed to read this through Aarti's musings, as is often the case. It would likely have appealed to me anyhow, though, given the subject and trappings: a secondary world fantasy novel with a heavy emphasis on music and politics. Plus dragons. Throw interesting dragons into a story and I am usually pretty well caught.

And boy, are these dragons interesting. So. Seraphina is the assistant music mistress to the court composer in the country of Goredd, a very medieval place that borders, among other places, the northern Dragon Lands. For forty years, Goredd and the dragons have been at a hard-won peace, and the celebration of the fortieth year of the Treaty is upon them; Seraphina is up to her neck in trying to get various things organized for the celebrations and the visit of the Ardmagar, the dragon leader. Unfortunately, she's also up to her neck in trying to tread very fine lines: Seraphina is not what she seems to the greater world, and in a world where dragons and humans live side-by-side only uneasily if at all, she has to find a way to keep those she loves safe, and serve her queen and country without betraying herself.

That sort of covers it, though there is a lot more to this story than that summary covers. We've also got a murder mystery on our hands: days before the story starts, the queen's only son was discovered, headless, lying in a field after he got separated from his party during a hunting trip. We also have a bit of a romance - and even a love triangle, though this is far different from the sort I am used to seeing in young adult novels and was a refreshing change. The romance is only one thread in the story, though, and is so well woven into the story that anyone romance-shy shouldn't worry too much about it.

But for me, the component of the story that stuck out and made me sit up and pay attention was the investigation of racism and its consequences, both for individuals and for society. In fact, at the beginning, the book felt like the wrong one for me. Aside from the fact that I couldn't stop thinking about it (sometimes a bad thing, when you're thinking about it at two in the morning and need to get up in four hours) I was almost - almost - turned off by the violent, ugly racism exhibited by certain characters and groups, and the fact that Goreddi society is extremely religious. I find both things uncomfortable to read, and I was looking for an escape read, not one that was going to be making me squirm. But this is a case where fantasy sheds light on "real world" problems - it's hard to believe, for example, that anyone in this world was ever as virulently, blatantly, unashamedly racist as some of the characters in Seraphina. But they were. And they are. And when that racism hits close to the home of a character one has grown to love... well, fantasy once again provides an excellent lens through which to view everyday problems.

And the characters are where the strength of this book lies, I think. Seraphina herself is just marvellous. A good, strong, and flawed character, the story is narrated from her first-person point of view. It is not always a comfortable place to inhabit; Seraphina is not fond of herself. She is a bundle of contradictions. But she does her best to view things honestly, she has a [sometimes dark] sense of humour, and while she occasionally does cringe-worthy things, her motivations and reasons are never in doubt and they feel like the right thing to the reader at the time, too. She feels entirely real, and I became deeply, deeply attached to her without losing sight of the wider story.

Other characters - Orma, her tutor; the Princess Glisselda; Prince Lucian Kiggs, Glisselda's fiancee and Captain of the Guard; Lars, the mysterious bagpiper and machinist; Viridius, the court composer and Seraphina's master - are vivid and complex, even when viewed from a first-person narrator's point of view. Nice to know that can be done in a realistic way.

The world, too, is clearly described and delineated, and rich in detail and substance. The religion that so turned me off at first is actually pretty interesting, with Goreddis and others worshipping a pantheon of Saints, some contradictory and all with their own place and purview. It permeates the entire book, but it is complex enough to bear that weight, which is not generally my experience with fantasy religions. The politics are tangled and high-stakes. Seraphina's father is a lawyer. She is well-versed in the laws of her land governing dragons and dragon-human interactions. Even more, these things are interesting when she tells us about them.

This is not to say that there aren't issues with the book. There are a few. Seraphina occasionally gets away with things that seem a little brazen for an assistant music mistress. I wanted more music; I didn't think she spent enough time at her actual job, and far too much time poking her nose in things where it really had no place (and not getting called on it often enough, either.) But overall, these issues are mild and don't distract from the quality of the tale.

Oh so recommended. If you like fantasy, you should read this book - even if you're sick of romances in your fantasy, even if you're wary of it usually being designated young adult, don't let those things scare you away. This story transcends its targeted age group, and its take on certain genre cliches is fresh and often fascinating. A really, really enjoyable read, and I'll be curious to see where Hartman goes next. This debut deserved the accolades.


Aarti said...

YAY! So glad you read it and enjoyed it, too. I agree there were flaws, but I *think* it was her first book, so I think she has a lot of promise!

Unknown said...

Agreed! I believe it was her first, yes. It's going to be a tough act to follow, and I'm a bit nervous going into the next one, so I am trying to keep my expectations moderate.

Cecelia said...

I don't know how I'm just finding your review of this - it's a lovely, nuanced review, by the way! I love that you addressed how this book incorporated serious, real issues within the fantasy, and while I'll agree with you that it wasn't perfect, I too was impressed and will be waiting to see what Hartman does next.

Oh, and I'm the same about dragons - mention them and I'm almost always hooked. *grin*

Unknown said...

We're going to be waiting a while, apparently. March 2015 is the tentative date for the sequel! By then maybe I'll be ready to brave it. I loved where Seraphina left off and I don't want bad things to happen to my favourite characters (Orma, I am looking at you.)

The dragons were great, weren't they? I loved how inhuman they were, and how fiercely protective they were of their inhumanity. Very cool.