by Rachel Hartman

Cover image

Series: Seraphina #1
Publisher: Ember
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 0-375-89658-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 360

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Forty years ago, dragons and humans negotiated a fragile truce. The fighting stopped, the dragon-killing knights were outlawed, and dragons were allowed to visit the city in peace, albeit under stringent restrictions. Some on both sides were never happy with that truce and now, as the anniversary approaches, Prince Rufus has been murdered while hunting. His head was never found, and not a few members of the court are certain that it was eaten.

Sixteen-year-old Seraphina had no intention of being part of that debate. She's desperately trying to keep a low profile as the assistant court music director and music tutor to a princess. Her father is furious that she's at court at all, since that they are hiding a family secret that cannot get out. But Seraphina has a bad habit of being competent in ways that are hard to ignore: improving the princess's willingness to learn music beyond all expectations, performing memorably at Prince Rufus's funeral, and then helping, with her dragon tutor, a newskin dragon (one new to shapeshifting) who was attacked by a mob. This brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs: royal bastard, fiance of the princess, head of the royal guard, and observant investigator. For Seraphina and her secrets, that's a threat, but she has made more friends at court than she realizes.

I probably should spoil Seraphina's secret, since it's hard to talk about this book without it and Hartman reveals it relatively early, but I try to avoid spoilers. I'll instead say that Seraphina is in danger from both the court and the dragons if her secret is uncovered, but she has an ability that will prove more useful than she ever expected in helping the kingdom avoid war. That ability is not something flashy; it lies in listening, understanding, and forming connections.

As you have probably guessed from the age of the protagonist, this is a young adult fantasy. It has that YA shape; Seraphina is uncertain but brave, gets into trouble by being unable to keep her mouth shut or stand by when she can prevent bad things from happening, and is caught by surprise when others find those characteristics likable. The cast is small despite an epic fantasy setup, and the degree to which Seraphina ends up at the heart of the kingdom's affairs is perhaps a touch unrealistic. Like a lot of YA, Seraphina is very centered on its main character. Your enjoyment of this book will likely hinge on how much you like her mix of uncertainty, determination, and ethics.

I liked her. I also appreciated the way that Hartman had her stumble into the plot through a series of accidents and entanglements with her past and her secret, despite her own best intentions. Seraphina is trying to avoid attention, not get into the middle of a novel, but she's naturally the sort of person who rushes towards danger to help others whenever events happen too fast for her to think. She has also attracted the attention (and unexpected friendship) of critical members of the royal family who like to meddle, which is bad for her attempts to hide. This could have felt artificial and too coincidental, but it didn't.

The one thing that did bother me about this book, though, was the nature of dragons, although it's possible that I'm being unfair. Dragons in Hartman's world can shapeshift into human form, but they don't understand (and deeply distrust) human emotions, finding them overwhelming and impure. This bit of world-building is not original to this book, and perhaps I should attribute it to the ubiquitous influence of Spock and Vulcans. But I kept stumbling over the feeling like dragons were based partly on stereotypes of the autism spectrum, which hurt my ability to engross myself in the story. It would not surprise me if I had this all wrong, Hartman didn't intend anything of the sort, and no one else will read it that way. But it still seemed worth mentioning.

Seraphina's dynamic with Kiggs becomes the core of the story, but it's slow and stumbling and occasionally frustrating when Seraphina is more cautious than the reader thinks she needs to be. The payoff is mostly worth the frustration, though. I wish Seraphina had been a bit more curious about her abilities, a bit more willing to notice the obvious (the bit with the dancers drug on far too long), and a bit more trusting of people who deserve her trust, and I wish Hartman had taken a different approach with the dragon attitude towards emotions. But this was fun.

Recommended if you want a good-hearted story where doing the right thing is rewarded and people in positions of power notice when someone is a good person.

Followed by Shadow Scale.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-05-03

Last spun 2022-07-05 from thread modified 2020-05-04