April 14, 2013


by Rachel Hartman
Doubleday Canada
480 pp.
Ages 14+

Having seen the book trailer for Seraphina last year, I hadn't been convinced that it wasn't just another fantasy involving just another supernatural creature i.e., dragons.  But when Seraphina won the 2013 William C. Morris Award for a debut author; was selected as a 2013 Best YALSA Fiction and a 2013 ALA Notable Children's Book for Older Readers; and nominated for the 2012 Governor General's Children's Literature Award, the 2013 Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize, and the 2013 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Book Award, I knew I'd missed something. And that is why I revisited, thankfully, Rachel Hartman's debut novel, Seraphina.

Seraphina Dombegh is a young woman who is the music mistress at Castle Orison, the residence of the royal family of Goredd: Queen Lavonda, her son Prince Rufus, her daughter Princess Dionne and granddaughter Princess Glisselda, and Glisselda's cousin and fiancĂ© Prince Lucian Kiggs, Captain of the Queen's Guard.  On the threshold of celebrations commemorating the 40th anniversary of the treaty between Goredd and dragonkind, Prince Rufus is murdered and his head removed, a trait of a dragon kill.  And, while the treaty may have been agreed upon by Queen Lavonda and Ardmagar Comonot, there are many including Glisselda's governess Lady Corongi who still hold animosity towards the dragons, and others like the Sons of St. Ogdo who torment the saarantrai (dragons in human form) and quig (a dragon subspecies that cannot transform).

Although Seraphina is held in high esteem by her student Princess Glisselda and consequently Kiggs, she knows she must never reveal her true heritage and nature.  Seraphina's mother Linn had been a saarantras who'd fallen in love with a human, Claude Dombegh, and had died giving birth to her daughter.  But, as a dragon, Linn left her daughter with a mind-pearl, memories by which Seraphina would know of her mother's life.  Luckily, Linn had a brother, Orma, who is dedicated to helping Seraphina with her half-dragon nature, her physically-debilitating memories and visions, and musical training.

So, while Seraphina spends much effort hiding the silver scales on her wrist and waist, and tending a virtual garden of grotesques that infuse her visions, she becomes integral in helping her uncle Orma deal with the suspected appearance of his father Imlann (who may be leading a coup against the Ardmagar), and in liaising with Kiggs in his investigations.  As both royalty and Captain of the Queen's guard, Kiggs is investigating Prince Rufus' murder and a sighting of a rogue dragon (i.e., in flying form) and dealing with escalating conflicts between saars and humans, undoubtedly associated with Treaty Day.  Oh, and did I mention that Seraphina falls in love with Kiggs?

Surprisingly, I haven't gone into details about the multiple subplots and characters in town, in the castle, in Seraphina's head, in a dragon-fighting knights' camp, and in the legends and saintly beliefs.  Seraphina, the book, is a hearty tale of secrets, fears and emotions and the consequences of the conflicts between them. It may be a story with dragons, princesses and princes, knights and earls, but Seraphina is no fairy tale.  The realms of Seraphina go beyond any medieval settings, both real and imagined, and appropriately Rachel Hartman has created a vernacular to accompany them.  The glossary of new vocabulary, as well as the five pages listing the characters, is necessitated by the complexity of the story and appreciated by the reader.  With a sequel, Dracomachia, due out in February 2014, I will certainly be refreshing my memory of the Porphyrian language and philosophers and Goreddi saints, as war draws near and Kiggs and Seraphina continue to support Glisselda, albeit with unspoken love.

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