Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman
Bibliographic Information (APA): Hartman, Rachel. (2012). Seraphina [E-Reader version, 2012]. Double Day: Canada
Category: Canadian* (Author), & Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Horror
Descriptive Summary: After years of bloody war, the people of Goredd and dragons have maintained a wary peace for 40 years, but that peace is now seriously threatened on the eve of the anniversary of the treaty. Prince Rufus is found murdered in draconian fashion—his head has been bitten off—and dragons that attend court (transformed into human form) find themselves at the centre of blame.
In the midst of this precarious situation, Seraphina Dombegh is a very gifted musician at court with a dangerous secret of her own that she must conceal at all costs. Yet she finds herself drawn into the investigation with the somewhat gruff Prince Lucian Kiggs and they begin to understand that something sinister is afoot. Seraphina is forced to choose between keeping her secrets and her life, or choosing the peace of the realm.
Book Talking Hooks: Rachel Hartman’s descriptive style and imagery is truly beautiful, especially when it comes to descriptions of sound and music. When Seraphina sees into a ‘vision’ of sorts, the vivid visual scene was larger-than-life and three-dimensional (Hartman, 2012, chapter 3, p. 22/33). Seraphina once thinks, “I feel this music in very blood. This is what it means to be me, right here, right now, solid flesh, ethereal air, eternal motion. I feel this, and it is truth beyond truth” (Hartman, 2012, ch 31, p. 6/26). The depth of description really adds texture to the story (Hartman, 2012, Prologue p 4/9, ch 10, p. 3/24, ch 12, p. 2/28, ch 15, p. 3/25, ch 24, p. 21/25, and ch 30, p. 12/18). Readers who like complex imagery will enjoy the depth of description.
This novel is also really complex in its world building and character building. For example, dragons have peculiar traits such as maternal memories (Hartman, chapter 2, p. 22/31, ch 6, p 13/19, ch 15, p. 8/25, ch 23, p. 14/23), and a mind construct called Ard to keep their thoughts in balance and to abstain from emotion clouding their judgment (Hartman, 2012, ch 4, p. 2/44). Emotions that conflict with Ard are against the law for dragons, which adds to the complexity of the character construct, and resulting situations with serious consequences (Hartman, 2012, ch 29, p. 10/18).
Fans who enjoy novels with complex emotional study and depth to the characters will enjoy this novel because insights into the character’s emotions are crucial to understanding their motivation. Seraphina’s secret history keeps her isolated from people and she is aware of that; she is lonely and that is important to why she simultaneously wants to reach out to people and form relationships, at the same time as push people away (Hartman, 2012, ch 2, p. 30/31). The moments when Seraphina experiences the joy of someone actually ‘seeing’ her for who she is inside, is a moving experience for her (Hartman, 2012, ch 13, p. 11/17). Other glimpses into someone’s character can change the whole perception of them, and Seraphina’s perception of dragons is crucial to how she conducts herself (Hartman, 2012, ch 17, p. 10/21, Ch 36, p. 4/14).
Above all, this tale exemplifies courage on behalf of others, even at great risk to personal safety. Seraphina is an admirable character. She is not perfect, but she is nonetheless admirable and it is inspirational to read about people like that (Hartman, 2012, ch 10, p. 16/24, ch 15, p. 8/25, ch 19, p. 21/36, ch 21, p. 9/23, p. 11/23, ch 33, p. 14/20).
Evaluative Comments: 4/5. One of the best strengths about Serpahina is that there is really exciting plot development, such as when Seraphina learns that her ‘secret’ does not leave her in quite so much isolation as she had first supposed. In this way, the reader is drawn into the revelation and wonders what Seraphina will do with it next (Hartman, 2012, ch 8, p. 9/19, 19/19, and ch 10, p. 6/24), or what will happen when Seraphina thinks she has finally found the enemy at the centre of the conspiracy (Hartman, 2012, ch 19, p. 36/36).
Seraphina is also about positive messages. For all of its fantasy, it is about first impressions, prejudices and how one can be wrong about someone or something. Those prejudices can become powerful monsters in their own right because a similar opinion held by many, even when it’s wrong, can be a challenge to overcome. For example, Serpahina has a lot more experience with dragons and has insights into how they think and why. (Hartman, 2012, ch 3 p 12/33, ch 4, p 36/44, ch 14, p. 15/29, and ch 15, p. 5/25).
Having the courage to change your perceptions of someone may be the bravest thing about this book. Seraphina is angry with her mother for the choices she made that affected the course of Seraphina’s life, but as she comes to understand her mother’s struggle, she begins to forgive her a little; and it is freeing to Seraphina who carries a heavy burden inside (Hartman, 2012, ch 19, p. 33/36). “She’d believed in this; she’d given everything she had. What if our mothers were not the fools we had taken them for? What was love really worth?” (Hartman, 2012, ch 37, p. 22/33).
Ironically, the greatest strengths of this novel can also be its weaknesses. The mental landscape that Seraphina creates to try and understand herself is intricately complex and might be more of a challenge to a younger reader (Hartman, 2012, ch 4, 6/44, ch 26, p. 16/23, ch 30, p. 4/18, and ch 37, p. 16/33). The plot development is also quite complex, and keeping track of all the characters can be a bit of a challenge. (There is a really helpful inclusion at the end of this book of all the characters in a character list as well as a glossary to explain some of the more complicated terminology).
Readers’ Advisory Notes: Seraphina is an intense vista of world-building, character and plot intricacy, as well as lots of action and adventure! This novel also touches upon a wide range of emotions and character motivations. There is a great deal of texture, intense detail to the imagery, and description that makes Seraphina one of the most richly descriptive books I have read in a long while!
Reason for Inclusion: The School Library Journal, the Youth Services Corner, and Hornbook all gave Seraphina a starred review, which is high praise for a debut novel. Publisher’s Weekly also included this book as one of The Best New Books for The Week of July 2012 list. Hartman also won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Text in 2012 and the William C. Morris Award in 2013 for Seraphina (among other awards and shortlists). Given that these achievements and recognition are quite extraordinary for an author’s debut novel, this book is a good choice to give a try.
Suggested Audience: I would recommend Seraphina to teens that are fans of fantasy and quite complex alternative world-building. Given the slightly more complicated plot development and wide ranging cast of characters, I would more specifically recommend this book for a slightly older teen (maybe aged 16 and up) who can keep track of the story easily.
ALA. (2013). “American Library Association Announces 2013 Youth Media Award Winners.” Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/news/pr?id=12298
Booklist online (2012). “Booklist Review: Seraphina.” Retrieved from http://www.booklistonline.com/Seraphina-Rachel-Hartman/pid=5331300
The Governor General Literary Awards (2012). “English Winner and Finalist.” Retrieved from http://ggbooks.canadacouncil.ca/en.aspx#tab4
Hornbook. (2012). “July/August 2012 Starred Reviews.” Retrieved from http://www.hbook.com/2012/05/blogs/read-roger/julyaugust-2012-starred-reviews/
Publisher’s Weekly. (2012). “PW Picks: The Best New Books for The Week of July 9, 2012.” Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/52869-pw-picks-the-best-new-books-for-the-week-of-july-9-2012.html
School Library Journal. (2012). “Starred Reviews from the August 2012 Issue.” Retrieved from http://www.slj.com/2012/08/books-media/starred-reviews-from-the-august-2012-issue/#_
Youth Services Corner. (2012). “Starred YA Book Reviews 2012.” Retrieved from http://www.youthservicescorner.com/starred-ya-book-reviews/starred-ya-book-reviews-2012/