No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

2013/05: Seraphina -- Rachel Hartman

Music is one thing dragons can't do better than us. They wish they could; they're fascinated; they've tried and tried again. They achieve technical perfection, perhaps, but there's always something missing. [location 957]

One of the most enjoyable novels I've read in a while: so far I've bought two copies for friends, and am wondering if I should stock up for the year ...

Seraphina is set in the kingdom of Goredd, a society reminiscent of eighteenth-century Europe. It's forty years since humans and dragons brokered an uneasy peace: now dragons are permitted to live amongst humans, as long as they (mostly) keep themselves folded into their human forms, known as saarantrai. The dragons pride themselves on logic, objectivity, clarity: they are excellent mathematicians, and the core of their society is ard, a philosophy of order and correctness that informs every aspect of their long lives.

Dragons dismiss most human culture, but are absolutely fascinated by music. Enter Seraphina Dombegh, the gifted young musician and would-be Court Composer, whose uncle is a dragon.

You do the maths.

Seraphina's father has spent a lot of time and effort reinventing his dead wife, Seraphina's mother. Truth will out, though, and Seraphina is desperate to keep her secrets from those to whom she's closest -- her student and friend, the Princess Glisselda, and Glisselda's fiance, the personable and intelligent Kiggs. Unfortunately, secrets spawn more secrets, and Seraphina finds herself amidst court intrigue, religious unrest, imaginary friends, interspecies tension (“The treaty forbids us biting off human heads ... but I won’t pretend I’ve forgotten what they taste like” [loc. 382]) and a plethora of those inconvenient emotions that the dragons so despise.

Never mind the plot (which occasionally -- this is a compliment -- reminded me of one of Georgette Heyer's more swashbuckling romances); Seraphina is a delightful narrator, with a dry wit and a depth of compassion and empathy that's remarkable in one so young. Orma, her dragon uncle, is distinctly non-human: the dragons are as alien as anything in SF. Hartman's Goredd is an interesting -- though as yet sparsely-detailed -- setting, perhaps most notable for its religion. There are various saints, on whom the populace call in prayer and blasphemy: St. Ogdo (fervently anti-dragon); St. Capiti (patron of learning, usually depicted with her severed head); St. Yrtrudis, the heretic whose motto is "No Heaven but this". There is, however, no God, no omniscient being to whom mortals must answer. I found this refreshing, and it certainly added to the Enlightenment ambience of the novel.

Seraphina is marketed as YA, but apart from the single-strand first-person narrative (and the youth of the narrator) I didn't find it in any way juvenile. There is a happy ending, of sorts, but there's plenty of trouble ahead for our heroine, and another novel due in 2013.

Note to publisher: please profrede the index as well as the text when converting to Kindle.

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