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Gosh golly, but I love rereading.
Books change upon acquaintance. They get deeper (or, sometimes, shallower, but let’s not go there); different aspects bubble to the top; when the reader is no longer at the mercy of the plot’s momentum there is time to really savor all the different elements, even those that were initially subtle notes.
(Also, apparently, books are actually pots of soup. Mmmm, soup.)
Seraphina is one of those books that improves upon acquaintance, and which lingers after consuming reading. Having now read it three times, I find that actually, I love this book. And while love is immaterial, I’m also incredibly impressed at the way it keeps revealing new facets (rather like the moment Seraphina first sees dragons in their dragon forms, and realizes that the initially dull scales are filled with all sorts of color, in fact).
Read one was purely for pleasure (because the cover! [Which just made this list of good covers.] And dragons! And the fantasy fangirl inside me clamoring!), and was very much about the discovery aspects — this is, among other things, a mystery novel. It opens with a crime (Prince Rufus’s off-page murder) and the investigation plays a large role in the plot, until the final climax when the mystery is solved. It’s not a mystery propelled by the whodunnit question — rather, like Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody mysteries, the mystery serves to illuminate the protagonist much as the protagonist is seeking to illuminate the truth behind the mystery. And it’s also a high fantasy, so there’s some lovely genre-bending and blending, and joys in discovering tropes from genres remade to suit this unexpected mashing of the two.
Read two was about the wealth of detail and refreshing my sense of the plot. And boy-howdy, this is some fantastic secondary world fantasy. The world building is impeccable; within the parameters Hartman has created, I don’t see a single place she has slipped up. The details come through beautifully on a second read because as a reader the plot concerns (whodunnit and will Seraphina get the guy and also are the dragons totally bad news or what?) overshadow all the more subtle aspects of the writing, but get the plot propulsion out of the way and there is room to admire the craft.
And then of course I took no notes AGAIN, and months had passed, so I reread this a third time in order to write it up here. I actually meant to skim, but found myself utterly immersed even knowing exactly how things were going to go.
This time, what I appreciated most was the nuance. This is accomplished writing (and it’s a debut, prose-wise — if this is eligible for the Morris, I think there’s got no competition, but it depends on whether the indie self-published graphic novels of Hartman’s youth count as previous publications, which they might). What seems at first glance straightforward, in terms of character in particular, turns out to be a lot more.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Like I said, the world-building is fantastic. The setting is vaguely Renaissance, but in a way that feels organic to this world. Lavondaville (ok, I lied; naming the city after the current ruler is a minor fail) feels real: there are neighborhoods and universities and merchants and a general sense that a real place is being described. Seraphina’s slightly pedantic approach to life (more on that below, because character win) makes her a perfect narrator — she can’t help but describe things, notice things, group them and relate their history. This allows Hartman to convey vast tracts of information without info-dumping; Seraphina relates everything because she thinks that way, and there are indications that she is a bit of an info junkie.
Throughout, there is a clear sense of history and a depth to the world. The saints, the stories of Belondweg, the scholars and philosophers whose works Seraphina and Kiggs discuss: these details breathe life into the world, and also illuminate characters (see above reference to S and K arguing favorite philosophers). The saints and the ways in which religion plays a definite role are in keeping with the Renaissance flavor, but this religion is clearly not just a stand in for Christianity. Traditions, open questions (are all the saints actually dragon-human mixes? I kind of think yes, and am impressed that what seemed like local color, so to speak, might turn out to be the paving stones of a larger story that will play out over what I am assuming will be several books set in this world), worship practices, even the attitudes of the religious leaders, are all distinct and appropriate to Goredd. Early on, a priest says to Seraphina’s father “We advise the bibliophilic faithful to paste Yirtrudis’s pages together…” and in that statement a world of knowledge is made clear: that the religion has changed over time (there’s a heretical saint, declared heretical long enough ago to be a mystery but recent enough that old psalters still contain her image); that religion in Goredd is not entirely rigid and is certainly not full of fear-mongering; that Goredd is a nation where learning is highly valued, enough so that bibliophiles are a notable portion of the faithful; and that Seraphina’s father may have depths we (and Seraphina) don’t initially see.
Now, let’s talk about Seraphina. Half dragon, half human, she believes herself to be human in all the ways that count. But pay attention, because this girl is dragonish to her core. That tendency to notice, and care about, small details (two sons of Ogdo jump over the bridge in the midst of a minor riot, and she takes the time to notice that there is only one splash); her lack of fashion sense; her need to think through interactions with others before committing to an action, because she’s not entirely sure of the right response so often — all dragon. But when she plays music, or when she is in the midst of being Music Mistress, she’s all human — she has natural, thoughtless emotional responses (laughing at her praise song), she plays music that transports listeners. This complex duality, which Seraphina absolutely does not recognize, is a large part of her appeal.
It’s also a hallmark of skilled writing. There are lots of narrators who cannot be trusted, from the self-delusional to the outright unreliable. Seraphina manages to be something a little different. She’s impeccably reliable about everything except herself; that dispassionate dragon side means that she notes everything and shares it all, as carefully balanced as possible. But when she talks about herself, or makes comments about dragons that imply she is not like them, she lies, however unintentionally, and with no flair — she just states these false perceptions as fact. All this dispassion ought to be dry, but instead it’s slyly humorous, and her struggles are so affecting in part because she doesn’t really belabor the issues, despite the constant awareness of her scales. Hartman has wrought some intense character depth with seemingly little effort, and each read reveals more of the depth of character that has been created here.
Also? The voice! I love the almost old-fashioned, high fantasy narrative style at the start that so quickly gives way to a much prosier, but still just that littlest bit formal narration. Exactly right for Seraphina, who is so often just a bit out of step with everything.
The mystery plot, layered with self discovery and personal mysteries (Serpahina’s visions), plus the not at all smarmy or over the top romance, all work. The pacing is largely excellent, too. And here’s a funny thing. I’m pretty sure this is the start of a series, but I didn’t think “Where’s the next book?” at the end — instead, the immediate reaction was “I really hope she writes more in this world!” On rereading, I can’t see how there won’t be more, but this volume resolves so perfectly (even though many things are left open) that it feels complete. We’ve talked about series books, and I’ve been taken to task for complaining about unresolved endings, although I never meant I needed things fully resolved; open endings, as we have here, can be powerful and effective. Things can be left open without sacrificing the book’s integrity. Seraphina doesn’t read like its primary, or even secondary, purpose is to set up elements for a larger series; instead, it’s a complete novel in a world whose history continues before and after the current volume. And if we get more, I’ll be happy as can be — but I wouldn’t feel cheated if I never knew what happened next.
Finally (although this is one of those I could go on forever posts), the music descriptions! And the themes of belonging and self-love and finding a place in the world — this may be fantasy, but the emotional core is 100% real. And, most of all, Orma, who is my new most favorite adult character in YA ever. Oh, wait, that’s the heart reaction. But the secondary characters are super, from flighty Glisselda who has the makings of an excellent queen to gifted, cantankerous Viridius. Even Comonot and Linn, who we only meet in the memories she has left to Seraphina (another example of how to convey information without intruding on the narrative, handled very well), come across as startlingly real, as does Orma, despite the dragons being so strange and other that they are almost impossible to understand.
I’m starting to go on. This is a heart book because of the writing (and became one over the course of rereading) rather than despite the flaws, and that has medal-deserving written all over it in my eyes. Yes, this may be a quieter book than many of our top contenders (although, dragon battles), despite it’s stellar record (6 stars AND a pun). And it’s fantasy. But it’s certainly in my top 5 now, having climbed higher each time I read it. SLJ agrees; PW and The New York Times do not; what do you all think?
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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