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Review: Seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Edited to add: Morris Award winner.

The Plot: Prince Rufus has been murdered; not just murdered. His head is missing, which indicates a dragon was involved. It’s been forty years since peace was declared between the dragons and the humans of Goredd, but at best, it’s an uneasy peace. The combination of the Prince’s death and an upcoming visit from the dragons leads to more unrest.

Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh is an unlikely person to find herself in the middle of dragon and human intrigue. She is a talented musician who  has recently joined the royal court of the kingdom of Goredd; she is hard-working and while her father is a well-respected lawyer, she is hardly of the same class as the people at court.

Seraphina has a secret. Prince Lucian, nephew of the murdered prince, is perceptive enough to guess it’s about Orma, Seraphina’s dragon tutor who has lived cloaked as a human for years. Lucian believes Seraphina loves Orma. The idea of human-dragon relationships disgusts many. Even when dragons assume human form, one can always tell there is something not quite right about them. They don’t understand human emotion, are overly logical, cold and calculating. Plus, who can forget their true form, or the pre-peace years when dragons hunted humans?

Lucian is right that Seraphina has feelings for Orma; that she doesn’t share the knee-jerk dislike of so many humans. It’s true that Orma has given her insight into the truth about dragons: that they are as complex as humans, just different. He is wrong, though, about Seraphina’s relationship with Orma. This secret may help solve the mystery of Prince Rufus’s murder; and may help preserve the fragile peace.

The Good: Seraphina is an intricately constructed world; and I fell for several things in this book: Seraphina; Seraphina’s world; the dragons; and the royal family.

Seraphina’s secret is quickly revealed (and guessed at); as a matter of fact, the book trailer gives it away, as do other reviews. So, even though I’m usually quite hesitant about spoilers, here goes:

Seraphina is half-dragon. Dragons are indeed dragons in their natural physical form. Dragons in their natural form fly and have treasure hordes. The dragons can shift to human form, and it is in that human form that dragons and humans now interact. (Before the peace, it was much as you’d expect: flying dragons fighting groups of knights).

How to describe dragons, when in human form? Think Vulcans, like Star Trek — individuals who prefer logic and disdain emotion. It’s not that simple, of course. Take, for instance, Seraphina’s own parents, her human father and dragon mother. Such pairings are viewed on both sides with a bit of contempt, so why? Why does it happen? Some dragons are shown to have very little social graces, with the excuse being their failure to fully understand humans. However, other dragons do a much better job of “passing.” Why? The answer is simple: dragons are as much individuals as humans.

Dragons are logical; they are scientists and inventors. Dragons value “ard”, or order, before anything: “Ard was the way the world should be, the imposition of order upon chaos, an ethical and physical rightness.” They are said to appreciate art and music but to be incapable of creating it. Yet, Seraphina, like her mother before her, is a musician. Contradictions, because these two races think they know and understand each other, and themselves, but do not.

Seraphina lives in Goredd; there are other countries, other customs, other peoples. It is a complex world, with each country having their own ways. Hartman shows the layers, from every day people to royalty, their history, the religious beliefs; and how the countries interact with each other. It is a medieval type world, with the scientific dragons giving humans a taste of technology.

Seraphina’s world: What is her world, exactly? The book begins just a few weeks after she joins the royal household, but soon it’s learned that this is Seraphina’s first steps outside her family. Seraphina has tried to keep herself away, hidden, at arm’s length from others to protect her secret. She doesn’t always know how to interact with others. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered, while reading, if some of Seraphina’s brusqueness was part of her dragon heritage or the result of a deep seated sense of isolation: “I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.” Whatever the reason, she is also a keen observer of people: “He noticed my eyes upon him and ran a hand through his wheaten hair as if to underscore how handsome he was.”

Prince Lucian is a bastard, but still a royal; he is engaged to his cousin, Princess Glisselda. In this apparently matriarchal society, Selda’s grandmother is Queen and she is the one who negotiated the original truce with the dragons. One of Seraphina’s duties is music tutor to Selda, and Selda has taken a liking to Seraphina. Lucian, too, respects and likes Seraphina, and this creates a wonderful triangle: Selda and Lucian, who have a political engagement but also truly like each other, and Seraphina, friend to both, who begins to feel something more for Lucian. Seraphina keeps Lucian at arms length (as she does most people) because she is hiding her mixed heritage. Even if she didn’t have that secret, it would be highly unlikely that someone of her background could have any type of future with a Prince.

All of this weaves together to form both a mystery (who murdered Prince Rufus) as well as a story of politics (the factions working for and against human-dragon peace), with a teenage musician at its center.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers (and author interview); Omnivoracious review by Tamora Pierce; Confessions of a Bibliovore.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


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