Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Tell me you’ve got an interesting book for me and describe it using the words “fantasy”, “dragon”, “teen” and “girl”, and I’d probably say you were on the right track, but lost me somewhere between “teen” and “girl.” All joking aside, and in the interest of providing every student with some quality YA literature in the future, my first choice for the blog was Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. Winner of the 2013 William C. Morris Award for the best young adult work by a debut author, Seraphina lives up to its reputation.

Set in the fictional realm of Goredd, Seraphina is a teenage girl living in a world where dragons are real, are able to take human form, and live alongside humans under a shaky peace resulting from a treaty forty years ago. Dragons are calculating, mathematical beings, working as scholars and professors in Goredd’s universities. Seraphina has a gift for music – and a deeply-held secret – she is half dragon in a world where interbreeding is considered an impossible abomination. When the Crown Prince of Goredd, Rufus, is found murdered, many blame dragons due to the nature of the death. As Goredd hurtles toward an important event involving the leader of the dragon world and the Queen herself, Seraphina attempts to unravel the mystery and soon finds that her own dragon parentage has been deeply involved in the events between humans and dragonkind.
Seraphina is beautifully written. Hartman has a knack for balancing the descriptively elegant with a clarity that will lend itself well to young adult readers. The prose feels sturdy – it never feels watered-down or too flowery. Where young readers may be given initial pause is in Seraphina’s invented language. Familiar to readers of other fantasy series, authors who create worlds often create languages for them. Terms like sarantraas, ityasaari and dracomachia take some getting used to, but Hartman smartly includes a glossary in the back of the book, complete with cheeky definitions. It’s a feature I made use of often during my own reading.
Hartman’s characters are believable and the main players are surprisingly well-developed, including even the reptile-brained dragons who supposedly lack all emotion. Seraphina’s interactions with love interest Prince Lucian Kiggs and her dragon tutor Orma stand out as highlights. Besides writing natural dialogue, Hartman has created characters that often don’t turn out as they’d first seemed – a task that often ends up seeming heavy-handed when attempted by other authors.
Where Seraphina trips up is in its slightly off-kilter pacing. I found the story to drag on at times, dealing with courtly niceties and the longings of unrequited teenage love. But suddenly, the characters were hurtling along, advancing the plot in strides. Young readers may find themselves turned off by the “slow parts,” especially if they have already been resistant to the book. This brings up the issue of gender. As I discussed above, Seraphina may naturally attract more female readers than it does male ones, and males may be resistant. However, once they begin reading, they will see that Seraphina’s elements of adventure and intrigue far outweigh any gender biases.
In Seraphina’s world, dragons are mathematically-minded. They attempt to take an emotionless view of the world, as to not act rashly. However, that’s as far as the book goes into the other content areas. This is a fantasy book, complete with great character development, plentiful adventure and an interesting alternate reality, and it holds the most merit for an English class.
However, that is reason enough for me to recommend Seraphina to both student readers and teachers. It contains themes of alienation, acceptance, and racial prejudice that could be studied by readers; it is an excellent addition to the library of young adult fantasy, a genre which is only growing stronger with the release of series like The Kingkiller Chronicle (the first installment of which has won the Alex Award); and it’s a story told from the point-of-view of a young adult with the same problems as the readers, but with a few fantastical ones thrown in for good measure.


Henry Buckner said...

I liked how you talked about how Seraphina is a young adult fantasy story written from a teenage girl's perspective. Even if some students didn't necessarily identify with YAF, the fact that it was written from a young person's perspective makes it relatable. I agree that there are so many themes that could be derived from it. The characters have depth and the way you convey the plot makes the novel appear really interesting. Coming from an English background like you, I feel that this book would be a good read in that subject.

JessicaGeelen said...

Zak, this write-up is awesome! You did a great job pulling me into the story and making me want to read this book. It might just being going into my Amazon cart after this. ;)

More and more authors are putting female protagonists into fantasy and science fiction roles and I think that does a world of good for bringing female readers into that genre. We talked in class often this semester about female and male audiences and from the sounds of it, this book could easily be read by either.

Samantha said...

What stuck out most to me about Seraphina is the inclusion that she is part dragon in a world where that is socially unacceptable. I think not fitting in is a theme YAF tackles often, and if its done well it can leave students with a greater sense of their own self confidence. Strong characters like Seraphina, who have something about them that makes them different, can inspire students to accept what makes them different and the fact that their differences make them stronger. Overall, a great theme for kids to be reading!