“We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.”
Seraphina Dombegh lives in a world where dragons can take human form and have been living in peace with humans for four decades. Or that’s how it supposed to be… but hundreds of years of hatred between the two kinds has not been diminished, especially not since the Prince of Goredd was found dead with his head missing.
Seraphina has spent her whole life hiding and alone, straddling both sides of the human/dragon divide so no one will ever found out her secret. However, not long after she takes a job as the palaces’ music mistress, she is drawn into the intrigue and mysteries that surround the court and the Prince’s death. As she gets closer to finding out the sinister plot being laid to destroy the already unstable peace between dragons and humans, she risks her own secrets coming to light and revealing what could change her whole world.
Spoilers below! (just so you know)
I read this book not too long after it came out, but I’ve read it so much I can’t actually remember when was the first time. Obviously, it’s one of my favourites. I had never read a book with dragons before this one, but Rachel Hartman makes her dragons so interesting and different that they stand out even now. Purely pragmatic and systematical, Hartman’s dragons do not feel as human’s do, but rather value order over emotion; they like to keep things “all in ard.” They have trouble stopping those emotions from appearing when in their “saarantras”, their human form, and you can really see the struggle of their adjustment. Particularly in Orma, who struggles with his bond to his half-dragon niece, Seraphina. Whose relationship is so sweet and moving that you can get past all of the awkwardness of dragons; especially at the end.
The title character Seraphina is probably one of my all time favourite heroines, mainly because of how she changes throughout the novel. At first described as “prickly”, which seems like an apt description as she keeps almost everyone at arms length lest they learn what she truly is. Her hatred for herself at several points in the novel is easily felt, mainly when she is determined to rip out the scales that decorate her left arm. She uses her mind alone to figure out of escape situations, (though I do love a good fight scene this change is refreshing). I love characters that use their minds and words to get out of sticky situations (this may be because I have the strength of a twig so I can’t relate to fighting my way out). On numerous occasions throughout the book, Seraphina spins webs of words to distract her opponent, and I love it. She goes from pushing people away to learning to let others in, to opening her heart not only to love, but to her fellow half-dragon brethren. As this book is often driven purely by its characters, it’s a good thing that Hartman creates some complex and lovable characters. By the end I was really rooting for Seraphina to achieve her happy ending.
Even though I knew there’d be a second book, but a girl can dream that all her characters will be completely happy and settled by the end.
The other characters in the novel are also wonderfully created. There’s Orma, who I mentioned eariler. Princess Glisselda, whose pure bright heart is charming and who is so willing to be better and learn so she can fairly rule her people. The other half-dragons, Lars, Abdo and Dame Okra help push Seraphina to grow in their own ways and are unquestionably loyal, and even the background characters are so well written that the novel really comes to life.
My other favourite character in Seraphina is Prince Lucian Kiggs, Captain of the Guard and keen investigator. He takes his promise to his patron Saint St Clare to always speak the truth very seriously, which provides a nice contrast to Seraphina as she must always lie. He is honest, loyal, and open which makes it difficult for Seraphina to push him away as he is everything I believe she wishes she could be. Their subtle, bittersweet romance does not distract from the plot, it hovers in the background at a natural progression to the story which is always nice for people who like a dash of romance in their novels.
Seraphina takes a journey of self-acceptance throughout the novel and it’s totally believable and wonderfully written.
Hartman creates a variety of characters and her world building is so successful and beautiful that you’re sucked in almost instantly. The religion of Goredd is fleshed out and believable, the descriptions of the world is delightful. Particularly those of music, which seem especially special, and help the reader connect to Seraphina on a deeper level. Though I did originally find it took me a moment to get into the novel as we are given Seraphina’s history, but this information is later necessary to knowing how she fits into this world. Or rather how she thinks she doesn’t. We also see how her dragon mother fell in love with a human, and how emotions can change a dragons nature so drastically.
Also kind of tedious is the constant reference to Serphina’s mind garden that she has from her powers as a half-dragon. This is a place where she can contact and find all the other half-dragons across her world, but later on this drops into the background as the plot takes over, even though her powers become a key component throughout (even more so in the second novel).
This is a fantasy novel that has stayed with me for years, I recently completed another reread and it was just as exciting as the first time I read it. It will probably stay with me for many more to come.
You know what… here are a few of quotes that I think let the beauty of this novel shine:
- “The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.”
- “That’s the secret to performance: conviction. The right note played tentatively still misses its mark, but play boldly and no one will question you. If one believes there is truth in art – and I do – then it’s troubling how similar the skill of performing is to lying. Maybe lying is itself a kind of art. I think about that more than I should.”
- “Love is not a disease…I cannot let them cut you out of me, nor her either. I will cling to my sickness, if it is a sickness. I will hold it close to me like the sun.”
- “I barely noticed loneliness anymore; it was my normal condition, by necessity if not by nature.”