I think the best, most telling praise I can offer this book is that I read the last 300 pages or so in one sitting, staying up late into the night to do so. As much as I normally read, I tend to do it in chunks–read a bit, go do other things and digest what I read, read more, repeat. It’s rare for me to just not put a book down. But that’s exactly how I was with Seraphina. I didn’t want to put it down past a certain point–and I didn’t.
This was admittedly past a certain point…while I admired the excellent quality of writing from the moment I started reading this book, I think it took me 100-150 pages of the story before I was really started to like Seraphina or get really involved with the story. Before that, while I acknowledged the good writing, and was especially fascinated by Hartman’s world building, I struggled to really care what happened to Seraphina herself.
However, that detachment definitely faded as I kept reading, and before I knew it, I was hooked. I read so many YA fantasy novels that are enjoyable but not brilliant that I think sometimes I forget what good writing is like. And this is good writing. The best comparison might be with another love of mine, chocolate. You know how a Hershey bar is good? It’s cheap chocolate. Nothing refined. A little too sweet and processed, without much kick. But it’s fine if you just need something for a craving. But then you know that feeling when you finally try a gourmet Fair Trade dark chocolate bar, perhaps with touches of chili pepper, sea salt, or orange essence, and it just blows your mind? Well, this book was one of those fancy expensive chocolate bars. I could just let the writing dissolve on my tongue–and I didn’t want to stop.
As I said, it took time to get connected to the story. That has a lot to do with the protagonist, Seraphina. She is complex and talented, strong and intelligent and beautiful. She is also self-admittedly prickly and practiced at deception, used to keeping other people at a distance from herself. She has her reasons, very valid, serious reasons, but it takes some time to find the likable core, the brave and loving heart and the strong and curious mind beneath that prickly exterior. Once I did, though, I found myself loving her more and more.
Much like Kiggs. I loved Kiggs. The strong and faithful defender of the realm…who is also a devoted reader only too delighted to find someone else with whom he can discuss philosophy…who is also the bastard prince, with a touch of hidden vulnerability, living with a stigma that is no fault of his own. He is incredibly perceptive, with an ability to be tender, fierce, or self-sacrificing, as the occasion necessitates. He fits a certain type in fantasy writing, like Valek in Poison Study, Brigan in Fire, etc, but is one of my favorite examples of this type, because of the way that the complexity of his character complements his more superficial qualities of bravery and nobility.
Glisselda, despite her distractingly weird name, was absolutely charming. (A lot of the characters in this story had names that were strange and awkward for me, so I didn’t hold it against them.) I wasn’t sure at first if I was SUPPOSED to like her, but I did anyway. She was irrepressible and delightful, smarter than she seemed, a quick study as well as charming and beautiful. She was also generous in spirit, and grew into a valuable ally. I liked that the book didn’t take the easy route and just set the two females up as cat-fighting enemies and competitors. It’s much more interesting (and realistic) to have them as good friends with a common goal.
Orma was also wonderful. He, as part of the dragon culture in this book in general, fascinated me from the beginning, and my fascination grew into a much deeper appreciation of him the more I learned about him. The dragons seemed to me like a society of autistic people, with their lack of emotions and their common struggle to understand human social interactions. They were also brilliant and fascinating, in both their dragon and their saarantrai forms, and their contrast with the humans of Goredd and the surrounding kingdoms allowed for some excellent depictions and discussion of the nature of prejudice.
The detailed world that Hartman set up is just as strong as any of her characters, human or dragon. It is so rich, so detailed, so coherent within its own rules. I think that my own classical musical ignorance may have deprived me of one level of appreciation of the story, but the musical nature of the story did not in any way detract from my enjoyment of Seraphina. The story unfolded, petal after petal, into an intoxicating tale, one that satisfies on its own, and yet leaves me eager for the next book. I can’t wait to see what happens next in Drachomachia, for further development of all the characters–not just Seraphina, Orma, and the remaining royal family, but also Seraphina’s grotesques, and, I would assume, an increasing cast of military and draconian characters. I also look forward to further expansion throughout the story’s setting, hopefully introductions to the other countries, like SamSam and Ninys, and the world of dracomachian fighting.