Joint Review: Seraphina

Posted: February 9, 2013 in Critical Hit
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After encountering a slow but steady stream of positive reviews for Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, I decided to give it a read; and when I saw that the wonderful AnimeJune of review blog Gossamer Obsessions had the same idea, it only made sense to put our heads together and write a joint review. The result was a back and forth about the novel’s themes and merits, of which there are many – and here it is.

The Synopsis:
 

AnimeJune: The story takes place in the nation of Goredd – a place (modelled on medieval Europe), in which humans and dragons coexist. Thanks to a treaty drafted forty years ago by the human Queen Lavonda and the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, this coexistence has been peaceful, but only barely. Most humans continue to hate and fear dragons, thanks in large part to the dominant religion that depicts them as soulless animals at best, and an unholy scourge on the earth at worst.

Meanwhile, most dragons, despite their ability to take human form and study among humankind, remain baffled by human sentiment and interaction. Inherently logical and mathematical, dragons rigidly police their own emotions, and so often come across as tactless and awkward in their dealings with humans.

Into this conflicted world comes Seraphina. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Seraphina is a child of both worlds, born of a human father and a dragon mother. However, her father raised her to despise and hide her true parentage since both sides consider half-breeds to be anathema – or they would, if they weren’t convinced human-dragon interbreeding was impossible. Despite Seraphina’s fierce desire to avoid attention and fly under the radar, she has an equally fierce passion for music and, against her father’s wishes, she takes a position as assistant to Viridius, official musician to the Goreddi royal family.

When the Goreddi crown prince is murdered in a visibly draconian way two weeks before the Ardmagar is set to visit, Seraphina finds her anonymity threatened by bumbling dragons, bigoted humans, sinister politics, a disturbingly astute and investigative Prince, and her own uncanny talents.

Foz: Forty years ago, the human Queen Lavonda of Goredd forged a peace treaty with the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, effectively ending a war between the two races. Trust, however, has proved much harder to come by, thanks to both the Goreddi religion of Allsaints, which demonises dragons, and the mixture of contempt and confusion with which dragons, a highly logical species, view human emotions. Further complicating this state of affairs is the fact that dragons possess the ability to shapeshift into human form, in which guise – called a saarantras – they’re distinguishable by little more than their alien mannerisms, silver blood and, in the majority of cases, the enforced wearing of distinctive bells. This leads not only to human fears of dragon infiltration (to say nothing of prompting endless, lascivious jokes about the highly taboo prospect of cross-species sex), but to dragon fears of human contamination. The latter charge is a serious one: all saarantrai are monitored by the Censors – a powerful dragon agency with the power to physically excise the brains of emotionally compromised dragons – and must learn to partition their thoughts accordingly.

The story is told from the point of view of Seraphina, a teenage girl with a dangerous secret: her mother, Linn, was a saarantras, a fact she concealed from her human husband and which was only revealed with her death in childbirth. As a result of her mixed heritage, Seraphina not only possesses extraordinary musical talent, but has scales on her arm and stomach and unusual mental powers. Working to control her unique magic with the help of her dragon-uncle, Orma – a music scholar who doesn’t wear a bell, and is therefore widely assumed to be human – Seraphina wants only to excel in her new position as assistant music mistress at the Goreddi court. But when the crown prince Rufus is killed in the lead-up to the treaty celebrations – and worse, killed in a manner suggestive of a dragon attack – Seraphina finds herself drawn into the heart of human-dragon politics. Working with the bastard prince Lucian Kiggs to discover the truth behind his uncle’s death, Seraphina must confront not only her mother’s buried memories, but also the implications of her own abilities – and all while keeping her bloodline secret from those who would deem her a monster.

 

The Main Character
 

AnimeJune: When it comes to the heroine, Seraphina, I stand here overjoyed and relieved because she could have been exactly the type of YA heroine I dislike the most – the Mopey Sadsack who doesn’t understand how good she has it until someone else (usually a guy) convinces her how awesome she is. Instead, she’s a multifaceted, determined, and fiercely intelligent character.

She does harbour a fair amount of self-loathing – after all, both dragons and humans would consider her a monster if they knew what she was, and the dragon scales on her left arm and around her waist never let her forget. She’s also visited by visions of the dragon memories her mother bequeathed to her during childbirth, as well as visions of bizarre, often-deformed people with whom she shares a strange connection.

However, what I immediately like about Seraphina is that she could have hidden herself away as a recluse in her father’s house, but she didn’t. With all her freakish flaws, Seraphina also possesses a wondrous gift for music and she follows that passion to find a position in the royal court, very much in defiance of her father’s wishes. Seraphina still avoids social contact, thinks of herself as a freak, and assiduously guards her secret beneath layers of lies and ill-fitting clothing – but she still pursues the passion that makes her happy. She still believes herself worthy of independence, even though it comes at the high cost of loneliness. To me, that says so much about her. She’s not a cursed damsel waiting to be rescued or a martyr who believes herself unworthy of joy. She’s a little too aware of what makes her strange and frightening, but she’s also aware of what gives her power, and I loved that about her.

Foz: I very much agree with AnimeJune’s assessment. Though Seraphina does struggle with self-loathing, she’s also quick-witted, compassionate, practical and possessed of a sharp, sometimes mischievous sense of humour – and better still, she isn’t afraid to laugh at herself. Far too often, SFF stories narrated by troubled heroines with mysterious pasts and outcast baggage default to use of the Broken Bird trope, with only a smattering of black humour to leaven the pervasive mood of hardboiled despair and repression. By contrast, Seraphina is not only inquisitive and cheerful, but determined to succeed on her own merits – not ashamed of her heritage, but rather fearful of its implications.

This means that, despite her (very reasonable) worries about her own monstrousness, Seraphina reads as exquisitely human. As a heroine, she fully inhabits her actions: we always understand exactly why she’s said or done a particular thing, because her motives are always in keeping with her personality, rather than being impinged on by the needs of the plot, and in a novel as rich and satisfying as this, that’s no mean feat.

 

The Supporting Cast
 
Foz: When it comes to characterisation, Hartman is an incredibly skilled practitioner. In the hands of a lesser writer, certain of the recognisable archetypes underpinning her secondary characters would be cartoonish and stereotypical, or else inverted so clumsily as to achieve much the same effect. Instead, her touch is both deft and subtle, leaving us with a gorgeously varied and believable supporting cast. Her employer, the gouty music master Viridius, is a case in point: though pompous and demanding at times, he’s also possessed of unexpected depths, guiding Seraphina both politically and musically through her time at the Goreddi court. Princess Glisselda, too, is a lovely surprise: beautiful, blonde and Seraphina’s romantic rival, it would’ve been the work of a moment to render her antagonistic, stupid or both, instead of which her high spirits, flashes of arrogance and occasional naivety are counterbalanced by genuine intelligence, a desire to learn, the ability to listen, and a shrewd (if fledgling) political eye.
Far and away, though, my favourite secondary character was Orma, Seraphina’s dragon uncle. Though ostensibly cold, detached and logical, both his dry humour and respect for Seraphina completely won me over, and his development as the novel goes on is an absolute pleasure to watch. Though technically inhuman, he nonetheless felt completely believable – not just as a dragon, but as a scholar, uncle and friend.


AnimeJune: Yes! I loved Orma! The worldbuilding depicts dragons as a lot like Vulcans – while capable of emotion, they repress and police it extremely fiercely (especially when they’re more vulnerable to it in human form) because they cannot explain it in a logical, scientific manner. Orma demonstrates, in his own subtle, unconventional way, how much he cares for his niece, Seraphina, even as he risks having his mind excised of his memories of her by the dragon Censors. His character is all the more fascinating as he displays his emotions in an extremely atypical way that is, frankly, adorable.

I also quite enjoyed the minor character of the Ardmagar Comonot – the strict dragon leader who takes human form for the first time in forty years to celebrate the treaty and finds human emotion a little more than he can deal with.

That being said, my favourite supporting character is Lars – a foreign visitor invited to the Goreddi court by Viridius because of his ground-breaking (and ear-drum-breaking) musical invention, the megaharmonium (think of a giant organ). As musicians, it’s only natural that Lars and Seraphina should meet, and even more natural that they should both discover they share a secret connection. Lars’ reaction to this is one of my favourite scenes in the novel because despite the secrets he’s forced to keep (such as his heavily-implied homosexuality), he’s such an emotionally open, cheerful, friendly person. This takes Seraphina by surprise, since she’s spent her life convincing herself that closing herself off from other people is the only way to survive.

The Romance and Romantic Interest
 

AnimeJune: But enough about that! Let’s talk about the love interest. I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten a little tired of romance in YA lately. I’ve read too many YA stories in which the main plot is an action-adventure, or a science fiction parable – and this completely unnecessary romance is shoehorned in, greased with Insta-Love to make it fit without stretching the page count with, you know, actual romantic development between the characters.

So I’ve started seeing the YA Romantic Subplot as that annoying little sister the Real Plot has to babysit, something to tolerate and ignore while I hang out with the cool, funny Real Plot.

That was so not the case with Seraphina. First of all, there is no Insta-Love between Seraphina and Prince Lucian Kiggs, the head of the guard charged with keeping the peace until the Ardmagar arrives. There’s no Insta-Hate, either – that tiresome rigamarole where the protagonists automatically hate and snipe at each other until they discover it’s Been True Love All Along.

Instead, they start out respecting each other. What a novel concept! Lucian is an extremely intelligent and scrupulously honest investigator who takes notice of Seraphina’s sharp observational skills and surprising knowledge of dragon culture and seeks out her assistance in finding out who murdered the crown prince. At first, Seraphina is terrified that it’ll only be a matter of time before Lucian puzzles out her own secrets, but as they spend more time together, they discover they share more in common than they thought.

Their relationship builds realistically – with increased proximity and intelligent interaction. Lucian’s attraction to Seraphina builds on his admiration of her talents (intellectual and musical) and her bravery.
Despite their relationship not being very physical (and it really can’t be – Seraphina has too much to hide and Lucian’s engaged to another), it’s extremely moving and powerful to read because it fits so completely with the development of their characters.

Foz: Once again, I’m in total agreement with Elizabeth. I cannot even begin to express how refreshing it is to read a first-person YA romance that is neither saccharine nor abusive, and which features more instances of emotional and intellectual compatibility than it does descriptions of the hero’s arms and eye colour. The attraction between Seraphina and Lucian is all the sweeter (and, at times, all the sexier) for dispensing with the traditional, cartoonish binaries of Fated Love and Impossible Obstacles, and instead focusing on how and why two such different-yet-similar characters come to love each other. Lucian treats Seraphina with kindness and respect, and she in turn esteems his skill and intelligence long before she ever admits her feelings for him.

It helps enormously that, in developing their relationship, Hartman avoids the cliched pitfalls of what I tend to think of as Sitcom Logic – that is, entendre-laden mishaps, implausibly elaborate lies, wacky coincidences and Idiot Plot devices – which so frequently seem to crop up in YA romance. Instead, their relationship develops organically: both characters are lonely, intelligent and, despite loving their respective careers, prevented from truly fulfilling them by the restrictions of duty (Lucian) and the necessity of secrets (Seraphina). Though their relationship is certainly not without mishaps, its development makes perfect sense: they really do fit together, and I can’t wait to see where Hartman leads them in the next volume.

 

Style and Worldbuilding


Foz: On a technical level, Seraphina is an exquisitely written novel. Hartman’s prose style is lyric and flowing without being purple, and though there’s no infodumping that I noticed, she nonetheless manages to convey the many complexities of an original world without either skimping on detail or bogging down the narrative. Which isn’t to say the worldbuilding is perfect; the fact that the dragons have electricity and advanced technology, for instance, while intriguing, didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the setting,  while I was never quite clear on how the Goreddi social mores could allow for a bastard prince like Lucian Kiggs to hold such a prominent court position without any apparent pushback or consequence from the other nobles. But the story is so compelling, the politics otherwise so thoughtful and the premise such a pleasing mix of the familiar and the unexpected that, by and large, I really wasn’t bothered by such minor slips or omissions: I just wanted to keep on reading.

For me, the only sour note in the whole book was Seraphina’s – and, by extension, Hartman’s – tendency to repeatedly iterate the skin-colour of POC characters, as though she were worried the audience might forget that Goreddis are white and Porphyrians brown. It really stood out to me as an instance of White Is The Default writing, as no other race or subset of characters received the same treatment; I also flinched at the inclusion of exotic Porphyrian dancing (disparagingly called bum-waggling by at least one character) as a plot point, especially as it coincides with the appearance of a Porphyrian man who, to all intents and purposes, speaks in broken English. Given the sophistication of the rest of the novel, I was disappointed to find such stereotypes included in the story; and though it certainly helps that otherwise, the POC characters were treated respectfully, it’s the one aspect where I feel Hartman could stand to improve.
On a more positive note, I absolutely loved the the inclusion of Seraphina’s mother’s memories. Each one was perfectly timed in terms of narrative placement, helping to enrich our understanding of dragon culture while simultaneously comprising some of the most beautifully written sections in the whole novel. In a story where both the heroine’s and the hero’s lives are significantly informed by the actions of their disobedient, unconventional – and, as a consequence, dead – mothers (a dual fridging conceit that could have gone badly wrong, and yet somehow works), it goes a long way towards ameliorating the Absent Female Parent factor that Linn, by dint of her first-person memories, ends up feeling much more like a living character in her own right than a distant specter. I’d very much like to see more of her, and am confident that, come Book 2, we will.

AnimeJune: I’ll have to disagree on the depiction of the Porphyrians. I see where you’re getting at now that you point it out, but as I was reading Seraphina, I thought the racist and ignorant thoughts directed towards them were intended as a parallel to the bigotry the dragons endured. Many of the Goreddi feel their bigotry towards dragons is justified because dragons are simply “soulless animals,” and they believe the Queen should put human concerns first and foremost – but then these same Goreddi turn around and make fun of the Porphyrians. To me, it underscores how their bigotry will simply target anything that is significantly different from them – regardless of species.

What nettled me about the worldbuilding with Seraphina was how, forty years after the truce, the human population was still almost entirely opposed to dragons. If all but a very, very few humans are still violently opposed to dragons, how come the Queen’s dragon treaty managed to last four decades without any major incidents? How come there were no uprisings or revolutions until now? It didn’t seem realistic that a whole generation of humans would just sit on their hands for this long if their hate was that powerful.

Moreover, human lives and memories are significantly shorter than those of dragons. While there are dozens of dragons depicted as willing to overlook the atrocities the humans committed against their kind (atrocities these dragons still remember thanks to their ability to pass memories down generations), there are almost no human characters willing to see dragons in a positive light. Don’t get me wrong – the rampant bigotry is a realistic and understandable obstacle in the novel, but I did expect there to be more humans (at least those of the younger generation born after the treaty) willing to work with dragons.

For me, however, that was a minor quibble. I agree wholeheartedly with Foz – the general worldbuilding strikes the perfect balance in terms of detail – not enough to be a slog, but not so little of it that it feels like a wallpaper fantasy.

All in all, I just plain enjoyed this book. It was a meaty, emotional story with sympathetic and well-drawn characters, a truly swoon-worthy romance, and some fantastic magic and worldbuilding to explore.

Foz: Agreed. Seraphina is a truly excellent novel, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the story unfolds.

AnimeJune: Thank you so much, Foz, for having such a great discussion with me about such a great book!

Foz: My pleasure!

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  1. [...] Foz Meadows praised this and Aliette de Bodard criticised it. It sounded interesting. It turns out that me, I think [...]

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