There's a lot to love about Seraphina, the new young-adult fantasy novel by Rachel Hartman. The book comes up with a cool new spin on a well-worn fantasy world, in the medieval-esque country of Goredd. It has an appealing heroine, the young assistant music master Seraphina who investigates a secret plot to undo 40 years of peace in the human-dragon conflict. But most of all, Seraphina makes dragons... fascinating once again.
Hartman's version of dragons are hyper-analytical and technologically advanced. Rather than being monsters or merely intelligent animals or primarily sensuous (in the literal meaning) they're more like Vulcans who sometimes weigh 40 tons and breathe fire. In this world, dragons have discovered magical ways to transform themselves into humans, complete with human brains and emotions. These dragons-in-human-form, or saars, revel in human music and art, but are also disgusted by human emotions. This creates situations that are by turns funny, odd and disturbing. The saars also create endless paranoia among the Goreddi population.
When a Goreddi prince is found dead with his head missing – as if it had been bitten off – Seraphina's relationship with her saar tutor, and her close understanding of dragons puts her right in the middle of the royal family's attempt to find the murderer. Of course her life is not that simple: as assistant music master she is in charge of the entertainment for the upcoming celebration of the anniversary of the treaty, as a dragon-friendly Goreddi she's been threatened by the anti-dragon factions, and she also has some strange, sometimes debilitating, visions to contend with.
While the book is full of court intrigue and (sometimes literal) backstabbing, the prose itself is an absolute joy. It's thick and rich without being difficult to read: full of old-timey locutions, plenty of real medieval terms and a handful of Latin-sounding made up words. Hartman's also created a religion for the Goreddi – a strange conglomeration of saints without god or Jesus. Heaven seems to be both a place and a place holder for a supreme deity; imagine early Catholicism by way of the Mongol world view. There's also hosts of foreign philosophers the characters discuss. The effect of the language choices and liberal doses of the Goreddi religion and strange philosophy is a remarkably lived-in world and thought-provoking world. The language use and created history and religion feel far more like an adult book than YA and it's refreshing to see someone pushing the envelope of intellectual complexity rather than topic.
The characters who inhabit this world with Seraphina are just as realistic. No one's motivations, from Serphina's stern father to the flighty Princess Glisselda, are unbelievable. As the political situation results in personal fallout, all the main characters grow and change. The relationships between Seraphina and her tutor Orma and between her and the Captain of the Guard Prince Lucian are particularly well-drawn.
Everything about the book feels really well-crafted — like Hartman and her editors trust their readers to be smart, and put solid work in to support that trust. Not one sentence seems slapdash or one scene seems half thought out. Seraphina is, unsurprisingly, the first book in a series. And while the lack of standalone books in the world is increasingly off-putting, I'm looking forward to reading more about these characters. It seems that Hartman is about to expand the world, at least geographically, though hints in the book suggest it is already fleshed out in the author's mind. Between now and then, I'll be brushing up on my knowledge of medieval instrument names.