Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Rating: 3.5 stars
Source: Library
Buy the Book: Amazon
Summary: "Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life."

Review: On the cover of Seraphina there is a blurb by author Christopher Paolini praising this book.  It's not that unusual for a book to have a blurb of praise on its cover, but the fact that Christopher Paolini's name appeared right above the title, Seraphina, was perhaps not the smartest move on the cover designer's part.  You see, in Paolini's famous Inheritance series there is a dragon named Seraphina.  So when I saw Paolini's name here, my first thought, before ever opening the first page of this book, was: I bet Seraphina's a dragon.

I can't say too much about Seraphina's genetics without going all spoilery on you, but suffice it to say that my initial suspicion really took the punch out of a few early scenes.  Plus, I found Seraphina herself to be an incredibly frustrating character.  At one point, someone comes barging into Seraphina's room and assaults her.  What does Seraphina do in this situation?  Run?  Hide?  Call for help?  Defend herself?  Nope.  She apologizes.  For being assaulted.  That pretty much depicts Seraphina for the first half of the book.  Girl's got serious self esteem issues.  (Not to mention some other issues, such as her need to tend her mental garden filled with "grotesques" on a daily basis.)  But instead of hoping she would learn some confidence and self acceptance, I was primarily just annoyed with her.  Since the first couple hundred pages deal primarily with Seraphina's difficulty in coming to terms with herself, well, that was a long time to feel annoyed.  

The second half of the book really picks up.  There is a plot besides Seraphina lounging in self-pity, it turns out.  And once we dive into the plot, the book actually gets quite good.  I was still frequently frustrated with Seraphina.  She has a box of memories that could help uncover information to help solve her problems, but she ignores them for NO REASON WHATSOEVER.  (Can you tell that I was bugged?)  But my enjoyment of the plot and my questions about the auxiliary characters kept me going.  At its core, Seraphina is essentially a who-dun-it, with several characters as plausible bad guys.  I enjoyed the shroud of suspicion cast over the characters, and guessing at who was responsible for what events.  The final reveal was satisfying; not completely out of left field, but not obvious either.

This book is not perfect.  The first half of the book should be half as long as it is, but it's worth it to get to the second half.  I also was unaware that this book is the first in a series.  I had erroneously believed it to be a standalone.  I wish I had known that beforehand.  The idea of dragons that can fold themselves into human shape is a fantastic idea, but other than the extremely impressive ability to fold ones-giant-lizard-self into a human, the dragons didn't really do anything.  Also, besides the presence of dragons, this book doesn't have many other elements that one would associate with the fantasy genre.  It's more of a low fantasy book.  Not a bad thing, just FYI.  

Despite the elements that bugged, there were some things that I liked immensely.  The supporting cast was really fantastic.  The eccentric but lovable Orma, the inquisitive and sensitive Kiggs, the effervescent and jovial Glisselda, I could go on.  As much as I didn't care for Seraphina, I loved those around her.  The book addresses xenophobia head on, in all its ignorant glory.  There are some really wonderfully written action scenes.  The incorporation of religion was interesting and helped with the world building without being superfluous or distracting.  I loved reading about the different parts of town, the slums, the palace, and so on.  But my favorite parts were the side characters.

This book will probably be enjoyed by those who like fiction but aren't terribly interested in high fantasy, and to those who like reading about the medieval period.

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