by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 12+
Seraphina is a lawyer's daughter; yawn, right? Ah! But that particular lawyer, Claude Dombegh, is the foremost legal expert on dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Have I got your attention now? Why did Dombegh become the leading authority on the treaty between Goredd and the fierce reptiles of the north, with whom they were at war until 40 years ago? He has eaten, drunk, breathed, and slept the treaty for 16 years, since the day Seraphina was born and her mother, dying in childbirth, was revealed to be a dragon in human form. He honestly didn't know until then. And now he has an awful secret to protect - a daughter whom many dragons and humans alike would consider an abomination - and so, while learning every line and loophole in the law, he has become its greatest interpreter, and even a noted legal defender of dragons. As for Seraphina, she has led a life of loneliness, forced to hide scaly patches on her arm and around her waist, afraid to become too close to anyone, afraid to share her musical gifts, hollow with loneliness. In an act of rebellion, she runs away to the royal palace and auditions successfully to be the crusty old court composer's assistant.
The book compresses all this into background information that you learn while the story is in progress. It actually begins sometime later, while Seraphina is directing the funeral music for the queen's son, whose body was found headless in the forest after he became separated from his huntsmen. As the 40th anniversary of the treaty approaches, along with an anticipated visit by the dragon general Comonot, who co-signed the treaty with the now-elderly Queen Lavonda, anti-dragon sentiment runs high in the streets of the capital. Many, including the queen's bastard grandson Prince Lucian Kiggs, suspect a dragon of having killed the older prince. But unlike the hate-filled mob in the streets, Kiggs wants to learn the truth - he wants to save the peace - and he knows that means protecting Comonot from a danger only he and a certain secretive young music mistress seem to see.
Seraphina becomes increasingly tangled up in Kiggs' inquiry into the slaying of his uncle. But both of them also develop an emotional conflict, as they fall in love with each other, although they both care about his fiancee, the young Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the queen. And for her part, Seraphina becomes hopelessly tangled in the lies and secrets she must keep to protect herself and her family from the backlash they expect, should anyone find out she is a half-dragon. Adding to her trouble is a series of visions that seize her with dangerous suddenness, and her growing realization that the garden of grotesques she must daily tend in her mind is actually a connection to the minds of other half-dragons - some of whom will become her friends, and some who may be her enemies. Then there is a series of maternal memories, passed to her by her dying mother at the moment of her birth, bursting upon her consciousness at the most inopportune moments. As ties of family loyalty, romantic love, friendship, and the preservation of peace between her two peoples press on her with growing urgency, it becomes more evident every moment that she cannot save everything and keep her secret as well.
And so I come back to this point: This is a phenomenally beautiful book. I'm apparently not the first person who noticed it; it won the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award, a medal given annually since 2009 by the Young Adult Library Services Association division of the American Library Association; in other words, it's a Newbery Medal for the best "first-time author writing for teens."1 It builds an engrossing fantasy world, with an intriguing concept of dragons I would be willing to explore at much greater length; it depicts a varied gallery of breathing, speaking, fully original yet believable characters; it develops a culture with a complex pantheon of saints and a rich culture of beautiful music, dreamed up by a writer who knows how to write about music - and with my background, similar to the author's in multiple ways, I'm not easily fooled in that area. Besides all that, or rather above all, her scenic invention and deft hand for dialogue are but instruments in a symphony of storytelling that throbs with danger and sings with emotion, from the anguish of loneliness to the exhilaration of love. I do not exaggerate, even a tiny bit, when I say there were several prose passages in this book during which I paused and said to myself, "Someone should set this to music." And I wouldn't be surprised if the author herself has written tunes to go with some of the lyric poems sprinkled throughout the book. It's a fantasy so perfectly conceived, I would have enjoyed it even were it indifferently well-written. But it is, rather, differently well written; and that difference puts it on a level apart.
As the Morris award suggests, this is a first novel by a U.S.-born author, now living in Canada. It has a sequel, which I am already reading, titled Shadow Scale. A new book set in the same world, titled Tess of the Road, is due to be released Feb. 27, 2018. This book, also nominated for a 2013 Andre Norton Award2, comes (at least in some editions) with a bonus prequel short story titled "The Audition," revealing how Seraphina got her job as (among other things) Princess Glisselda's harpischord teacher.
1Among the award's past winners and nominees that I have read are Graceling by Kristin Cashore, A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth Bunce (a winner), and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride; the full list contains a bunch of titles I suddenly want to read.
2That was the year China Miéville's Railsea won; a tough book to beat.