Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, 512 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE


Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was published in July of 2012 and has received a lot of well deserved attention since then, including the Morris Award for a debut book by a first-time author writing for teens. I struggled to write this review and put it off for weeks, in part because this book is so well written and engrossing, but also because I listened to the audio book (brilliantly narrated by Mandy Williams and Justine Eyre) and do not have the text in front of me. This is problematic because Rachel Hartman has a truly imaginative gift for language and Seraphina is rich with names like Lucian Kiggs, Comonot, Glisselda, Pesavolta and Okra Carmine. There are the Ityasaari, a race of human-dragon hybrids, there are Porphyrian Philosophers and houppelandes. And, while Hartman didn't invent the word "houppelande," I'd never heard it before and anytime it was part of the story I found myself turning the word over and over in my mouth like a piece of hard candy. Fortunately, like all things popular and some things obscure these days, fans have created a wiki site for this book, which is where I learned how to spell all these amazing names that have sprung from Hartman's seemingly endless imagination. There is the southern country of Goredd, founded by Belondwegg, with the capital city of Lavondaville, which is home to Seraphina. The Goreddi culture is centered around a religion that, rather than worshipping one omnipotent deity, prays to a host of saints. Hartman has started a compendium of the Goreddi Saints. On her blessing day, the psalter falls open to the pages of Saint Yirtrudis, the heretic who appears not to have believed in heaven, and Seraphina is given a substitute saint. The luxuriance of language and abundance of saints reminds me very much of one of my favorite books, Fly By Night written by Frances Hardinge. While the intrigue and action of Hardinge's book centers around the suppression of the printed word and not the tenuous nature of a treaty between humans and dragons, both books claim intricately developed, fully realized worlds and intelligent, determined, fearless heroines navigating their way through realms where political intrigue and conspiracies abound.

Like Mosca Mye, the main character of Fly By Night, Seraphina Dombegh is an outcast, an oddity among her fellow Goreddis. While Mosca's rare gift and curse is being a girl who can read, Seraphina's burden, growing up in a city that is heavily prejudiced against dragons, is that she must hide the fact that her mother was a dragon. Seraphina herself is filled with shame and self-loathing, keeping her scales hidden under layers and layers of clothing. I have to admit, when I heard the premise of Seraphina before it was published I couldn't begin to imagine how Hartman could possibly create a character who was part human and part dragon and develop a world around her in which this phenomena could make any kind of sense. Hartman has done exactly this with the dragons as she imagines them. While Hartman's dragons have silver blood, scales, talons and smell like brimstone, they also have the ability to take the form of humans and are called "saarantras" when they are in this form. In Goreddi, all saarantrai (or saar, as they are more commonly called) are required to wear a silver bell indicating that they are dragons in human form. The draconian culture reveres two things above all else, mathematics and ard. "Ard" is a concept that refers to the order and correctness of their world. Emotion is considered the opposite of "ard" and dragons find the "human condition confusing and often overwhelming, and they had developed strategies over the years for keeping their heads 'in ard' while they took human form." This is an especially fascinating idea when applied to the sixteen year old Seraphina. As she suffered through a childbirth that would take her life, Seraphina's mother filled her with as many secreted maternal memories as she could, arranging for certain real life experiences to trigger the release of these memories. When a memory is released, the physical and mental effects are devastating to the young Seraphina, like a tsunami version of a migraine, and her tutor Orma, who she learns is in fact mother's brother, is called in to help her develop the "ard" needed to organize and manage them. The relationship between Orma and Seraphina is a subtle yet powerful aspect of this novel. The dragons have created a Board of Censors that functions independently from their government and constantly observes and tests the dragons in their human form to make sure that they have not been contaminated by human emotions. Contamination is addressed with a excision of the brain that results in what is essentially a memory wipe. Orma makes Seraphina's education his occupation and, in turn, the Board of Censors secretly sends an agent to determine if Orma has been corrupted by his attention to this young human. This incident finds the eight-year-old Seraphina being dangled over the edge of the bell tower of the cathedral by her new tutor, Zeyd, an agent from the Board of Censors.

This brings me to what is perhaps my favorite aspect of Seraphina - the grotesques. Orma teaches Seraphina to create a mental garden using a form of cognitive architecture that reminds me of both forms of meditation and methods used by professional mnemonists. This garden is peopled with characters she refers to as her grotesques because some of them look less than human. Each night before bed Seraphina sits on the floor of her room and imagines herself walking through her garden, greeting the grotesques, each of whom she has named something suiting their personality and appearance - Fruit Bat, Loud Lad, Miss Fusspots, Pandowdy. How Seraphina controls these memories her mother has left for her and the secrets that they - and her detective work throughout the city - uncover as the forty-year anniversary of Comonot's Treaty (established by Comonot, the legal Ardmagar of the dragons and Queen Lavonda to end the war between the two factions) approaches makes up the spine of the plot of this rich novel that resonates with world issues today. When a member of the royal family is found decapitated during a hunt, his head missing (dragons have a taste for human heads, apparently) there are many suspects, with signs pointing to the Sons of St. Ogdo, St. Ogdo having developed dracomachia, the martial arts of Goreddi nights used to fight dragons. In her role as the assistant to the gout-ridded Viridius, court composer of Goreddi, Seraphina, a profoundly gifted musician, something emotion eschewing dragons have no ability or interest in, finds herself increasingly embroiled in the affairs of the court as the search for the killer of Prince Rufus collides with efforts to avert a revolt against the dragons and their peace treaty as the anniversary celebrations get under way. As court intrigue reaches a fever pitch, Seraphina finds herself in a position to begin to embrace and even speak out about who she really is, in part after she discovers she is not the only ityasaari in the kingdom.

On a final note, I gave Seraphina a rating of "middle grade" because, while the main character is sixteen and there is a bit of romantic longing, there is nothing inappropriate for children of this age. However, the language is complex as are the philosophies of the characters. Hopefully, this will challenge younger readers to think beyond the page. Thanks again to the Seraphina Wiki which was very helpful for determining the spellings of the various people, places and things in this amazing debut novel. The second book has the (tentative?) title Dracomachia. After the first print run of Seraphina sold out quickly, the publisher decided to tweak the cover and add an author interview and the bonus story, "The Audition," which tells the story of Seraphina's audition with Viridius for the position of assistant to the court composer. If your edition doesn't have this extra material (my audio book didn't!) you can find the story by clicking HERE. In the event that doesn't work, search for "The Audition, Scribid, Rachel Hartman."

The Italian cover for Seraphina. Kind of cool...

Source: Purchased Audio Book

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