Everyone keeps secrets. Most of the information we choose to hide from others is simply personal, such as the name of someone we once had a crush on in school or one of our more embarrassing moments.
Some truths, though, can be dangerous, and the secret that Seraphina has worked so desperately to keep for her 16 years of life is one that could get her quickly and quite unpleasantly killed by those around her. Because despite how much she may look and act like the other people she knows and associates with, Seraphina is actually only half-human; the rest of her is something else entirely.
Rachel Hartman sets her debut novel in a complex, pre-industrial society that is reminiscent of Europe during the Renaissance. However, in Hartman’s story humans have to share their world with other intelligent beings: dragons. "Seraphina" begins forty years after a truce has been struck between Queen Lavonda of the land of Goredd and Ardmagar Comonot, supreme general and leader of the dragons, but the resulting peace has never been an easy one.
Part of the problem lies in the draconian ability to shape-shift. The dominant species of dragons have the power to take human form and walk virtually undetected among people. Most saarantrai (dragons who have transformed) are legally required to wear a bell to distinguish them from men and women, but a few individuals, such as scholars, are exempt from this requirement so that they can study mankind more closely. While it is physically possible for saarantrai to become intimate with humans, both species are as a whole vehemently opposed to crossbreeding. In fact, according to the many followers of Saint Ogdo, any children of such a union are to be hunted down and exterminated.
Hence, Seraphina is terrified of her secret getting out. She is the result of a marriage between her saarantras mother, who died in childbirth, and her human father, who until the point of his daughter’s birth had been unaware of the true nature of his wife.
So Seraphina hides the patches of telltale scales on her arm and torso through excess clothing and by avoiding unwanted attention. Perhaps she could have continued in her lonely yet relatively safe isolation, if it hadn’t been for music. Yet notes and melodies touch her and call her like nothing else can, and despite the risks involved in greater contact with others she ends up leaving home and becoming the assistant to Viridius, the court composer. Although she has sworn to her father never to perform in public, at the funeral for the recently murdered Prince Rufus she finds herself forced into a situation where she must play the Invocation, a key flute solo in the ceremony.
In the space of only a few minutes her anonymity vanishes as her uncanny musical gift is exposed in one of the most public venues possible. No longer can she move about unrecognized; suddenly, she is a celebrity. Moreover, the royal family is beginning to take notice of her. This is to be expected from Princess Glisselda, whom she tutors in music, but the increasing interest in her by Prince Lucian, Glisselda’s cousin and fiancé, is another matter.
Hartman skillfully constructs a society that is as intriguing as it is complex. The main religion of the humans revolves around a plethora of saints who are prayed to and revered, and if there is a god they serve, he or she does not seem to figure into much of the thinking and worship of the common people. In contrast, the closest thing the dragons have to religion is their adoration for higher mathematics. In their two-legged forms, they move among the human population in an almost Vulcan detachment, rejecting emotions as dangerous and maintaining a firm grip on their superior technology, which the humans, in turn, loathe and fear. Although there are references to other lands and cultures, the author confines the present story to Goredd and its environs. It seems obvious, though, from the many teasers she has left that she is planning on expanding the horizons of her tale in future books; and like all good writers who envision penning a series instead of a standalone story, Hartman’s narrative raises a lot of questions related to the characters and history of their world that demand answers.
For the Christian reader, the book has a few issues that could detract from the story, but in comparison to most of the writing being produced in the secular market these days, these are very mild. For example, there is some alcohol usage, some very low-key sexual references, and some fantasy violence. Potentially more disturbing is the homosexuality of two of the minor characters, a practice that while mentioned only briefly and not specifically promoted in the novel is still viewed as religiously acceptable in Goreddi society. To put it in perspective for parents, if the book were to be evaluated like a current television show, it would probably receive a TV-14 rating.
Overall, this is a well-developed and entertaining tale from a new and promising young writer. Full of interesting characters, an unusual take on dragons, a rich culture, and a storyline that is far from finished, “Seraphina” will undoubtedly have numerous fans clamoring for a sequel.
Image copyright Random House. Review copy from the writer’s personal collection.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.
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