I’ve been a fan of Rachel Hartman’s work for 15 years now. Many readers won’t remember or haven’t heard of her comic work, but in the late 1990s, she created an amazing series of minicomics called Amy Unbounded about a young woman growing up in a medieval society. (Several issues were collected as Belondweg Blossoming.) Hartman created her own historical fantasy world, and it was astounding, full of details like what the musical instruments looked like and how the industries worked and even who the mythical characters were.
Even with all this plausible world-building, she never lost sight of the characters and their warm relationships. Amy’s mother, a warrior woman, and her father, a meeker but not weak partner, were doing their best with their sometimes-unruly family.
Seraphina, Hartman’s first novel, presents those same strengths — memorable characters, creative visualization of a fully realized society, difficult but meaningful relationships, and (an overused phrase, but so valid here) a sense of wonder. (Fans of Amy Unbounded will notice a few familiar names in this novel, too, including Pau-Henoa.)
Seraphina is a teenage half-breed (although the details are part of her discovery over the course of this book) with a musical gift and a distant father mourning his own loss. Her mother died at her birth, and the legacy she left is only now becoming visible, as Seraphina has gone to assist the royal composer at court. Her father begs her to remain anonymous, but her heavenly performances attract attention. Now, she must help with the various celebrations to mark a major anniversary of a treaty between her kingdom and the dragons.
Yes, there are dragons here. Only instead of appearing as flying lizards, they’re stoic shape-changers, seeking knowledge and logic over emotion. The idea of dragon as the best and hardest teacher you’ve ever had is genius, combining a Spock-style alien with reptilian coldness as a characteristic instead of a measure of temperature. The dragons don’t understand human manners or illogical customs (as so many traditions are), but neither do some professors in our world. The beasts can take their traditional form in this story, but many of them interact with humans in other ways instead.
Meanwhile, a beloved prince has been murdered, leading to bigoted outbreaks of hatred and violence towards the different. Seraphina’s heritage makes her a example of another way, but it’s not an easy path to survive, being a living symbol. Dragons pass memories genetically, but hers have been interrupted by her half-orphaning, and her unique, illegal status has made her lonely and self-contained. She’s deservedly prickly, but as a burgeoning young woman, she also needs to learn who’s safe to trust and how to make her own decisions about right and wrong.
Hartman gets how cultures form and how law and custom and religion and human nature interact, which makes everything that happens richer and more satisfying. Plenty of people have tried to create kingdoms threatened by tribal disagreements, but few feel this substantial. It’s so easy to visualize the players and their needs and wants. The underlying themes, of the way love and art, particularly music, make humans unique among creatures, are compelling.
Hartman’s love of detail also gives her great facility with words, spinning out descriptions and phrases that kept me deep in the story. I miss her pictures, but this is a wonderful way to share the fascinating results of her imagination. Her dry sense of humor is also greatly welcome.
If you only have time for one novel this summer, make it this one. You will be richly rewarded. I know it’s labeled for Young Readers. The best books now are, but they still have plenty for adults to treasure. Here, it’s some of the strongest, bravest, fiercest, most loving women I’ve seen in fiction. Teens will also relate to Seraphina’s feelings of fitting in nowhere, of her specialness causing her only pain and scars. I very much hope there are more books to come.