Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman


title:  Seraphina

author:  Rachel Hartman

pages: 499

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-0375866562

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 5/5 [in the genre] or 10/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce, Sarah J. Maas, or Sophie Jordan.  Children, adolescents, and adults.  

will i read this author again?:  Over and over. 
will i continue the series?:  Already did, actually.  

My Ratings Explained

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.

In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.

the basics
When I say that I rank Seraphina among Howl's Moving Castle and Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, I don't say it lightly.  It's a rare fantasy these days that can capture the innocence and wonder of those books.  Not to say that Seraphina is naive.  Far from it.  Rather, it shares the timeless quality of those books, an atmosphere of old world fairy tales.  Seraphina herself is a strong-willed, clever heroine who seeks her own destiny but is also acutely aware of her impact on others.  Her adventure winds through relationships with other complex, fascinating characters, as well as intrigue, scheming, and outright battle.  There's never a dull moment, whether you're swooning over her banter with Kiggs or cheering her on as she investigates the threat to her people.  Beyond the base plot, there is the deeply enchanting fantasy world, vivid with dragons and Saints, philosophers and politics.  Hartman has envisioned each facet of her world so deeply that, as a reader, you can't help but find yourself living in it, if only for a moment.  Seraphina is a tale that I'll return to again and again, each time finding something new to cherish.  

plot . 5/5
Seraphina's plot is slow building, but not in a dull way.  Think more of a mystery, where the characters are going about their normal lives for a time, but pieces of strangeness and disruption keep accumulating until there's an outright disaster.  Hartman uses foreshadowing and secrets to her advantage, keeping the tension perfectly balanced throughout.  Thus, the first half is very much focused on Seraphina's struggle to find her place in a world that would curse her if it knew her pedigree; newfound friendships with the heir apparent and captain of the guard; political tussles in a treacherous court.  It seamlessly shifts into a race to discover the architect of increasing disasters--before the dragon-human treaty is broken and all of Gorredd is pitched into war.  If you're able to put this book down without a cry of "One more chapter," I don't believe you.  

concept . 5/5
We're all familiar with the outcast tale.  The kid caught between two cultures.  The misfit.  How about a half-dragon trying to make her way in a land where dragons and humans are bitter enemies, aligned by a tenuous truce?  Where her kind, the half-dragons, are viewed by both human religion and dragon doctrine as abominations.  Meet Seraphina.  She's as fine a musician as the court symphony has ever had, but the scaly legacies of her dragon mother keep her at arm's length.  The humans would shun her at best if they knew; the dragons would kill her.  In case that wasn't wretched enough, she's plagued with visions that render her senseless--and at risk for discovery.  It's a common story told in an uncommon way, with a twist of the fantastic.      

characters . 5/5
I complain often about side characters who are "same-y", pure types with nothing to distinguish them.  Hartman is immune.  In revealing her characters through action rather than exposition, she allows even the smallest character to seem original.  Seraphina herself is a phenomenal narrator.  She's likable without being false, talented without being perfect, and strong-willed without being foolhardy.  She's also very infused with her country's values, unlike many of the fiery overly chipper young adult heroines with modern-day sensibilities.  The dragon Orma was my favorite; Hartman nails his personality as emotionally obtuse and hyper-logical,  and pulls some humor from it.  Seraphina's closest allies, Kiggs and Glisselda, are given lives, concerns, and thoughts of their own.  In particular, Kiggs seems like a real young man.  He doesn't go moony for Seraphina the instant they meet, and he pushes back at her.  Their relationship is refreshingly realistic.  These main players are bolstered by a cast of memorable side characters; I could gush on, but I'll let you discover for yourself.  

style . 5/5
Some people say that storytelling is a lost tradition.  Perhaps that's true in the traditional, oral sense, but Hartman's writing is proof that the spirit of it hasn't left literature.  First and foremost, she's an excellent storyteller.  She uses plain language when plain language will do, and so moments of intricacy become sharp and important instead of excessive.  She writes with a lightness and humor that gives the tale a magical atmosphere, but can be cuttingly grim when she needs to be.  Moreover, she writes in first person, which I typically dislike in high fantasy.  Instead, I enjoyed the clearer window into Seraphina's perspective.  (It also helped that she was sparing with the inner monologues.)  

It's also clean.  Not that I mind sex and cursing in books, where appropriate, but the discreteness used here really gives the book that extra feeling of magic and innocence.  Don't fear!  Although I say "innocence," this is not a frothy, naive, or even particularly cheery tale.  

mechanics . 5/5
Did you think you knew everything there was to know about dragons?  How silly of you.  Seraphina introduced me to a variation on dragonkind that was fascinating and wholly believable.  I imagine you've seen portrayals of dragons as logical, greedy, intelligent.  Hartman takes the tales to their logical conclusion.  Her dragons are blisteringly logical.  They shun the irrational taint of emotion, going so far as to excise any hints of feeling from their members.  Their ability to take human form allows a tense coexistence with humankind--and the very illegal birth of half-dragons.  On the other side, there are the Southlands, a trio of kingdoms with unique histories and cultures.  It's a unique world with enough of the familiar that you can slip into it easily, and call it home.  

take home message
Intricately plotted and artfully told, Seraphina is a masterpiece of fantasy, a remarkable story that demands a lifetime of re-readings.  

Note: I purchased this copy.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.  


  1. I absolutely LOVED this book and can't wait to get to the sequel! It's been so long, though, that I'll need to reread this!

    1. It's always worth a read. A warning: the sequel is kind of slow to start. Stay with it--it's worth it!

  2. I loved this book too. And I'm glad to see from your comment above that you think the sequel is worth it. I've been hearing mixed things about it. I have it on hold at the library and am really excited to read it. I'll have to skim Seraphina again to make sure I remember it.

    1. My full review will be Wednesday, but basics: It's rough to get into. It's kind of slow for a while and seems kind of piecemeal. Then all of the sudden things start picking up and coming together and it gets really good. I hope you enjoy it!