Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
First, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that Rachel Hartman is a good friend of mine and has been for years.
Having said that, I will also say that being a friend of mine is no guarantee of a good review; producing excellent work, however, is. Which is why I’m thrilled to say that I absolutely loved Seraphina.
While I love both YA fiction and fantasy, I cannot honestly say that I love all YA fiction or fantasy. Maybe my standards are too high, but often I feel that authors underestimate (or worse, talk down to) their readers. Rachel does neither of those things. Her story is told as it must be told. It’s a just-modern-enough look into a fully realized medieval world. Nothing is boiled down to safe, pop-cultural equivalents. Houppelandes are never glossed over as long dresses, and neither the dialogue nor the prose is ever dumbed down.
And yet, Seraphina is completely accessible. I read this book knowing that it would have plenty of music and mathematical references, neither of which is my forte. Honestly, I just expected to have to bump over those parts and move on. Silly me! Rachel has skillfully integrated both disciplines into the story without making them ponderous roadblocks to the narrative. She has successfully managed what few authors can, the use of specific subject knowledge without showing off. Not only was I not stumped by the unfamiliar musical and mathematical terms I encountered, the story was enhanced and made all the more real by them. Nothing in Seraphina interrupts and asserts itself as, "Hey! I’m the author and I know stuff!"
And so much happens! Family secrets, scandal, bigotry, betrayal, murder, misdirection, love, loyalty, guilt, grief and joy, all worked together into a captivating exploration of just how messy life can be (despite our best intentions) and what it really means to be human... or not.
Add to all that Rachel’s refreshing take on dragons and fantasy in general, (no pale Tolkien imitations here) and you have an absolutely cracking story.
My only regret is that I read it so quickly. After watching Rachel work and struggle to tell her story for years, I’m ashamed to admit that I devoured it in about 48 hours. So I think I’ll start again, but this time more slowly. Perhaps savoring a chapter a day, in a comfy chair, with a cup of tea. Seraphina deserves no less.
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