YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Moderate
I’m not going to lie; I’d intended to write you multiple letters about this book, updating you on my opinions as I read. That would’ve required me to display some restraint, though, and put the book down long enough to write you.
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 the 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.
The top three reasons this book was written for you are:
1. The dragons
1a. The shapeshifting dragons
1b. The shapeshifting dragons who’re more interesting than your typical shapeshifting dragons
2. The protagonist
2a. She’s hiding a dangerous secret that you’ll be excited about
2b. She’s prickly, brave, mature, and–best of all–a musician by trade
3. The writing style
3a. It’s a quick but engrossing read
3b. It gives glimpses of a sense of humor that’s genuinely funny
Also, the cover has fake blood smears on it. I know you like that.
And not only are there shapeshifting dragons and a court musician heroine, there’s a smexy prince/captain smexing it up all over. Well, it’s all very PG, but what it’s missing in darkened-hallway/under-the-table antics it makes up for with just the right touch of he’s-engaged-to-the-princess angst.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a romance; it’s a story about a musician trying to save her kingdom without endangering her own life, and features two characters who happen to develop feelings that they really shouldn’t have.
And I am a serious fan of those feelings. Their relationship progresses at just the right pace–slowly–with some really fantastic, twinge-inducing scenes that I’m tempted to just copy here word for word, except that’d spoil your twinges when you read the story yourself.
Of course, the state of their relationship at the end of the book has left me in mild despair over the sequel‘s release date. March 2015, in case you were wondering. Ages away.
I don’t want to go into the plot because, you know, spoilers, but one thing I’d like to praise is Hartman’s slow reveal of information. She could’ve explained key aspects of certain characters in a few words when they’re first introduced, but does she? Nope. She drops the occasional hint first, and lets the reader be surprised (if they hadn’t figured it out) or smug (if they had).
But on to the dragons.
You know how most shapeshifting dragons seem right at home in their human bodies, or at least adapt quickly? Not these. They’ve built their society and personal identities on a foundation of Logic Over Emotion, which wasn’t difficult for them to do because they don’t experience emotions the way humans do.
So what happens when they shift into human form? They’re overwhelmed by all these terrifying, disgusting feelings. They’ve developed meditation techniques intended to help them survive in human shape, but they have a Board of Censors tasked with spying on and secretly testing dragons who spend a lot of time in human form, searching for signs that they’re experiencing an unacceptable amount of feelings. Any dragon condemned by the Board of Censors is promptly lobotomized.
The book also had a hint of interesting commentary on the status of women in this society (women with questionable morals get stuffed in sacks and thrown in the river; menstruation is viewed as monstrous), homosexuality in this society (the two homosexual characters are allies of Seraphina’s, but their relationship made me a little uncomfortable due to a marked age and power disparity; hopefully that relationship is better developed in the second book), and self-harm generally (the two brief depictions of self-harm were powerfully written).
There were a few little things that made my eye twitch when I came across them, but I don’t think they’ll bother you as much as they did me:
The Ardmagar’s character “arc”
The Ardmagar is the leader of the dragons, the one who signed the peace treaty with the human queen forty years before the book takes place. He’s not one of the most important or prominent characters in the story, but let’s just say he demonstrates some very abrupt changes that didn’t ring true to me.
Some things about Seraphina
1. Her Age
In general, Seraphina reads like she’s a highly-experienced twenty-six, not a fresh-faced sixteen. She’s transplanted from an isolated and fairly responsibility-free life in her father’s home to a position of huge and exhausting responsibility at court, and she handles everything with the brisk and competent maturity of someone who’s been performing those duties for years. Also, she explicitly views and describes Princess Glisselda (who is fifteen, by the way) as a “young girl,” which seems pretentious coming from someone only a year older.
I don’t think the story would’ve fallen apart if Seraphina were, say, eighteen or nineteen. It’d be more believable, and the book would still qualify for the YA market.
2. Her Monstrosity
Throughout the story, Seraphina views herself as physically monstrous, but once or maybe twice she accuses herself of being monstrous internally: “I almost snapped at him, almost played the monster in earnest as only I could play it.”
This suggests that she’s struggling with the belief that she’s inherently capable of inhuman levels of cruelty and viciousness, right? That’s why she says “in earnest” and “as only I could play it.”
But outside of this sentence and maybe one other, she never gives any indication that she believes this about herself; in fact, she generally seems very content with herself as a person.
There’s a disconnect between the self-accusation in this sentence and her opinion of herself (as demonstrated throughout the rest of the book) that is incredibly jarring. If she believes that she is naturally capable of being as monstrous inside as out, I want to see that throughout the story, not just in a sentence or two. That would’ve been an interesting aspect of her character to play up.
3. Unnatural Interactions
Kiggs repeatedly tells Seraphina how brave, smart, and generally awesome she is, and Seraphina without fail scoffs at him. These exchanges seem more for the reader’s benefit–an attempt to show why Kiggs develops feelings for Seraphina–than a natural outcome of Kiggs’s personality or their situation.
In short: hurry up and read this book.