Book Review: Seraphina

bookreview by pedrojperez

Description from Goodreads: 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.

I actually ran across this novel while reading a book review for its sequel, Shadow Scale. The world of the story sounded interesting, so I picked up book one (I also attempted book two, but I was frustrated by it, as discussed at the very end of this book review.)

What I like best about the book was the world its set in and the overall story concept: dragons who act very much like Vulcans (or high elves; they have that lack of emotion, fascination-with-knowledge-thing down to a science), political intrigue, and a heroine who belongs to both sides of the conflict. It was almost a steam-punk renaissance society, with the dragons making listening devices (somewhat like cell phones) and other gadgets and yet there was the curtsying and attending festivals and passion plays and all of that. A really interesting, fun combination.

Still, there were some frustrating elements, so here’s a look at five categories of the novel: Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, and World-Building, and Overall Response.

Narration: 4 out of 5. The narration was very well done. It felt old, using older words and longer sentences, and it really brought you into this medieval/renaissance world, where there are guilds and the church, the monarchy and riots and knights and a kind of siege warfare. I never felt jolted by word choice, though some elements were unexplained: I still wanted to know how a butterfly veil could be pointy and nearly stab someone in the eye, and we never got to know what St. Yirtrudis, the heretical saint, stood for, even though that was supposed to be the christening-saint for the protagonist.

Because the narration is from Seraphina’s perspective, we wander into the past in a storytelling fashion before moving forward on the present, which worked well, I thought, but I wished she’d explained things more. Even though it could be logical that Seraphina wouldn’t explain everything, since she might not be telling this to a modern audience, per se, yet it felt like some important questions weren’t answered, and that, in the minor things, there was a little too much expectation that we knew and understood the world in which she lived (at least where it paralleled our own, historical world).

But the dialogue was excellent. Very different, based on the different characters, but keeping with the old feel of the world. One thing that bugged me—and other readers, per Goodreads—were the names. I was having trouble with things like Ardmagar Comonot (especially early on, when sometimes he was called Ardmagar and sometimes Comonot) and Dame Okra (I couldn’t figure out if she wanted to compare the woman to the vegetable or not). And Abdo and Orma got mixed up a little, when both were active in the same scene. Still, they were at least pronounceable in my head, which is better than some fantasy novels.

Content: 3 out of 5. There was very little objectionable in the book, for a young adult book. Some of the hints of unique sexual relations are definitely made more concrete in book two, but book one steers clear and keeps things vague. The overall message is definitely that we are all messed up, part good and part evil, but I didn’t appreciate its vague romance. The love triangle is complicated because Princess Glisselda is actually nice, but engaged to Kiggs, the romantic lead, so all through the book I wondered whether Seraphina would end up with him, and how (would the princess get killed off, would Seraphina die a sacrificial death, etc.).

Also, there was a good deal of political intrigue, but I found it rather unbelievable that the only people the trio could trust were themselves (no older, wiser anyone available in the palace?). Again, it’s a common YA concept to make all the heroes young people, pitted against the problems of their society, but I would have liked one, older person in there, as a reminder that teenagers aren’t the only ones capable of saving the world. (But we did get some in the climax, which was nice.)

I also thought that the family dynamics were sadly dysfunctional. No one has a good relationship with their parents, and while most seem to find father-figures elsewhere, it would have been nice to meet one young person who really had a supportive, stand-out parent, somewhere. I don’t like it when young adult fiction consistently makes the parents be distant individuals who never understand or interact well with their children, and unfortunately, this book had that problem. The parents weren’t monsters, but they were distant and had no real, vital, connected role in their children’s lives.

Characters: 5 out 5. The characters were very well done, which added to some of the frustration over content. I just wanted them to have a good life, despite the challenges—I wanted the princess to meet someone else so Kiggs and Seraphina could end up together. I also wanted some of the dragons to be happy together, to experience the emotion that was forbidden to them, so the character portrayal was effective. It made me care, which is the goal of characterization, ultimately.

Artwork: Subjective. The cover accurately depicted the world of the novel, with the dragon flying high over a medieval city, with the cantilevered second stories and beams and white walled plaster and large cathedral and all the rest.

World Building: 4 out 5. The world building was excellent, and I really appreciated the Latin-sounding terms (Goreddi, Viridius, ityasaari, saarantras). Everything felt very consistent and well-thought-out, although it did feel like there was a steep learning curve, at times. There were so many terms, and so many people and saints and everything that early on, it was a little hard to follow. Still, I prefer that to a predictable and overly simplified world, but there is a way to strike a happy medium (theoretically, at least).

Overall Response: 16 out of 20, for a total of 4. The story was very well written. The intrigue gave enough clues so you could try to piece things together, but the solution wasn’t obvious—some mystery readers I know didn’t even put everything together until the end. (Spoiler ahead) I wished the romance ended on a better footing, and after skimming through book two, I really wished the storyline had been different. I advise anyone who reads book one not to touch book two, because I felt like it really ruined everything that had been hopeful about the end of book one. All through book one, we face a threat to one of the characters getting his memory wiped, and then that is revisited all over again in book two. Still, I recommend book one, as a stand alone volume. It was fun, it was interesting, and it was well-written. Just imagine the rest of the characters’ lives, and you’ll be good.

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Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by pedrojperez, creative commons

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