Book Review: Seraphina

seraphinaI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads account over here.

Here’s the thing about fantasy: It is so dominated by JRR Tolkien (who, in turn, was heavily influenced by European mythology–English, Norse, and Celtic, most notably) that you can sometimes forget that there’s space for anything else. Dwarves and orcs and elves and men. Dragons and unicorns. There may be minor variations (i.e., Robert Jordan and his trollocs), but for the most part, no matter who writes the fantasy, a dragon is a dragon is a dragon.

Unless you’re Rachel Hartman.

When is a dragon not a dragon?

When he folds himself up into the shape of a human, and lives in a human city.

Honestly, that should be enough to make you read the book, I think. Dragons that attempt (and mostly fail, unless they’ve been doing it for a very long time) to pass as humans. But Hartman’s prose is also both beautiful and subtle, descriptive and poetic without being overly flowery. Wanting to figure out Seraphina’s world and how it works will pull you in, but the plot keeps you going until the end. This is such a unique and creative novel, even if you don’t like fantasy (perhaps especially if you don’t like fantasy because it all sounds like JRR Tolkien to you), it’s worth trying this book. The biggest problem with this book is that the sequel (of course there’s a sequel, it’s a fantasy novel, after all) doesn’t come out until 2015.

It got me thinking, too, without ever being didactic about its themes. It makes you think about trust, between individuals and between cultures. About xenopobia. About how we accommodate (or fail to accommodate) people in our society who are different, and about how hard we try (or don’t try at all) to communicate with people that we don’t understand. And about what we lose, as a society, as humanity, when we fall into the traps of distrust and xenophobia and the rejection of difference.

There were times when the plot felt a little too plotted; when characters have revelations or realize things just at exactly the right moment. Hartman throws a lot of balls into the air and doesn’t always do full justice to all of them, and the cast of characters is large and (for me) somewhat confusing (there is a glossary in the back, which I didn’t realize was there until I finished the book, but there you go). But that’s small potatoes. This is Hartman’s debut novel. Which is completely insane to me. I hope she writes more–not just finishes out the story of Seraphina, but takes us to other worlds too. I’d love to see through her eyes more.

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