Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Rachel Hartman, Seraphina

I was skeptical about this book because, though I love fantasy and paranormal fiction, I am not generally a fan of protagonists that don't physically resemble humans (hobbits are about as far out as I like to get), and this book is about dragons. I admit that my bias against non-human looking creatures is dumb and superficial, but alas. I like to be able to picture human characters when I'm reading. I don't care if they're vampires, werewolves, witches, wizards, elves, etc., they just need to look basically human. For example, I would have a hard time visualizing a steamy romance between a pair of dragons. It is stupid and I am not proud of it, but that's my sad reality. That's why I never read the Redwall books.

I kept hearing great things about this book though. People praised the world building and spoke about the book in a tone that kind of signified that this is one of those rare gems in YA, really unique, not just another tired plot about a seemingly average girl who discovers she's actually a super hero and the hottest boy on earth falls for her and they save the world and live happily ever after. I have read hundreds of those books. I actually tend to enjoy those books, because I am a sucker. But I'm always on the hunt for something that stands out. So, I bought Seraphina and jumped in.

And I am SO HAPPY I did. This is hands down the best YA book I've read in months. And, even though it's about dragons, it turns out that dragons can actually take human form when they wish, so my silly hangup about non-human-looking characters didn't even apply.

The book takes place in a fantasy world where humans and dragons have just established a tenuous treaty after centuries of viciously slaughtering each other on the regular. The treaty is up for renewal, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is a sinister plot by someone (dragon or human, who knows!) to thwart it so the two species can get back to trying to exterminate one another. Seraphina, our half-dragon protagonist, makes it her goal to prevent that from happening.

There are numerous things going on in the book. There is the large scale saga of a nation on the brink of war and the political maneuverings between its leaders to avoid that scenario. There is also a murder mystery. Most interestingly to me, there is the story of Seraphina, a half dragon who feels she has to hide her true identity at all costs, and her journey towards self acceptance.

Seraphina is a wonderfully developed, complex, likable, quirky character. She has a distinct voice, which is SO RARE. She is self deprecating in an endearing way, and her struggle to accept her half dragon-ness and build up the courage to show her true self to the outside world is brilliantly depicted. The romance between her and Kiggs (a prince of the human nation) is also very well done. It proceeds at a slow pace (which is a mercy...if I read one more of these books where some broad enters a room with a boy, takes one look at him, and pronounces her undying love...), so the chemistry builds believably and agonizingly. Another pro (in my opinion) is that the romance is hardly the main story line of the book. It's one that is enjoyable and interesting, but it takes a back seat to the other major plot lines.

I am giving this 4 stars instead of 5 only because I got really confused from time to time with all the dragon terms being thrown out. The world building is really complex here, and sometimes I had a hard time following along what was happening. That didn't stop me from finishing though...I just thought this could have used a bit more editing.

ETA: It turns out there is a glossary hidden away at the end of the eBook! It defines all the whacky dragon terms and explains who each character is. Great idea! I wish I'd noticed this handy device while I was reading the book on my Kindle. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work too well in the eBook format. But the fact that Rachel Hartman thought to add it is a bonus, so I'm upping this to 4.5 stars.