Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (summary and cover image from Amazon)
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.
In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.
Seraphina is an absolutely gorgeous book, the kind of well-written that makes me want to go live in a cave for ten years so I can perfect my craft without any distractions. If I emerge from that cave a tenth as good as this, I will consider the endeavor a success. Rachel Hartman is the newest name on my list of authors who, in my wildest fantasies, I dream of someday blurbing my work.
I haven't read a world built this well since Sabriel by Garth Nix. It has the kind of tiny details that are peppered into the story in such a way as to make one feel totally immersed, without ever bogging down the pace or distracting from the plot. I got a real sense of vastness from the world, that the other countries were real and detailed, that if I walked off the map of the story's scope and into the unknown, I'd find true lands and countries and not just unimagined white space.
The dragons themselves were truly original. I've never seen dragons or shape-shifters done quite this way before. I don't want to say anything more because it will spoil the surprise for anyone who hasn't read this yet, but if you're a little weary of magical or paranormal creatures, do not shy away from this book just because it has dragons. I promise you, Hartman's dragons are a wholly unique experience.
But the best part of the novel is the protagonist herself, Seraphina. She's nuanced and believable and I related to her not because we're particularly similar, but because she is empathetic and sympathetic and it's impossible not to root for her. Her world and her specific struggles might be unfamiliar to readers, but her mistakes and her humanity are not. Seraphina is a character with whom I think readers of many ages will identify.
If that's not enough to convince you to read this, Prince Lucian Kiggs is terribly, dangerously dreamy. But in a completely subtle way that'll sneak up on you. Kind of like it sneaks up on Seraphina. ;)
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