I read this book two years ago on the recommendation of a librarian after whom I'm now naming my children. (Fun fact: Of my top ten, she recommended three, and a few of her suggestions barely missed the list.) It is a nice, fat, sturdy hardcover that felt good in my hands even before I opened it, and from there only got better.
Humans and dragons enjoy an uneasy peace. Humans distrust dragons and their ability to disguise themselves as humans, and dragons scorn the human concepts of love, art, and emotions. As the fortieth anniversary of the peace approaches, a prince of the royal family is murdered in a suspiciously draconic manner, and inter-species tensions flare higher than ever.
None of this should bother Seraphina Dombegh, the title character. Against her family's wishes, she is a successful musician at a court where women have little respect. She should have no greater worries than which fanfare to play when the embassy arrives.
But Seraphina has a secret that has haunted her since her birth. Her mother was a dragon, and half breeds receive more than scales from their draconic parents. Seraphina has visions of her mother's life, and she is dreadfully afraid that she knows which dragon killed the prince. As the inevitable conflict approaches, Seraphina must learn how to trust, when to sacrifice, and what it means to be human-- and dragon.
Seraphina has what many fantasy novels lack: realism. She did extraordinary research for this novel, from court etiquette to the music of the Renaissance to-- you guessed it-- dragons. She writes:
"If dragons could take human shape, just how far would the transformation go? Would their internal organs be human as well? They would have a different set of senses, surely. As apex predators, dragons in their natural state would have excellent eyesight and a keen sense of smell. Would they find those senses frustratingly muted while in human form? Conversely, would human skin seem extra sensitive compared to their usual scaly hides? Would their clothes itch? As fire-breathers, dragons wouldn't have much sense of taste; they'd burn their taste buds right off. So what would it be like, then, to taste something sweet for the first time?
"From tactile feeling, it was a short hop to emotional feeling. Reptiles and apex predators tend not to be very social, and dragons are both. In their natural state they might not have emotions beyond the relatively straightforward fight-or-flight response, which in humans might manifest as anger or fear. The softer emotions-- love, empathy, sorrow-- are surely a messy mammalian characteristic that helps us bond with our young and to facilitate social groups. When these reptilian apex predators assumed human form and their brains started to process such emotions, what sort of shock would they experience?"
She uses science to write about dragons. Her books-- from the characters down to the plot and world-building-- are terrifically detailed and, above all, realistic. Hartman earned her spot at number seven on my list with her debut novel, and if you can't tell from my overuse of italics, I am a huge fan.
And that's why I'm scared. Because Seraphina, for all that I love it, took Hartman nine years to write, and the sequel is coming out next March, only three years after Seraphina. Hartman describes her writing process in some detail, and I find myself doubting that she can have it ready that quickly. I can only assume that Random House, her publisher, is rushing her; shortly before the sequel's predicted release in March 2014, they pushed it back a whole year.
Yes, I'm worried. But whatever Hartman writes next (hopefully) year can't change my appreciation for her spectacular debut novel, which, although somewhat open-ended, can stand satisfyingly on its own.
Reminder: Comment on any of the favorite books posts to be entered in the favorite books giveaway! Entries capped at one per post. The winner will receive any book of their choice from the favorites list. And as for tomorrow: what's modern and ancient, based on no less than three myths, and written by the Queen of the Fantastic herself? I'll give you a hint... Clara Diane Thompson has been compared to this author.
One last extra: If you mention that Hannah from the Writer's Window sent you, you can get an additional entry!