Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Rich, beautiful writing in a uniquely created world full of compelling characters. This is how I think of Seraphina. It's not an action-packed book, but the people in the story and the writer's unique voice make it great. Don't worry though, there are some truly exciting parts in this novel, just not that many. One of the best is a pretty sweet mid-air fight between some dragons. Oh yeah, there are dragons! But they are very unique, not like ones you've read about before. Before I explain that, here's a quick plot summary:

Seraphina Dombegh is an assistant music director at the royal castle in a fantasy world called Goredd. However, planning elaborate musical productions and training the posh royalty on various instruments is the least of her problems. Seraphina is a half breed - part dragon and part human. She's spent her whole life keeping her true nature secret because if it were ever exposed, she'd be considered a reviled outcast by both groups. Her careful existence is put in jeopardy when the fragile peace between dragons and humans begins to crumble and it becomes obvious that her special characteristics can benefit both sides.

Ms. Hartman expertly builds this novel's world and as I mentioned at the top, her deeply intriguing characters are highly compelling. I really felt immersed in the medieval-type setting as her lush descriptions allowed me to taste, see, and hear everything. Her human characters display an intriguing combination of conflict and loyalty as they try to conduct themselves in a civilized manner to uphold the peace with the dragons, whilst constantly wondering if that's truly the safest course of action. The dragons are unique because, as part of the treaty, they are required to appear in human form when associating with the people. But even in "saar" (human) form, their draconian nature keeps them very clinical and devoid of emotion, and always on the outskirts of society. Ms. Hartman skillfully describes them struggling to cope with the frailties, the different sensory inputs, and the heightened emotions of the human form. All this presents a situation where the surface of this fantasy world endeavours to stay calm, but everything underneath is bubbling and boiling and soon enough, the tension breaks.

In the midst of all of this is our heroine Seraphina, a simply wonderfully-written female lead. She's a fascinating character who grows and changes for the good throughout the book, selflessly accepting new burdens that are thrust upon her by the rising conflict between people and dragons. Though she's strong-willed, honorable and capable, she's not without help. Always supporting and advising her is her friendly uncle and life-long teacher, a wise and kind dragon named Orma. And as the plot progresses, she finds herself entwined with Kiggs, a human and the captain of the royal guard. Kiggs is a very Holmes-esque inspector, which makes it harder and harder for Seraphina to conceal her half-breed secret. This dynamic provides a nice " for various reasons, romance can never happen between Kiggs and Seraphina even though the reader wants it" sub-plot, which Ms. Hartman neatly works into the story.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Seraphina's character is her "mind garden", a concept that's pretty tough to quickly break down here, but that really adds a mysterious, though-provoking layer throughout the novel. Phina's (as those close to her call her) half-dragon/half-human makeup causes her to suffer from suddenly recalled memories as well as other mental strains. To manage these problems, she uses a meditation technique of placing certain aspects of her mind into specific parts of a mental garden. When she's overcome by memories or heavy emotions, she can meditate into this place and "tend her garden", thus calming herself. As it turns out, the things she meditates on aren't just her own thoughts categorized in her brain - they are real people living out and about in the real world. And they are all connected with Seraphina by one shared, special characteristic. But I won't reveal more about this, as it would spoil an entirely creative and remarkable aspect of the novel.

I will say that even though it is nicely incorporated into the plot, this "mind garden" part is a little complicated to understand, which is why this book is probably best for middle schoolers and up. That and the length - Seraphina comes in at over 400 pgs, so it's a bit of a challenging read. And since it's largely character and voice driven, not action-packed, it takes a more mature reader to enjoy the book's subtleties and to appreciate Ms. Hartman's enchanting writing skills. And it likely leans more toward female readers due to the impressive MC Seraphina herself, but there are strong boy characters in there as well (Orma, Kiggs and others), and don't forget those DRAGONS!

Before closing, I also must mention Ms. Hartman's focus on music throughout the book, which is another unique and remarkable element I especially enjoyed. You'll delight in her many rich, beautifully crafted, almost lyrical descriptions about the royal performances at the castle. Seraphina conducts orchestras, choirs, and plays many instruments as well as being a private teacher - so it's always clear she has a particularly close bond with music and it's a critical component to her character. There can be no doubt that the author Rachel Hartman is a big music lover as well, and that good tunes are/were always an important part of her creative process.

And now, the best news of all, I get to read the sequel! It's called Shadow Scale, and you can look forward to a review on it soon.

Happy Reading!