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Expected publication: July 10th 2012 by Random House Children's Books
Alright, let's just get this out of the way: Seraphina is one of my favorite books I've read this year. Hands down, without a doubt, straight-up adored it. And I'd say it's my single most-pushed book this year; I've been pushing it on everyone. Obnoxiously. And I'm going to try to tell you why, and I'll do my best to avoid spoilers, but if you take nothing else from this review, understand that I want you to pick this up. You can discuss it with me, push it on others, or just enjoy it privately, but seriously - get your hands on this.
First, a good fantasy depends upon the world-building, and Hartman nailed it. Truly excellent world building, rich and complex, while still somehow managing to completely avoid info-dumping and confusion and all of the typical pitfalls of fantasy. Hartman manages to make her world seamless and interesting, believable and real, without making the reader struggle and work at it. Everything: dragon culture, human/dragon (and human/human and dragon/dragon) relations, the use of music and food and architecture, political intrigue, the medieval feel - all of it had a vitality and plausibility that made the world seem real and true. I could easily see it all in my head without ever feeling like Hartman was dwelling too long on anything, and it always felt real.
The same is true of the character-building which, while a little more...mysterious, I suppose, still seemed really vibrant and realistic, even when far from our reality. Seraphina and the rest of the characters - even minor ones - operated in ways that were believable for who/what they are as well as being understandable to the reader. This is something of a feat in a book where a portion of the characters are supposed to find emotion abhorrent. To make these types of characters fascinating and different enough to be Other, while still relatable enough to engage the reader (who is emotional), all while juggling a million other characters and their emotional ranges - and to have it all stay consistent and authentic - is impressive, to say the least. Not that this is something most readers will even think about while reading. Hartman's characters are written with enough finesse that it all just seems natural, and pulls the reader along accordingly.
Seraphina especially makes for an incredibly engaging heroine. She's relatable and rootforable as she struggles to navigate the two worlds she finds herself caught between. But more than that, she hits so many checkboxes for me. She's strong. Intelligent. Compassionate. Caring. She can be impulsive, quick-thinking but somewhat reckless in a crisis, but for the most part she's very level-headed and cautious, which is so rare for a heroine in YA. I found her so much more relatable and admirable than the bulk of YA heroines because of this; because she thinks things through and doesn't rush headlong into whatever will get her what she wants at the expense of others; because she (and Hartman) realizes that very little in life is black and white, and that sometimes sacrifices have to be made - without fanfare or a pity party - just because it's right. She feels pain and temptation, but doesn't allow herself more than a moment to wallow before she picks herself up, squares her shoulders, and moves forward. There's a maturity to both her character and the writing that I appreciated so very much.
Which brings me to one of my (unexpectedly) favorite aspects of the story - this has one of the best-written YA romances I've read in ages. The focus wasn't actually on the romance, which I think was key. So many books - YA and otherwise - rush headlong into romance without a pause for the reader to get their bearings. Insta-loveyness to the max. But Hartman had me wondering if she would actually forego the obligatory romance and just give us some good-time fantasy. The romance that is in the story enters late, builds deliciously slowly, and has mature, believable obstacles. There was a subtle build-up and time for the reader to get to know each of the characters individually, rather than being plunged straight into any kind of tortured coupleness, which is the general route these things go. And the relationship (and their feelings), when it did develop was hesitant, complex, and level-headed, which suited both characters beautifully as well as suiting the real world and the intelligence of her readers. [I talked more about this in my video review, and feel like I may have explained some things about why I love the romance better there, so if you want to check that out...]
This alone would have made me push this on everyone I know. But you add in everything - the world-building and the fantastic concept, the characters and the maturity and engaging finesse of the writing, and a strong romance to boot - and folks, we have a winner. And on top of that, it actually surprised me in the end. This is incredibly rare for me, and I'm always so pleased when it happens, so bonus points for that. All said, in Seraphina, Rachel Hartman has built a great foundation for furthering what looks to be a very promising series. And though it's wrapped up well enough that it could be read as a standalone, I doubt anyone will
Also, the cover is a woodcut. I mean...can it be made of any more win?
[So go pick it up!]
OH! And make sure you stop back by tomorrow for my AWESOME VIDEO INTERVIEW with Rachel!!
(For real. There's Renaissance-y singing...)