I originally came across Seraphina in hardcover, read a couple reviews that complained that it was too cliche, and promptly forgot about it until someone I follow on tumblr recommended it to me as “YA that does something different with no love triangles–also dragons”. I appreciate YA that does something different with dragons, so I decided to give it a shot.
The paperback edition also has a gorgeous cover with none of the stereotypical extreme closeup of a girl’s face design.
In the Kingdom of Goredd, dragons and humans coexist in a tenuous peace. Amidst tensions between the two groups, Seraphina, the newest member of the royal court, is a gifted musician with a terrible secret. When a member of the royal family is murdered, Seraphina is drawn to the investigation alongside the dashing Prince Lucian, but as she comes closer and closer to the truth, it becomes harder to keep her secret, and revealing it could cost her her very life.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A girl has a terrible secret. She meets a boy. She likes this boy, but she knows that if her secret gets out, the boy won’t like her anymore. Things happen in such a way that she eventually is forced to reveal her secret and deal with the fallout. It’s not the most original plots and characters with terrible secrets (known or unknown) are a dime a dozen, not just in books, in media in general. Although there’s nothing especially earth-shattering about the plot, it serves its purpose as a means to create tension and propel the characters towards the climax. Appropriately for a story in which music plays a significant part, the writing in Seraphina is very lyrical without crossing into purple prose. At times, I felt like the writing did get a bit philosophical (particularly during memory sequences).
I would say this book’s strengths lie in the characters and how they struggle in a society that finds it hard to accept them. In case it wasn’t obvious from the summary, Phina’s secret is that she is half-dragon, a creature that humans see as soulless and dragons see as one of their own succumbing to weak human emotions. Her love interest, Lucian Kiggs, is a bastard who came to Goredd being unable to speak the language. The dragons in the book struggle with experiencing emotions while in human form. The dragons in this book reminded me very much of the Qunari in Dragon Age, with their rigid adherence to ard (order, correctness) and their rejection of emotions as illogical (and their subsequent anxiety when they take human form and begin to experience these emotions). I would also say that while Goreddi religion isn’t the most original (it does the same thing as the Exiles books where the “pantheon” is made up of saints). It felt familiar and unlike the hagiographies of my childhood, included a same-sex couple as patrons of romantic love, not to mention a heretic saint (the hows of becoming a heretic saint is not explained). At times, the book is very philosophical, musing on the value of emotions and art. At times, many YA books, at least fantasy and sci-fi YA books, seem to never explore the implications of their dystopian societies or magic systems in favour of the all-important love triangle, and don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pure escapist fiction, but there are times I’ve wished that authors would think more about the implications of their world-building than they often do.
I don’t have very many complaints about this book. Most of the characters didn’t really leave a strong impression on me, and the mystery plot felt like it could have had another twist or two and it wouldn’t have hurt the pacing. I also found it to be a little slow in some places.
In terms of diversity there’s Lars and Viridius, who are both gay but don’t play a huge part in the plot. They also fall into the stereotype of “theater-loving gay men”. The one character of color of note isn’t known by his actual name for much of the book. Characters from Porphyria (Africa with elements of Classical Greece and belly-dancing) are said to be dark-skinned.
As far as triggery content, there is some self-harm in chapter 21, and a plot twist involves cross-dressing. There was also a point where the Ardmagar acts really creepy towards Phina in a way that was just….creepy.
Overall though, Seraphina was easily one of the better YA reads I’ve read this year (and that includes the ones I’ve read since and have yet to review). It might be a bit of a wait before I can read Shadow Scale in paperback but I definitely intend to do so.