The William C. Morris Award, which honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens, has some really stellar finalists this year. In scoping out the list, I was excited to see not only two of the books that are currently sitting on my to-be-read bookcase, but also one book that I had already finished and loved. As someone who has been slightly obsessed with dragon tales since my mother first read to me from Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall of Pern trilogy, I am always on the lookout for books that feature dragon lore in new and exciting ways. When I first heard about Seraphina, I knew it would be a personal “must read.”
In the kingdom of Goredd, humans and dragons have reached an uneasy peace. The dragons, able to fold themselves into human forms, act as scholars to the brightest humans, but as the end of their political treaty draws near, humans begin to mistrust the dragons in their midst. Seraphina Dombegh, a musical prodigy and member of Goredd’s court, finds herself caught up in a murderous plot to destroy peace between the two species. While attempting to uncover the true culprits and save the treaty her kingdom depends upon, Seraphina must also protect her own deepest secret. Half-dragon, Seraphina’s very existence is illegal, and not only would she forfeit her place at court if found out, but she could also lose her life.
Seraphina exists with one foot in each of her two worlds. While she appears human, her dragon scales safely covered at all times, it is her noticably cool emotional demeanor, a part of her dragon nature, that keeps her at a distance from others. She continually strives to fit in with the humans living around her, paying attention to social customs and attempting to be cheerful, but she cannot help always remembering to maintain a safe distance to avoid exposure. Having inherited her brilliant musical gift from her draconian mother, Seraphina struggles to play only just well enough to make a living through the music that is her passion, but not well enough to draw significant attention. Finally, when Seraphina meets a man who elicits strong feelings within her deepest heart, she finds herself hopelessly conflicted. Logically, she knows that she risks exposure every time she opens up to him, but Seraphina cannot seem to force herself to stay away. Struggling to recover her internal balance, Seraphina turns to her stalwart teacher, Orma, a dragon living secretly among the humans. Orma has lived for years with his gigantic dragon form scrunched down to fit into his Saar (human) form.
Hartman really shines when describing not only the painful metamorphasis itself, but also the way that dragons feel utterly alien within their Saar forms. These dragons do not like to be disguised as humans; for them it is to feel trapped. Many of the dragons feel sickened by the overwhelming onslaught of unwanted emotions and long for the coldly scientific world that they usually inhabit. It is here, in this uniquely done draconian lore, that Hartman moves beyond having just one intriguing main character to carry the story into building a fully-fledged fantasy realm that is vibrant and complex. Hartman manages to convey excellently drawn perspectives of both humans and dragons as they become embroiled in political strife. Forays into various parts of the capital city and then into the wild give readers a broad view of Goredd’s many facets. Few stones in this world could be considered unturned.
Fantasy enthusiast that I am, I cannot help but hope to thrust Seraphina into the hands of as many dragon-loving readers as possible. I’m also incredibly pleased to pass on that Rachel Hartman and Random House have announced that there will be a sequel to this book titled Drachomachia, coming out this July. While I wait for that, though, I plan to check out some of the other Morris Award nominees!
— Jessica Miller, currently reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator by Josh Berk
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