First published on 28 October, 2012 in The Star
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers, 480 pages
THE world is the kingdom of Goredd where, 40 years earlier, a treaty had been signed between man and dragonkind. Since then the communities have coexisted in relative harmony. The dragons are obliged to take human form within the city walls and are forbidden to hoard gold. For younger dragons, knowledge is stored instead, literally, in the form of stacks of books.
Orma is one such dragon. He is a scholar and Seraphina’s music teacher. There is a more complex relationship between the dragon and the book’s main character, but I am going to try to keep this review spoiler-free. I fear this means not saying much about Seraphina herself. She is, naturally, at the centre of much of the action and to reveal too much about her would practically give the plot away. Suffice to say she is the only daughter of a widowed lawyer, the assistant to the court composer, and tutor to the Crown Princess Glisselda.
Seraphina is quiet, reserved, described by the princess as “cranky”. In the course of the novel she proves herself to be inventive, intelligent, brave and compassionate. And, of course, the music she produces on her flute is “sublime” and transcendental.
The book begins at the funeral of the Crown Prince Rufus. He is murdered – decapitated, which raises the question of dragons having been involved. Seraphina finds herself drawn into the investigation, first in response to something revealed by Orma, and then, at the behest of Prince Lucian Kiggs, Glisselda’s cousin and fiancé.
It’s an exciting, absorbing story, with enough action to keep you turning the pages, and full of rich and surprising detail – the characters so sharply drawn, the world made real through words that allow you to smell and taste and feel it. Just enough is revealed about events and characters to keep the reader guessing, and wondering, and, most deliciously, longing. The suspense is incredible, and the chemistry between Seraphina and the other characters is remarkable, and, in one instance, heart-breaking.
This is one of those rare books that I wanted to re-read the moment I finished it. It is so delicious that I admit to rushing through it – the way you might gobble a wonderful slice of cake, and then regret not savouring every mouthful. I think it just might be my favourite book published this year.
And as for Seraphina, she has joined that company of fictional heroes whom I want to be like when I grow up. They are all young women – Dido Twite, Sophie Hatter, Lyra Silvertongue, Hua Mulan (no, NOT the Disney version) – apart from Ged, from Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard Of Earthsea. It’s wonderful to know that admirable, flawed, lovable characters are still being created.
The sequel is scheduled for release in the middle of next year, and I look forward to meeting Seraphina again then.