Friday, July 13, 2012

Sufficiently interesting

In Rachel Hartman's young adult novel Seraphina, dragons feel about us the way we feel about cockroaches...

"All right. Can you think of anything — anything at all — that the cockroaches could do to persuade us that we should let them live?"

The girls exchanged a skeptical look. "Cockroaches can only scuttle horridly and spoil your food," said Millie, hugging herself. She'd had experience, I gathered.

Glisselda, however, was thinking hard, the tip of her tongue protruding from her mouth. "What if they held court or built cathedrals or wrote poetry?"

"Would you let them live?"

"I might. How ugly are they, though, really?"

I grinned. "Too late: you've notice they're interesting. You understand them when they talk. What if you could become one, for short periods of time?"

They writhed with laughter. I felt they'd understood, but I underscored my point: "Our survival depends not on being superior but on being sufficiently interesting."

Seraphina is musically gifted and she has joined the court as music tutor to the Princess Glisselda. Though she is but a year older than Glisselda, as the above exchange shows Seraphina — in part due to her family heritage and the fact that her father is a lawyer — has a worldly wisdom on matters other than music that the princess recognizes as valuable.

The entire kingdom is in the midst of preparations for a grand celebration of the treaty with the neighbouring dragon nation. But as the novel opens, one of the royal family has recently been found murdered — by a dragon, it's suspected. Old animosities resurface, and political tensions are coming to a boil. And Seraphina gets caught up in the intrigues surrounding the prince's death.

It's a richly detailed world, and the characters — Goreddi, dragon, Porphyrian, half-breed, what have you — are very humanly realized. There's something very true about them.

One quibble: while the dragons are calculatingly mathematical and unemotional by nature, the dragon half-breeds seem to be gifted with talents that aren't obviously related to their dragonness. Perhaps it's something rooted in their other half that the dragonness intensifies? This isn't entirely clear to me.

Regardless, the core of the story is about Seraphina coming into her own, coming to terms with her past and the family secrets she uncovers, and learning to accept herself as she is, with all the unique traits that set her apart. She starts off a lonely and somewhat timid and confused girl, but always thoughtful. She grows into a self-assured young woman with a well-developed sense of what's right and just and forms strong bonds with the people who matter.

There is also a romance element that builds gradually and sweetly — I like how it's described in The Book Rat review.

All in all, Seraphina is a compelling story, gracefully written. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter when she's older.


Cipriano said...
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Cipriano said...

One thing I really love about Magnificent Octopus, is how its proprietress, Queen Isabella, reads and reviews such... hmm... off-the-beaten-track sort of books.
So often she makes me feel like, "Dangity! I would love to read that thing!"
Yet it is almost always a book I would never have even heard of, before clicking on in to her... Queendom. Hers is an eclectic taste, for sure.
She tends to remind me, and unaware of doing so, that I do not spend quite enough time in a genre that I do truly relish. The Gormenghast-like world of sheer fantasy, where dragons live and castles tower on up into an "other" world.

Isabella K said...

Cip, I know you sometimes dip into both YA and fantasy (you're a Philip Pullman fan, yes?). This novel isn't as "big" as His Dark Materials -- Seraphina, despite the wide and detailed backdrop, is a fairly intimate story -- but it's just as easy to accept this other world and its strange workings. What I like about fantasy is that it has the power to depict humanity often more clearly than in "realistic" novels -- the ideas are somehow clearer when not muddled up with "humans."

Cipriano said...

Isabella -- so true, about some of this "somehow clearer when not muddled up with humans" business.
I do truly love the fantastic stuff. And as you say, a HUGE fan of Philip Pullman, am I.
And Tolkien. And Mervyn Peake.
Along these lines, I wonder if you have discovered the work of Margo Lanagan. ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL. Her "Tender Morsels" is just so amazing. And "Black Juice" [short stories]. She is so incredibly good. She has a new one out that I have yet to see in the stores.
You should get your tentacles on Margo Lanagan, M.O.