Sometime in the past, in an alternate history, humans and dragons live together, keeping the peace under an uneasy treaty. Some dragons have chosen to live in their own lands, but others, the Saar, have learned to take a human shape and hold positions at court and as teachers.
As the fortieth anniversary of the treaty approaches, the murder of the crown prince of Goredd threatens to irrevocably shatter the tenuous bonds between the species. Popular human opinion has it that dragons are responsible for the death, and prejudice and hate rise to the surface.
The eponymous heroine of Rachel Hartman's Seraphina finds herself unexpectedly at the forefront of the unrest. As the eldest daughter of the treaty's author, Seraphina knows the law. But that's not why, at age sixteen, she has come to court. She is there to assist the royal musician and to provide lessons to the new heir apparent, Princess Glisselda. Seraphina, however, has secrets, and those secrets just might hold the key to a lasting peace.
It's easy to see why Seraphina earned so many awards and starred reviews. Although the idea of dragons and humans living in close proximity is not new, Hartman has given us a fresh take on the theme and a strong, smart main character. Seraphina doesn't always make wise decisions, but she doesn't approach life recklessly. She has talents, but she is also flawed and struggles with self-acceptance.
I chose to listen to the unabridged audiobook read by Mandy Williams. Despite being an avid audiobook fan, I think Serphina is one of those novels that should be read in print. Or perhaps it was that Williams was not a good match for Seraphina.
My primary issue with the audiobook is that Seraphina is old enough to leave home and work in a prestigious position at court. She is intelligent, thoughtful, and troubled. Unfortunately, Williams's voice sounded much too young for the character, which strained my ability to believe in the story. I often had to step back from the audio to remind myself that Seraphina was not twelve.
Although Seraphina is a fantasy, the novel touches on several deeper themes that resonate in modern times. The most important of which are prejudice against those who are different and the problems faced by people of mixed heritages. You see, Seraphina is an abomination and is thought impossible to even exist: her mother, who died in childbirth, was a dragon, but her father is all too human.
In one scene that would have been gut-wrenching in print, Williams fails to convey the depth of Seraphina's self-loathing and utter despair at the physical reminders of her dragon heritage. This same issue is found in the dramatic action scenes. Williams's narration is a little flat, and she would have served listeners better by increasing her pace and sharpening her tones to help us relate to Seraphina's fear and bravery.
Seraphina has a reputation of being a talented musician with an arresting singing voice, and I love that Williams, who has a nice voice, chose to break into song whenever Seraphina performs for an audience. This was a welcome treat, although I'd be remiss not to mention that when singing, Williams came out of character, sounding older and dropping Seraphina's accent.
Recommendation: Seraphina is a complex novel with a likable, smart, and flawed heroine. Rachel Hartman has created a unique, yet familiar world in which beings are struggling to understand each other and to find a middle ground in which both sides can embrace their differences. Even the obligatory love story is realistic and slow-building. Hartman has nicely balanced the action, the world building, and the characters' personal stories. Seraphina well deserves its awards and rave reviews.
Unfortunately, the audiobook does not do this novel justice. My suggestion is to stick with print. I understand that the print book contains a glossary and a list of characters. It's too bad these materials were not available as PDF downloads for listeners.
Note: Veteran narrator Justin Eyre has minor role in Seraphina. Her performance was well done. For a sample of Mandy Williams's performance, hit the play button in the widget below.
Print: Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012
Audio: Listening Library; 13 hr, 15 min
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
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