Primarily, for the depth of the characters. Yes, I could eat these characters up all day long (and did for two days straight, while intermittently bent over a sickbowl with norovirus, which is proof of just how charming they are). I'm not a frequent reader of young adult fiction, for no reason other than ignorance - which I'm trying to fix with the aid of The Book Smugglers and things mean a lot - and you surprised me with the individuality of your protagonist.
Seraphina is just sixteen years old, an unimaginable creature born of a human man and a dragon. Yes, a dragon, a dragon that has taken human form and fallen in love with a lawyer of all people, in contravention of every law of the land of Goredd and of the peace treaty between human and dragon kind. When Seraphina is a little girl scales appear on her body: a girdle of silver around her waist and around her left arm. No one must ever know, see or - Saints forbid - touch this monstrous part of her. Her true ancestry is revealed to her. Linn, her dragon mother, died in childbirth but left her with a parcel of memories which now burst upon her as powerful visions and a menagerie of imaginary grotesques that she has to manage through meditation and self-control. Her gift for music - something Linn also passed to her - is what saves her life, gives her meaning and at the beginning of the novel takes her right into the heart of Goredd's civic life, as assistant to court composer Viridius and music tutor to the young princess Glisselda.
Sound slightly silly to you? Very average? I refuse to let you even think it. Seraphina tells it all in her own voice, aware of the danger of her situation, her isolation, but also tutored in self-control and too alive to the irony and possibility of life for self-pity. She is capable - and does her job as court musician throughout the book, no matter her other adventures - and clever, and responsible, and open-hearted, and brave, but never impossibly strong or kick-ass or any of those other embarassing things that heroines can be. She does have disastrously unruly hair that transforms her into a beauty when tamed but if this is the only trope-trap debut author Rachel Hartman falls into I can forgive her a thousand times over.
There are lots of other female characters to admire here too. Goredd is ruled by a family of matriarchs: Queen Lavonda, author of the treaty between humans and dragons that has led to forty years of peace; her daughter and heir Princess Dionne and her granddaughter Princess Glisselda. They are descended from a dynasty founded by another Queen, the legendary Blondweg who united Goredd and is the protagonist of the national epic story. There are female ambassadors; there are women who hit people; there are many female saints - the Cathedral in Goredd is named for one of them - and these saints are often the saints men pray to. There is so little gender friction in this world it makes me suspicious; I go looking for it like a bloodhound. But even flirtatious Glisselda, who is much more the archetypal princess than Seraphina the archetypal heroine, surprises me by being much more than the sum of her petticoats.
The dragons. Don't get me started on the dragons. When they are in their human form - called a saarantras - they struggle with their state of mind. The complexity and intensity of human emotions, impossible feelings in their dragon bodies, are overwhelming. They practise a form of mental repression, an order and correctness that they call 'ard', the acceptable formation of thought and feeling. It is the same system that Seraphina uses to control her visions and grotesques, taught to her by her dragon uncle Orma. It makes dragons seem distant, cold and impolite; it is hard for them to 'pass' in human society (and impossible if they do not have an exemption from wearing the silver bell that marks them out at every step). Harder still for us to read about and love them, and yet. Orma is a wonderfully complex character, worked for amusement - the minor misunderstandings of human etiquette - and intensified by the fierce control of the emotions we sense he conceals. He is the reticent male who cannot say how he feels, but squared. The delicate balance of his relationship with Seraphina, to whom he has been like a surrogate father as well as a teacher, is heartbreakingly precise. Her absolute trust in him is sweet but not in a saccarhine way: these are the limits and extents of love that she has learnt to measure.
Secondly, (and it is so long since I said primarily that you have probably forgotten this Elizabeth Barrett Browning conceit, but lets plough on), for the breadth of Seraphina's world. World-building is a tough cookie. Rachel Hartman is clever because she doesn't try too hard. The whole dragon vs human kind thing gives her a solid foundation on which to bolt a history and a set of opposing cultures and philosophies (and, hurray, this world does have cultures and philosophies, and more than one of each of them). Then she introduces a religion, a religion built around saints, and this is really clever, because she can use this multiplicity of saints as a shorthand to structure worship, society, the calendar, sexuality, even the streets and marketplaces of the cities in Goredd. Each citizen of Goredd has a patron saint, who shapes their vision of the world; and each saint tells us something about the society in which Seraphina lives. So, for example, we have saints of love (and, get this, it's homosexual love, but it stands in for all love) and a saint of war against dragons, a saint of scholars (and it's a female saint), a saint of music (so important to Goreddis), a saint of diligence and persistance.
The human world of the book is undoubtedly going to get bigger. We have been introduced to ambassadors from Ninysh, Samsam and Porphryr, and had hints of their cultures and of their racial differences. But I also hope the dragon world will expand, beyond the hints and memories of the Tannamoot we have had so far. One of the most intriguing peoples in the book are the Quigutl, a lesser species of dragon who cannot transform into human shapes and are treated like vermin in Goredd, a plague of stinky, panhandling immigrants to human cities, the lowest of the low, treated poorly by dragon and human alike.
Thirdly, for the lengths that Rachel Hartman goes to integrate her themes. There is such a lot going on in Seraphina about family, multi-culturalism, art, race, generational gaps and technology, that I couldn't possibly tell you it all. Also, I really want you to read the book and discover it for yourselves. But the thing that struck me most forcibly is how this is a book about the mind. By that I don't mean that it is a cerebral fantasy about reasoning and philosophy, although it is partly about that and philosophy especially plays an important part in the development of Seraphina's love interest. (Which I haven't mentioned yet, and which is remiss, but it would be spoilery to say any more than that there is one.)
What I mean is that this is a book about states of mind, about the perceptions people and dragons have of their thoughts and feelings, and the different ways they find of coping or not coping with them. Essentially, the question it poses is: what makes anyone what they are - a soul, their feelings, their body? And if so, how do we locate or define these things? Humans believe that dragons are soulless, unfeeling creatures, and dragons do not disagree. But when they are in their saarantras they battle to preserve their dragon state against the flood of emotions their bodies create. How can you define yourself in a world where states of body and mind are so blurred and mixed? The argument is reduced to a knee-jerk humans are humans, and dragons are dragons. But what is the difference between a dragon and human when they look precisely alike, when they can fall in love with one another, when they can have children together?
Seraphina holds its breath at a very important moment in Goredd, the moment when a younger generation of humans and dragons starts to break down the species barrier. Starts to wonder what the real differences, aside from the obvious physical ones, are. Seraphina, and others like her, are walking, talking proof of something, although no one is sure what that something is yet. Her emergence into society is an enormous test for both of her peoples, and promises lots of fun in the books to come.
And, finally, I loved Seraphina because of the way it restored me to 'my childhood's faith, with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints'. Ok, I'm getting over emotional now, because I was sick when I read this and pretty low at heart, but honestly Seraphina did remind me of a feeling of reading that I thought I had lost last year. When I came to sum up 2012 a few weeks ago I felt with sinking horror that I had misplaced my passion for books, during what must have been the longest reading slump of my life. I wasn't necessarily reading bad books; I had just forgotten what books were good for. I needed something that had that alchemical magic of my 'lost saints', those books that light you up. These are not necessarily classics, except in your own personal taxonomy of classics. Mine would include Guy Gavriel Kay's The Summer Tree; Diana Gabaldon's Outlander; Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South; Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters and, of course, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, all sitting together cheek by jowl in my mind. Seraphina has something of those books about it. Even if it hasn't quite graduated to sit amongst them, the next book or the one after that might. I have been reminded of the extraordinary potential joy of a story. Thank you mightily Rachel Hartman.
Aside: I'm so glad to see that Seraphina has been shortlisted for the Kitschies' Golden Tentacle award, alongside Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo (which I read and review for Strange Horizons in 2011). It makes me seriously want to read the other contenders on the shortlist: Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon, Madeline Ashby's v/N and Tom Pollock's The City's Son.