This book when boiled down, essentially becomes a simple linear idea. In the same way that The Lord of the Rings
can be turned into the epic tale of good versus evil and how Cloud Atlas
can be squashed down into man's desire across history to control power so this story also can be squashed down. In literary terms it all comes down to the surface ideology of the novel, the ultimate overlying ideas and preconceptions that tell you what the novel is about.
But looking merely at the surface ideology does not present any clear depiction of the originality or the content that makes the book truly what it is. Seraphina's
surface ideology reveals it as a tale about emotions, specifically how love is not a disease. So, you say, that's old hat, it's been done before, it's an exhausted idea, particularly in this post-modern (or post-post-modern depending on the theories) world. The beauty of this novel, as with people, as with many great novels, is that it is more than a simple idea, even though a simple idea is part of it. It is more than its prose, its characters, its plot. It is a composition of every element of writing and it sets a high standard in the children's fiction genre, specifically for YA fiction, but not only that for fiction in general. Considering that this is the debut novel of Rachel Hartman I am looking forward to the sequel eagerly.
While you cannot expect the literary trickery of other authors, since Hartman aims first and foremost to be a storyteller telling a fascinating story, this is a grand tale. Not only that it certainly features a more unique method of looking at the idea of dragons mixing with humans. Now that the dragon rider idea has been done to death alongside the idea of dragons as allies or dragons as enemies you might question how dragons can be done differently? Take the idea of dragons as evil nemeses battling humanity for survival and then throw that idea into a complex romantic pseudo-medieval world in which a truce has been established between humans and dragons. Now to further this add the idea that dragons can take on human form, and indeed all dragons living in human cities must take human form and be registered as part of that truce. A sense of the political demands of a world where dragons and humans do not trust each other can be glimpsed by considering this idea before even reading the novel.
Enter into this world the strong female protagonist Seraphina. I will admit that 'strong, female protagonist' comes across entirely subjective as everyone has different ideas about a strong female protagonist but that is how she came across to me despite her life requiring her to tell lies to survive. You see it is revealed early on that Seraphina (or Phina) is not entirely normal. Seraphina is half dragon. As a result of this Seraphina must tread her way through a world of prejudice and court intrigue, trying to solve a mystery and keep her own mysteries safe.
All of which leads us to the passive, or the implicit, ideology of this book. The ideas buried beneath the obvious ideas, again this is subjective. What I saw in this novel was the idea of a culture clash, which linked into the understanding of emotions that was clearly visible. In specific I saw this linking back to racism and the slavery notions that have captured humanity for many years unfortunately. It felt that the relations between humans and dragons, the ideas that they weren't meant to interrelate much and had prohibitions on what they could do and when, were like what happened in colonialism. A subject very much discussed in schools and universities in Australia as we still come to grips with the dark places of our history. The half-dragon children were like the 'half-breeds' taken by Missionary groups wrongly and considered through Cultural Darwinism as being lesser evolved (all of which shows that humans are highly prejudiced creatures). The various saints of the book and the different opinions caused by them further aided this sense in the novel. I found this a fascinating link idea not only for a YA novel but for fantasy overall as a genre.
This is a beautifully written novel that drew me in from page one. The ideas and handling of the book was worth every moment I spent reading it. I will admit that I spotted flaws, but then no book is ever perfect and all books I have loved I can see the flaws in, much like I see the flaws in the people I love. Does that make them bad books or bad people? No, it humanises and provides greater character. Seraphina's
one main flaw in my view was that it had a rushed pace at the very end which felt uneven given the book's nice casual meandering throughout the other three quarters of the text. However despite this the book is one of the most impressive I've read in a while and deserves to be read and talked about by bibliophiles of all kinds.