SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERY INFORMATION. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
For forty years, the human kingdom of Goreddi has been at peace with the dragons, thanks to the Treaty negotiated by Queen Lavonda and Ardmagar Comonot. But now Prince Rufus has been murdered and the manner of death suggests, to some, a dragon. The timing is inconvenient. Ardmagar Comonot is coming to town in ten days to celebrate the anniversary of the Treaty.
Our protagonist is Seraphina Dombegh, assistant to the court composer. In addition to giving lessons to Princess Glissenda, preparing the musical programs for the Ardmagar’s visit and commemoration of the Treaty, Seraphina must also fulfill the unexpected musical needs of poor Prince Rufus’s funeral. On top of all that, for various reasons and in various ways, she becomes embroiled in the murder investigation and its destabilizing effects on the precarious peace between the two races.
Meanwhile, Seraphina is keeping a secret; a terrible, dire, tantalizing, unholy secret; one that might put her very life in danger, along with those closest to her. For that reason, she has never had any real friends. But her entanglement in the investigation brings her into contact with Prince Lucian Kiggs, Captain of the Guard, who might be willing, if she gave him a chance.
The world building is nothing short of jaw dropping. From the opening description of Seraphina’s birth and baptism, to her navigation along the alleys, bridges and quays of Lavondaville, to the panoply of saints that comprise the religion of Goreddi, I never doubted for a moment that it all really exists, somewhere. I would recommend the book for the world building alone.
The prose is also delightful. Consider the opening paragraphs, in which Seraphina describes her memory of her own birth:
I remember being born.
In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion.
Rachel Hartman knows more words than I do, which I count as a positive. I read it using my Kindle app, and enjoyed the ease with which I could look up the intriguing new words I encountered: houppelande, dagged, transept, and oud to name a few.
There is an interesting take on dragons here. They are capable of assuming human form. When in that form, they are called saarantrai and required, under the Treaty, to where bells identifying themselves as such. The human body has the inconvenient side effect of arousing human emotions the dragons would not otherwise experience. Their leaders disapprove of this phenomenon to the point of monitoring and surveilling their saarantrai for any indulgence of emotion, taking custody of those who succumb thereto, and even performing surgery to excise the source of such distasteful phenomena.
The supporting cast is delightful; quirky, odd, eccentric characters with unique personalities and story lines. I was never once bored when they were on scene. In fact, there was not a single scene in this book, not a single page or paragraph, that left me bored. That is rare.
The ending paved the way flawlessly for the sequel, with the battle lines clearly drawn, not between human and dragon, but between those who support the peace and those who do not.
If I have any complaint, it might be the depth and warmth of character granted the two female leads in contrast with that attributed to the male. Princess Glissenda spends her days discussing fashion with her favorite lady-in-waiting, lounging in the salon and calling her cousin/fiance Prince Lucien a “bastard” in front of his face, a reference to his heritage not his disposition, and a callousness he himself never displays. Seraphina responds somewhat passively when her uncle faces grave danger, yet spares no means when the aforementioned Princess is threatened.
Nevertheless, the pitch-perfect buildup of emotion between two of the leads is remarkable. Hartman’s talent is evident in her ability to convey so much without showing more than necessary to leave us craving more—and without ever telling. There is a scene at the end that is as sweet, tender and satisfying—and featuring a kiss as sigh-worthy—as any I have ever read. It takes places against the backdrop of two of the main characters keeping an enormous, dangerous secret from everyone around them, thereby laying the stakes for the next novel.
I give this book five out of five stars. It makes my lifetime list of favorite books, and is compelling to me both as a reader and also as a writer, in terms of studying what Hartman has accomplished and how.
Enchanted to meet you both, Ms. Hartman and Seraphina.