Seraphina by Rachel Hartmann
Decades ago, the Queen of a human kingdom and the King of the dragons worked out a peace treaty, still not completely trusted by anyone. Since then, the dragons (who call themselves saars) have decided that humans can be interesting. They take human form, or sarantras, and come to the city to explore human ways. This is the world that Seraphina has grown up in. She’s recently moved to the city and taken a job as assistant to the court musician, even though her Secret means that she must keep to herself, trusting no one and desperately lonely. A close friend of the family and her teacher, Orma, is a sarantras who has the special scholar’s license not to wear the visible badge. From dealing with him, she has learned to understand how dragons think – a Vulcan-like mindset that prizes scientific calculation and considers emotion dangerous and unreliable. This skill brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs, a bastard engaged to Princess Glisselda, granddaughter of the still reigning queen who made the treaty in the first place. Her musical skill, meanwhile, was on display at the funeral for the much-loved prince whose was recently found murdered in dragon-like fashion in the wilderness. The talent lands her a position teaching Princess Glisselda harpsichord, while Kiggs decides that she’s the perfect person to assist in the investigation of the prince’s death. In her personal life, Seraphina’s mind is inhabited with people, some more and some less human in shape, who will take over her mind with visions if she doesn’t carefully visit and talk to the avatars of them in the garden she’s created for them in her mind. She’s always assumed this was her mind just being a little weird on her – until she meets one of them in person.
Seraphina is a character after my own heart. My lonely teen soul had a hard time identifying with any character for whom making friends came easily, and Seraphina’s loneliness brought me right back to that time. Happily for her, by the end of the book she’s found a happier place, one that felt honestly won. There was also a lot about music, and just reading about her playing the oud without her plectrum made me smile in geeky recognition. OK, I’ve never played an oud or used a plectrum, but I loved that Hartmann used real historical instruments, and Seraphina and I had flute, voice and keyboard in common. This is set in a beautifully realistic Renaissance world with a saint-based religion. It’s full of politics, music, personal discovery as well as the dragons, with some romance thrown in for good measure. While there is a villain in the end, for the most part, the sides are drawn in shades of gray, with neither humans nor dragons being the Enemy, and understandable motives on all sides. We have it in teen, and while Seraphina really is going through teen problems, the sex and violence are both low enough to make this fine for advanced younger readers. I would happily recommend this to anyone who identified with Menolly in Dragonsong.