Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A proper look at dragons

Some time ago I bought a novel on dragons on the recommendation of a terribly senior American academic who studies fantasy professionally. He said it was fresh, vivid, a wild new take on how dragon fiction ought to be written. Reader, I was SO disappointed! I wanted dragon sociology, and I got dragons wearing hats. I wanted the politics of draco-human relations, and I got cheap jokes. I would have been quite happy with a decent plot with all its ends tied up and accounted for, but even that was not forthcoming. So, I continued my browsing for excellence in dragon fiction, and am happy to tell you that, this time, I’ve found something much, much better.

Seraphina is the first novel from Rachel Hartman, an American YA fantasy writer with the rare gift of knowing how to construct a cracking good story, at all levels. This is an intelligent and sparky novel about how dragons and humans should talk to each other more, impressively weighted with a sound foundation of logical thinking about how dragons operate, and why. Hartman’s depth of invention, and consistency of vision, suggests that she’s going to be a fine novelist who just happens to be rather good in fantasy. She’s got the breadth of writing skills to tackle pretty much any genre she wants: it all seems to come quite naturally to her. In Seraphina, the way she handles feminism in fantasy is comparable with, say, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong; another novel where an oppressed and abandoned girl in a world of dragons makes a life for herself in music while hiding terrible secrets, that turn out to be manageable after all.

Seraphina’s mother is dead. This is a good thing, because in Goredd, dragons and humans are forbidden by all laws possible from falling in love, marrying or mating, yet it does happen. In this world dragons can transform to a human form. Seraphina’s mother was so afraid of being rejected by her human husband, after having been cast out by her family and own people, that she never told him she was actually a dragon until she was bleeding to death in childbirth. So Seraphina grew up motherless, with a distant father, and his strangely cold friend Orma who kept an unaccountable eye on her. When it became obvious that Seraphina had inherited her mother’s spectacular musical gifts, Orma became her teacher, and she discovered quite soon that he was actually her uncle (permanently disguised in saarantras form). He taught her dragon lore as well as music, and eased Seraphina’s psychological growing pains as she grew up half-dragon, half girl. As well as musical ability, Seraphina also inherited memories from her mother, which give her the clues, as the story unfolds, to uncover dragon treachery. There are plots against the fragile peace between dragons and humans, and Seraphina is the only person who knows what’s going on.

The memories emerge spontaneously when Seraphina is struggling to keep her half-dragon identity secret. She can never let anyone see the lines of dragon scales growing on her arm, or around her waist. How does a young woman cope, unable to allow anyone to get close to her, physically or emotionally, when she has her mother’s memories leaping into her head, and keeps meeting other people in her dreams? Orma helps Seraphina make a garden in her mind for the other people in her head to live in, which helps her control her emotional vicissitudes by good mental weeding. This inventive description of handling multiple personalities gives the novel a very unexpected and moving level of imaginative beauty, by using mental health as a metaphor for hiding, shame, secrecy, difference and guilt. The other people Seraphina meets in her dreams are also hiding their true natures. Helping them enables Seraphina to find the confidence to stoutly defend who she really is, against monstrous social and political pressure. The parallels with anti-Semitism, racism and disability prejudice are obvious, but only in hindsight, making this novel potentially a rather good teaching text as well as a great read. It’s also integrated beautifully in the story.

The politics of the plot are this novel’s other main strength. In fantasy writing it’s very common to write a medievalised setting and populate it with magical creatures willy-nilly, with scant attention paid to how they got there, or their pathology and ethnography. Dragons deserve their own palaeontology, and almost never get any. Also rarely tackled with sufficient depth is the integration of magic into a non-magic human world, where we can see how difference breeds bigotry, and power struggles cause chaos. Hartman tackles these challenges with steady logic, producing an imperceptibly inventive multi-species society that we don’t even think about not believing because it all simply works. She also builds gender equality into the power play without making a fuss about it. Goredd has a ruling prince, but he’s dead by the start of the story, and from then on all the other human power figures are women, three generations of them, including the very impressive Princess Glisselda, a 15 year old blonde with brains, political nous, and a strong personality to disguise her mediocre, but socially required, musical ability. Her name is as silly as her exterior, and just as unimportant, once she sits down at the inter-species negotiating table. Female and male dragons are indistinguishable, women and men play equal roles, and it doesn’t matter a bit. If this is the new normal in YA fantasy, where no-one gets to dominate the game just because of their sex, I’m all for it. Seraphina herself is a fine heroine: appealing, exhausting, a touch too hard-working, but when you’re running a royal choir and orchestra for an irascible composer with gout, you do have to just get on and do the job, no matter how many unwanted memories of dragonly bad behaviour you keep recalling.

I really liked this novel. It’s an excellent debut, it’s a gripping story, it’s full of well-hidden twists and unexpected details, and it is so well constructed. It’s clearly the start of a new series that I will absolutely be buying for birthday presents, and secretly reading before I wrap them up.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman (Random House, 2012), ISBN 9780857531568 £12.99

Kate podcasts weekly about the books she really likes on

About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

10 comments on “A proper look at dragons

  1. katkasia
    August 15, 2012

    Wow! It really does sound terrific. I’m not normally one for pure fantasy, but this book sounds amazing well thought out, and well written. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. annebrooke
    August 15, 2012

    I agree with Katkasia – sounds great! 🙂

  3. victoriacorby
    August 15, 2012

    This sounds terrific. One of my favourite books as a child was called Dragon Island, it was published in the 40’s I think and had the most brilliant illustrations, I’ve had a soft spot for dragons ever since.

  4. Elizabeth Kay
    August 15, 2012

    I keep hearing nothing but good things about this book–I’m not sure whether to be afraid to read it and be let down or to just hurry up and find out for myself how worth it it is!

  5. Kate
    August 15, 2012

    When the book arrived, I flicked through a few pages and was hooked instantly by the high writing quality, which I hadn’t expected, not having a very high opinion of YA fiction in general, in terms of style or such care with word choice and structure. The plot, and characters, and all that background got me when I started to read it properly. It really is a good novel. And the dragons are superb.

  6. Jackie
    August 15, 2012

    Oh wow, this sounds terrific. Not just because it has dragons, but all the layers wound into the story. And your interpretations & comparisions is just amazing. This was a superb review all around.

  7. Hilary
    August 16, 2012

    I must give up saying that YA is not my usual fare, as I’ve found so many recommendations on VL. This sounds wonderful! I think it pays to be picky about dragons in literature too – they special, and should have right done by them.

  8. CFisher
    August 18, 2012

    The dragons in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series also benefited from having, to use a fashionable Hollywood term, a strong backstory. They are neither good nor evil but will eat humans. Humans and dragons were once the same species and in that neat little sociological/linguistic detail that Ursula Le Guin delights in using, they do not learn the old language because they may already ‘be’ the language.

    Like you I am against putting hats on dragons.

  9. Kate
    August 20, 2012

    Yes, the sainted Le Guin is la doyenne of taking dragons seriously: all dragon writers should follow her lead.

  10. Pingback: What I love about my W.I.P. | J. Keller Ford ~ YA Fantasy Author

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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