On her eleventh birthday, Seraphina discovers that she is an aberration--the offspring of a human and a dragon. A band of scales erupts around her waist and on a her arm, and she develops a strange dream world inhabited by partially deformed creatures, whom she must tend to in order to keep her sanity.
In spite of her father's best efforts to keep her anonymous and hidden away, Seraphina becomes the assistant to the royal court's composer, which often puts her in charge of the royal orchestra. She inadvertently ends up drawing unwanted attention to herself when she engages in a particularly moving performance on the flute during a royal funeral.
In this fantasy world, humans and dragons have embarked on a fragile peace, and dragons live amongst humans by morphing themselves into human form. Yet bitterness and hate simmer beneath the surface and sometimes above it as well. Humans do not take well to the dragons among them and want to eliminate them entirely.
In just so happens that the person Seraphina is closest to is her mentor, the dragon Orma, who is actually her uncle. She must keep the fact that they are related secret because the idea of a human-dragon hybrid is an abomination.
After her performance pushes her out of the shadows, Seraphina soon becomes aware of a plot to overthrow the peace treaty. There is a rogue dragon, one closer to Seraphina than she cares to admit, who wants to throw the world back into the chaos of open warfare. Unfortunately, the one she must rely on to bring the plot to light is the guileless and noble captain of the queen's guard, Price Lucian Kiggs, who is engaged to the princess Glisselda and who Seraphina finds herself falling in love with.
This is a lovely book. Seraphina's need to hide her true identity is especially compelling and easy for the reader to identify with. Her emotional state is constantly at issue, and watching her navigate her role in the court and her fear of being discovered is riveting. I have to say I really, really enjoyed this book. It is exactly the sort of thing I crave.
The novel has some particularly clever refrains. I love the idea that the dragons are able to morph into humans. Their natural state is incredibly amusing because they are intensely pragmatic, logical creatures, and they put me in mind of the Vulcans on Star Trek. What is particularly intriguing is the way their biological transformation into humans wreaks havoc on the careful control they have of their emotions. As soon as they transform, they begin to be hit with emotions, and for many, it is difficult to understand and respond to these foreign feelings.
There is one particularly telling scene in which the dragon who brokered the peace treaty between humans and dragons, called the Comonot, is engulfed by a strange feeling he cannot understand. Princess Dionne, whom the Comonot is supposed to be meeting for an illicit assignation, has been poisoned by wine that was intended for both of them. Here is the scene:
"Comonot grabbed my sleeve. 'Help me,' he said. 'I feel something--'
'Guilt,' I snapped, trying to free myself.
'Make it go away!' He looked nakedly terrified."
It is as if a robot was suddenly programmed to have feelings. What I find of particular interest here is the idea that is is the very biology of humans that makes us feel emotions; it is only when the dragons adopt the human form that they begin to experience these feelings.
The other conceit I was particularly struck by was Seraphina's Garden of Grotesques--the dream state she enters peopled with strange half-human creatures she must attend to. It turns out that the beings in this dream place are human-dragon hybrids, just like her. Unknown to her at first, Seraphina is clairvoyant and can reach out to these half breeds. The whole concept of the garden is what intrigues me. It seems to be a physical place that Seraphina travels to, yet it only exists in her mind. The fact that these are people who live independently of her mental space only makes the idea even more alluring.
Overall, two big thumbs up. If you're into fantasy with alternate worlds replete with its own set of rules and conventions, this is the place to go. Hartman does an expert job of creating a universe that is not only believable; it actually seems inevitable.