Sunday, March 23, 2014

YA Fiction Review: Seraphina

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. Published by Random House, 2012.

Seraphina is set in a medieval-like fantasy world, where humans and dragons are recovering from a history of warfare and violence. Despite a 40-year peace treaty, there remains a good deal of distrust and fear between the two peoples. Dragons, who can fold themselves into human shapes, are Klingon-Vulcan-like* in character; they distrust and repress all emotion, and have far superior technology than the humans. Oddly, though, while their technology allows them to create long-distance, wireless communication devices and brain surgery, it doesn't include the ability to lob a nuclear bomb at their pre-industrial human neighbors.

The title character is one of a small number of dragon-human hybrids whose very existence is a shameful secret. As a musician in the royal palace, Seraphina joins forces with her dragon uncle and a human prince and princess to thwart the plans of her dragon grandfather to undermine the peace treaty. Much of the novel focuses on her personal journey in accepting and sharing her own identity.

I really enjoyed this book. It's nicely written, fast-paced, and unique.

Overview:

Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Probably a better fit for a middle-school or older child. The themes of intolerance and shady political alliances are dark and complex for a 7 year old. Also, the focus on finding one's personal identity may be more meaningful for an adolescent than a child. Finally, like most YA novels, there's a love story that is inappropriately serious for a protagonist who's 16 years old, particularly since she falls in love with an engaged man. (Note, by "serious" I mean that he's portrayed as "the one and only love of her life", not that the relationship is inappropriately sexual.)

Positive gender roles?: Yes! Not only is Seraphina herself a strong, brave, complex, determined, and well-developed main character who also is female, but several other important characters are strong women. The nation of Goredd, where the action takes place, is ruled by a revered queen, and her two heirs are both women.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Yes! There are characters of various ethnicities and colors described in the book. Most importantly, though, the treatment of dragons and dragon-hybrids is clearly meant to mirror the treatment of minorities in the U.S. and Europe. Dragons in human form are required to wear bells, not stars, to show their status, but the description of mob violence and religious fanaticism aimed against them has clear roots in the European pogroms. Near the end of the book, Seraphina and her human father describe living their lives as lies, hiding who they really are and who they really love, in language that reflects some contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality. There is a strong overall message about tolerance, acceptance, and multiculturalism.

Final verdict: I really liked this book, on many levels. I may give it to my daughter to read when she's older (middle to high school aged), or use it as bedtime reading when she's 10 or 11, so we can discuss what is happening and the historical roots of the story.
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*Alright, so I failed Sci-Fi Geekery 101. May the Force Be with You.

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