SERAPHINA, you stole my heart (and a few hours of sleep).
I read a lot of YA and some MG. Much of it is really good, but SERAPHINA is fabulous--a page-turner that has both substance and style. I hadn't been in a hurry to read this debut, expecting it to be a fun, lightweight fantasy that had something to do with dragons that I'd enjoy but not a story that would carry me off into an intriguingly developed and complex society.
What makes it so wonderful is the deeply-layered world building that includes cultural ramifications, such as religious beliefs and bigotries that feed into the political and personal landscapes. The main character, Seraphina, has something terrible and illegal to hide, but her astounding musical talent puts her in the spotlight and leads her into fascinating and dangerous territory.
Her father warns her to not draw attention to herself, never to play music in public, but when the flute soloist can't play at a state funeral, she has to. Here's her perspective as she sees the grieving royal family:
They needed Heaven's peace. I knew little of Saints, but I knew about sorrow and about music as sorrow's surest balm. That was comfort I could give. I raised the flute to my lips and my eyes toward the vaulted ceiling, and began to play.
I began too quietly, unsure of the melody, but the notes seemed to find me and my confidence grew. The music flew from me like a dove released into the vastness of the nave; the cathedral itself lent it new richness and gave something back, as if this glorious edifice, too, were my instrument.
There are melodies that speak as eloquently as words, that flow logically and inevitably from a single, pure emotion. The Invocation is of this kind, as if its composer had sought to distill the purest essence of mourning, to say, Here is what it is to lose someone.
In Seraphina's world there exists an unlikely truce between dragons and humans, but there are those on both sides who plot against it. Fear, distrust, resentment, hatred ripple through the population. Dragon-fighting knights of old have gone into exile, not willing to forget the wars they'd fought. Dragons, who can take human shape, walk among humans but they never are quite human enough, and are not trusted.
Along with the gripping tale, Hartman's writing soars and sings. Here's another sample of her style near the beginning of this 451-page novel:
He declined to tell me goodbye, as was his usual custom; he turned without a word and took off toward the cathedral. Its facade blazed red with the setting sun; Orma's retreating figure made a dark hatch mark against it. I watched until he disappeared around the end of the north transept, and then I watched the space where he had vanished.
I barely noticed loneliness anymore; it was my normal condition, by necessity if not by nature. After today's stresses, though, it weighed on me more than usual. Orma knew everything about me, but he was a dragon. On a good day, he was friend enough. On a bad day, running into his inadequacy was like tripping up the stairs. It hurt, but it felt like my own fault.
Still, he was all I had.