SERAPHINA, you stole my heart (and a few hours of sleep).
Dragons to die for. Yes, this book has some of the most intriguing dragons ever written. But there is so much more. Rachel Hartman has written a smart, breathtaking, funny, poignant and fresh story with a heroine so full of heart she shines like a candle in the dark. And the love interest? His heart is just as huge.
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.
I wouldn't cope well with the crap we all step in from time to time if it weren't for this world giving me stunners like this:
When nature is glorious my spirit soars. I put my feet in the sea, reach for the sky and drag in the air. Have you ever gone flying in your dreams? It feels so right. Like we somehow in daily life forget how natural it is to let go and just be.
And, yes, I titled this post using a phrase that popped in my head but is also the title of a brilliant novel by Jandy Nelson. I'd reviewed it some time ago but never forgot the story of a girl upended by grief at the sudden death of her sister. Here's the unforgettable last line of the first chapter: It's as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way. I know that empty, lost feeling too well. I think I need to read the book again, to remember how this story, which is also funny and passionate, never forgets the grief but discovers purpose--a place to flourish in this world.
We've all been buried by grief. We've all cowered from our demons or learned to stand up to them. We've all been betrayed by someone we trusted. We've all lost confidence at one time or another. Or, at least, I believe these things are universal.
But there is healing. There is beauty. There is hope.
Several times a year, large, well-shaped waves fire up in Venice Beach. When they do, professional surf photographers show up ready to snap pictures of pros repped by companies selling boards, clothes, etc. Look closely and you'll see there's a guy in the curl of that wave.
It's all about seizing the moment, being ready for opportunity and willing to take a chance, which is useful no matter what you do. My life has been stressed and chaotic of late, so I'm trying to carve out time here and there to write and keep up with all you lovely people.
There is a great quote attributed to Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
I intend to get out my tools (I have a new book THE PLOT WHISPERER WORKBOOK that will be a lot of work, without doubt, but also may take my rewrite to a new level.) That's what I'm striving for: the big wave.
Lastly, please check out my last post about the release of THE SECRET UNDERGROUND by Natalie Bahm if you haven't and consider buying a copy to help the family of a very sick little boy. Jayden, poor wee thing, is back in the hospital again. Thank you.