Saturday, April 13, 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Yesterday, I got on my workout clothes and was heading out the door with my husband when I said to him that the floor was uneven. He looked at my tennis shoes, quirked his eyebrows, drily replying, "You have two different pairs of shoes on dear." I looked down with round eyes at my white, errr.... blue-striped-left versus gray-striped-right shoe and responded, "We really need better lights in the bedroom." He quipped that there were five lightbulbs in the overhead fixture, but I had already slammed the bedroom door on him on my way to the closet. Honest-to-Pete, do I have to live everyday with this numbskull brain of mine? I tell you this because when you read my reviews, you have to understand my lightbulb doesn't glow in the dark. It doesn't really shine. At best it casts a hazy illumination on surrounding objects which is a round-about way of saying my wishy-washy brain can't figure out whether or not to give this book a 4 or 5 star. If I can't even get my shoes right, how can I decide on book review stars?

Sixteen-year-old Seraphina is plagued by self-doubts too, except unlike me, the light-emitting diodes (LEDS) in her brain shine brilliantly as one of the best musicians in the court and teacher to the high-spirited Princess Grisselda. When Prince Rufus is found headless after a hunt, Seraphina gets swept into an investigation that suggests a coup in the government. The mystery threatens to expose Seraphina's terrible secret, one so awful that if revealed, it would lead to her immediate execution.

The writing is exquisite with a unique retelling of familiar fantasy conventions and tropes. The author obviously put in quite a bit of research on medieval history creating a world of clothes and instruments representing that time period. I kept coming across words I didn't know; take for instance, "garderobe" is a medieval privy, "hypocaust" is a roman heating system, "hennin" is a 15th century hairdo, and "sackbut" (love that name) is a precursor to the trombone. My notes contain a symphony of historical details that create a rich setting. The glossary at the back contains a mere fraction of what is inked on the pages.

The first person narrative is necessary for the subplot of characters who exist in Seraphina's dreams. This alternate world called, The Garden of Grotesques, changes as the story progresses and it is unclear if the characters are going to help or hurt Seraphina until the end. I appreciated this surreal plot twist that kept me guessing in its unpredictability. Rachel Hartman explains that she based this on the memory palace. Oh ironies! I have checked out a book on the memory palace two times in the past four months, only to have it twice expire on my eReader because I forgot about it.

The romantic subplot between Lucian and Seraphina is predictable; however, I didn't find it boring because Hartman's writing is so gorgeous. Some writers leave me basking in their words and what might be tedious in less capable hands feels like a flower unfolding in the sunlight in expert hands. For instance, Lucian is a bastard and the concept is built on and explored by he and Seraphina in a satisfying way up to the end, "Bastard equals monster in our hearts' respective lexicons; that's why you always had such insight into it." Other themes such as truth, art, love, and more, are probed in similar ways. While the plot structure is conventional, the rest is not, and that, is what elevates this above your average, enjoyable fantasy.

Actually, the plot is what held me back on giving this book 5 stars. Many readers will not agree with me, but avid fantasy or romance readers might. The political investigation was fairly predictable with only one delightful twist that I didn't see coming - and while it was a great twist - I would have liked a few more. Not that it matters. Rachel Hartman creates terrific characters from the Spock-like Orma to the spoiled, kind-hearted Princess and infuses the storyline with tense life and death situations that ooze into many relationships and social structures. Dragons (in human form) and humans live together but theirs is a tentative peace. Humans cannot marry dragons and they do not commingle at the dinner table or at dances or socially. Prejudice and hatred are rampant creating suspense that made it hard for me to want to participate in the living, breathing, real world once I hunkered down with this book. Consider yourself warned.

I'm just poking fun at myself in the first paragraph. Actually, that isn't how it happened. My husband and I were going to the club, I noticed my shoes were uneven, and stopped pointing at them. "Unbelievable!" My husband snorts and says, "Kind of like different colored socks?" referring to our second date thirty years ago when I accidentally wore two different colored socks, drank too much beer and chucked a dart in his friend's expensive speaker hanging close to the dart board. "You knew exactly what you were getting," I snapped. He gives me his irresistible smirk while I stomp off. I had just burnt the granola I was cooking and wasn't in the mood for my dippy dim-witted brain clowning with me. So I fictionalized my story. I call it the art of writing. Or maybe it's author's prerogative. (Hey, I heard that... no it's not stupidity.) I do know that I resort to stretching the truth when I have writer's block. Usually uncataloging something stupid I've done melts the ice. Hartman explores the notion of art and truth in a much more intelligent way than me and the above paragraph is me connecting those ideas with my life. Dragons envy humans for the ability to create art and Kiggs and Serphina use it as a way to test philosophical theories. For them, art is a way to question life and look for different possibilities.

I am passionate about reading books, just like Rachel Hartman loves music. Her music passages contain so much emotion that it makes me want to pick up a flute and toodle some notes. Actually, her writing has such an exquisite rhythm and melody, it is easy to argue that it carries the plot forward at a steady beat. "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."  Now you can see my inspiration to pick out some notes on the keyboard and write a review that began with uncertainty but ended on a clear note. Read "Seraphina" and discover your own song.

4 Smileys

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