CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 39 . . . . June 8, 2012
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2012.
480 pp., hardcover, $21.00.
Courts and courtiers-Fiction.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Kalina Lafreniere.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
There followed a fierce argument between my father and the priest, but I don’t remember it. I was gazing, transfixed, at a procession of monks passing through the nave. They padded by in soft shoes, a flurry of dark, whispering robes and clicking beads, and took their places in the cathedral’s quire. Seats scraped and creaked; several monks coughed.
They began to sing.
The cathedral, reverberating with masculine song, appeared to expand before my eyes. The sun gleamed through the high windows; gold and crimson bloomed upon the marble floor. The music buoyed my small form, filled and surrounded me, made me larger than myself. It was the answer to a question I had never asked, the way to fill the dread emptiness into which I had been born. I believed - no, I knew - I could transcend the vastness and touch the vaulted ceiling with my hand.
Sixteen-year-old Seraphina Dombegh has just arrived at the royal court in Goredd, the fictional country where this fantasy novel is set. A talented musician, Seraphina has been hired as the assistant to the court composer, Viridius, and she spends her days organizing choir practice and giving harpsichord lessons to Princess Glisselda. She must also help Viridius prepare for a major social function at the palace, one which holds historical significance to Goredd and is the event that is the driving force of this narrative.
In the first chapter, readers learn that Goredd is no ordinary place. It is inhabited by humans and dragons in a setting that calls to mind the castles and cobblestones of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. However, this isn’t your standard knights-and-dragons tale; in Seraphina, dragons have the ability to take on human forms - known as saarantrai - and some even pass as genuine humans.
Despite the approaching anniversary of the treaty-signing that brought peace to Goredd, the relationship between humans and dragons is tumultuous, and violence breaks out in the streets between anti-dragon protestors and saarantrai. This is escalated by the imminent arrival of the dragon general, Ardmagar Comonot, for the treaty-signing anniversary celebration and by the unexplained death of Prince Rufus in chapter one. To top it all off, in the midst of all this tension, Seraphina must guard a horrific family secret that, if discovered, could result in shame, public humiliation, and a prison sentence for Seraphina’s family.
The story is told from Seraphina’s perspective and features several characteristics of the fantasy genre, such as the inclusion of mythical creatures (dragons) and a Medieval-inspired fictional setting, as well as the themes of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and the use of a made-up language. Upon finishing the unpublished review copy of this book, I found a glossary at the very end. Knowing of the presence of this glossary earlier would have been useful in progressing through the book (although it is not necessary). Perhaps the final published version will have the glossary at the beginning, or a table of contents indicating the glossary at the end.
The reader is introduced to numerous secondary and tertiary characters that provide context to the story but do little to further the plot line. Aside from Seraphina, herself, only a few other characters make a significant impact: Viridius, the cranky gout-ridden composer for whom Seraphina works; Princess Glisselda, the slightly mischievous and obnoxious young princess; Lucian Kiggs, the charming, handsome prince and Princess Glisselda’s cousin and betrothed, and; Orma, Seraphina’s saarantrai tutor. Secondary characters (secondary only in face time but not in impact) include other residents at the royal court and, perhaps most interestingly, a slew of seemingly imaginary characters that reside in Seraphina’s dreams, but who end up making real-life appearances during Seraphina’s waking hours and who ultimately affect the outcome of the unfolding events.
In terms of character development, readers see Seraphina progress from a shy, lonely, and self-conscious girl to a resourceful, well-liked and confident young woman. Princess Glisselda matures as well throughout the course of the story as she assumes more responsibility in her role as heir to the throne. Even Orma, the aloof but highly likeable saarantrai, begins to display and understand some human emotions, a feat for a logical and linear-thinking dragon. Prince Kiggs doesn’t really evolve in any way, but his character development is not essential to the story; he fulfills his role just by being the charming prince.
As the story progresses, Seraphina has to weave an increasingly tangled web of lies in order to guard her secret, but, despite her best efforts, cracks in her lies begin to appear. This reinforces the overarching message of the truth overpowering lies, good triumphing over evil, and - most importantly - the lesson of being true to yourself. Seraphina eventually learns the value of this lesson, which ultimately propels her into her role as a well-liked and confident young woman.
Seraphina moves at an easy pace with the storyline unfolding in a gentle, easy-to-follow manner which is appreciated since there is a fair bit of detail to take in, in terms of the rich detail of Goreddi life and the intricate and descriptive language Seraphina uses to describe her surroundings. Once the climax of the story begins, the pace picks up quite a bit and left me yearning for a more drawn out account of the epic events. Once the climax is over (it felt like it was over too soon!) the previous, gentle pace returns.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Seraphina. This is a story that is engaging and intriguing in subtle ways. Days after finishing this tome, I find myself wanting to know more about Seraphina and Goredd and hopeful that a passing mention by the author of a future installment of Seraphina comes to fruition.
Kalina Lafreniere is a recent graduate of the LIS program at the University of Toronto, and lives in Barrie, ON.
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