This week I’m recommending `Seraphina’ a first novel by American author Rachel Hartman.  This Young Adult Fantasy/Mystery was published in America in 2012 and a British paperback edition has just come out. It’s also available on Kindle. I was attracted to this book by the beautifully drawn dragon on the cover. I am very partial to dragons but they are so ubiquitous in Fantasy, I doubted if  `Seraphina’  would contain anything new or surprising.  Then I looked at the annotated cast list and saw that the heroine had seventeen grotesque people living inside her head. `That’s different,’ I thought, and so it proved. This is a sophisticated read that it is definitely at the adult end of Young Adult fiction.

The story is told by Music Mistress Seraphina Dombegh who lives in the kingdom of Goredd.  In her world, there are long-lived  fire-breathing dragons who are capable of taking human form. Forty years before, Queen Lavonda ended a terrible war by negotiating a peace treaty between Goredd and dragonkind. The Knights who used to fight the dragons have been banished and most saarantrai – dragons in their human form – have to identify themselves by wearing a bell. The peace treaty is due to be renewed but many humans still distrust dragons and resent their presence in Goredd. Seraphina is a musical prodigy who has just been given the job of assistant to the Court Composer. Very few people know that her mentor and music teacher, Orma, is a dragon in human form. Unfortunately, one of Seraphina’s first tasks is to play at a royal funeral. Prince Rufus has been found brutally dead and may have been murdered by a rogue dragon.  Seraphina soon finds herself helping royal bastard, Lucian Kiggs, investigate the murder of Rufus and on-going threats to the Goreddi royal family and the leader of the dragons. Lucian is engaged to his cousin, the charming, Princess Glisselda. This future queen begins to take advice about dragons from Seraphina, which makes the young Music Mistress enemies at court.

Attention of any kind is the last thing Seraphina wants because she has major  secrets to hide. Her father has always stressed that if anyone finds out the truth about her relationship with Orma, or sees what she hides under her clothes, Seraphina will be rejected by both humans and dragons. So she is forced to keep lying, even to the man she is starting to fall in love with. Seraphina  also struggles to deal with extraordinary memories bequeathed to her by her long dead mother and with  visions of  grotesque creatures. To control these visions, Seraphina has confined `her grotesques’ to a garden in her mind. Then she starts meeting her `imaginary people’ in real life.  Seraphina realizes that she may not be as unique as she had feared, but she still has to find out who is behind a ruthless conspiracy and risk everything to save those she loves.

I shouldn’t even have finished reading this book. When you mainly work at home as I do, you have to be disciplined. My number one rule is – no reading novels for pleasure during office hours. Yesterday, I broke that rule for `Seraphina’ because I was so captivated by Hartman’s heroine and so keen to know what would happen in the last few chapters. For me, this book works as a tantalizing  murder mystery, a touching love story and a remarkable character study of a girl who has been brought up to believe that she’s a monster. I’ve been vaguer than usual in my plot summary because I don’t want to spoil Hartman’s cunningly constructed series of revelations. She’s careful to keep you guessing about the murderer and their motives and there is no easy resolution to a love affair that is socially and morally impossible.

Seraphina herself is a distinctive narrator who tells her story with acidic humour and understated pain.  She starts with  a bizarre memory of her own birth and tells us that she was a finicky baby who would only suckle if `the wet nurse sang exactly on pitch’. Hartman writes wonderfully about music so Seraphina is always convincing as a remarkable musician. She presents herself as a crabby, unattractive and almost friendless girl whom nobody could love, but the reactions of other characters gradually show the reader that this is far from true. One of the joys of this book is that the people and dragons we meet are nearly all complex beings with mixed motives for their actions. Some of them even profit from experience and change in the course of the story. For example, Princess Glisselda seems dim and frivolous at first but develops leadership qualities in a crisis and becomes a staunch friend to Seraphina. It is typical of Hartman’s clever plotting that this causes another dilemma for Seraphina.

Goredd is a rather standard `medieval realm with dragons’ but  the Goreddi have some interesting customs and religious beliefs. They don’t worship a singular deity but there is a suitable saint for every person and occasion, including St Capita, the patroness of scholars who carries her own head on a plate. Hartman’s soul-less dragons look and fight  like standard Western dragons but they are coldly logical creatures and mathematics is the nearest thing they have to a religion. Their main reason for taking human form is to acquire more knowledge. These dragons don’t see the point of most human art-forms and claim not to understand human emotions such as love, but  saarantrai like Orma are gradually bringing the two species closer together. Then there are the smelly and spiny quigutl, who manage to annoy both humans and dragons, and Seraphina’s grotesques who each have a different remarkable power. All in all, Seraphina’s world is one I’m keen to revisit. That’s just as well because, like so many Fantasy books, `Seraphina’ turns out to be the first volume in a series. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel. Until next week…