RACHEL HARTMAN, SERAPHINA, CORGI £7.99 11+
Thanks to The Hobbit, stories about dragons have never been more popular. What fun, then, to find a debut in which the heroine has to conceal her mixed-race identity in a world where dragons can transform themselves into humans. This isn’t a new idea – it was used by both Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper and Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books – but in the imagination of Rachel Hartman, it becomes a metaphor for the divide between head and heart.
Greedy for knowledge instead of gold, dragon scholars like Seraphina’s uncle Orma are close to autism; Seraphina herself must keep her relationship, scaly arms and exceptional musical gifts secret, but employ her powers of rational deduction to investigate the murder, “in a distinctly draconian fashion” of Prince Rufus. Humans hate and distrust the humanoid dragons living among them, but Hartman’s dragons see us, mortifyingly, as akin to cockroaches: they study us out of curiosity, display comically appalling manners and they fail to understand art (especially music), let alone the messy, illogical human heart. A fragile forty-year treaty is under threat as a result.
Seraphina’s agonised self-loathing is described with emotional intelligence which may resonate with far too many troubled teenagers. Her hidden scales and weird visions have her self-harming, before her courage and exceptional gifts as a musician unexpectedly win her love. Her subtle courtship by a bastard Prince is touching, funny and fraught; pleasingly, the thriller aspect is paramount as they labour to uncover a conspiracy.
Despite many familiar fantasy tropes, this is one of the more original adventures I’ve read for some years. Its religious beliefs, customs, fashions and politics make for a slow beginning but a richly rewarding read, packed with engaging characters and interesting ideas. A sequel is due next year –don’t miss it.
The Times, January 2013