Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dracophilia

So, now it can be told: This past year I've been reading first-time authors (conventionally published ones) with books for teens for this year's William C. Morris YA Debut Award. We announced our shortlist last month, so it's OK for me to say that I've been revisiting them in preparation for our discussions and selection during the last weekend of January. Only one of our five titles is available in audio, so I've listened to (and am now eye-reading) Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.

Seraphina Dombegh (DOM-bee) is the recently hired assistant music mistress at the palace of the rulers of Goredd, a slightly steampunkish medieval mashup of several world cultures (houppelandes co-exist with ouds and something called a megaharmonium). The Goreddi are about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their historic treaty with the dragons who had preyed on them for centuries, but who became even more frightening enemies when they learned to transform themselves into passable humans, a disguise known as saarantrai. It's an uneasy peace, and one that may be doomed by the recent murder of the crown prince -- a murder that carries a draconian signature by virtue of the fact that the prince's head is missing.

Seraphina, urged by her father to keep out of any palace intrigues is hiding a secret herself: she is the half-breed offspring of a human and a dragon. Her mother, who died giving birth, fooled even her father in her saarantrai. Seraphina has telltale scales wrapped around her waist and left arm (easily hidden by her capacious houppelande). Her mixed blood has caused her some physical problems, as she has debilitating visions of a variety of strange human-ish beings. Fortunately, her dragon uncle Orma, long a saarantrai resident and teacher in Goredd, has taught her many things about how to manage her (analytical) dragon side and its accompanying grotesques. He also gave her the music instruction that has landed her the job in the palace. Despite her best intentions, Seraphina is drawn into the investigations into Prince Rupert's death, investigations led by the handsome Captain of the Queen's guard, Lucian Kiggs.

Two things I really enjoyed about this book: Setting (the world of Goredd and surroundings) and the characters.  (The plot, while enjoyable, is fairly predictable.)  Hartman really shines in her creation of this world -- a city of neighborhoods, the non-Goreddi of distant lands, the bar where dragons and humans can drink together, the vendors, the cathedral; the cathedral reminds me of the gentle hints about Goreddi religion and the mysterious heresy of one Saint Yirtrudis. The long history of dragons and humans is trickled out in a natural, information-giving (but not overloading) way. You might want to know some details earlier than you get them, but is a relaxing desire -- you can be confident that Hartman will deliver.

The characters in the novel are vivid creations, led by our semi-reliable narrator, Seraphina. We learn as we read that even though Seraphina considers herself human, there's a lot of dragon peeping through her personality. I'm not a re-reader as a rule, but revisiting Seraphina knowing the story allows me to catch glimpses of that other side of her character that are shared before we really learn why. Other characters I was glad to meet: Seraphina's dragon uncle Orma (one of those classic "alien" characters who studies humankind without ever fully understanding them), the Princess Glisselda who you think is an empty-headed twit but has layers, the bastard Prince Lucian Kiggs, stalwart defender of what is right if not popular, the host of Seraphina's grotesques, the gout-ridden music master Viridius, and quick character studies of dragons, knights, townspeople that all add to the rich atmosphere of the setting. Not one is extraneous or poorly written.

A minor flaw for me: Seraphina as music mistress seems very, very unusual and I couldn't figure out why (beyond that it makes her stand out). All her musicians are identified as male, so I guess I wanted some explanation of how she was able to break into the Goreddi music biz, so to speak. There are plenty of strong women in this story -- queens, ambassadors, part of the anti-dragon resistance, leader of the saarantrai police force -- so the lack of musicians, which amounts to the lack of women with "ordinary" jobs, stood out for me.  There will be sequels, so maybe I'll learn more later on.

Mandy Williams, a narrator I think I've heard before but I can't find any actual evidence of doing so, portrays Seraphina with a voice that reflects her prim, analytical nature with that of a girl who is just beginning to spread her wings.  When she realizes her love for Prince Lucian (engaged to another), Williams' voice is filled with joy and horror. Williams creates a consistent cast of voices for the novel's many characters, but a few times she makes the odd decision not to voice a character as it has been suggested in the text. She has a pleasant English accent, reads quickly, occasionally flubbing a word, but not to the detriment of the story. She also has a minor version of Barbara Walters' "r" problem (which I now know is called rhotacism!), which seems odd in an audiobook narrator, but it actually makes for a nice little fillip to Seraphina's character. She is also given a few opportunities to sing, which she does (hooray!) in a lovely, girlish soprano.

Another reader, Justine Eyre, narrates the sections where Seraphina's dragon mother is a voice in her head. Her distinctive and rich voice, last heard here, is a soothing counterpart to Williams' tinged with a knowing sadness as she contemplates her daughter's heritage.

There were a surprising number of first-time authors available in audio, but I decided not to listen to them for Morris purposes. Some of them that I read and (this is my opinion only) enjoyed in print and might have enjoyed listening to:  Angelfall by Susan EeMy Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (18 years old!), Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, and What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang (19 years old!).  ALA awards time also makes me think about my old friend the Odyssey ... I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's highly unlikely that I've listened to that audiobook yet.

[For those of you wondering what a houppelande is here is Maria d'Harcourt et d'Aumale, wife of Reinald IV, Duke of Guelders and Jülich, in a houppelande, folio 19 of the Breviary of Marie de Gueldres.  This 15th century book of hours is owned by the Berlin State Library; the image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Narrated by Mandy Williams and Justine Eyre
Listening Library, 2012.  13:14

1 comment:

Susan said...

What a lovely review! I listened to this a few months ago and was struck by the world-building that went into the story. Glad to hear additional novels are planned. The narrator's voice was just right for the main character and it had an hypnotic quality to it that kept me hearing it in my head long after removing the earbuds. A delightful listen.