Hartman’s world building doesn’t go into excessive detail, but you still get a sense of a well-fleshed out world, like the foreign dance accorded politeness due to its long history but still considered scandalous, the individual patron saints, and the excerpts of song lyrics—enough to imply centuries of history, struggles, and unique culture without bogging down the story. Hartman pays attention to the physiological elements of language and doesn’t neglect technological innovations in her fantasy setting.
Dragons and shape-shifting have been done before, but the inner landscape of Seraphina’s mind was fascinating and innovative (I mean “landscape” somewhat literally, but I don’t want to spoil it). Characters’ unique magical talents surprised me every time. I did see the romance coming, but I loved reading its development. I could quibble about how easily Seraphina, the court musician’s new apprentice, becomes a trusted confidante of two royals, but I think the story made it work.
Seraphina is half-dragon, inheriting a combination of utter rationality from her dragon side and inspired recklessness from her human side. I felt Seraphina’s passion for music, and I understood her skill without the character making an issue of it. I loved the discussion of the difference between technically perfect music and music that moves people.
Characters in Seraphina struggle to balance emotion and rationality. They deal with unintended extreme consequences of good intentions, how people react to deep-seated fear, and the slippery slope of truth and lies, all with surprising bursts of humor. Seraphina doesn’t take herself too seriously—but when she does, the story cuts through her self-pity with sharp insight.
I was riveted from the first page. The sequel, tentatively titled Dracomachia, is due out in 2013, and as far as I’m concerned it can’t come out fast enough. If you want to try a sample of the world and characters, check out her exclusive (and free!) prequel short story, “The Audition.”