Seraphina is a YA fantasy set in a medieval universe with dragons that can transform into humans. That alone would've turned me off a few years ago, and made me balk at reading the book today. The fact that I did read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Seraphina speaks more to the writer's tremendous skill, than the genre itself.
The fantasy genre (especially medieval) is awash with dragons, some of whom can transform into humans. That concept is also used in fantasy roleplay and gaming - sometimes overused. I've always been a little squicked out by it, and thought it seemed like an excuse to have a character be both a huge, powerful monster and a sexy, handsome two-legger who can mate with humans. (So, in other words, a kind of Marty Stu for fantasy.) In fantasy roleplay, if you don't know what kind of character to create, make it a shape-shifter. Then you can be as "OP" (overpowered) as you like! In my Rp circle we called it God-moding, and it was frowned upon. This concept, used in Seraphina was not OP, nor was it an excuse to have huge, powerful monsters on two legs getting frisky with humans. ...Well, actually it was a little bit, but it was handled in a different way than I expected.
Seraphina's dragons are what I'd imagine a logical, mathematical reptilian mind would be trapped in the squishy, hyper-sensitive, but limited body of a human. They have difficulties with emotion and senses. They don't always know how to adapt to human society or how to use human etiquette. They have to undergo tutelage from another dragon with experience, and even then have watchers on both sides breathing down their necks. It's very unpleasant, which is how it would be.
Humans aren't very keen to have dragons walking among them, and in the world of Seraphina, the temptation of war whispers at the minds of dragon and humankind, waiting for a catalyst. Enter, Seraphina Dombegh, a girl caught in the middle, making a valiant effort to hide though circumstances keep training the spotlight on her.
It was her voice that hooked me on the first page. Reading as Seraphina, I often forgot her age, what color her hair was, because I was too focused on her mind and how she saw the world. It wrapped around her, rankled her, sometimes embraced her. It was proof the author had fleshed out both the character and the world she placed her in. You couldn't have one without the other.
I didn't see Seraphina as a teenager, because she wasn't a contemporary teen. She held a high position, she had responsibilities outside herself, she was very self-aware. Her youth bled through in her self-consciousness, her shortcomings, and her feelings of inadequacy. But those were also traits she could've had in her twenties.
I loved her fire, her bravery, the way she managed to turn her own awkwardness around. She had developed a habit of suppressing her strongest traits to keep from drawing attention, but even so, they sometimes shone through. And there was at least one who saw them from the very first day. Enter, the love interest, a young man whose perspicacity rivaled Seraphina's intelligence. The way these two played off each other was entertaining and charming.
The romance in Seraphina was so organic and genuine, never overshadowing the plot of the book, but providing a very compelling undercurrent. It felt real and sincere, complete with misunderstandings and conclusions jumped to. Both partners had failings that frustrated and strengths that overcame.
The characters, the plot, the relationships driving the story forward, all made me rather sad when the book came to an end. I know there will be a sequel, but the waiting is the hardest part.
When I read about the author Rachel Hartman, I was even more impressed with this book. "She's normal!" I thought (within reason, because what fantasy author is really 'normal'?") She doesn't boast a handful of degrees or an extensive resume in the publication industry. She isn't breaking out her first book on luck and youth, stumbling into a best-seller. She isn't related to a superstar writer with a legacy of fantasy novels under his belt. She's a layperson who's lived many places, gotten the education she wanted, and patiently sharpened her skills developing one of the most outstanding fantasy novels I've read in a long time. Knowing it took her nine years to build and write this book was an inspiration. If the outcome is a book like Seraphina, any amount of time is worth it.