The kingdom of Goredd is on the verge of celebrating forty years of an uneasy truce with the dragons, and Seraphina Dombegh, assistant to the court composer, has more reason for uneasiness than most. Tension between humans and dragons is rising, helped along by the mysterious death of Prince Rufus, the anti-dragon sentiments of the Sons of St. Ogdo, and the basic incompatibility of the ultra-logical dragon mind and the passionate emotional range of the humans. As the city prepares for an influx of dragon arrivals, Seraphina struggles to stay unnoticed, not something made easy by the attention of the court composer, the dragon embassy, the princess, and the princess’ bastard fiance, as well as the brilliance of her pure magical gift.
Seraphina has a foot in both worlds, and if she’s not careful, they’ll both come crashing down on her.
Clear a few afternoons for this book: slow and lingering, it’s the kind of book that wraps around you and just doesn’t let go. This is one to savor.
The single biggest part of that is language. Oh my God, the language in this book. Music is a significant part of this, not just as story but as character, and the language in this book is as precise and passionate as a musical form. The voice teeters between dryly factual and painfully emotional, an audible fault line between the pieces of who and what Seraphina is. She is, at turns, wry, funny, petulant, logical, endearing, brilliant, brutally honest, and thoroughly deceptive. She can be forgiving and hard, suspicious and trusting, exasperated and fond in the same breath. She’s an amazing character, as well as an amazing narrator. Everything about this book is a love song to language, an opera captured in letters rather than notes, each pitch perfect and never less than purposefully dischordant.
Perhaps because of the fascination with language, because of the level of detail paid to the rhythms and multiple layers of words, this isn’t a book that moves quickly. For all that it takes place within a few days, it feels like longer. For me, this wasn’t a book I could sit down and read straight through. I had to take it in sections over the course of several days, because otherwise I felt like I wasn’t giving due appreciation to the beauty and purpose of the language. The plot itself is fairly straightforward, but the personalities twist things around until you have the true drama of this story. On a very basic level, humans and dragons are incapable of understanding each other. That fundamental incompatability drives us forward, largely because it forces us to try. Even Seraphina, who understands dragons perhaps better than anyone else, has gaps where the communication simply falters. Elements like sarcasm and imagination- the emotional outpouring of true music that doesn’t seek technical perfection- are antithesis to the dragon mentality, but the sheer scope of what humans can accomplish within that range of art and feeling is fascinating to them. As Seraphina says, the dragons look at humans like particularly intriguing cockroaches. There’s nothing to keep them from squishing the irritants once their curiosity is sated.
As much as language, the characters are a work of art. Nearly all of the significant characters are exquisitely drawn with rich flaws and an eye for detail, as well as surprising depth. Ardmagar Comonot, the leading general of the dragons, is particularly (and bizarrely) appealing. Many of the dragons experience intense emotional confusion when the condense into human form, known as a saarantras, as the human instincts and senses overwhelm the much more factual dragon mind. The Ardmagar is no exception, but unlike most others, he both delights in and despises these maelstroms of experience. Even things like taste and sound, the rub of different fabric textures against the skin, even the impulses of fear and lust, they’re bizarre and uncomfortable, but also intriguing. We see other dragons struggle against this psychomachia with varying degrees of familiarity and success. For Seraphina’s tutor Orma, nearly as close to a human as is possible for a dragon to be, intense emotions are still unsettling, but at least outwardly familiar enough to be identified and categorized. Classified. In Orma, we see the true evolution of the human experience in the mind and soul of a dragon. It’s not that we ever see him as less than a dragon- in Seraphina’s rich, wry, and compassionate narration, we get to see all the reminders of what he is- but that we see him not merely study the human condition, but rather accept it as a consequence of his choices and the connections he carefully makes.
One of the areas in which we see the greatest degree of detailed variance is in Seraphina’s Garden of Grotesques. We don’t meet many of these mindscape inhabitants, but those we do are sympathetically, frighteningly drawn with rich idiosyncracies. Loud Lad’s restless tinkering, Fruit Bat’s simple contentedness, Fusspot’s prickliness, are all pulled into Seraphina’s own interactions, as memories shade her actions and she struggles to keep these inexplicable personalities contained in her mental garden. The shifting nature of the Garden, the manuevers she has to attempt to keep it intact, all tell into her daily encounters in the outer world.
One of the things I absolutely adored about this book was the dynamic, at times bizarre, between Seraphina, Prince/Captain Lucian Kiggs, and Princess Glisselda. Kiggs, as he prefers to be called, is a wonderful construction, at times intensely personal and at others coldly formal. He vacillates in his approach, but never in his complete, and sometimes brutal, honesty. He cares a great deal about what he does, about his purpose and his duty, but even in his more obstinate moods, he still has a little boy’s charm that makes him endearing as well as attractive. He’s comfortable reaching out to people on many levels, always aware that he’s just a little out of place, sometimes aware that the vague sense of displacement actually makes others more comfortable with him. Glisselda is, at first, a flightly, vindictive terror with a misplaced sense of fun and an overly developed sense of cattiness. And yet, there’s something charming about her, and as the story progresses, we see more layers unfold within her. We never lose our initial impression- indeed, that seems to be something she very carefully cultivates- but we’re left with the impression of a young woman who will one day be a truly formidable queen. Where her knowledge occasionally has gaps, her perceptiveness and cleverness are spot on. She, Kiggs, and Seraphina form a mystifying but powerful triangle, and if we spend half the book trying to figure out why two of those three pieces are so insistent on this partnership, we also thoroughly enjoy it. They work extremely well off of each other, both in a personal sense as well as a political one.
And I love the layers of political intrigue in this. It goes well beyond the “they’re bad, we’re good” inanity and into the grey areas of specific treaty language, the actual art of living with such uneasiness woven through the society, and the nebulous loyalties of those within the court. We don’t just move through the halls of the palace, we’re actually living there, with all the petty rivalries, false friendships, unexpected alliances, and exasperating duties that come with that privilege.
Do yourself a favor and really give yourself time to savor this book- much like Laini Taylor’s The Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this is a book that will make you fall in love with language.
Until next time~