Monday, March 18, 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Plus a discussion on failing to connect with a story

Last week I read an excellent discussion post by my good friend Asheley @ Into the Hall of Books about how she likes to re-read books she doesn't love - especially if her friends DID love them (Go HERE for the post). She does this because she wants to see if she can connect with the characters and story better the second time around. I am always impressed with Asheley's reading habits, and they never fail to challenge my own, which are most often different. In fact re-reading is not something that I do frequently, unless it is a favorite story. 

This picture has nothing to do with the post.
Asheley's post got me thinking about books that I've read that some of my trusted reviewer friends raved about, but I just didn't get. Usually when I don't like a book, I know why I felt that way: the characters were annoying or unredeemable, or the story featured a plot element that I just couldn't get behind (*cough* triangle *cough*). If those are the reasons for my dislike, I know that I won't enjoy the book any better the second time, so I don't bother going back to it. However, I have read a few books that I truly think I should have enjoyed more, and the fact that I didn't unsettles me. Those books make me feel like I have a black stain on my YA reading record. 

Neither does this one.
All that is to say, that I thought I'd post my review from a book I wish I'd liked more. Almost all of my trusted reading friends adored Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, and I can appreciate the fact that it is a well written book featuring a unique fantasy world based on dragon lore. However, I had tremendous trouble connecting to the main character emotionally, and thus the book ended up as just an okay read for me. Because I feel like I've missed something important, this book is one that I've considered re-reading. I also never published my review because of how uneasy I felt about my thoughts. But Asheley, has made me want to face how I feel about Seraphina, so I'm finally publishing my review below. 

Has this ever happened to you? You didn't connect with a book that you felt like you should have liked more? Does that ever make you wonder if you missed something, and because of that you feel like you can't let go of it? Or do you always move on, and just assume that it wasn't a book for you?

I'm ready for spring.
by Rachel Hartman
Read: August 21-23, 2012
Published: July 10, 2012 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Source: Library book
Category: YA-Fantasy

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

Seraphina lives in a world filled with dragons that can change into human form (called saarantras). Despite the political peace between saarantras and regular humans, people are naturally distrustful of these creatures, who when in their true form, can fly, spit fire and bite your head off.

It doesn’t help that even dressed as humans, dragons stick out. They shun emotions, preferring to excise it out of themselves than feel love, guilt, fear or any type of affection. They live longer, can pass memories onto their children, and art and music (artistic talents) are foreign concepts to them. Basically, they're different and that makes them scary. 

Seraphina is half dragon. Because relationships between humans and dragons are forbidden, she shouldn't exist. Seraphina has spent her life hiding this secret from everyone around her, and in order to do so, she's closed herself off to others. Not trusting herself to get close to anyone, she prefers loneliness to exposure and certain ridicule. Her joy and solace is in music, which is something that her dual nature has caused her to excel at. Music takes Seraphina to the royal palace as the assistant to the music master.
I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind. 
Even living at the palace, Seraphina keeps to herself. But not everything is within her control. When something happens that forces her into the center of a growing conflict between dragons and humans, it becomes increasingly difficult for Seraphina to protect her secret.

Seraphina is a story about one girl learning to accept herself. It is painful at times, but the story and its message are beautifully written. Even so, I had trouble connecting with the book emotionally. Or maybe it's just that I had trouble reading Seraphina, unless she told the reader something directly. This is probably because Seraphina has been educated largely by her dragon uncle and comes across very draconian at times. As the story moves forward and she begins to open herself up a bit more to others, this lessens. But it still made it difficult for me to read the direction that the story was taking.

The world in which Seraphina lives is richly created, its detailed society and mythology encompassing both the human and dragons that fill it. The thoroughly developed landscape also includes names and terms, which made the world feel even more unique and alive. However, it took me a while to get beyond figuring out what all the words meant and begin to feel immersed in Hartman's story, which affected the flow and momentum of the book for me. (Take note of the glossary of terms in the back of the book, because I flipped to them constantly.) Seraphina also features a large and colorful cast of characters, some of whom really endeared themselves to me. 

I did like that the plot was original and I was surprised by the twists and revelations that popped up during the story. Seraphina figured out everything before I did, which doesn't often happen in the books I read (it's also not surprising, considering how much smarter she is than me). Now that I am imbedded in Seraphina's world, I am actually excited for the next book. I felt like the end of was a great set up for what is to come. 

Everything grew very clear and bright; the music burst forth in majesty; we stood still and the room turned around us; and there was [Him], right in the middle of all of it, laughing.
One of the elements of this story that I had a bit of trouble with was the romantic plot line. Although there is a friendship that develops between Seraphina and her love interest, I felt like there was little to no romantic build up or tension. Then all of a sudden they had a "moment" and she tells us that He loves her. But I wanted to better sense it for myself. My favorite type of love story is the kind that is slow and subtle. I love picking up on tiny hidden cues between the couple. But either they weren't here, or I totally missed them. Whatever the case it rattled me, and made it hard for me to become emotionally invested in this couple. 

However, I did like that the way the love story played out was different than a lot of books. It is a reverse triangle of sorts and not an easy situation. He is promised to another Her, but I liked who he's promised to (and so does Seraphina), which was unexpected for me. I was happy with where this particular book ended in regards to the romance. It seemed right for all the characters (in fact, I'll echo Seraphina in saying that it made me like Him more). 

I enjoyed Seraphina. I am in awe of the world this author has created, and the messages conveyed in the telling - about accepting oneself, about self-sacrifice and putting others' needs first, about how difficult it can be to uproot deep-seated prejudices, about how you're never as alone as you think you are. But I didn't connect with the story and its characters on as deep a level as I would have liked, especially Seraphina whom I had a really hard time reading (i.e. figuring out). I just couldn't anticipate her behavior, and that made her tough for me to understand. 

This is one of those reviews that I rewrote several times, and I'm still struggling to express my feelings about the book. I think part of the problem is that I've read several beautiful, glowing reviews on this story. And I just did not feel exactly the same, and it's completely unsettled me (especially because clinically, I can see its appeal). I do plan to read the second book, however, and though I rarely re-read books. I may go back through this one, in hopes that I will understand Seraphina better the second time around. 

Love Triangle Factor: Reverse. Feelings wise, mild. Situation wise, medium. 
Cliffhanger Scale: Low


  1. You know, I keep knocking books off my shelves, but sometimes I'll see an amazing review and think I should go back to the book again, but I really need to force myself to. I read Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst (I think!) and after a few chapters, I gave up because I wasn't feeling it at all. It has received so many rave reviews, though, so I feel obliged to try it again, so I know what you mean.

    Anyway, I'm sorry you were unable to connect with Seraphina as much as you would have liked. I know a lot of readers faced similar issues, although I myself fell head over heels for it and it's one of my favorite novels. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the sequel works out better for you!(:

    1. You are so much tougher/better than I am about weeding out books. I read so many that are mediocre. I have trouble DNFing a story that I've started. I love that you know what you like and stick to it.

      I hope that I connect better with book 2 as well! Or maybe after knowing this story, I would enjoy it more on a re-read. Like with classics, sometimes I find them easier to connect with if I know the story already. I'm still sad that I didn't like this one more, though!

  2. Okay so this is one of the books that I felt had not necessarily a lot of pre-publication hype but a ton of buzz, and I didn't really want to be mixed all up in that. But as I look at Goodreads, I see a lot of 4-ish reviews, which is pretty good for a dragon-type fantasy book, in my opinion. I've really wanted to read this one, so if you do decide that you want to re-read, let me know and perhaps we could read it together?

    Also, interestingly, in reading this review - parts of this book sound a little like the Incarnate/Asunder story a little bit. Do you feel like there are similarities or is that because I'm immersed back into that world right now?

    I think I'm out of the buzz enough to read and possibly enjoy the story right now. I completely understand what you're saying, as you can imagine. I wonder if your library has an audiobook version of the story that is available to you?

    Also, THANK YOU for mentioning that there is a glossary at the back of the book. This helps me determine which library I use to check out the book (print copy or ebook) because I tend to use glossaries and maps A TON if they're available.

    Love this post and love that you are open to the possibility that you might want to potentially want to re-read again one of these days! I love it and found that in the case of a series that I re-read not too long ago, I actually missed information in the first (print) reading that meant a great deal in the re-read before I went onto the next book. :)

    1. I am so bad at devoting time to a re-read. But I would definitely consider it with this one. I will let you know. Also, I think that you would really like this book. It is well written and a lush mythology. I didn't think of audio, but I know that helps you connect more to a story, and I wonder if it would help me too. You're right. I'm sure there is a lot I missed the first time, and knowing the terminology and the story, I'm wondering if I would connect more on a re-read?

      I try to ignore the hype. But I know a lot of people who loved this one, so I think it is the type of buzz that is honest and directly from readers, which I trust more than buzz more artificially created by a publishing house. Does that make sense?

      The glossary is ESSENTIAL. I would have been so lost without it and flipped their constantly. This is one that you definitely want to read in print.

    2. I'll have to think about it, but I didn't really see a connection between the two series. Except that Ana and Seraphina are both one of a kind and like music. But I'm not sure anything else about the story is similar. Or at least I didn't automatically think about them together. Maybe I would have if I'd read them near each other? I could certainly have done a 6 degrees on the main characters though...

      I'm totally gonna remember this.

      I typically connect more on a re-read - you already know the details, the ending, the terminology (so less flipping), and the mythology - it seems reasonable to think you would connect more even if you don't end up liking it much more. I absolutely connected more with If I Stay and ended up liking it *better* even though I still don't LOVE it. But re-reads just do it for me, they're like comfort food or sweatpants, and I understand that not everyone thinks the way that I do.

      The series that I was talking about in the comment up there is The Selection series. I somehow missed a lot that ended up making me like The Selection even more, which is interesting because I already loved it. (That's not propoganda for you to read it - I just don't know why I failed to mention the name of the series in the comment up there??)

  3. I am reading Seraphina right now and having about the same reaction to it. It's okay, but nothing like I'd hoped for. I'm feeling very meh about it.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Ems. I'm glad I'm not the only way who felt that way. I think Seraphina reads as so clinical that she's hard to read/relate to. I hope she gets better for you, though! I'll be looking for your review.

  4. First of all, I am like you, I tend to only re-read favorite books. I mentioned to Asheley in her post on re-reading books she didn't like, that the only book I have ever really considered doing this with would be The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. And I know you and I have talked about that book in detail. But I have so much to read already, the thought of re-reading that book right now is not so appealing, you know? Anyway, I like this discussion topic a lot:)

    Seraphina. I read this book last November because of all the great reviews. I hadn't read a dragon book that I really connected with, and I liked the concept of dragons masquerading in a human form. I ended up really liking the book. I thought the political angles between humans and dragons was very cool, and I liked that dragon's were so alien, so unemotional and rational. I thought that was fascinating. And I absolutely LOVED Orma. LOVED. HIM. Mr. Spock ways and all! In fact I may have liked Orma better than Seraphina. The romance angle was a little more 'meh' than I hoped. I thought the character of Kiggs was very cool, however. Kind of like Duval in Grave Mercy. I wish there would have been more build up like you said.

    It's funny, but I haven't ever gone back to review the book, and I'm not sure why. I am looking forward to Dracomachia and the continuation of the story. But I totally get what you are saying about not feeling more for the book because you couldn't relate to Seraphina. Sometimes these things happen we read, and I don't know that there is a rock solid explanation for it. But the fact that you are still interested in reading Bk. #2 is admirable:)

    And this was a great review, by the way:)

    1. Thanks, Heather. That's the thing about this book, rationally I should have loved it! But for some reason I just didn't. I love when a romance is subtle, but something was definitely lacking there for me. I just missed Seraphina's feelings or something. You're right, there were great secondaries and a fantastic political discussion etc. So many good things. I'm still annoyed at myself for not connecting! But as you said, I am invested enough to read the next one.

      As for Mara Dyer. I think you might get into book 2 more. It is creeeepppppers for sure! But I don't know whether you'd like Noah any better. You'd probably have Jen's feelings, who thought he was annoying. Though I will admit to being charmed by him. Mara also gets on my nerves some, but I think rationally her behavior makes total sense, and I can't fault her. Maybe feel out the final book and try to read through the series? OR skip to book 2? Although I did like that book, I totally know what you mean about feeling like you're one of the few people who just didn't get why everyone loved a certain book.

  5. I do sometimes reread books I couldn't finish, or didn't like much and Seraphina is one of them. I had to add it to my dnf pile and was disappointed to do so, but I felt no connection to the characters at all. I was surprised because I normally love dragon stories and I am determined to try it again. I'm hoping it will resonate more with me second time around.

    1. I'm glad I'm seeing that I'm not the only one who felt this way about Seraphina! I'm really hoping that a re-read or even just going into book 2, I'll feel more connected to the characters. I haven't read a lot of dragon stories, though, it's interesting that you have and this still didn't work for you.

  6. No book is for everyone. I'm not a big fantasy reader and I tried the Seraphina audiobook. While I could really appreciate the quality of the writing (excellent) and the world-building (truly amazing) I stopped listening about ½ way through. It's possible that the problem lay in the fact that I was listening rather than reading, but I concluded that this was a book that I could admire but not enjoy.

    I'm a big DNF'er. Sometimes I go back and give books a second try. I know there is at least one book I liked the second time around (though for the life of me I can't remember what it is) but 99% of the time my opinion stays the same.

    1. That is a great way to label Seraphina "admire not enjoy." That is EXACTLY how I felt about this book, and it unsettled me, because the story wasn't painful in and of itself, so by all rights I SHOULD have been able to enjoy it. Oh well.

      I wish I was better about knowing early on whether a book will work for me or not. once I'm 25% in or so, I rarely DNF. I just keep hoping it will get better, or I want to know what happens. But it would certainly save myself time with mediocre books, if I was better at it. I'm impressed that you're so good at judging them!

  7. ooooooooooooh, great post, especially the pics ;) As for me, you know...I've had at least 2 books in the past week I couldn't connect with. So-I sent them back and put them on my "Never Finished List." C'est la vie!

    1. I love how well you know your tastes and move on from books you don't like! I wish I was that decisive. I keep thinking "maybe this will get better" and so I keep reading and it drags on and then It's over and I'm disappointed. I should trust my instincts better!

  8. So, love your random spring pics (I'm ready for it too--it keeps snowing here!). If I'm reading a book that I feel like I should enjoy MORE than I am, I'll usually put it on hold for a while rather than going through. Sometimes, it's just a mood thing, so I can pick that same book up later and love it. But most of the time, like you, I KNOW why I don't like a book, and rereading it wouldn't help. I don't really reread things entirely that I didn't love the first time--just seems like a waste of valuable reading time to me.

    YES--your inability to connect with Seraphina makes so much sense because of how draconian she is. I really liked that aspect, but I'm always fascinated by non-human characters, I can totally see how there would be a disconnect there. I love how unexpected the liking of Giselda (or whatever her exact name is) is--I didn't expect to either, but I really did. I like that G's not really in love with him either, and if it weren't for the politics of it all would probably be fine with him and S--but royalty doesn't work that way.

    I'll be hoping with Keertana that the next one works out better!

    1. It keeps snowing here too, Heidi! Every time I get a glimpse of green grass, more snow comes down. Ugh. The crocus picture was from this year, but the rest obviously were not.

      I know what you mean by mood affecting a book, or even what other books you've read around it. I'm not sure if that was the case with this one, though I do wonder if I will like it more now that I know the story. I don't re-read unless I love a book, for largely the reason that you say. It feels like a waste of time, especially when I know why I don't connect. This book felt more nebulous, as in I just couldn't figure out why I couldn't love it more, which is why I considered the re-read.

      You're right though, the fact that she is so draconian plays a huge role in how well I was able to connect to Seraphina, but I tried to take that into consideration when I read, and it still didn't help. I didn't dislike her, I just couldn't muster up a lot of emotion.

      The triangle IS interesting, and tricky. I expected to dislike G because she seems silly at first, but I unexpectedly really liked her and I know she needs Kiggs, so interested to see how the love story plays out.

      I do plan to read book 2 and will make a further judgement on the series after that.

  9. I will admit that Seraphina is a difficult book to get invested in at first. The opening scenes with her tending her mental garden and all are so bizarre and difficult to swallow. Although I ended up absolutely loving the book, I can understand why you'd have some difficulties with it, and you're not the only one who has expressed similar concerns. I found myself taking advantage of the glossary quite frequently as well, but that made me love the story more. If an author writes a high fantasy, I'd rather have her go all-out and fully create a new world, which I think is what happened in Seraphina. You make a great point about the love triangle. It is so unconventional.

    I was a big re-reader until I started my blog. There's something so comforting and familiar about returning to old favorites. I think Asheley's post makes a lot of sense to me, though, and I'd like to say I'd return to certain books at other times to see if my thoughts have changed...but there are so many books out there to be read that I can't guarantee that will happen. Since I am reading more recent series, however, I do think that those are books I'll have to re-read in anticipation of new releases.

    I do hope that you're able to return to Seraphina at some point (perhaps before Dracomachia releases early next year? Like Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, I do think Seraphina is a book that is better with multiple readings).

    P.S. I'm also ready for Spring! :)

    1. I'm so glad you mentioned the 'mental garden' thing, Amanda! That was definitely a part of the book I had trouble with. Veering off into an imaginary world like that is a touchy thins. In Seraphina I was able to work through those parts of the book without getting too confused, but I didn't connect with them either.

    2. touchy "thing" I should have said:)

    3. You're right, the mental garden was one of the hardest elements of the story for me to understand. Although I loved the outcome of it, I thought it was all a bit strange, and it made it more difficult for me to get into this book. However, I did enjoy the new terms, and I'm glad that the author went all out for her fantasy world, but they still slowed me down a bit.

      I feel the same as you about re-reading. There are some books that I'd like to go back to as someone who is older and better read, that I think I might like better at this time in my life. BUT on the other hand, there are so many books that I haven't read, that it's tough to go back. I wish I did more re-reading before releases. But I just can't maintain that with the bajillion series I'm reading.

      I will let you all know how I feel about book 2! Also I LOVE LOVE LOVE Jellicoe Road, but understand what you mean about it taking a while to get into that one, and loving it MORE the more you read it. That is one of my favorites EVER. LOVE all the small scenes :).

      Thanks for your always thoughtful comments, Amanda!

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  12. So this post has little to do with Seraphina. I enjoyed the book. I have a hard time finding love triangle free Fantasy books though so I can honestly say a good portion of my feelings for it were based on the fact that the reverse love trianlge wasn't abhorrent to me as most love triangles are. I can understand the questionable feelings of emotional attachment to the main character though.
    Onto the meat of the post!

    Hello, I hate love trianlges. I can understand f mild feelings of attraction for two people, carrying those feelins through multiple books is just plain annoying. The female characters usually end up whining about how they can't decide between two seemingly perfect guys or between one that is entirely suitable and one that isn't. I lose interest with the female lead, usualy the characters head I have to spend the entire time in. All of that being said I hate starting a book and finding out after finishin the first of a series that it will be a love triangle, it drives me crazy. So this blog is amazing I can read the reviews find out if there is even a whiff of a love triangle and skip the book. AMAZING!

    Presumtuous of me I know, but I would recommend Kristen Cashore, her novels generally steer clear of the love triangles. Fire by her had a bit of a love triangle but not really and given that it had even a little bit of the triangle it is surprising how much I liked it.

    lengthy comment that had little to do with the original post is now coming to a close!

    1. It IS hard to find love triangle free books. Though I've never thought about whether it's more difficult in fantasy. I'm actually pretty nervous by reverse triangles, but this one definitely did work out well for me. Though I had such trouble connecting to Seraphina that it took me a while to even figure out the source of the romance.

      I love followers who also dislike triangles! Thank you for coming to my blog. I completely understand your feelings and agree. It is especially annoying when a triangle crops up midway through a series and you didn't know it was coming! I also don't honestly understand the "I love both these guys and cannot pick between them!" mentality. You have come to the right place with your thoughts.

      I have read GRACELING but not FIRE yet, and it's been recommended to me several times so I'd like to read it at some point. Thanks for highlighting it to remind me!


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