On the recommendation of a number of readers who, familiar with my deep affection for the works of Tamora Pierce, insisted I’d love it, I ripped through Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina while I was on vacation. The story of the titular character, a gifted artist raised by a lawyer suspicious of music, who rises to the position of Music Mistress in the royal court of Goredd just as her country is about to celebrate an important anniversary of its treaty with a nation of dragons, some of whom now live among humans in disguises known as saarantri, Seraphina is a deft exploration of coming-of-age and self-acceptance. But it’s also one of the better stories I’ve read about race, identity, and why it’s difficult for human societies to eradicate bigotries of all kinds.
The treaty between humanity and dragon-kind was forged forty years previous to the events of the novel when the current Queen of Goredd, Lavonda, sought out Comonot, the leader of the dragons, on her own initiative. “She was already Queen in her own right. Already a mother. She climbed Halfheart Pass through a raging snowstorm with only two goat-girls from Dewcomb’s Outpost to guide her. I had assumed no rational being would brave that kind of weather, so I was not even in my saarantras to greet her,” the ancient dragon reflects. “My scouts brought her into our cavern, this tiny, half-frozen girl, snow whirling around her. We all stared at her, not sure what to think, until she threw back her fur-lined hood and unwrapped the woolen shawl from over her face. She looked me in the eye, and I knew….That I had met my match.” The Comonot was interested in ending the ongoing war between humans and dragons even before the Queen approached him, if only in the interest of getting greater access to the stock of human knowledge and for the opportunity to learn more about art, a human activity that dragons find puzzling. But her determination brought him to the table more quickly than might have been expected.
One of the most interesting aspects of Seraphina is that both Comonot and Lavonda took action to make peace before their citizens were truly ready to accept it. “The only way to lead is to drag the rest, flapping and flaming, toward what is right,” Comonot reflects at one point. “I treated with Queen Lavonda in secret, knowing it would be better to impose a treaty upon my own people than to endure a century of debating it in the Ker.” And Lavonda brings it up at a party thrown by her granddaughter, to which she brings a number of dragon guests and encourages them to socialize. “I believed, perhaps erroneously, that our peoples would simply grow accustomed to each other, given the cessation of warfare,” she tells her subjects. “Are we oil and water, that we cannot mix? Have I been remiss in expecting reason and decency to prevail, when I should have rolled up my sleeves and enforced them?”
The question of whether Lavonda should have forced culture change on the human citizens of Goredd–and whether Comonot’s actually succeeded in doing so with dragon-kind–is a significant theme of Seraphina. “Do your people pass emotions through your blood, mother to child, the way we dragons pass memories?” Eskar, the head of dragon security in Goredd asks her human counterpart, Prince Lucian Kiggs. “Do you inherit your fears? I do not comprehend how this persists in the population— or why you will not crush it.” “We prefer not to crush our own. Call it one of our irrationalities,” Kiggs explains. “Maybe we can’t reason our way out of our feelings the way you can; maybe it takes several generations to calm our fears.”
Even without forcibly bending each society to new views, the treaty’s produced radicals. A group of rebel dragons issue a statement declaring that Comonot is “wanted for crimes against dragonkind, including but not limited to: making treaties and alliances against the will of the Ker, detrimental to our values and way of life; indulging in excessive emotionality; fraternizing with humans; indulging deviants; seeking to alter our fundamental dragon nature and make us more human-like.” And Josef, a human noble who’s gotten involved with an anti-dragon religious order laments to Seraphina that “Nowhere is exclusively human; no side in this conflict is ours alone. They infiltrate everything, control everything! I joined the Sons of St. Ogdo because they seemed to be the only people willing to take action, the only ones looking the treaty in the eye and calling it what it was: our ruin.”
The strength of Seraphina is that it’s able to acknowledge that societies do make sacrifices when they undergo radical change, while still making the case that what they gain in the growing makes for a worthwhile trade. Or, as one character puts it when she takes a leap into the unfamiliar, “it’s as if I have just solved Skivver’s predictive equations or, even better, as if I have intuited the One Equation, seen the numbers behind the moon and stars, behind mountains and history, art and death and yearning, as if my comprehension is large enough that it can encompass universes, from the beginning to the end of time.”