I was going to say 4.5 stars on this one...but I feel like rounding up. It was just that lovely of a story.
At first, I wasn't too sure of the world-building. It seemed basically like medieval Europe with dragons, with a medieval Christian religion only slightly modified into a polytheistic pantheon of "saints" rather than "gods" -- a Christian-esque hagiography mixed with some quite pagan (un)godly behaviors. I wasn't sure I was a fan of that, but in the end, it worked. Even though some thing were borrowed awfully closely, the fantasy element was strong enough that it felt like a learned borrowing and a respectful nod rather than a perversion and a mockery, which pleased me. And the medieval elements were charming...it isn't often you get mentions of sackbuts and houppelandes and garderobes in a YA book, and that just thrilled me to pieces, being a costumier and medieval (music and history) enthusiast.
Although the romance reminded me a bit of Ever After (there's a definite Cinderella quality to it), I loved the characters so much that it just reminded me why that is one of my favorite stories. Seraphina is a marvelous heroine. She's prickly, caring, strong, deeply conflicted, passionate and intelligent. She can take care of herself, but she's not in-your-face about it, and she's vulnerable too. And Kiggs is absolutely wonderful. Hartman seemed to really take time to bring these characters to life in vivid and careful detail...down to the smallest mannerisms. I've only read a handful of books so far this year where I felt like I knew
the characters so well, and it's always refreshing. I also loved the dragons, even though we don't get an excessive amount of detail about their dragonish selves.
The plot was fairly straightforward, but the mystery kept me guessing till the end, and the subplots were fascinating. I loved the idea of Seraphina's mind garden and all of the characters associated with it. It seemed to me that the story was a character study almost more than anything, and sometimes I really love sinking into a book that just lives and breathes its characters in their search for identity and self-knowledge.
Like all of my favorite books this year, this one is definitely unique, beautiful, and filled with rich and believable characters. I hope this isn't the last we see of Seraphina, Orma, Kiggs, and the rest of the gang.