So… have just finished Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina–I bought it mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).
It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.
(rambly musings about prejudice and passing)
I guess that, insofar as you buy the setting, Seraphina and the other half-dragons are an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be mixed-race in a world where race divisions are sharp and bitter, and half-dragons are viewed as abominations. What I take issue with is the whole setup: as a metaphor for race relationships  (and, even if this wasn’t deliberate, the metaphor sort of naturally bubbles up when the book tackles subjects like interspecies breeding, interspecies prejudice and other related stuff), this is freaking old-fashioned. It might have been the case in my grandparents’ generation (and even then, did we genuinely have two races at each other’s throat in such a non-subtle way?); but it’s certainly never been my experience. In a similar way, prejudice here is outright ugly and blatant: people throw “abomination” very quickly at half-dragons (and at dragons), and Seraphina herself is very much aware of this–even doubting at times that she has a right to exist.
Thing is… this might have all been true, once upon a time, but my personal experience of growing up (in basically as white and as conservative a milieu as you can find in France) has far more subtle prejudice. Certainly no one ever accused me of being unfit to live, and no one ever threw stones at me or tried to beat me to death: my experience of prejudice is a myriad small things that made it clear that I was odd and unwelcome; and that I would argue is no less damaging/formative than the large burn-the-halfbreed/kill-the-abomination prejudice that is writ large across Seraphina.
It’s a bit like… imagine an SFF book with a made-up universe which has a species with two genders, one of which is deemed inferior to the other, prone to hysterics, and only suited for bearing and raising babies at home. Would you really be praising the forward-thinking and awesome depiction of gender issues of such a book?  That’s a bit how I feel about Seraphina: the setup is kind of cool, but I can’t get over the fact that it has nothing to do with my experience as a mixed-race person; and in fact promotes a false idea of what this experience is like today.
Seraphina is also oddly obsessed with “passing”: its entire cast of half-dragons is able to pass themselves off as humans in one way or another (not to mention its entire cast of dragons, who can turn into humans and mostly go undetected if they don’t happen to wear distinctive markers such as the silver bells humans impose on them). There’s the barest of a hint that some half-dragons can’t pass as humans, but of course they’re not the ones that you meet in the course of the narration, which kind of reinforces the impression that a large percentage of them can and will pass as human, just by putting on the right disguises and clothes . I suspect part of this obsession comes from the fact that it’s a US book and this has always been a huge issue in the US. I’m not going to trivialise this here, but I want to make one thing clear, and it is that not all mixed-race people can pass as “fullbloods”.
Some of us (white/SE Asians mixed-race people, for instance) simply never have this option, and we live our entire lives with what we are writ clearly on our faces and bodies. It’s not a matter of makeup or bulky clothes or what have you: this fantasy of being “normal” (white, in a white-majority country) will just never come true for us. Being continually mistaken for “the other side” or “the Other” is how we grow up; how we move in our countries of birth; and it’s part and parcel of what made us what we are and what continues to shape us. The acknowledgement that this can happen is almost entirely absent from Seraphina (and indeed from a great many books with mixed-race people I’ve read).
A couple assorted issues I had with half-dragons: I disliked the idea that they all had a special talent (it reeks of “halfbreeds are special magical people”, one of my pet peeves–it’s the equivalent of the Mystical Asian for mixed-race people); and the conclusion that Seraphina and the other half-dragons form one cohesive people whom Seraphina strongly identifies with is… disquieting for me? I understand the quest for a racial identity; but again, this is a bit like saying that all Eurasians raised in Europe should form a natural, cohesive whole: to be sure, we all have common points, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that I’m going to have a strong sense of “those are my people” when I see them (the differences between our upbringings are also going to be quite extreme, notably depending on the combination of parents we had). It’s also segregational in a way that makes me uncomfortable: Seraphina bemoans the fact that humans and dragons can’t be closer together, but takes the first opportunity she gets to form her own tribe–so much for integration and interspecies closeness…
(there are also other points I found mildly annoying: notably that dragons are non-emotional, that only humans get to experience True Love(tm), and that this lack of emotions is presented as a flaw for dragons rather than another point of view on the matter)
So, that’s my experience of the book. I apologise for ranting and singling it out–it’s hardly the only book which has that kind of issues with mixed-race people, but it’s the one I happen to have most recently read…
Feel free to discuss/argue/disagree in the comments!
 I’m less sensitive to those issues, but Rachel Swirsky rightfully points out that the dragons (highly logical, viewing emotions as incorrect) share many of their characteristics with traditional depictions of people on the autistic spectrum.
 I’m aware such books exist, and are even published today!
 Again, there’s an attempt to suggest that some people can pass less handily than others: Seraphina just has a girdle of scales around her midriff; another character we meet has an actual tail. But it still doesn’t prevent her from functioning as human with the putting on of proper clothes–it’s hardly what you call a physical feature that’s impossible to hide.
 ETA 2016: there’s been a recent influx of traffic towards this post, so I feel the need to post an addendum. The above is my perception of Serafina as a book about the mixed-race experience (which was why a number of people explicitly recommended it to me). Someone has since pointed out to me that I didn’t consider the book might be addressing issues faced by less immediately visible minorities like Jewish people (I think Hartman is Jewish? Quite happy to be corrected on that count, and of course I don’t want to over-analyse a book based on author’s background, but equally I think it’s important to not erase people’s experiences). If that’s the case–my bad. As I said: the only experience I can reliably speak from is mine, and that’s being mixed SE-Asian/French in the 20th/21st Century.