Recent Reads: “Shadow Scale” by Rachel Hartman

Shadow Scale cover

Shadow Scale
Rachel Hartman
Fantasy / Young Adult
596 pages

Synopsis:

The kingdom of Goredd: a world where humans and dragons share life with an uneasy balance, and those few who are both human and dragon must hide the truth. Seraphina is one of these, part girl, part dragon, who is reluctantly drawn into the politics of her world. When war breaks out between the dragons and humans, she must travel the lands to find those like herself—for she has an inexplicable connection to all of them, and together they will be able to fight the dragons in powerful, magical ways.
 
As Seraphina gathers this motley crew, she is pursued by humans who want to stop her. But the most terrifying is another half dragon, who can creep into people’s minds and take them over. Until now, Seraphina has kept her mind safe from intruders, but that also means she’s held back her own gift. It is time to make a choice: Cling to the safety of her old life, or embrace a powerful new destiny?

Rating:  4.5 / 5

Is it possible to love a sequel more than its predecessor? Well, I can think of a couple occasions where a second novel was just as good as the first book – but an entire grade-point higher? That’s a rare and special case. Yet Shadow Scale, the sequel to Rachel Hartman’s YA fantasy debut Seraphina, was one of those cases for me. Because while I enjoyed the first book but had some issues with it, this second and final installment to the duology soars high and smoothly from Chapter One to the last page.

Shadow Scale begins about three months after Seraphina ends, and shines with all of its predecessor’s strengths and then some. For starters, Hartman sends Seraphina on a journey to find her half-dragon brethren, allowing readers to see and fall in love with the lands beyond Goredd. Ninys, Samsam, and Porphyry each come alive with distinct flavors and histories. I had a blast picturing the architecture, nature, even the clothing worn by the people Seraphina met during her travels. This is very much a quest story, and one that isn’t spared of obstacles. Seraphina runs into all kinds of trouble along the way: inclement weather, seasickness, unfavorable terrain, and – most importantly – characters with their own agendas.

Speaking of characters, Hartman does a wonderful job with expanding on her colorful, entertaining cast from Seraphina. Old favorites of human (Princess Glisselda, Prince Lucian Kiggs), dragon (Ardmagar Comonot, Eskar, and Uncle Orma), and half-dragon kind (Abdo, Lars, Okra Carmine) return from the first book. There are plenty of new ones, too, particularly the new half-dragons. They all exude unique personalities – and if I shared one anecdote for each character, this review would be about a mile long. 😉

I can tell you this much, though: Seraphina’s sidekick Abdo is my favorite – no, FAVORITE – character from Shadow Scale. A monkey-like acrobat who can only communicate telepathically because of dragon scales covering his tongue, he’s absolutely hysterical and so lovable that I wanted to reach through the pages and hug him. Jannoula, on the other hand, is a fantastic “hate-to-love-yet-love-to-hate” villain. Pretentious and deceptive, with a tortured past (literally) that explains her state of mind perfectly, she singlehandedly turns a mainly external conflict that impacted Seraphina’s home into a deeply personal fight for Seraphina to save everyone and everything she loves.

Writing-wise, Hartman once again blends humor and intellect to create Seraphina’s distinct narrative voice. Despite my mixed feelings about this approach in Seraphina, I thoroughly enjoyed it in Shadow Scale. I lost count of how many times Hartman floored me with her extensive vocabulary (how often do you see words like “conflagration,” “subterfuge,” or “viscous” in a YA novel?) and made me laugh out loud by describing the absurdity Seraphina saw in a situation. Combining the two qualities is a rare talent; and though it might not make sense on paper, it does when you read Hartman’s work.

Where Hartman truly improves with Shadow Scale is her pacing. No early info-dumps to drag things down this time. Instead. readers can get a recap on Seraphina by visiting a “scholarly” preface that summarizes the first book in about 2 pages. From there, Hartman lets the story unfold leisurely, spending just enough time on details, relationships, and plot points so readers can see the “big picture” without feeling overwhelmed. Maybe that explains why Shadow Scale is a beast of a YA novel (almost 600 pages). But I hardly noticed the length, because the story was such a joy. In fact, I wasn’t ready to leave Seraphina and her world when the end arrived.

That brings me to my only nitpick for Shadow Scale. The climactic battle is awesome in theory, but Hartman wrote it in a way that was difficult to follow. I had a very hard time picturing what was going on. Also, apart from the epilogue (which broke my heart in a beautiful, incremental way), the ending seemed too convenient for everyone. Without going into spoiler territory: I was expecting Seraphina to feel sad or lonely because of her circumstances. Instead, she readily accepts them, making a weird leap in “emotion logic” that didn’t make sense to me.

Up until that point, though – ohhhhhhh, I was so close to giving Shadow Scale a perfect score! This was a satisfying, deftly handled end to Seraphina’s story, and arguably the strongest of the two books. The world of Goredd and beyond expands so fully that everything about it – even the dragons – seems as real as the birds and trees outside my window. Apparently Hartman is already working on two new novels set in Seraphina’s world and with a new protagonist, so I’m curious to find out what will happen and who we’ll meet. If you liked Seraphina, don’t miss Shadow Scale. It will be worth your time, a space on your bookshelf, and a place in your heart.

Have you read Shadow Scale? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.

Recent Reads: “Seraphina” by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina

Seraphina
Rachel Hartman
Fantasy / Young Adult

Synopsis:

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 the 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. Drawn into the investigation, Seraphina works 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.

In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world that reason will remember long after they’ve turned the final page.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

After reading the songs of praise from authors, book bloggers, and other critics – and learning that the sequel Shadow Scale is due out next March – I decided it was finally time to take flight with Rachel Hartman’s debut novel Seraphina. And what a sweet, intelligent story this turned out to be! Not only does Hartman offer a compelling new take on dragons, but she also proves that YA fantasy doesn’t have to be action-packed or overly romantic to keep readers in suspense and turning the pages.

So much of Seraphina’s plot involves the protagonist, Seraphina Dombegh, keeping a monster of a secret: She’s half-human, half-dragon – and half-breeds are considered an abomination by both sides of Goredd’s human-dragon quarrel. With her new position as the royal family’s assistant musical director, Seraphina finds it increasingly difficult to not only conceal her truth, but also accept herself for who she is. For example, she’s repulsed by her patches of scales (which she covers with her clothing) and ultimately herself. This theme of self-acceptance is what I enjoyed most about this novel. In some ways, I could see myself in Seraphina, since I’d experienced similar struggles as a teenager. So, I was pleased to see what starts as Seraphina’s means to protect herself evolves into a journey of compassion, identity, and self-validation – lessons that Hartman’s target audience will relate to and embrace.

What’s refreshing about Seraphina is its focus on political intrigue and mystery-solving instead of violence or romance. Sure, there’s an awesome dragon fight at one point, and Seraphina does fall in love, but both elements take a backseat here. Tension builds as Seraphina struggles to hide her heritage, keep her mentor Orma out of trouble, and successfully orchestrate the musical side of the peace treaty’s 40th anniversary festivities. Hartman also shows off an adorable, unexpected sense of humor throughout Seraphina. I laughed out loud several times, especially during the tavern scene in Quighole. (I’m still chuckling about it now!)

One more area where Hartman excels in Seraphina is character development. Seraphina in particular is a well-rounded heroine. She’s clever, caring, wry, and stronger than she realizes. She’s also wary, self-effacing, and a little too curious for her own good. Her passion for music can be felt through her intricate descriptions and emotional reactions; and since I love music, it’s such a pleasure to see this kind of literary character brought to life.

Oh, and the secondary characters! Orma grew on me as the novel went along, especially as he battles his own internal conflict. Basind’s ineptitude of everything from dragon-to-human transformation to basic social skills was a constant source of giggles. And the major character twist regarding General Imlann’s human form? Well, I guessed two different characters and was wrong both times, so Hartman deserves credit for fooling me there. Finally, while I liked Prince Lucian and Princess Glisselda but was disappointed by their initial one-dimensionality, Hartman redeems herself by letting both royals evolve late in the book and show new sides of themselves.

So, why only a 3.5 out of 5? For me, Seraphina gets off to too slow of a start. After introducing the main conflict, Hartman spends a chapter and a half on backstory. OY VEY. I agree that the information helps readers understand Seraphina and her past, but it would have been less overwhelming to have it sprinkled throughout the novel instead of dumped all at once so early on. Several chapters passed – or rather, crawled by – before the story recovered and hooked me in again. Also, the excessive use of adverbs annoyed me after a while. That use is likely part of Seraphina’s intellectual “voice” as a narrating character, but it made me feel detached from her at times.

All that said, Seraphina is a truly unique symphony of intrigue, engaging characters, humor, and heart. There’s still so much to say about this novel even as I wrap up this review. Discussing the world-building alone would take up another paragraph or two – or more! So, just believe me when I say this novel will delight fantasy lovers who crave dragon tales, political conspiracies, and coming-of-age stories. And now I can say with certainty that I’m eager to see what the future holds for Seraphina in Shadow Scale next year. 🙂

Have you read Seraphina? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.