Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

(“A book published this year” from the Reading Challenge)

So, this is technically a review of Shadow Scale, but out of necessity it will also talk about the preceding book Seraphina. Expect spoilers for both books!

I loved both Seraphina and Shadow Scale! Seraphina was one of my “grabbed it randomly off the library shelf because it looked interesting” finds that worked out well – I was hooked about ten pages in. They are set in a fantasy world in which two sentient species – humans and dragons – are struggling to coexist. The first book is set entirely in the country of Goredd, where forty years of uneasy peace between the humans and the dragons is teetering. Seraphina herself is a musician in Goredd’s court…and secretly a half-dragon.

The conflict of the first book centers around a growing conflict amongst the dragons, some of whom wish to uphold their current treaty with Goredd, while others (the “traditionalists”) would rather go back to preying on humans at will as dragons did in the past. Goredd, which had developed ways to fight the dragons in the centuries of war preceding the treaty, has allowed its skills in dragon fighting to lapse, and is in grave danger if the hostile dragons were to win control. Seraphina and her dragon uncle work to prevent this, even as she struggles to hide her half-dragon nature, for which she would be widely reviled if it were to become known; the Saints that the Goreddi worship are largely anti-dragon, and in their writings refer to any offspring of humans and dragons as “abominations.” Eventually, an attempt on the Queen’s life is made, Seraphina’s secret comes out to some of those that she is closest to…and she learns that she is certainly not the only half-dragon in the world. Several other individuals, about whom she has long had strange visions, are all half-dragons as well.

The second book, Shadow Scale, takes us out of Goredd and into the wider world as Seraphina sets out on a journey to try and find her fellow half-dragons. Her motivations for this are partly in order to help her country, since they have some reason to believe that working together, the half-dragons could produce an important magical defense against dragons, and partly personal: having felt alone in the world for so long, Seraphina longs to find, befriend, and live with others like herself. The results of this are mixed, since some of her fellow half-dragons long for something similar…but others definitely do not. Meanwhile, the dragon civil war is still ongoing, and Seraphina and her allies must do everything they can in order to support those dragons who wish to uphold the peace treaty with Goredd.

Along the way, she must face and overcome one of her fellow half-dragons, a woman that she (through their unusual mind-to-mind connection) had once considered a great friend. Jannoula is smart, charming and manipulative, and knows precisely what she must say and do to worm her way into the counsel even of her enemies. She and Seraphina both discover a (to the Goreddis) thoroughly shocking secret: the Saints of Goredd themselves were all half-dragons. Jannoula is able to manipulate even this fact to her advantage, and it is only through Seraphina and her half-dragon friend Abdo realizing their own true strengths that Jannoula is eventually defeated. I really enjoyed this part of the second book, because while Jannoula’s presence as (at least) an antagonist in hinted at in book one, I did not realize that she was going to be the main villain in Shadow Scale, and I definitely did not expect the ending! The twist about the Saints themselves having been half-dragons was also very interesting.

(Spoilers here for the story’s romantic relationships:

I will also say that I very much enjoyed how Hartman handled the romantic relationships in the story, and actually did not go the usual love triangle route in dealing with the relationships between Seraphina, Prince Lucian and his cousin, Princess (and later Queen) Glisselda. A likely conflict between the three of them is set up at the end of the first book, and continues throughout the second, but Hartman subverts that at the end in a lovely way. Being not a fan of love triangles myself, the implication that they work out a way to be open and honest in their feelings and relationships with each other, rather than remaining endlessly conflicted and secretive, was a welcome and refreshing ending to that subplot.)

To me, these are stories about a child of two very different but equally sentient races working hard to get both of those races to treat each other as people deserving of respect, whether they are human, dragon or half-dragon. The dragons themselves can take a human shape, but look down on the humans because they believe the humans are too emotional, as well as considering them prey; the dragons themselves struggle with what I would identify as a false dichotomy between reason and emotion – they believe that allowing any emotion diminishes one’s ability to be rational, and part of the story (especially as it revolves around Seraphina’s dragon uncle) is them coming to accept that that might not actually be the case. The humans, of course, fear the dragons that hunted them for so long, and consider them little better than animals. Seraphina’s task is not an easy one, and she does not get through it without making some mistakes…but she knows that she and everyone she cares about will be better off in a world where humans and dragons are at peace with each other, and so she does not give up.

To wrap up: I greatly enjoyed these books, and would definitely recommend them to fantasy fans, and especially to anyone who likes books depicting human/dragon relationships or conflicts. Hartman has created a rich and interesting world. Shadow Scale seems to wrap up the story nicely, so I don’t know if she intends to write more in this world or not. Either way, Seraphina and Shadow Scale make for a very satisfying read.

~Ethelinda

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3 thoughts on “Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

  1. I just finished Shadow Scale half an hour ago! I’m completely overcome!

    I was struck by a thematic similarity between this book and The Wizard of Suomen. Both deal with the issues of war, peace, and prejudice. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been so struck, as many, many books deal with these three together, but perhaps it was the way the issue is approached that struck me.)

    One thing I loved about the main characters is that they introspect, and many of the characters exhibit a profound depth of psychological complexity rarely achieved in literature. The perspective on the nature of the mind, reason, and the motivations of the soul gives the story extra layers of philosophical insight on all of its themes. I feel like my mind is still reeling.

  2. Also they have Golden Week in Goredd.

    I don’t know why I still burst into laughter whenever that point occurs to me. When you think about it, it isn’t really funny enough to justify that…

  3. Pingback: 2015-2016 Reading Challenge | ethelinda writes

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