Review of “Shadow Scale” by Rachel Hartman

This fantasy novel is the sequel to Seraphina, which tells the story of Seraphina Dombegh, 16, who is one of the hated class of “ityasaari” or “half-breeds” – her mother was a dragon and her father a human. Seraphina rigorously ensures that her small trail of silver dragon scales stays hidden however, and she keeps her curious visions of grotesque beings in check by putting them inside a garden she has created in her mind. At the end of Book One, she discovered that these garden denizens are actually half-breeds like her; she met three of them in real life.

Seraphina’s tutor and mentor throughout her life has been her beloved dragon uncle, Orma, who also taught her how to control her visions. From his care of Seraphina, Orma developed a fondness for her, but such an attachment was frowned upon by dragonkind, and Orma was in danger of being sent back to the dragon homeland to have his memories surgically removed. While dragons stay mostly in human physical form as part of the peace treaty with humans, they are taught to eschew human feelings and adhere to the “correct” mental state of emotional distance. It isn’t easy, however, for all of dragonkind.

Thanks to Orma, Seraphina became an accomplished musician, and thus was able to get a job as an assistant to the court composer. Further, she was selected to teach the harpsichord to Princess Glisselda, called “Selda.” Seraphina drew close to Selda, as well as to Selda’s cousin and fiancé, Prince Lucian Kiggs, and thus became involved in the politics of the royal court.

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As this book begins – a few months after the action in the first book concluded, the dragons are engaged in a civil war, with the Court taking the side of Ardagar Comonot, the (relatively) progressive dragonic deposed leader, against the conservative forces of the Old Ard, who want to end the peace with humankind. Orma has disappeared, presumably to hide from the Censors who would take away his memories and thereby strip him of emotions, but he left Seraphina a letter advising her to find the other half-dragons from her garden; it is believed that each of the half-dragons has a different mental power, and in combining them, there might be a way to defeat the Old Ard.

To that end, Seraphina sets out to neighboring kingdoms, with the blessing of Selda (now Queen) and Lucian, to find the other ityasaari and help the Kingdom of the Goredd regain peace. She is also desperate to find her uncle and make sure he is okay. But her plans are stymied by Jannoula, a warped and powerful half-dragon who can take over the minds of others. Seraphina has trouble going up against Jannoula; she knows from her visions that Jannoula has had a terrible life. But as one of the other ityasaaris advises her: “…do not make the mistake, Seraphina, of supposing that suffering ennobles anyone.” Seraphina has too big of a heart to learn that lesson until it is almost too late. And while she has never really known what her own power is, she must figure it out and use it if she is ever to combat the genocidal tendencies of the evil Jannoula.

Discussion: I loved the first book. As I wrote in my review of it, both Seraphina’s interior and exterior worlds were so richly imagined, and so remarkably creative, that I couldn’t compliment the author enough. In addition, the characters were uniformly complex: by turns heart-warming, amusing, heart-breaking, fragile, stronger than they knew, full of hurt, but full of hope. I also loved the fact that Seraphina, while suffused with the self-hatred she absorbed from her culture, nonetheless bravely persevered in engaging with her society to do what she thought was right.

Although the world-building involving the dragons is stellar, I appreciated the metaphorical aspects of the divide between dragonkind and humankind. The prejudice, misinformation, fear, rumor-mongering, and acts of intimidation and terrorism were reminiscent of – well, humankind all by itself!

In this book, however, Jannoula hijacks the plot. Jannoula is pretty evil, seemingly invincible, and extremely unlikable. Seraphina was able to muster up sympathy and pity for Jannoula, in part because she well understood the shame and punishments in store for those known to be half-breeds. I understood how the emptiness of Jannoula’s soul served to reflect the largeness of Seraphina’s, but I still hated how she took up so much plot-space, when there were so many other wonderful characters with whom I would have rather spent my time.

On the positive side, the permutations of love also play a starring role in this book as with the first book. And there is a wonderful twist at the end that almost redeems my disappointment over the dominance of Jannoula in the story.

Evaluation: Hartman is an excellent writer. I rated this book in relation to her first book, but I don’t want that to reflect on its quality.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, LLC, 2015

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3 Responses to Review of “Shadow Scale” by Rachel Hartman

  1. Alex says:

    This is the first review I’ve read of this book (it will be my next audio purchase). interesting that you didn’t find it as good as the first. makes me more curious about seeing other thoughts!

  2. Beth F says:

    Nooooooooo not another series that might go downhill. I’m reading this anyway, but I’ll keep expectations in check.

  3. I tend to like second books the best in trilogies, exactly because they get darker. But cardboard villains are such a bummer. Doesn’t it make you yearn for the days of Chaos Walking, when everyone was moral bedlam on wheels, villains and heroes?

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