“Shadow Scale” by Rachel Hartman

Shadow ScaleI was surprised when I received a copy of Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale in the mail. I’d sent a request for an ARC after seeing a giveaway in a Shelf Awareness newsletter. Once I got it, I delayed reading. I knew that if I started reading immediately, I’d probably get stuck in a fantasy rut and forget about completing Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, a book on habits. Also, I had to reread Seraphina, the first in the series to acclimate myself to the story once again. I even read the prequel, The Audition, though it didn’t add much to the story, I find. But reading the books back-to-back helped me to keep up with the story.

Re-reading Seraphina made me appreciate the story more. Though I enjoyed my first read, I didn’t find the story fulfilling because I rushed through it. This time I read quickly but also paid attention and thus grew to admire both Hartman’s world building and Seraphina’s strength and gumption. These elements are heightened in Shadow Scale, which is adventurous where Seraphina is more introspective. The adventures Seraphina embarks on while searching for the half-dragons requires her to draw on all her skills and also exposes the foundation of Hartman’s world of dragons.

A quick recount: (spoilers)

Shadow Scale picks up a few months after the events is Seraphina. The dragon civil war is in full swing. Demands have been made for the Comonot to return to Tanamoot to be excised and punished but Princess Glisselda refuses to turn him over, which places Goredd in danger of a dragon attack. Since Goredd doesn’t have much dracomachia machines, or many men knowledgeable in fighting dragons, they are at a disadvantage. Therefore the Princess, Prince Lucian, and Seraphina were all happy when Orma sent a note detailing a weapon that ityasaaris (a.k.a. half-dragons) can wield to fight the dragons and protect Goredd. The weapon requires that the ityasaaris link their minds using their mind-fire, the source of the special abilities. After having Abdo and Lars test a small version of it, the Princess consents to Seraphina’s search for the ityasaaris she encountered in her mind to bring them to Goredd to help with the war. With the consent, Seraphina hopes to make real the garden she has created in her mind.

Full of high hopes, Seraphina leaves Goredd for the surrounding countries with Abdo and Dame Okra in tow. The plan: Abdo uses his ability to see mind-fire to locate the ityasaaris (Seraphina can’t see it and other half-dragons can’t see hers), Seraphina convinces them to help Goredd, they all stay at Dame Okra’s house in Ninys until ready to depart for Goredd. The plan goes smoothly at first until Seraphina encounters an old friend, now foe, called Jannoula, who disrupts Seraphina’s plans by possessing the ityasaaris Seraphina finds. Jannoula tells Seraphina that she wants to help Seraphina’s cause but Seraphina finds it hard to discover why Jannoula wants to help. On the way to Samsam, Seraphina learns that Jannoula has taken hold of Abdo, who goes into a deep depression as he attempts to fight her control. In Samsam she meets Jannoula in her physical form and learns that she is advising Josef, the new leader of the country, who doesn’t mind that he’s being advised by a half-dragon though he loathes everything that relates to dragons. From there Seraphina continues on to Porphyry, with Jannoula’s help, where she hopes she can locate a priest who can rid Abdo of Jannoula’s possession.

In Porphyry Seraphina encounters a different reaction to dragons and half-dragons – respect, admiration, and even congeniality. It is in Porphyry that she realizes that the garden of half-dragons in her head is possible in reality and that it already exists; in Porphyry, that is. It’s a welcomed difference to the conditions in other countries. Abdo, however, gets worst while there because he refuses to visit the priest. When he does succumb to Seraphina’s advice and visits, the priest is unable to remove Jannoula and even gets hooked by her. Apparently the more ityasaaris Jannoula possesses, the stronger she becomes. Unable to find another way to remove Jannoula, Seraphina decides to help with the dragon civil war by accompanying the Comonot and a group of exiled dragons that resided in Porphyry to the Tanamoot to launch a surprise attack. It goes well but she hears of trouble in Goredd and goes there to help only to find that Jannoula has fully possessed all the ityasaaris and brought them to Goredd, except Abdo who is absent. She also seems to have swayed the princess and all humans who come in contact with her. The prince is easily taken by her influence.

Seraphina’s attempt to thwart Jannoula’s plans goes awry and she is locked in a tower to watch as Jannoula destroys all she holds dear. With the princess’s help, she escapes, locates Abdo, and call upon an old saint to help defeat Jannoula.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed reading Shadow Scale and was unable to put it down for long. As stated above, this one was more of an adventure and thus plot-driven though Seraphina continued to learn much about herself and her world through the various people and events she encounters. However, much as I was hooked on the story there were some things I liked and others that didn’t work for me. (Beware: some spoilers below.)

What I liked:

  • Seraphina

Seraphina is a strong female protagonist who becomes even stronger and more appealing when she accepts and appreciates who she is and how she is. She’s ballsy and doesn’t back down from her duties even if they seem impossible. In this book, she questions the things she takes for granted, as well as how she structures and navigates her worlds (both the one in her mind and the one she lives in). The more ityasaaris she discovers, the more she realizes that she had projected her insecurities onto the beings that live in the garden in her mind. She had assumed that all ityasaaris suffered for being a half-dragon as she had, but she assumed wrong. Indeed, one of the lessons she learns in this book is that she should not assume, which I think is an easy lesson to learn but hard to remember.

  • Visiting the other countries

Since Seraphina is tasked with rounding up the ityasaaris, she has to visit the surrounding countries to do so. We tag along with her as she visits Ninys, Samsam, Porphyry, and even the Tanamoot where the dragons live. Visiting these other countries helps to strengthen Hartman’s world building. While reading, I couldn’t help comparing Goredd, Ninys, and Samsam to England, France, and Germany (sometimes Spain) due to how they are described (I’ve never been to those countries but they kept popping in my head as I read along). I found it odd that the countries in the south have a cold climate and people with fair skin while Porphyry, which is in the north, has a tropical climate and people with dark skin. The geographical positions confused me but I didn’t mind. It was great to read of the different countries and how they all react to the dragons.

  • The love triangle

I like that this was not central to the story. It’s presented more as an effect of the characters working together (that’s how I read it). Seraphina, Prince Lucian, and Princess Glisselda are friends first. The romance develops later as they grow to know and care for each other. The attraction between Prince Lucian and Seraphina seems natural because they spent a lot of time together in Seraphina and they have similar interests. Princess Glisselda and Seraphina are also great friends, and Seraphina is one of the few people Glisselda can be herself around so it’s understandable that strong feelings develop there as well. I was glad that in the end it’s the strong foundation of friendship that holds them together when their affections for each other are revealed.

  • Diversity

The cast of characters in this novel are very diverse. They are of different shades, genders, and sexualities. It was refreshing to read a story where racism wasn’t prevalent because the characters have different skin tones; however xenophobia is rampant in the southern lands, especially Samsam, where dragons are not held in high favor. The further one travels from the Tanamoot, the more strict and less receptive people become; hence Samsam, which is furtherest from the Tanamoot, is quite severe and follows the strictures of the religion closely. They hate the dragons and even more so the half-dragons which makes it ironic that they’re the ones who’re susceptible to Jannoula’s meddling. Racism is seen among the dragons, however, who view the quigutl, a subspecies of dragon, as a worthless lesser species despite their knowledge.

  • Religion

Religion is the basis of this world Hartman has created and we learn why in this installment. I admire how Hartman uses religion – its doctrines, the questions it raises, its logic – to propel her characters and shape her world. How does religion come about? Who is it that we call our Saints and our God? Should we push the boundaries of our religion? Do we worship that which we hate? Many questions popped in my mind as I read along. At the end of Seraphina I wondered if Seraphina would discover what happened to her patron saint Yirtrudis, whose face is scratched out of all religious texts. I thought maybe just that saint was a half-dragon and that’s why the church strove to erase her from memory. In this book we discover that all the saints were half-dragons who wanted to be seen as something other than a monster. To see how the half-dragons were elevated to the status of saints, we have only to look at Jannoula’s antics and how she convinced Josef of Samsam, who hates everything concerning dragons, to trust her. In the southern lands, religion helps to drive the hatred of dragons but in Porphyry, religion seems to aid the acceptance of dragons, or at least the half-dragons. The Porphyrians see the beauty and usefulness of the half-dragons (I’m tempted to place “it seems” at the end of this sentence because we don’t meet a Porphyrian who is against dragons and half-dragons in this story).

 What I didn’t like:

  • The love triangle

It has its positives and negatives. Though it was done a bit differently, I still think it’s played out. The twist – Glisselda is in love with Seraphina – didn’t ring true for me so I had to assume that it’s as I’ve stated above. I do like that in the end it’s Glisselda, the princess, who rescues the maiden from the tower instead of the prince. That was a nice touch.

  • The fight with Jannoula

I was disappointed that it wasn’t Seraphina who single-handedly defeated Jannoula. From all the mentions of mind-fire and her growth during her quest for the ityasaaris, I thought she would become strong enough to easily swat away Jannoula, or at least struggle to do so but triumph in the end. Basically I was let down by the build up to someone else defeating the bad guy – or gal. Since mind-fire is presented as an awesome thing and since we begin the story with Seraphina unable to see it or others to see hers, I thought that when she is able to do so it would be used to do something magnificent. Granted her mind-fire is so strong that she is able to rouse one of the most powerful ityasaaris to action but I really wanted her to vanquish Jannoula on her own. Pandowdy popped up at just the right moment, in just the right spot, that he functioned more as a deus ex machina and easily ended Seraphina’s battle for her. But I guess his function as a deus ex machina fits since he was praised as a saint and elevated to godly status after showing his immense bulk and stopping Jannoula’s madness.

I should have placed deus ex machina as a category in this section since I found it a nuisance in the story. It began with Orma’s letter at the beginning detailing the weapon that ityasaaris can weild to defeat the dragons, progressed to Abdo’s ability to see mind-fire and easily locate the half-dragons, and left off with Pandowdy popping up and ending Seraphina’s troubles for her.

  • Will Orma ever be the same?

I really wanted to see Orma at the end to be assured that he’s okay and that he recognizes Seraphina, but I was disappointed to learn that he was indeed excised. I didn’t want to believe that happened. Why? Because there are some passed members in my family who suffered from Alzheimer’s and it’s possible that some present ones will; maybe even me. I think forgetting your loved ones and the meaningful events that occurred in your life is a scary thing. It’s possible that Orma will remember Seraphina, or that Seraphina can convince him to return to a semblance of his former self, but it’s hard to tell. I hope that ring on her finger is a mind pearl that will return all Orma’s memories.

Overall Shadow Scale was entertaining and interesting since it revealed more about the intricacies of Seraphina’s world. However, I think Seraphina is the stronger of the two books. I think issues were resolved too easily in this one and the plot raced along too quickly for the story to acquire as much depth as Seraphina. I also think that Hartman packed in too much in this book. There was the dragon civil war, conflicts with rounding up the ityasaaris, conflicts with Jannoula, and though it all came together at the end, it was a bit fragmented throughout the story. We begin with discussing the civil war but Seraphina’s quest for the ityasaaris seems like a separate story; then that story pauses so she can pick up with the civil war with a visit to Tanamoot. Her entanglement with Jannoula ties the parts together but they still seem separate.

Regardless of all this, I enjoyed the story and will re-read it all again. And if another book is published in the series, I’ll read that too!

<— Seraphina (book 1)

Quotes from the book:

“But do not make the mistake, Seraphina, of supposing that suffering ennobles anyone. Some may be lovely, but most will be hurt beyond your skill to heal.”

“If you followed logic all the way back to its origin, did you inevitably end up at a point of illogic, an article of faith? Even an indisputable fact must be chosen as the place to start reasoning, given weight by a mind that believed in its worth.”

20 thoughts on ““Shadow Scale” by Rachel Hartman

  1. Great review! I think the reason the colder climates were in the south and warmer climates were in the north is because the book probably takes place in our equivalent of the southern hemisphere where it is colder in the south and warmer in the north.
    It is interesting you caught that though, I didn’t notice while I read Shadow Scale. I agree with a lot of your other thoughts on this book.


    1. Thank you! 🙂 Ah! That’s a good explanation. It didn’t cross my mind at all. It would be great to see what lies beyond Porphyry, who they trade with, and what are their views about dragons.


      1. You’re welcome! Yes, there is still so much left in this world left to explore. If the author wrote another sequel or spin-off set in the same world I would be sure to read it. 🙂


  2. Nice review! Even though we have different opinions about certain aspects of Shadow Scale, I do agree that the final battle was a disappointment. And like you, I also enjoyed visiting the other countries and meeting the other half-dragon characters.

    Thanks for sharing my link at the end, btw! 🙂 And it looks like we have very similar tastes in reading. Looking forward to following your blog in the future!


  3. Thanks for including my link!

    I agree that the religion aspect of the story was thought-provoking. But then I felt that in the end it just ultimately fell a little flat, which was too bad because it had interesting potential.


  4. I definitely agree with you- I liked Seraphina better than the sequel as well! That happens a lot whenever I read series, but for some reason I was hoping it wouldn’t be the case with this one.

    Thanks for mentioning me! 🙂


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