The Compulsive Reader: The Messy, Messy World of Dragon Politics: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Messy, Messy World of Dragon Politics: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was one of those wonderfully charming, wholly fascinating fantasy novels that caught my eye at work one day and would not leave me alone. This happens occasionally--I see a book in the flesh (in the pages?) and even though I've already talked myself into waiting until it comes out in paperback, or the library gets, or at least waiting until pay day, that's it. It must come home with me. Seraphina was that kind of book.

So I've been waiting and waiting and waiting for the follow-up (because the ending was so maddeningly, wonderfully wide open) for almost three years, and finally, it came. Shadow Scale. Finally.

Shadow Scale picks up only a few weeks after Seraphina left off. The dragon civil war has left the human populations in the Southlands feeling very uneasy, and Glisselda and Lucian fear that Goredd could suffer heavy collateral damage. They send Seraphina and Abdo south to find the rest of the halflings, using Seraphim's mental connection to locate them. Seraphina quickly discovers that her old enemy Jannoula has terrifying mental powers of her own, and she's using them to force each of the halflings to her will. Seraphina finds herself unable to fight Jannoula on her own, she she must turn to the rebel dragons and her own troubled past to discover the truth about her own nature and how to defeat Jannoula.

Shadow Scale does all of the things that a great fantasy sequel should do: expand the world on multiple levels, add depth to the protagonists, and make use of the many interesting, diverse supporting characters. Although the very beginning is a tad slow, as soon as Seraphina and Abdo have set off on their journey, the story moves quickly. Hartman takes readers to all of the three countries she only mentions in the first book--Ninys, Samsam, and Porphyry--and introduces all of the members of Seraphim's mental garden. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the plot tilting and re-arranging, and the multitude of characters hold their own surprises and secrets.

The trajectory of the plot allows Hartman to really dig deep into the geography, history, politics, and theology of the various nations that made up the Southlands. She uses little details to make the cultures and cities come to life, and follows up on informations she first introduced in Seraphina. She layers new information and details about the history of both humans and dragons into the narrative, pointing to a surprising revelation about the history of humankind and the existence of the halflings.

There are no easy answers for Seraphina, and she runs up against obstacles at nearly every point in the story. Hartman isn't afraid to hurt her characters, but Seraphina doesn't give up easily. She learns that there are no answers to the challenges she faces, and that unless history is to (disastrously) repeat itself, it's up to her to find new solutions and connections between the human and dragon worlds.

Shadow Scale is diverse and compelling, and Hartman's writing is elegant and witty. Seraphina's delightfully charming voice holds steady throughout her trials, although by the end she has changed: she recognizes her own value despite her mistakes and makes great sacrifices for her people.

So now my only question is: Will there be a book three? I think yes. I have too many important questions about Seraphina's world for this to be the end, although I'm willing to give her a brief rest before her next adventure. After the events of Shadow Scale, she's earned it.

ARC provided by publisher.

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