Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
Random House, March 2015
E-book, 608 pages
*Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, via Netgalley.
~Warning: Here Be Really Big Spoilers~
I read Rachel Hartman's debut novel Seraphina in two days, and I liked it a lot. A really lot. In stark contrast it took me a little over a month to read her long-anticipated sequel Shadow Scale. Admittedly it's 600 pages long but that tardy reading pace is a pretty good measure of the experience. It was slow, slow going, especially in the beginning, and terribly stiff in parts. There was much less of the sweet wicked humour and instinctive energy of the first book. The seriousness and anguish that replaced those qualities was warranted by the plot but started off uncomfortable and ended up somewhat overdone. A return to form in the middle 200 pages or so - which whizzed by like lightening in comparison to the rest - was a relief and a reminder of what I'd hoped this book would be, shattered by an ending I just couldn't like.
Shadow Scale opens with an attempt to recap Seraphina for new readers, using an awkward framing device wherein an historian from a long-distant future reflects on the significance of the events about to be related. It gets things off to a bad start, because it sets our beloved characters at a remove and does so without any grace. Perfunctory is the best way to describe it; a duty done for no other purpose than to stand in for a 'Previously on...' The info-dumpy recaps continue through the first couple of chapters as we're reintroduced to Seraphina, our half-dragon ('ityasaari') heroine and her friends: Glisselda, the Queen of Goredd, Glisselda's fiance Prince Lucian Kiggs and the other ityasaari we met in the first book - Abdo, Lars, Dame Okra.
Very little time has passed since the closing pages of Seraphina, and Goredd sits under threat of attack from the new Ard of extremist dragons that have taken control of the Tannamoot. Goredd's defences are woefully inadequate but it turns out that that the ityasaari may hold the key to a powerful weapon: by joining together their minds they can create a net of force that can literally knock a dragon out of the air. The more ityasaari there are to do this the better, and so Seraphina is quickly dispatched post-haste to gather as many as possible from the Southlands and from distant Porphyry.
Having spent years familiarising herself with her fellow half-dragons in her mind garden, Seraphina has a mental list to work through. What follows is reminiscent of that good old epic fantasy cliche - the gathering of the band of heroes - as we doggedly progress from one ityasaari to another, ticking them off the mental list and collecting them like toys. There are ways in which Shadow Scale subverts the band of heroes trope, but there isn't a great deal of time to get to know or understand any of these new characters before Seraphina has to get moving again. Nedouard, Blanche, Od Frederika, Mina and most of the others all get short shrift, and the narrative starts to feel tediously repetitive. The mass of them seems more important to the novel than their individuality - such a difference from Seraphina! - and there are simply too many of them to get a handle on.
Things improve markedly with the introduction of Jannoula, Seraphina's half-dragon nemesis, who is able to reach out to other ityasaari and 'hook' into their minds, controlling them from a distance. Imprisoned and tortured as a child, she is hungry for attention and love and determined to get it by manipulating the geopolitics of the Southlands and the dragon Tannamoot. While Seraphina pursues her quest Jannoula works in parallel, dismantling and undermining. The opposition of the two 'sisters' - who have more in common than they would like to believe - becomes the core momentum of the book, with the second part building towards their inevitable clash. Eventually we have battles, betrayals and bereavements enough for anyone. It's just a shame that we had to build so many campfires, visit so many castles and eat so much food made out of pine trees to get to them.
One of the things I admired about Seraphina was the care Hartman took to delineate the human and dragon cultures of Goredd, with their own peculiar tics and habits, religion, social structures, etiquettes. I was really looking forward to seeing how she would apply this to the other Southland countries and to Porphyry. But while there is plenty of description in Shadow Scale, and plenty of words expended describing places, we never get the same level of integrated nuance. Samsam and Ninysh, for example, are apparently very different countries, but it's hard for me in retrospect to tell you how, except for some very basic things. They are scenery, a backdrop. Porphyry is more knowable, probably because we spend longer there, but their system of government, their religion of Chance and Necessity, are not sufficiently part of the plot to create that kind of world/story harmony that Seraphina had.
There are some lovely set pieces in the latter part of the book though: the taking of Lab 4, a stronghold of the dragon Censors, in particular and the flight of exiled dragons from Porphyry. There are also new opportunities to address some of the themes from the first book dear to my heart, especially diversities of identity and belief. There are some sensitively written second generation dragons-in-exile in Porphyry, struggling with what it means to be both a different species and a native citizen of the country where they were born. The introduction of the transgender ityasaari Camba and revelations about Glisselda's sexuality (the biggest surprise and yay of the book for me!) further widen the range of experience of Hartman's cast. We are also allowed another tantalising glimpse of quigutl culture, the lizard underclass of dragon society, though not enough, never enough! The ways the book engages with questions of religious conviction, and plays with undermining the status of Goredd's Saints, figureheads who are not quite gods but close to it, has a lot of potential. If only it wasn't spoilt by the ham fisted introduction of St Pandowdy to resolve everything in the final pages, a deus ex machina if ever there was one.
The sheer good hearted generosity Hartman's world allows almost anything to be embraced and reconciled - any identity, any belief - and wrapped up with love and honesty. It's still a very beguiling world, which is why Shadow Scale makes me want to cry with frustration. It definitely seems like that difficult second book to me, where the full implication of the big world created leads to inertia, baggy plot, moments of over complication and some thematic dead ends. Not for me I'm afraid.