Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman. ★★★★1/2
Shadow Scale is the sequel to the wonderful debut YA fantasy, Seraphina, which must absolutely be read first. This review may contain spoilers for Seraphina.
I loved, loved Shadow Scale. This is an almost six hundred page book that I ended up reading in less than twenty-four hours. It does pretty much everything very well and doesn’t go overboard on the romance front, which is notable especially for a YA book.
Shadow Scale opens with a piece of historical writing that recounts the events of Seraphina. While it was useful in reminding me what happened, it did go into potentially spoilery territory, which I found highly annoying.
In Shadow Scale, Seraphina is tracking down the rest of the half dragons to help in the ongoing war. But there’s one half dragon that she really wishes she won’t find.This plot was a bit slow at first and didn’t really take off until the villain arrived on stage. However, once she showed up, I was utterly sucked in.
I really love the characters! Seraphina’s a wonderful heroine – creative, determined, and compassionate. The secondary characters shine as well, and I have a particular fondness for Abdo, the twelve year old dancer. The villain was also fascinating. She’s never treated as simple, and it’s thrilling to find out her back story and her goals.
In addition, it’s notable how diverse these characters are. Why can’t the rest of fantasy be like this? There’s hoards of great female characters, a pretty high number of POC characters (Abdo!), a transwoman character, a fictional language where the introduction is “How may I pronoun you?”, and a number of LGB characters. (EDIT – I’ve found an article where Rachel Hartman talks about creating the gender system. It’s excellent and highly recommended.)
I liked the world created in Seraphina, and Shadow Scale farther explores it and adds to it. While I would definitely classify the book as fantasy and most technology is at the medieval level, it’s interesting how technologically advanced the dragons are. What I initially assumed were “vaguely magical devices” were actually more like cell phones or mini computers. It was fun to see Seraphina come more into contact with dragon technology. The religion set up in the first book was also farther explored and worked really well. Finally, Shadow Scales went beyond the kingdom of Goredd and showed the different cultures of the surrounding lands, particularly Porphyry.
The romance subplot was great and not the least bit annoying. For one thing, it’s actually a subplot. Seriously, the love interest was gone for two hundred pages, and Seraphina’s got much more important things going on than aghasting over relationship drama. The conclusion to the subplot was wonderful and brilliantly original. Think of all those times were you say “wouldn’t it be cool if… but that’s not going to happen.” Only this time, it actually does happen! I liked the impression I got of how it ended, but it was sort of ambiguous. I did find an interview where Hartman talks about it under a spoiler cut. I would recommend reading the entire interview as it is pretty interesting.
My major issue was that this was the last book in a duology, and I felt like it didn’t wrap everything up. There’s still a number of loose threads, and I’m dying to see more of the romantic subplot (probably the first time I’ve ever said that). There’s probably enough material left for a third book. Still, Hartman’s said that she’s planning to write more books set in the same world, so maybe some of my questions will be answered in them.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who liked Seraphina.