Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina was a subtle, exquisitely quiet novel, nuanced and filled with sharply realized characters. I absolutely fell in love with it, placing it on my list of top reads that year, so it kills me to report that the eagerly-awaited sequel, Shadow Scale, not only failed to meet my (admittedly high) expectations, but really disappointed across the board.
Shadow Scale picks up shortly after the events of Seraphina, with dragons involved in an all-out civil war and their ousted leader Comonot allied with the human land of Goredd. While Princess Glisselda and Prince Kiggs prepare for war, Seraphina travels to find other ityasaari (half-dragons) such as herself, prompted by a discovery by Orma (her full dragon uncle) that the half-dragons might be able to provide a magical defense against dragon attacks. Her antagonist in this endeavor is Jannoula, the ityasaari who nearly possessed her mind in the prior novel and who uses that talent to take over nearly all the other half-dragons in this one.
I had several issues with Shadow Scale. One is the pacing felt way off. The novel comes in at about 600 pages, which felt over-long by several hundred pages. The story started off slowly, then plodded along from place to place, much as Seraphina herself did, with little variation — no sense of urgency even when the storyline seemed to call for it, no slowing down for quieter moments. That isn’t to say there were no quiet moments, but it all felt apace; those moments didn’t stand out at all. The whole thing just dragged for me, and it never really felt like Hartman was fully in control or cognizant of the pacing.
This plodding sense attached itself as well to both the main character, who was surprisingly passive throughout most of the novel, and to the plot, which felt quite repetitive for the first half or more. Seraphina would travel to a new land in search of some half-dragons, find them, then Jannoula would possess them, Seraphina would bemoan their possession, then move on to the next land, where the process would repeat itself. Throughout it all, Seraphina was inexplicably removed from it all, paying lip service to the horror of it all, and to the real-world implications, but it never felt like she tried (really tried) to do much about it. Part of the problem here I think is that the solution is tied so much to her coming-of-age epiphany, which Hartman clearly wants to save for the climactic ending, but 500+ pages is a long time for the sort of delayed agency (I had other issues with that ending as well — its abruptness, its ease, the way it comes somewhat out of left field, etc., but I won’t go into those issues more so as to avoid spoilers).
If the protagonist was one issue, her antagonist was equally problematic. For one, the half-dragons’ mental powers just felt muddy to me. Jannoula can possess other ityasaari and basically wholly charm humans. How is never made clear, or why she is so distinct from the others in this capability. It also seems a matter of authorial convenience when she can fully charm people and when they can resist, or when she uses her possession to learn things and when she does not. And her pretty much unfailing ability robbed the book of much of its potential suspense. Finally, her backstory, which is meant to offer up some complexity to her villainy, never felt wholly connected to her.
Here I think it would have helped matters if Hartman had chosen a different narrative POV, using multiple narrators rather than focusing solely on Seraphina. Putting us in the head of Jannoula would have deepened her character, while giving us some other POVs — some of the possessed half-dragon, the full dragon Eskar, young Abdo — would have allowed us to break out of the repetitive plot cycle as well as created some of that painful urgency the book needed in places.
Shadow Scale has its moments, and Hartman does a nice job with some bittersweet endings, but it isn’t near enough to overcome its many issues: too great a length, a passive main character and overly effective villain, uneven pacing, a repetitive plot structure, unclear abilities/goals, and a problematic climax. It kills me to say it, but not recommended.