Secrets and Dragons: A Review of Seraphina and Shadow Scale

Full of transforming dragons, self-deprecating princes, and clever women, Seraphina easily became one of my favorite books when I first read it. Rachel Hartman struck just the right balance of hope and despair, secrecy and truth, and humor and magic. How could I not love it? Which means I had no excuse to wait this long to read the second one. Especially since Shadow Scale closes out the series. Duology? Can you really call it a series if it’s just two books? Well, series or not, I’d definitely call it fantastic. And I think I can tell you why without spoilers.

Given how closed off Seraphina is, she could have been a hard character to get to know, let alone love. She’s half dragon in a world where dragons are feared and reviled despite the treaty ending the dragon wars forty years before. Interbreeding with them is not only illegal, it’s impossible. Children of men and dragons just don’t exist. This tension immediately sets the stage for Seraphina’s desperate secrecy and the consequences if anyone ever truly gets to know her.

It’s this very secrecy that drew me into her struggle and her vulnerability that made me love her. But the thing that carved her a place among other strong heroines in my memory is the way she interacts with the world despite her fear and the lie she’s living. Seraphina’s wry, self-aware humor alone makes her great but she’s also tenacious, and when certain people are intrigued by her (and she is intrigued by them), she reaches out, risking revulsion and rejection because deep down she just wants to be known and valued for all of herself. What more do any of us want? Who hasn’t felt alone and monstrous at some point and longed for love and acceptance? Such a common theme in the young adult genre could have felt trite and overdone, but Seraphina gave it a depth and conflict that was compelling.

Even in the second book after she’s found some of that love and acceptance, it was wonderful to see her faced with reality and struggle to fit her hopes into the real world. In Seraphina we see her step out of the role of frightened child and into that of a fully realized adult. But in Shadow Scale we see her learn that adults can still grow as their understanding of the world grows. When she realizes that she’s misunderstood someone, or she’s being narrow-minded, or she’s made unfounded assumptions, she changes. She recognizes the problem in her thinking and works to fix it. This seemed like the perfect joining of her emotional human upbringing and the logic of her dragon ancestry. She fixes a problem within herself in order to connect with the world.

And I don’t want to spoil the second book too much, but to see Seraphina’s own hopes and dreams reflected in the antagonist was just brilliant. We’ve been traveling along, blithely rooting for her noble cause, and suddenly it turns out that the bad guy wants the same thing? And is way better at getting it? Ick. Our horror matches our heroine’s and voila, we have a villain we hate and understand and struggle against with infuriating impotence. I mean the bad guy in Seraphina was cunning and scary enough, but the bad guy in Shadow Scale was scarier and always seemed to be one step ahead.

Shadow Scale also helped expand the world quite a bit and the best part of that was the dragons. We already knew from Seraphina that they value logic and cold reasoning above anything emotional, and yet they are drawn to beauty and art. I loved getting to see the logical dragons start to admit to the strength that was to be found in human emotion and passion.

With that being said, I didn’t end up loving Shadow Scale the way I loved Seraphina. It was good and it was definitely worth reading, but the whole book felt rushed. Somehow, even though it clocked in at over five hundred pages and took me more than a week to read. So much was packed into those five hundred pages that the narrative jumped from event to event without pause. Emotionally imperative pieces of the story slipped by without the time or acknowledgement they deserved. Revelation and realization resulted in action without the accompanying thought or consideration to drive them. Seraphina’s course seemed predetermined and nothing that happened seemed to alter her decisions. I had to rush along behind saving up all the feelings I didn’t have time for. Which meant I never actually stopped to feel them. So much happened but it inevitably fell flat because I didn’t have the emotional connection with the action.

There was still plenty to like in the second book. I love a fantasy with sweeping history that stretches to affect the characters and their journey in the present day. And I loved the way Hartman stripped Seraphina of every weapon and ally until the only thing she could rely on was herself, and that was a shaky possibility at best. Despite the headlong pace, it did seem like a very fitting ending for Seraphina’s story, with only one or two things left as slightly loose ends. I could see some short stories or novellas to wrap those up.

My notes on these books ended up looking a lot like a laundry list of things I loved (the heroine, the hero, the villain, the world, the philosophy, the dragons) so I could keep going forever. But I think y’all should read it and let me know what’s on your list.

1 Comment

  • Shara White September 27, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    I remember reading Seraphina and really enjoying it, but I never did pick up the sequel. I might one day if I can get a super-awesome deal on it, but I don’t feel any urgency to do so.


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