Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Publication Date: March 10th 2015
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Length: 608 pages

Warning: Spoilers for the book are contained in this review.

The kingdom of Goredd: a world where humans and dragons share life with an uneasy balance, and those few who are both human and dragon must hide the truth. Seraphina is one of these, part girl, part dragon, who is reluctantly drawn into the politics of her world. When war breaks out between the dragons and humans, she must travel the lands to find those like herself—for she has an inexplicable connection to all of them, and together they will be able to fight the dragons in powerful, magical ways. 
As Seraphina gathers this motley crew, she is pursued by humans who want to stop her. But the most terrifying is another half dragon, who can creep into people’s minds and take them over. Until now, Seraphina has kept her mind safe from intruders, but that also means she’s held back her own gift. It is time to make a choice: Cling to the safety of her old life, or embrace a powerful new destiny?

I absolutely adored ‘Seraphina’ when it was first released. It was the one and only time I have actually marked down pages in a book because the quotes were so unbearably beautiful and I wanted to go back to them. It was a truly stunning debut, with a fresh and incredibly imaginative story at its heart and was filled with prose that was so lyrical and beautiful that at points it reduced me to tears. I could not wait to get my hands on the sequel, and I waited (bereft and impatient) for the next few years until finally, in March this year it was released.

However whilst the last quarter of the novel lifted the story up to virtually a three star read, the first three quarters were not anything like the standard I was expecting. Maybe I went in with unattainable standards having loved the first book so much, but I ended up feeling sorely disappointed by this second part of the duology. I feel that a lot could have been resolved by turning it into a trilogy and allowing more space for the story to breathe. It felt like too many storylines were being rushed through and not enough time spent developing them, and too many characters that we knew and loved from the first book were pushed to the side-lines and were mere bit players in this conclusion.

The biggest problem for me was the pacing of this novel. As I’ve said it felt like it could have easily been two books and allowed the story to fully breathe. As it was, parts that really could have been culled were allowed to strangle the interesting plot points and the first three quarters of the novel dragged terribly. The dragon war that was about to kick off at the end of Seraphina was pushed to the side in favour of Seraphina travelling the lands and trying to gather together the other half dragon’s she has seen in her mind. Whilst it was wonderful meeting them all, to flesh out these characters and see how they responded to this idea of there being more of them, to see how the different cultures treated them and their individual gifts, far too much time was spent in a very samey pattern. Seraphina would travel, she would search, she would find them (remarkably easily) something would go wrong, they wouldn’t come with her. Whilst this wasn’t always the case, that pattern was very much a staple for a good portion of the book, and whilst the different cultures and lands were fascinating there was too much of Seraphina’s own self-pity and wallowing for the reader to fully enjoy it. The novel felt so bleak and depressing – a stark contrast to the high stakes and tension of the first book.

Everything felt like it was going wrong, they didn’t seem able to catch any luck at all, and that was in part due to Seraphina’s own attitude. It was great to watch her develop and attempt to come to terms with her unrealistic expectations and the actual reality, but too much of the book was spent with her despairing and not taking action when she could do. She didn’t seem to have any agency, she couldn’t work out any problem without help and whilst help is always a good thing it became a little too unrealistic when she (and everyone else) is suddenly saved by Pandowdy at the end. I didn’t feel like she learned anything, like she was able to take control of her life in any real way. I kept waiting for her to piece things together and to find a way to save everyone, but she didn’t. It felt thoroughly disappointing. Which I hated given how much I was looking forward to this book.

So much of what made Seraphina herself was missing – the music that made up so much of the first book was barely present. The strong, independent and fearless woman was gone, replaced with a hollow shell filled with misery and loneliness.

The romance was also a big problem for me. I loved the intense yearning and build up that was achieved between Seraphina and Kiggs in the first book, and I was expecting more of it, but instead I ended up hating the relationship. Where was the subdued and quiet passion? Where was the intensity of feeling and meeting of like minds that made me fall in love with these two in the first place? It was lacking in so many ways. There wasn’t enough time devoted to them, the relationship and Kiggs himself was swept under the rug, and what moments the two stole together made me turn on the relationship. It stopped being a sweeping love and felt as though Kiggs was hiding Seraphina and she in turn was a jealous mistress. It soured the relationship for me and made me feel like I couldn’t want them to be together. That is resolved somewhat with the revelation at the end about Selda’s own feelings, and that could have switched things into something truly glorious and brilliant, but it lacked conviction. All the important discussions and scenes where the three of them try and work out this tangled relationship were kept from the reader, we were supposed to just take it that they were making it work, which felt cheap and frustrating. I wanted Selda’s feelings to be made clearer throughout, for both her and Kiggs to play a bigger role in the novel instead of being relegated to the side-lines and for the conversations where they build this relationship between them to be open to the reader.

There were also a lot of incongruous elements that really didn’t work with the world building that had already occurred. I loved the Quig and Dragon devices we were introduced to in the first book, but suddenly there were new devices all over the place doing increasingly modern things, particularly once Seraphina reached Lab Four. They were out of place – GPS, phone and computer technology that didn’t fit in with the rest of the world and jarred me straight out of the story.

These things aside there were a lot of things that I did love about the book. The meeting of all of the half dragons, although it felt that what they endured was really horrific and not adequately dealt with in the story. It was painful to see Seraphina’s dream of being with them all shattered so horribly.
I also loved the different cultures, the quirks, the dress, the foods, the religion, I thought the world building was fantastic. When Seraphina returns home however the story seems to really pull into its own and whilst there are still issues, it felt infinitely more like the story I had been anticipating to follow the first book. I also really loved the revelations about the saints and how that threw so many things into question, it was a brilliant twist and I found that whole story thread really fascinating.

I missed the lyrical prose that I fell in love with in the first book, and I missed the characters that were barely graced with any time at all. This is sadly an example of a book that could not live up to the brilliance of its predecessor. I’m glad I read it, it’s wonderful to have some closure on the story and to see where Hartman wanted to take these characters for the second half of their journey. However I feel bereft for the story this might have been. It felt like it was pushed and forced to fit this ideal of a single other book, and unfortunately that stifled a lot of what I loved about the first one, leaving me with a pale imitation of the world and characters that I fell in love with in ‘Seraphina’. It truly felt as though Hartman lost the focus and path that she laid out in the first book, and the second book is an odd tangled mess of stories and ideas, some carried through, others discarded, leaving the reader feeling utterly heart sick over the book they never read. 

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