One of the top things I love about this series, and there are many, is how unabashedly of-the-mind it is. The action scenes take place almost apologetically in the background. That might sound like a criticism, but I really don’t mean it that way at all. Shadow Scale isn’t about physical battles, even though it’s set in the midst of a war, but about the mental ones. Seraphina has to use her intelligence to take on others, but also herself. She’s a heroine who isn’t particularly gifted physically, though her scales can block weapons, and she has some potentially untapped half-dragon abilities.
This comparison’s going to sound really odd, but Shadow Scale reminded me of Death Note. For those who are unfamiliar, Death Note is a manga (or an anime or a live action movie) that centers on the mental face off of two college age geniuses. Lots of people die in the series, but mostly they hardly matter. The series is all about the war of cleverness being waged, and the two know that whoever loses will die. While the battle isn’t quite the same, Seraphina has to find a way to defeat Jannoula, who has great mental strength, with her own mind. This, friends, is a battle of wits, not of might.
Speaking of Jannoula, I love to hate her. So very much. Jannoula sort of came out of nowhere for me as a villain in the series, but I love that she became the enemy, rather than the rival dragons. I am all about powerful, manipulative lady villains, who have pasts and motivations. She manages to be thoroughly evil, but also a bit sympathetic, which is what makes a great villain. The fact that the drama isn’t physical and in your face might make the book slow for some, but I adore stories like this and I had no desire to read any other books once I got about fifty pages into Shadow Scale.
I truly cannot get enough of how many powerful female characters there are in this fantasy world. Jannoula, obviously, is incredibly powerful mentally. Seraphina herself has a much less obvious power, but it is there. She’s also incredibly talented with her music, able to make people feel with her. In Shadow Scale, Glisselda has to rule, while her grandmother lies in a sick bed, and she really steps up. In Seraphina, Glisselda was smart, but she was very young and did not seem ready for that much responsibility. In Shadow Scale, she proves that she has what it takes, helped by the support of her friends. There are others too, like Eskar, of the dragons. There are strong women in each society.
In Shadow Scale, Seraphina travels around the neighboring kingdoms looking for the other half-dragons. I was a bit worried about this, since it would take Seraphina away from Kiggs and everything that I knew. Actually, when she left, that’s when the book really took off for me. Hartman builds such disparate cultures, all with their own mores and social systems. Though these countries are closely tied together in certain ways, with a shared history, they differ so greatly in others; they all revere the same saints, but they take the teachings in very different ways, as is shown in the various reactions to half-dragons. The cultures are beautiful, and I’d dearly love another book set in Porphyry about an older Abdo. *coughs*
The plot ran in really unexpected directions. I’m torn between thinking that it was somewhat anticlimactic and feeling that the unique way it wrapped up was perfection. Everything that happens very much fits within the kind of series that Seraphina is. It’s very much an atypical plot resolution, but I think it works for how everything else goes. It fits. That said, I do have some questions remaining. I also love that the series ended on Seraphina’s relationship with Orma, because, despite romance and friendships, Orma’s the most important in Seraphina’s life. Their relationship is so sweet and feelsy and gah. It’s when the dragons, who disdain emotion, feel things that I become a ball of emotion.
Obviously, there’s one thing left I need to talk about, which is the romance. Well, no, two things. First, I want to praise Rachel Hartman for the inclusion of a transgender character in a fantasy, and I love the conversation that Seraphina has with the character and how very open Porphyrian society is to people gendering themselves. It’s truly beautiful. Also truly beautiful is the way that the drama between Kiggs and Seraphina wraps up. They’ve been keeping their relationship secret from his fiancé, Glisselda, but everyone’s actually really mature about it, and I love Rachel Hartman for the resolution.
Shadow Scale may be massive, but it warrants the length. Hartman adds a whole new cast of characters, and they’re all fabulous. This is a must read series for those who like brainy, thought-twisting reads, and for those looking for diverse, feminist literature. Rachel Hartman is confirmed as one of my favorite authors, and I cannot wait for her next book. *coughs* Seriously, teenage Abdo. *coughs*