Shadow Scale

by Rachel Hartman

Cover image

Series: Seraphina #2
Publisher: Ember
Copyright: 2015
ISBN: 0-375-89659-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 458

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Shadow Scale, despite confusing publisher marketing that calls it a "companion" to Seraphina, is a direct sequel. It picks up shortly after Seraphina and resolves most of the loose ends of the previous book.

This is a book for which my completionist tendencies did me no favors. The book I was intending to read, when I started on Hartman's work, is Tess of the Road, but I hate starting series in the middle and it was clear that Tess was set after Seraphina. (I have been repeatedly assured that this doesn't matter and that one can start with Tess. Such reassurances rarely work on me; do as I say, not as I do.) For Seraphina itself, this turned out fine; I'm mildly surprised by the book's Andre Norton award nomination, but it was enjoyable enough and I liked the first-person protagonist.

Shadow Scale I approached with a bit more trepidation. I hadn't heard much about it and the few reviews I saw were lukewarm. Unfortunately, there's a reason for that.

Seraphina left obvious room for a sequel, including a brewing war, significant unresolved interpersonal relationships, and Seraphina's own newfound understanding of the nature of her internal menagerie. Alas, the start of the book uses the war primarily as plot device (and introduces a brand-new bit of magic that I never found interesting), largely ignores the relationship, and focuses on that third plot element. And by focuses, I mean Seraphina is sent out of the country of Goredd on a journey of map exploration to collect plot coupons.

The best description I have for the middle of this book is tedious and depressing. Like a lot of novels, it has a U-shaped plot: things get worse and worse until a crisis, and then start getting better. This plot can work, but the reader has to have a good reason to stick through the depressing bits. One of the better reasons is if the plot allows the main character some small triumphs, maintaining their agency throughout even if larger events are spiraling out of control. This is not one of those books. After some early successes tracking down some objects of her search, Seraphina encounters an antagonist from her own past (barely hinted at in the first book) who can systematically corrupt everything she is trying to do. She spends most of the book feeling like what she's doing is futile, or hoping for things the reader knows aren't going to happen. Given that this is happening during plodding map exploration fantasy through largely indistinguishable faux-medieval countries, or (later) somewhat more interesting but obviously irrelevant local politics in a remote trading city, it's hard to avoid sharing that sense of futility.

The other structural problem with Shadow Scale is that the plot coupons are people, which means this book has an excessive cast size problem. Seraphina collects too many people for me to even keep straight, let alone care about. Critical developments (usually for the worst) in the lives of one of these characters were frequently met with reader mutterings like, "Now which one was Brasidas again, was he the plague doctor?" This tends to undermine the emotional impact. It didn't help that the plot was enough of a slog that I kept putting the book aside for a few days.

This does get better, but not enough better to redeem the middle of the book, and one has to put up with a lot of helpless despair to get there. Shadow Scale is one of those stories where the protagonist has the innate power to resolve the plot, is told cryptically by various people that this is the case, but has absolutely no idea how to use it and her supposed mentors are essentially useless. The result is that she feels both hopeless and guilty, which was not the reading experience I wanted. I did enjoy the moment when she finally figures it out, and I thought Hartman's idea was reasonably clever, but it would have been better if that had happened faster. Like, 200 pages faster. At least.

The major world-building in Seraphina was the dragons. The dragons also show up in this book (and feel less like autism spectrum archetypes, which I appreciated), and in theory are central to the plot, but I'm not entirely sure why? It was an odd reading experience. I think Hartman was attempting to set up dual villains posing different threats, but the dragon one is off-screen for nearly the entire book and never developed, so it feels perfunctory. Near the end of the book, Hartman abruptly picks up the dragons again, but that whole section felt oddly disconnected from the rest of the plot and is only barely relevant to the resolution. At least for me, the plot structure didn't cohere.

Shadow Scale does go up a whole point in rating for me because of the romance plot and how Hartman resolves it, which I will not spoil but which I loved. The process of getting there is immensely frustrating because it feels like Hartman is forcing the characters into a corner where only stupid resolutions are possible, but in this case the U-shaped emotional structure worked on me. The ending is completely true to the characters in a way that I thought Hartman had made impossible (and which does a lovely bit of undermining of traditional roles), so full credit there. It helped that the relationship is put on ice for most of the book and only appears at the end (which is also the best part of the book), so it didn't drag on like the other parts of the plot.

Overall, though, I tentatively agree with the general advice to skip this one, and suspect that advice will become less tentative once I read Tess of the Road. It's a largely unpleasant slog. There are some mildly interesting world-building revelations that fill in the background of Seraphina, the ending was reasonably good, and the relationships were much better than I was expecting through most of the book, but the amount of time and patience required to get there was not a good trade-off for me.

Followed (in the sense that it's set in the same universe but is not a sequel and I suspect does not depend heavily on this plot) by Tess of the Road.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-10-30

Last modified and spun 2021-10-31