Monday, July 10, 2017

Shadow Scale

Shadow Scale
by Rachel Hartman
Recommended Ages: 13+

This sequel gratifies the burning desire in the heart of practically everyone who read Seraphina - namely, to explore further the world of Goredd and its neighboring realms, where dragons (called saarantrai) walk in human shape, and where many humans worship a pantheon of "saints" who, half-dragon/half-human heroine Seraphina now learns, were actually people like her. As the civil war between the saarantrai heats up, she travels to the ends of the world as she knows it, seeking to collect her fellow halfbreeds and bring them home, so they can combine their mental powers to defend her city from the anti-human faction of dragonkind. Meanwhile, she has to solve a number of interconnected mysteries - such as how the saints came into being, and why the anti-human dragon ideology suddenly arose, and above all, how to stop one especially bitter half-dragon from destroying everything.

The name of Seraphina's true nemesis turns out to be Jannoula. They are well-matched adversaries, the one traveling the world in search of her kind, and the other arriving either just ahead of her or a few steps behind, to sink her psychic hooks into the minds of those like them. The few half-dragons (a.k.a. ityasaari) who have the ability to unhook Jannoula from each other's minds, are helpless when she takes control of them. And though Seraphina is the only one who seems impervious to being controlled by Jannoula, she finds herself no less helpless when the self-appointed saint finally has everyone where she wants them. The seeming inevitability of disaster, for a nation and for a whole civilization, is stomach-twisting. Equally painful is the personal revenge Jannoula wreaks on Seraphina, whom she blames for abandoning her to years of hideous torment. But the real concern is whether Seraphina will ever learn to open her mind, which she has been at pains to keep closed most of her life, when the survival of her whole world depends on it.

I was mostly delighted with this sequel, though I did not think it struck quite as pure a note as the first book. I noticed, for example, Seraphina's first-person narration dropping phrases of 20th century psychobabble, like "cognitive dissonance," which struck me as something like an anachronism - though I am fully aware Seraphina's world is not on the same historical timeline as ours. I suppose a little anachronism might be excused, in a world in which the quigutl - human-sized, but not anthropomorphic, cousins of the saarantrai - appear able to operate electrical generators and devices similar to today's computers, and in which an earlier age's dragon-fighting martial arts, now lost to human memory, included flying machines and missiles. The relationship between technology and human history is mysterious in Seraphina's world; there are even hints that more advanced human cultures live across the sea, or on the other side of the land barrier occupied by the dragons, so inaccessible to Goredd and its neighboring countries that they have faded almost to the status of legend.

This is only one example of the thought-provoking themes that peek out of the polyphonic texture of this fantasy epic, but not all of the themes are equally satisfying. For example, the neighboring culture of Porphyry has a fluid concept of gender, with the result that good manners dictates the greeting "How may I pronoun you?" when being introduced to someone. In my opinion, there is a (cough) cognitive dissonance between the essentially medievalist setting of the book and this piece of post-modern sophistry; and also, it persuades me to drop an Adult Content Advisory on this book, to encourage traditional-family-oriented parents to be alert to this theme when sharing the series with their children.

Rachel Hartman's third book, also set in the world of Seraphina, is expected in February 2018, and will be titled Tess of the Road. I don't know what her plans are for it, but I hope she explores the quigutl in more depth. I really liked those guys.

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