By Rachel Hartman
Random House Children's Books, 2012 & 2015
The cover of SERAPHINA has been haunting me ever since the book came out in July 2012. A wood-block print in oddly lovely colors! With a gracefully swooping dragon! And a medieval-looking city! What was stopping me?
Time, inertia, and brain-cramp, apparently. Also good luck, because if I’d read it in 2012 I would have had to wait two and a half years for the sequel. A couple of weeks ago, someone reminded me of SERAPHINA just as I was feeling mournful about not having an all-absorbing fantasy to read. When I finished it, mournful yet again, I discovered that the sequel came out this very month.
SHADOW SCALE came to a conclusive end for Seraphina, so now I'm worried that there won't be another book set in this world. Talk about mournful.
To state it plainly, I adored these books. I'm not alone: SERAPHINA earned a gazillion starred reviews, won YALSA's Morris Award for best debut novel, was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal, and was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General's Award (the author is Canadian).
Trouble with reviewing the two books is that the surprises emerge early and often. Watching them unfold is such a tremendous pleasure that I don't want to spoil it for anyone. So I’ll be vague.
The first book is set in the nation of Goredd, which has a decades-long but uneasy truce with the dragons of Tanamoot, the mountainous country just to the north. The dragons have learned to assume human form, and some of them live side-by-side with the humans in Goredd.
Factions in both human and draconic society are trying to undermine the peace, and human-shaped dragons (called saarantrai) often are harassed in Goredd. They're made to wear bells so the natural humans can tell the difference. (Brrr. )
Our heroine, Seraphina, is an extraordinarily gifted musician, assistant to the court composer in Goredd's capital city. She has a dangerous secret, which we learn early on so we can suffer with her as she tries to keep it under wraps. After a member of the royal family is killed, apparently by a dragon, she becomes enmired in the effort both to find the murderer and to save the human-draconic treaty.
SHADOW SCALE takes Seraphina out of Goredd to explore neighboring states—I won't say why—in a magnificent feat of world-building. This world is diverse in every way I can think of: Various skin colors, religions, and sexual preferences, various national penchants for racism, tolerance, gloom, joy, math or music.
My favorite state, Porphyria, has six genders in its language: naive masculine and feminine, emergent masculine and feminine, cosmic neuter, and point neuter. (Cosmic neuter is for gods, eggplant, and strangers.) (Yes, there’s humor.) At one point, we meet a woman who started life as a man, requiring Seraphina to follow Porphyrian custom and ask “How may I pronoun you?” Emergent feminine, she's told. I want to live in Porphyria.
On the other hand, gays in Goredd are called Daanites, after a saint who was martyred for that reason, along with his lover. They're not closeted, but they're not entirely accepted, either.
Inhabiting this complex, exciting world are characters to match, starting with Seraphina herself. She’s necessarily cautious and secretive, but also feisty and smart, with an inner life complicated and enriched by the demands of her Big Secret. She makes big mistakes. She has an unwise love interest. But her spirit and courage keep her moving forward anyway.
Her music tutor, a dragon, is a gorgeous character (as are all dragons, actually). Dragons are analytical and emotionless in their natural form, but when they’re human they’re subject to human tastes and emotions, which upsets and fascinates them. Obviously there’s comic potential here, but also the potential for insight: What is emotion, other than an inconvenience? What is its function in our lives?
A further insight: The villain who controls minds is far more terrifying than any monster that threatens us physically. I will say no more.
Because you gotta read these books.
(Dear FCC: I bought these books with my own money. You should, too.)