Well, it’s been a while since my last review, but it’s not because I haven’t been reading. However, it’s a lot easier to read than write a review on the train, so my actual writing time has been near non-existent. Today, though, I’m hitting two books in one review. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is a huge new and extremely well-written entry into the YA market and was apparently the hot YA novel of 2014. (I picked up a copy at the NCTE Convention last November based on the hype.) It tells the story of Seraphina, a gifted musician in the court of Goredd, as she and the kingdom prepare for the 40 year anniversary and potential renewal of their queen’s treaty with the dragons. However, discontent rears its ugly head among both human Goreddi and dragon alike, and the tenuous peace could be ripped apart unless Seraphina and her friends can do something about it. Of course, this is YA, so Seraphina hides a dark secret: she is half-dragon, something untrustworthy to the Goreddi and an abomination to the dragon community. Not only that, she can reach out to other half-dragons with her mind, which yields some interesting and, at times, dangerous results. In Shadow Scale, the adventure continues, as Seraphina, the prince and princess, and their friends rush to prevent a full-scale attack from the dragon rebels (pun…intended?), and she travels to other kingdoms to seek aid from both governments and other half-dragons. Along the way, she learns a lot about herself, her history, and the way half-dragons function (or don’t) in other societies.
Behind the obvious structures of Young Adult literature (a protagonist with a secret and self-doubt, a romance with someone who has a noble yet flawed view of the world, a devoted side-kick or two, a civilization-wide conflict falling completely randomly on our protagonists shoulders, you get the picture), Seraphina and its sequel deals with some of the more common themes of adolescence in a relatively new and refreshing way. The big theme of these books is that being different is not a bad thing, no matter what society says. It’s an important theme and one that many teenagers struggle with accepting on a day to day basis. Hartman explores this theme through all facets of diversity, both fantastical and real. She has a particular interest in tying the theme of difference to gender and sexual identity. One character is gay, another transgender, and the way Hartman handles these aspects of these characters is to point out that while these characteristics are a part of these characters’ identities, they do not define who these characters are as people. And then she moves on. It is refreshing to find YA literature presenting these and other social issues in a positive but non-obsessive way. Seraphina is particularly strong in this approach, but Shadow Scale doesn’t fair quite as well. The trick to focusing on such a theme as diversity is to not let characters or their differences fall into tokenism, and Shadow Scale doesn’t quite succeed in this area. After a while, it feels less like a refreshing look at treating others the way you wish to be treated and a bit like, “Look how egalitarian my characters and I are!” And, as is often the case in series, the main character’s constant doubt and insistence that they don’t really know what to do can get a smidgen tiresome.
I had a few other quibbles, mainly with Shadow Scale, but, to be honest, it could have been because I was reading an Advance Readers Copy (ARC) and not the final, published version. I couldn’t really tell at the end of Shadow Scale if another book is in the works. The final version, out now, may have a slightly different ending…or not. Either way, it didn’t feel completely wrapped up, but it didn’t end on a clear point of continuation either. Additionally, there were some pretty major inconsistencies, including a conversation where Seraphina says she has never revealed her name saint (a heretic saint) until that moment, when she specifically reveals it more than once in the first book. My guess is that some, if not all of these inconsistencies were fixed in the published version, but do let me know if you catch any. All this being said, though, Shadow Scale had a quality ARC—a few formatting issues, mainly random page breaks and text jumps, but overall very, very clean. Hardly any typos and truly a final draft, unlike the last ARC I read. That’s the way you do an ARC, publishing world.
Overall, though, I’m impressed. And don’t be put off if you are “not really a huge dragon lover,” as my friend, Hallie, says. The dragons really function more as a structure on which to hang the themes of celebrating difference and stamping out prejudice and discrimination, and most of the dragons spend most of both books in human form anyway. (That’s right. They can change into humans.) After the glut of novels about teenage kickassery in a dystopian future, it’s refreshing for the “next big thing” to be a socially progressive yet genre traditional fantasy novel, and a highly inventive and well-written one at that. If you are at all interested in the direction YA is trending, check out Seraphina and Shadow Scale. Rachel Hartman is a YA author worth following.