[Shadowsong] S. Jae-Jones

What are monsters but mortals corrupted?*

Strange and queer, the lot of them. Elf-touched, they were called in the old days…The mad, the fearful, the faithful. Those who dwell with one foot in the Underground and another in the world above.*

*     *     *

We were grotesques in the world above, too different, too odd, too talented, too much. 

S. Jae-Jones is a brilliant writer.

I will admit that I didn’t love the entirety of Wintersong––I loved the first half but thought the second was a little slow––but I always thought that S.Jae-Jones’ writing was beautiful and spectacular. Her writing shone in Shadowsong. The images she creates with her words are utterly beautiful, forming Liesl’s world for the reader in a very poetic way. It’s perfect for the setting of fairy-tales and goblins and music. S.Jae-Jones is someone who can create a world with her words that I just want to immerse myself in. Couple that with the fact that Shadowsong is a fantasy novel with a historical setting and I’m hooked.

Although Shadowsong is fiction, S. Jae-Jones gives her readers an author’s note at the beginning warning that not everything inside of this novel is so easily read as a fiction. Shadowsong deals with the very real subjects of self-harm, addiction, reckless behaviors, and thoughts of suicide. The author is open with her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder and how she gave it to Liesl. There were moments that were difficult to read because of how Liesl was struggling. I could relate to certain thoughts she had regarding creation of art and fear of failure and doubt. I thought it was wonderful that S. Jae-Jones was completely open about this at the beginning of her novel.

I waited for some mood or inspiration to strike me, for the desire to play to overtake me, but there was nothing. Solitude around me and silence within me. I had not dreamed once since we came to the city. The voice inside me––my voice––was gone. No ideas. No drive. No passion. My nights were quiet. Blank. The dullness was seeping into my days.*

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[Shadow Scale] Rachel Hartman


I’m so sad.

I was so excited to read Shadow Scale. It sat on my kindle for months before I decided to finally read it. After Seraphina, I thought that Shadow Scale would go beyond what I loved about Seraphina: the world of Goredd, the vivid characters, the fascinating take on dragons and the ityasaari, and the conflict that was brewing and broke out, only to be continued in Shadow Scale.

It did and it didn’t.

At the conclusion of Seraphina, war between the humans, the dragon Loyalists, and the Old Ard is inevitable. Shadow Scale opens several months after the civil war has started, just as Seraphina is realizing that in order to help Goredd, she needs to find the other members of her mind garden who are scattered throughout the world. Very little of Shadow Scale is set in Goredd as a result.  She spends her time searching the other lands for the ityasaari and trying to figure out how to stop the war from coming to Goredd, as well as stopping its orchestrators.

The inclusion of Ninys, Samsam, and Porphyry was wonderful. I loved reading more about the lands that were introduced in Seraphina. Each were distinct in their appearance, language, culture, and Rachel Hartman even went on to explain differences between the religion of Goredd and Porphyry. In Ninys, we learn that an important flavoring in the Pinabara region is pine, a flavor that Seraphina detests. In Samsam, we learn that changes in power only have to be voted on by the Earls present at the time. And in Porphyry, my favorite new locale, we learn that Seraphina does not have a knack for the Porphyrian language. Reading her dialogue while there was relateable because in her I saw the mistakes I make in Japanese. The people of these lands escort her through them in her quest to find the other ityasaari that she has connected to in her head. They tell her myths and stories of their land and are fascinating travel companions. I wanted to live in Porphyry. The food sounded amazing and the streets beautiful. Hartman has a wonderful gift at writing descriptions of these places that first existed in her mind.

Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword; although I love with a capital L these new places, it also means that there are many new characters that are introduced in the short span of one book. Some characters are tertiary and don’t entirely matter, but secondary characters are glossed over so quickly that they all run together.  Most of the new characters are ityasaari, who are interesting in their own right. I wanted to know more about them, but instead I can hardly keep their names straight because they are given to the reader one after another.  They have a name and a nationality, but not much else beyond that. The few that have a bit more characterization put into them are still lacking, which makes me feel like I should care more about them, but it still wasn’t enough to do so. I wanted to care about new characters like Josquin, who was her human companion through Ninys. I wish he had been in the book more, because his brief time with Seraphina was enough to make me like him immensely. Instead, he’s pulled from the narrative the way that the other characters are. We only briefly travel with them, which was a major downfall of Shadow Scale. When the point of the novel is to find the other ityasaari, these characters should have been more detailed. We only scratch the surface of them.

What’s worse is that the characters who were important in the first novel are hardly in the second. I’d expected (and hoped) that Kiggs, Orma, Dame Okra, Glisselda, Lars, and Abdo would be expanded upon and brought to the forefront of the novel, especially considering that they have major roles to play in Shadow Scale: Kiggs and Glisselda now have to manage the Queendom of Goredd and prepare for war, while the ityasaari need to help Seraphina find their other half-dragon companions. Instead, I followed Seraphina with an occasionally surfacing of Kiggs, Abdo, or another character who barely made a dent in her internalizing and agonizing over personal and political conflicts. Seraphina, while named after our protagonist, was not only about Seraphina. It had a diverse set of characters who mattered to the story. I cared about what happened to them. They still matter in Shadow Scale, but they’re shuffled off to the side to the point where they are forgotten for pages of the book. Orma, the uncle that she loves with all her heart and the one who loves her back in his peculiar draconian fashion, hardly surfaces at all.

The lure of the Seraphina duology is the strength of Seraphina. It is a tale of self-discovery and understanding, culminating in an understanding of self. In Seraphina, this is set in Goredd, where the court, music, and surroundings serve as a beautiful backdrop for this self-growth. The setting becomes a character in a way. Seraphina is a strong protagonist who needs to come to terms with what she believes are faults in herself before she can grow. In Shadow Scale, it is much the same, but because there is a lack of strong supporting characters, I noticed Seraphina’s weaknesses more. She wasn’t the greatest reading companion because there were no other characters to distract you from her faults. She got wrapped up in what was going wrong instead of what was going right, and became very whiny. Shadow Scale focuses a lot on what is happening in her head. There were times when it became a little tedious to travel with her, broken up only by the knowledge that she would soon join up with one of the secondary characters. However, as I mentioned earlier, that wasn’t even a proper respite because they were with her for only a small portion of the novel. So while I was able to remember why I loved the character of Seraphina, I also realized that unless she is challenged by other characters, she becomes a bit of a whiner who allows people to walk all over her. It’s especially frustrating when I know that that is not who she is.

Shadow Scale could have benefited from a switch to multiple perspectives. Seraphina, Kiggs, and Glisselda each had different roles in the novel. While we were with Seraphina slogging through the countries of Ninys, Samsam, and Porphyry, Kiggs and Glisselda had to deal with problems of their own back in Goredd. I love Goredd, and we only heard what was happening there through second-hand information. Including them in the narration would have allowed for more action in the novel, instead of placing it all at the end. The three of them are all bound up together, so seeing how they each dealt with that individually would have been a great addition to the novel. Instead, we were stuck with Seraphina, who was in an endless cycle: travel the country with an escort; find ityasaari; ityasaari joins / rejects Seraphina’s plan; Seraphina is happy / disappointed. The novel plateaued for a long time because there wasn’t very much action or conflict. All of the conflict was saved for the end. Where the length of Seraphina benefited it because it allowed for world and character building,  in Shadow Scale it only hindered me as a reader. I was happy when she spent time in Porphyry, but I was tempted to scan through bits of the novel when it felt like it was going on forever, and going nowhere.

The book finally takes us back to Goredd for Seraphina to deal with the main conflict in the novel as well as the civil war between the dragons and humans. When I read on my kindle I tend to keep an eye on the minutes remaining in the book counter, particularly when I’m unsure where the book is going. There was still many things that needed to be concluded when I started to wonder and worry how it was going to end and if there was a third book. It’s a frequent feeling I have when I’m reading. After the slow middle part of the book, the ending was far too rushed for my taste. It was very telltelltell over showing what was happening. Seraphina set up the beginning of the conflict as well as a stellar world, Shadow Scale showed the conflict occurring, and a third novel would have been a way to tie everything thing together as well as show the reactions of the world at large. With the addition of so many new characters, a third book  would have been a way that readers could have connected with these marginalized characters and grown to love them.  I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that we were expected to believe everything was dandy after all of the problems that Shadow Scale introduced. When things (to my taste) were not being wrapped up, I began to think that there was definitely a third novel planned. Unfortunately, there isn’t, to my great dismay. What this means for Shadow Scale  and the greater Seraphina storyline at large was that everything was wrapped up too tidily, and we were told all of this, instead of shown it.

In addition, a new love interest was thrown into the mix in three sentences. It was hardly explained. As a reader, I really don’t respond well to something that we are expected to just take. It’s especially disappointing when it would have allowed for really interesting interactions, but instead there is one sentence to tell us how it is. In general, the romance in the novel was handled in poor way. I do like that it’s not the focus of the novels, but it is there, so don’t ignore it. Much of what happened regarding the romance was explained instead of shown. It was very out of character, even though Seraphina was the one explaining it. Love is about emotion, so it was surprising that no emotion seemed to come into play. It was very lacking in that department and I had a hard time believing that the characters involved in it would have had no emotions come into play.

It makes me ache for how much I was invested and excited for the next chapter in the Seraphina story. That’s what makes Shadow Scale so disappointing. I loved Seraphina. I loved the world, the take on dragons, and Seraphina’s role in her world. It was a really amazing story that pulled me in. I think I just anticipated Shadow Scale too much. I thought it would be better than it ended up being, and while I did enjoy about 90% of the novel, the 10% that disappointed me really brought it down. Which shouldn’t be the case, but when elements that I was invested in did not turn out how I expected, especially after the set-up in both novels, it was extremely off-putting. I wanted to love this book as much as I loved the first (I wanted to so badly), but when it comes down to it, I can’t honestly say that I do. Perhaps, now that I know the outcome of the different stories contained in it, a second read will make me love it the way that I love Seraphina. I just feel a bit betrayed about this novel, and that is even tainting how much I enjoyed the first novel because there’s no way to read it as a standalone.

3 stars for my overall enjoyment of Shadow Scale.