Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman

Just a few words on this one.

I read the first novel in this duology, Seraphina, and rather liked it, despite myself. It was a fresh, attractively written novel, albeit one with some real irritations about it.

Most of what was good about Seraphina is still good about Shadow Scale. Most of what was bad about Seraphina is still bad about Shadow Scale, though thankfully the valorised self-harm body-image thread has been set to one side. And also, to be fair, the incredibly creepiness of the romance has been toned down too, mostly by keeping the love interest off screen and silent as much as possible.

In fact, looking at it sensibly, Shadow Scale is clearly a more ambitious and more complicated novel. It’s also really striking in just how much it diverges from the first book, into something really quite unexpected, and the author is to be congratulated for that courage. As she is, I suppose for finding the only vaguely acceptable solution to the irritating love triangle element, even if she doesn’t handle it particularly well. There are also some really effective elements here – particularly the oozing menace of mind control.

And yet, Shadow Scale isn’t as good as Seraphina, in my opinion, and seemingly in that of others too. So what gives?

Well, a big issue is structural. Seraphina had a pretty trite plot, but it was neat and well-formed and moved the action on – that’s why pretty trite plots are used, and why they become clichés. Shadow Scale, however, is a bit more ambitious, and that’s a problem. In particular, much of the book is devoted to an old-fashioned gotta-catch-them-all travelogue quest that lacks movement and quickly becomes repetitive. Alongside this greater flaccidity, there’s a psychological problem: as the world grows and the stakes become bigger, the protagonist’s colossal, parochial narcissism becomes increasingly irritating. The novel, to give it credit, does admit that she’s an outrageous narcissist, and that this may be a problem – but by making this a central problem of the novel, it simply reinforces that, yes, Seraphina is the centre of the world and it is all about her. The fate of the world hinges on her realising that it’s not all about her… so yeah, it’s all about her. Similarly, as the world becomes bigger, the weakness of the worldbuilding becomes a lot more a problem – when your action is mostly set in one pseudo-mediaeval city, you can accept a bit of haziness around the edges, but when you’re actually out questing among the edges you need a much more solid foundation. In particular, relatively little attention seemed to have been given to making the degree of magic and technology coherent and conceivable. Most egregiously, it seems that either the author or her intended audience cannot imagine a world without mobile phones, so the characters have mobile phones, in their mediaeval world (and all the concomitant teenage clichés about mobile phone use, the trauma of having your mobile phone taken away unjustly, etc), yet nothing else about the world changes as a result. Why are so many messages going on horseback in a world that literally has videoconferencing software!?

It is, however, a deeper and more original novel that its predecessor. And maybe I should give it the doubt and consider it a better novel. Because, rationally speaking, it looks as though it is. It’s certainly a more memorable novel. And yet… to me, it doesn’t feel better. Remember, in my review of the original I had to really struggle to call it ‘good’, and part of that was that I found it ‘strangely likeable’. Well, that hasn’t gone away entirely, but this one did lose some of my goodwill. And apart from the technical reasons above, there were two further issues causing this. One is the sheer extent to which this deviates from, and appears to retcon, the first book. On the one hand, chapeau for the ambition. On the other hand, introducing completely new things out of the blue that ought to have been mentioned before, not so much the chapeau. It’s just clumsy.

The other thing is, to put this delicately… this reads like an Very Special After-School Message. It’s here to teach us about the values of progressivism, tolerance and diversity, damnit. It’s not confined to any one particular topic exactly, but homosexuality, polyamory and transgender issues are prominent examples, along with race, class, immigrant assimilation and inter-community marriage. Now to be clear, I don’t disagree with the idea of tolerance. If an author’s going to put ideology into a book – and that’s inevitable – this isn’t a bad ideology to go with. There is, of course, something both joyous and refreshing about a book so unabashedly embracing diversity.

But… you know how in the 19th century there were endless bestsellers on devout Christian themes, high-mindedly extolling Christian virtues of mercy and peace and forgiveness and universal love, while also managing to be entirely conventional and unchallenging? Yeah, this is like those. The novel drips with piety and incense; all that’s changed is the specific religion being promoted. And again: I’m not saying I disagree with the religion, necessarily, or at least not all that much. Just as you didn’t have to be a godless atheist to roll your eyes a little the pious, reassuring novels of the Victorian era. Just… oh, for a little piquancy! A little stubbornness, a little individuality, a little reasoned rumination! It doesn’t make an argument, it just assumes that it is preaching to a choir, which it probably is, and dares offer no hint of personality alongside the dogma. The part that made me roll my eyes hardest is around the shoehorned-in token transgender issues, where our benighted heathen preconceptions are thoroughly – thoroughly, I say! – taken to task by introducing us to a fantasy culture where not only does everybody freely choose their own pronoun for themselves on reaching adulthood, but they even seem to have special pronouns just for transgender people. Well hooray. Apart from the whole “living in the middle-ages, killing each other all over the place and shitting into buckets” business, they’re so enlightened!

Except there’s no consideration whatsoever of why a society that seemingly has much bigger problems on its hands would find it necessary to go through so much trouble to address a problem that affects such a tiny number of people (while not, I note, taking any such steps to make equivalent concessions for intersex individuals, who are probably more numerous if less visible in modern society; as so often, the author seems to assume – without the least uncertainty – that enlightened acceptance of diversity means letting people pick freely between two incompatible, arbitrary, incontestable options for themselves, rather than, say, increasing the number of options, or removing the need for such classifications in the first place), nor any consideration of what that might imply about a society, or what its consequences might be. Nor is there any uneasiness about whether imposing the belief systems and categorisation of 21st-century America onto an overtly non-American, comfortably-orientalised fantasy society might itself be small-minded, or at least naïve (every society has had to deal with the problem of individuals who feel that assigned gender norms do not comfortably fit them, but they have dealt with this problem not only with varying degrees of compassion and ruthlessness, but also with a wide variety of conceptual and sociological frameworks, so the blythe assumption that the only two conceivable options are mediaeval-fundamentalist bigotry or enlightened 21st-century views is frankly unsettlingly blinkered). Nor frankly is there any actual consideration of what the affected character’s (because as well as a pro-transgender society there’s also a transgender character) decision about their gender actually means, in terms of the gender norms of their culture (or indeed the philosophy of the culture) (clearly 21st century gender roles are fixed and inviolable across all conceivable societies and don’t even have to be specified), nor why it might have been an important issue to them in the first place, nor really what the consequences of their decision might be (for them, for their families and for others)– the whole of the reasoning on the subject appears to be “they thought they were one gender and really they’re the other gender and this confusion made them sad but now they’re happy and it’s evil to question any of this”. We do not ever really see what the importance of this is for them. The novel raises the subject matter to show off how progressive it is, but does no more than exploit it for PR purposes. It does not take the opportunity either to question prevailing orthodoxy or to defend it (let alone doing both) – nor even really to educate people about it, for that matter. It just… dictates the currently-agreed-upon doctrine. In vague, non-specific terms. And in the process it does a disservice to the affected character, for whom this is Their Thing. It’s a simple book, you see, and characters can only have so many characteristics. Everybody has to have A Thing that defines them, and for one character it’s this – so not only are their defined by their difference, but their difference isn’t even really explored in any meaningful way. Call me a bigot if you want, but to me that doesn’t feel like genuine liberalism.

Anyway, I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t like the book because there’s a transgender person in it. It’s the way that it’s dealt with, and that’s a feeling that pervaded my experience of reading the book. Not genuine, passionate moral sentiment, but the scent of the private chapel, with the author as the presiding priest smiling and nodding benignly as she recites the holy laws. Even if you agree that, well obviously you should honour your parents, the way that the vicar drones on about it sternly kind of makes a part of you want to rebel just for the sake of rebelling… or polyamory, for instance. Polyamory happens because, hey, it’s just not logical that polyamory shouldn’t happen. Isn’t it wrong not to accept polyamory? Well there you go then, here’s some, why not. OK, but… shouldn’t there be passion here? Shouldn’t there be a passionate longing to be together as more than a couple, or else some exploration of a passion for an individual that embraces even their capacity to love somebody else? Or, hell, a jealous passion for the loved one that doesn’t want to accept that they love someone else as well, but warring against some other feeling, some rationality or love or even humility or whatever it doesn’t really matter what so long as there’s something? I’ve no doubt there are many different reasons people end up polyamorous relationships, some positive and some perhaps negative. But real people have reasons, drives, passions – loves and doubts and fears and philosophical conceptions. Shouldn’t there be something driving this, rather than just a disapproving attitude toward any readers who might disapprove of it? “It could happen – why, do you have a problem with it?” isn’t really a good enough reason, either to make a strong narrative with compelling, authentic characters, or indeed to help anybody widen their perspective all that much. Again, don’t get me wrong – it’s great to see some polyamory in a mainstream book, and I’m not even asking for it to be a Big Thing that people agonise over. It would just be nice if it felt more explored than just “see, I’m tolerant of that, too! Don’t worry, my tolerance is unimpeachable in all ways!”

[Then again, maybe the lack of passion there is part of a different problem. After all, right from the beginning in the first book, the central romance can basically be reduced to “oh, look, it’s the Designated Love Interest, I guess he’s kind of handsome and he’s technically royalty, I guess I’d better be in love with him”. Because that’s your job as the heroine, falling in love with the Designated Love Interest, quickly and non-specifically, so that the author doesn’t actually have to commit to there being anything particularly loveable about them, or anything particularly interested about the heroine. Then again, maybe that’s the same problem, underlyingly. After all, if there were any particular reason for the heroine to be attracted to Mr Bland, that would mean she’d be less attracted to other people, and that would be A Form Of Discrimination, and That Would Be Bad. The sort of thing the Evil Villain would do! (btw, one reason I enjoyed reading the book was that it was always on the edge of doing something really interesting with the Evil Villain; one reason I’m less pleased with it now is that it never did). It kind of feels like the author is chickening out of making her characters and relationships specific, and hence no longer universal.]

Perhaps a simpler way to convey this is just to say: I think maybe she’s caught between too places. On the one hand, she could have taken the progressive point of view completely for granted; or, she could have argued for it. Instead, it feels like she just… has to tell us what it is. So everything is accomplished too easily for this to be a book of moral struggle, but with too much difficulty for it to be a book that takes things for granted and moves on.

A consequence of that, incidentally, is that it falls into what I think of as the Wanker Theory trap. This is where the progressive assumes that everything bad is only the case because of Wankers. Bad things happen because Wankers do them. Some of those Wankers are Irredeemable Wankers and have to be killed by the heroes. But most of the time, all moral problems can be resolved by the hero going up to the perpetrator and saying “wait, don’t you realise that doing this makes you a Wanker?” and then they say “my word! you’re right, yes, thank you, I hadn’t realised that! I’d better stop being a Wanker right away!” and everything is OK again. Sometimes, of course, the hero, particularly a young hero like here, is the Wanker, and needs a wise old progressive to point out that they need to Check Their Privilege. What this theory does not allow for, however, is the existence of complex structural reasons for things, or deep-seated passions, or conflicts between understandable but incompatible goals. No, anything wrong is just the result of a Wanker, so you tell them not to be a Wanker (or you tell yourself not to be a Wanker) and they stop so everything’s ok, PROBLEM SOLVED. And so, as I say, it’s neither hard enough nor easy enough. The problems are avoided for the sake of focusing on more interesting things, but nor are they really taken on and struggled against. Instead, somebody, often the heroine, is told to Check Their Privilege and so everything is OK now.

Perhaps you may have gathered – and sorry if this makes me sound like an intolerable old bigot or a conservative – that this approach to evil does not always completely convince me.

But maybe all this doesn’t matter. Maybe my real problem with the book is just the end. You may remember that when I read the first book I wasn’t totally convinced, but felt it might be the start of something good. What I really meant was that I thought it might end up proving itself. And likewise, throughout this book I was thinking:… hey, this could end up really good!

But it didn’t, and maybe that disappointment makes me think more harshly of it that I did of the first book, where there was still the possibility of hope. I don’t want to say that the end basically went… “hello, we have reached the Climax of the Book, therefore the heroine wins (they all live happily ever after)”, because that’s not really what happened.

It is, however, sort of what it felt was happening. The author chose to leave her fairly cautious approach behind and just leap to some narrative conclusions without really laying the groundwork intellectually – and that’s a risky business, relying entirely on things working perfectly on an emotional level. Unfortunately, she hadn’t quite earned that with me. It wasn’t a bad ending exactly – it wasn’t batshit crazy – but it was weak. And, worse, it didn’t live up to all of its potential, and that’s frustrating.

 

And yet. Confession time: I read through this like a bolt, in just a couple of days, even making time to read it when for other, better books, I wouldn’t. It’s hard to say why exactly. It’s not really a thriller. Partly it’s because it still has that fun, likeable element. Partly it’s that it’s done very professionally at the small scale – while I’m not sure about the large-level pacing and structure, the way the author delivers chapters and scenes is very effective at pulling the reader forward. And beyond that, there’s just an easy readability about it all. It’s not challenging, but most of the time it’s not too irritating either.

 

So where am I left? With a novel that… well, it’s advertised as YA, or in some cases even as a children’s book. I think it’s good to bear that in mind. It’s not a classic of children’s literature*. But it has the simplistic, didactic, and, yes, easy-reading quality you might want from a novel for inexperienced readers; and, yes, while its piety might exasperate at times, it also has an open, tolerant, accepting, slightly radical sort of attitude that might make it a good read for kids. [Though, given how much it plays into infuriating tropes of romance and self-loathing for teenage girls, particularly the first book with its worrying self-harm dimension, it might actually be a better book for boys than for girls]. I can certainly see some teenagers loving it. Its heart is in the right place… even if sometimes its mind isn’t.

*I went from reading this to re-reading Watership Down. Watership Down is shelved in the 9-12 age range, so theoretically (and not without reason) is aimed at children younger than the readers of Seraphina and Shadow Scale. But it’s far more emotionally and philosophically complex. I suppose, again, this is a clash of philosophies. Shadow Scale subscribes to the Wanker Theory, so its attitude to kids is to helpfully point out a few ways they shouldn’t be Wankers, and assume that everything else will work itself out. Watership Down subscribes to a Romantic theory, and assumes that the characters and souls of children must be moulded and formed to produce strong, good people, and that this means that it’s never too young to face harrowing struggles against the insidious, insoluble dilemmas of morality and the inconceivable complexities of truth and beauty. Watership Down also seems to follow C.S. Lewis’ observation about the role of fantasy, and more broadly of literature, when he said that the works of MacDonald had “baptised his spirit”, long before more reasoned argument had baptised his intellect; therefore it believes in having children confront situations that they will not understand the full significance of until much later, but in a way that allows their naive responses now to form an instinctual bedrock for their later characters to be established upon. Shadow Scale, I’m not sure believes in spirits at all – not in a philosophical way (though it seems to allow the possibility of ‘spirits’ for magical purposes). A grumpier reviewer than myself might say that the conflict shows two different ways of writing books that can appeal to both children and adults: you can treat children as though they are adults (Watership Down, for example, begins with a quotation from Aeschylus), or you can treat adults as though they are children…

Anyway, I’m being patronising to the novel, and I probably shouldn’t be… but reviewing isn’t just a matter of intellectual analysis of texts, it’s also, at least for me, a matter of bringing up, and bringing out, how the novel makes you feel. So… yeah, there’s that all-purposes caveat safely deployed…

 

So….

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. Sections do lag. But there are some good hooks, some good scenes, and a general good sense of forward motion.

Emotion: 2/5. I just found it difficult to really, emotionally, care about these self-obsessed, paper-thin teenagers and teenagers-dressed-in-adult-skin. Besides, there was too much going on to really indulge in much emotion.

Thought: 2/5. I suppose if you’re a sheltered teen living in a really conservative part of America, this could be really eye-opening. For me, it wasn’t.

Beauty: 3/5. *shrug*

Craft: 4/5. Given how much I’ve complained, that might seem odd. But most of what I didn’t like was the fault of the author’s choices, not her craftsmanship. Compared to an awful lot of equivalently pulpy SF&F books, the prose and the construction are really very good. There weren’t moments when I was saying how incredibly it was put together (I thought there might be but there weren’t), but it was very professionally done throughout, in my opinion. I thought it was an improvement on the first book, in terms of craft.

Endearingness: 3/5. Some elements, I really liked. Other times I felt lectured and patronised.

Originality: 3/5. Some interesting ideas; some very familiar ones. A generally tired and third-hand plot, but she made it feel pretty fresh as I was reading it. So no complaint here, I don’t think.

OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. I wavered between ‘not bad’ and ‘good’ for the first one, and although this was more polished I think I’m coming down on the lower side for this one.

I should say, though: I still think the author feels like someone worth watching. She has, in a sense, already gotten the hard part down pat, in that she can write an enjoyable, fast-moving, non-idiotic novel. Now she just needs to make it a little bit deeper…

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One thought on “Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman

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