In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons get to be whomever they want. Tess, stubbornly, is a troublemaker. You can’t make a scene at your sister’s wedding and break a relative’s nose with one punch (no matter how pompous he is) and not suffer the consequences. As her family plans to send her to a nunnery, Tess yanks on her boots and sets out on a journey across the Southlands, alone and pretending to be a boy.
Where Tess is headed is a mystery, even to her. So when she runs into an old friend, it’s a stroke of luck. This friend is a quigutl—a subspecies of dragon—who gives her both a purpose and protection on the road. But Tess is guarding a troubling secret. Her tumultuous past is a heavy burden to carry, and the memories she’s tried to forget threaten to expose her to the world in more ways than one.
Warnings: rape, death of infant, parental abuse, slut-shaming, suicidal thoughts
Hartman’s return to Seraphina’s world comes in the form of a girl who is out on a journey to run away from her past. Tess, Seraphina’s half-sister (who was introduced in Seraphina ) has had a hard childhood, especially after Seraphina’s outing as a half-dragon caused their family take a dip in social standing and assets. She has been a somewhat rebellious wild child, but she still always stuck to her mother’s exhortations to remain chaste/pure/virginal/all-that-crap. When a mistake on her part (which honestly, I don’t consider her mistake but a betrayal of her trust) leads to her being ‘unsuitable for marriage’, her options get limited to being left at a nunnery, she dons male attire and runs away. On the way, she finds her old childhood quigutl friend, and together they embark on a journey to uncover one of dragonkind’s mysteries.
At first, I thought the book would merely be a fast-paced adventure through the different regions. Seraphina had that in Shadow Scale, yes, but I assumed maybe a cross-dressing girl with a dragon would have a wholly different adventure. And it is a different adventure, yes, but not just because of what the purpose is. This book takes us on a metaphorical journey of healing for Tess, who has been brought up abused. The theme of the story is about rape culture, and how Tess, despite being a victim in the situation, assumed all the blame and the guilt for it. There is a lot of slut-shaming going on in the novel, and a lot of it is internalized misogyny for Tess, too, because she has been brought up to believe that the fault will lie with her. All of these were thanks to those ridiculous saints and the people like Tess’s mother who take those beliefs too far. As the story progresses and as she meets different people and has different experiences, she starts to let go of that toxicity in her life, to be free from the guilt pressed down upon her from her family.
She’d never seen any divine plan, unless the plan was to saddle her with guilt and self-loathing.
Along with her in the journey is Pathka, who is a species called quigutl. These dragonkin were given a minor role in Shadow Scale, but here we have a major secondary character who has been a friend to Tess from her childhood. An interesting addition is that Hartman made all the quigutl genderfluid, or at least capable of changing their gender, which is why the Pathka of Tess’ childhood is female, while the one in the present is male. He has had a hatchling (incidentally, due to rape) called Kikiu, and the relationship between them and the one Tess has with her own mother is often paralleled. Pathka is on a pilgrimage of sorts, and Tess has a spiritual awakening in the book; there is a lot of pain involved in both instances. Tess’s arc with another character (from the original books) is also a significant part of her healing, and lets her know she can have love and not be shamed for it. However, it also lets her proceed forward with living for something, and to look forward to the next big adventure. (I still want her to kick a certain person in the unmentionables, though)
She still held sorrows, but she was not made of them. Her life was not a tragedy. It was history, and it was hers.
Since this is a spin-off in the Seraphina universe, she does make an appearance in this book (and so does Glisselda, but not Kiggs sadly) on more than one occasion, allowing the sisters to build a relationship that was not possible in their childhood. At first, Tess is quite resentful of Seraphina, mostly because of the downfall of their family, but also because Seraphina’s status as a Saint protects her from the consequences of what would be disastrous to Tess in the same circumstances. They had a difficult and antagonistic relationship in childhood, but I love how Seraphina loves and protects Tess, in her own way, during this book. Another weird thing was how Tess sees Seraphina’s quiet nature as her dragon side, when we know (or if you have read Seraphina) it is from her lonely childhood. And for those who wanted a ‘after the ending’ story for Seraphina will also find a delightful surprise in this book.
The pacing of the story is slow, but even so builds a beautiful narrative arc tracing her journey through various regions and in various roles. Her desperation, her grief, her guilt, her adventurous spirit, the loss of her innocence, the path to happiness – all are played out in the novel with heartfelt emotional progression. It is a novel that deals with heavy and dark topics, but also has bursts of hilarity in the scenes and the interactions between the characters. Tess is an extremely snarky protagonist, and initially she may come across as rude and unlikeable (especially for hardcore Seraphina fans who will bristle at Tess’ comments on her) but by the end, you can’t help but love her personality and spunk. There are some hilarious inside jokes and moments of levity to round out the experience for the reader.
In short, it combines the emotional themes of a contemporary novel and puts it in a fantasy universe, thus combining adventure in a character-driven setting.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Random House Books for Young Readers, via Netgalley.
Not essential, but consider reading before this book