Book Title Shadow and Bone (The Grisha #1)
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Number of pages: 368
Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– Mild-to-steep learning curve in world-building melding Russian cultural influences with magic systems akin to Avatar: The Last Airbender
– A page-turning read that ends with a thrilling bang (perhaps a cliffhanger that may require book two)
– Narrative voice often unwillingly promotes the romance as the central plot; includes a tedious (and somewhat forced) love-square+ that glimpses adolescent drama concerning popularity and individuality
– Character arcing is a jumble of good and bad eggs. Supporting characters may be more intriguing than some of the main ensemble
3.5/5 may sound low but I assure you that it is a high 3.5 (it’s probably really a 4 to a lot of other people, okay?)
Orphans Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev find themselves in the army on a mission to traverse The Shadow Fold; a stretch of darkness dividing the nation of Ravka and home to a cesspool of ravenous abominations. With the enigmatic Darkling leading the Grisha, wielders of magical powers, failure seems improbable. Only it isn’t. When their ships are attacked and death fills the air, Alina reveals a gift that pierces the darkness; one that forces her into the heart of The Grisha world.
There is a lot to enjoy in a world reminiscent to Shingeki no Kyojin meets Avatar: The Last Airbender. I reference those titles with glee because The Grishaverse melds the magic of Avatar with the mission-critical training-and-expedition in Shingeki. The landscape feels most alive in the dangerous unknown and there’s a lot of experimental learning by doing happening; allowing these pockets of time to naturally expound the rich history of Ravka.
I’ve heard comments that the Russian influences are misrepresented considering its inspirational value and I’m torn as to whether or not it’s a good/bad thing. As someone who isn’t familiar with the culture, infrastructures, and language—it’s vividly accessible. The caveat is that what it paints is different than how things may be. Case-in-point: I wasn’t irked by the glossary of new-to-me terminology that may (or may not) hold accuracy in Russian lexicon. Run with that knowledge.
The learning curve is naturally steep but smoothes over as you progress deeper into the story. The glue of conflict isn’t difficult to ascertain. It’s the subtle nods to the garments, the magic system, the vocabulary etc. that make it tough in the early goings to become engrossed in the cat-and-mouse narrative underscoring this novel.
While the writing doesn’t lean on purple prose to over-flourish the scene, there’s a leniency to tell instead of show. However, my rapid flipping of pages is how I stand to reason the book to be well-paced and thoroughly engrossing in the first 20%/last 40% of the novel.
But like all good things, it has its downfalls. In a vast world with a high ceiling for an intricately plotted conflict comes the romance and otherwise new-kid-on-the-block school-ish drama that hijacks much of the political intrigue that could have made this story that much more compelling. There’s this one scene straight out of every school hierarchical-bound lunch time and given the do-or-die atmosphere, the takeaway dilutes the story. Like…why can’t people just start off as awkward fellas and then grow warmth for one another? Why run with the precedent that animosity will always exist against the unfamiliar?
Alina stands alongside other special snowflakes with tight moral compasses that are products of puppet master-ism (a loose term for someone easily influenced by circumstance, lacking competency, and insta-romance). I don’t know how else I can explain that. Does she challenge her self-doubt? Yeah, she does, but her character arc feels off-kilter.
Wait…I know what it is.
There’s this constant nagging reminder of “Mal or Darkling” not because it comes unwarranted…but rather because it feels like it’s a forced necessity to have to choose. I’m just going to get this out there but I really dislike Mal as a point of contention. His delivery was rather hollow to me; an empty shell of nothingness that lacked the genuine touch to elicit an emotive response.
Don’t get me wrong, the message is awesome: friend-zoned or not, close friends are simply that (with potential for more). But their relationship suffocated me and disengages everything else that has happened—the fact that Alina just found out she has badass powers; that she isn’t fucking broke all of a sudden; that she doesn’t have to live only-and-under Mal’s shadow for her life—that she is her own person with or without someone. Only the concern always goes back to Mal.
And to top of it all off, the developmental arc of the Darkling is one that propels the story but feels like it goes from 0-to-100 in a matter of pages—much too soon for my taste—and doesn’t promote the slow burn to distinguish itself from a situation of instalust to really contend with all the other suitors (i.e. Mal).
The supporting characters are far more interesting to me (as it always is) and you’ll surely have old people feels.
Though the page-turning conflict isn’t game changing, given the fantastical nature of magic systems immersed in Russian culture, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone is a solid addition to the list of young-adult fantasy worlds you ought to consider diving into. Sure, the character arcs [thus far] haven’t been the most interesting—if a bit forced—but far as first books go, the chess pieces have been laid and life-and-death moves are coming. Read it for the long haul.