[Review] Shadow and Bone — Leigh Bardugo

Book Title                   Shadow and Bone (The Grisha #1)
Author:                         Leigh Bardugo
Number of pages:  368

Synopsis:

shadow and bone - leigh bardugo - book coverSurrounded 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.

(re: Goodreads @ Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo)

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

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Initial Thoughts

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?)


 

Afterthoughts:

Premise

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.


Setting

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.


Narration

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?


Characters

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 happenedthe 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.


Overall

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.


Cheers,
Joey

connect: afterthoughtAn // twitter  |  anotherafterthought // goodreads

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33 thoughts on “[Review] Shadow and Bone — Leigh Bardugo”

  1. YES to everything, especially the 0-to-100 observation with the Darkling (that doesn’t make me ship him with Alina any less though; Mal is too cardboard)! And technically it isn’t really a love-square+ yet, right? Doesn’t the love polygon come in with Siege and Storm because of a special someone?

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  2. This genre is wasted on me. I’m more of a guy meets girl/guy meets guy/girl meets girl type of girl. Le sigh. I did appreciate the darkness of the Darkling, however. 😉 He sure made it interesting. Mal was unsalted rice cake. Sorry. Not sorry.

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  3. I’m all about the Darkling. He made the book interesting for me. Did not like Mal at all. Boring. I still can’t decide if I want to finish the series, either. I’m leaning more towards no right now, but that may change. Just not in the mood (damn my moodiness).

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  4. I haven’t had a chance to read this series yet and your review was really helpful on deciding if it’s worth the time. Hopefully the local library has it in because I’m not sure if I’m ready to spend money on this series just yet.

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    1. Glad I could help in your decision! The highest compliment I can give is that it’s a balanced piece of fiction through its world-building, intent for characterizations/romance, and pacing/action that [generally] starts and ends with a bang. Let me know what you think on Twitter if/when you read it!

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  5. Tough critic as usual 😛
    But I agree with what you’re saying about Mal. He fell flat for me as well, to the point where I felt he held no real purpose in the story but a page filler.

    Great review!

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  6. You absolutely nailed this one! This book was really lacklustre to me. Perhaps it was over-hyped but I really struggled with Alina as the lead for all the reasons you listed. Mal was such a doormat while the Darkling was just so intriguing to me as a character as were the other side characters.

    I just started Six of Crows and I’m enjoying it a lot more despite only being 3 chapters in. It follows a lot more characters so I like that I’m not stuck with the same measly narrator for the entire series 😉

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    1. Glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one who thought Alina was a bit of a space-case and Mal didn’t really compliment her. (Although I guess there’s the argument that boring relationships are widely realistic..BUT NAHHH.)

      I can definitely understand why Six of Crows has seen more favourable reviews (on the basis that Leigh is just a better writer now).

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      1. Well, “opposites attract but similar stay together” is how I view the relationship with Mal and Alina: two equally dull characters find love in each other…
        I would definitely agree that she is a more experienced writer now–the pacing in Six of Crows was much better.

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  7. This is a great review! I agree with a lot of your points, especially what you said about the unnecessary, cliché high-schoolish drama that was going on. I disliked Mal throughout the first book too. But I did love the Darkling’s character, even though I didn’t think Alina and the Darkling were a great couple… I do think the last book in the series was the strongest, unlike a lot of other people. Again, wonderful review as always, Joey!

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    1. Thanks Aimal!

      When Alina entered the Little Palace and they started panning the different tables and the cliques, it felt like a nod to Mean Girls or something (I’m hoping you understand that reference). Then we get told that community that Darkling is trying to bring together and it’s like “us vs them” and I’m like “but wait, you just told me highschool-drama…huuuuuuh?!” It was a bit tedious on that front, not gonna lie.

      Though I haven’t fleshed out my feels for Ruin & Rising, I’m thinking I enjoyed S&S the most of the 3. But I guess we’ll find out after I word vomit my review!

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