I have resisted for a long time, guys. But you see, the covers and reviews for Leigh Bardugo’s new trilogy – the one with the crow and city silhouette on the cover, are so amazing that I thought I’d try them. Then I heard that they are set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy and, being obsessed with order when it comes to books (if not anything else in life), I had to start at the very beginning. And here I am, neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed. As Bianca said in 10 Things I hate about you: “Can you be just whelmed?”
SHADOW AND BONE
by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Henry Holt and Co., 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: The Grisha #1
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: The servants called them malenchki, little ghosts, because they were the smallest and the youngest, and because they haunted the Duke’s house like giggling phantoms, darting in and out of rooms, hiding in cupboards to eavesdrop, sneaking into the kitchen to steal the last of the summer peaches.
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.
The reason I stayed away from this trilogy so long, despite the heavy praise from all over the internet, the (amazing!) fanart, and the thrill of reading a fantasy set in an alternate Russia, well… the reason is I expected it to be another idiotic romance with a love triangle, an oh-so-special and unique girl protagonist, and very little substance. And the thing is, this is a little bit of what I got. But not all.
Alina Starkov and her best friend Mal grow up in an orphanage – their childhood is wrapped up in a short prologue but that prologue was so well written that the bond between these two was immediately believable. The atmosphere, the Fantasy-Russia, the world are all set up just enough to get us by in that prologue. So I threw all my prejudices away and was positively surprised.
Cut to years later, when both Alina and Mal are in the army, Mal as a tracker, Alina as a cartographer. The second brownie point was collected by giving both characters interesting jobs and not making Alina a super fighter, as so many YA romances are trying to do. I don’t want a heroine who can (already) do everything, who is beautiful and skinny, but also secretly strong and a ninja. And probably a witch as well. No, Alina actually doesn’t fit in very well, unlike Mal. He is a natural and constantly surrounded by friends and girls swooning over him. Alina is on the sidelines. Until the Darkling arrives.
The Darkling was both an intriguing and ridiculous figure. First of all, he doesn’t seem to have a name as everyone calls him by his title – the Darkling. With a name/title like that, it doesn’t take much imagination to see him as a potential bad guy. He is the most powerful of the Grisha, the country’s magical army. And, as it turns out, Alina is a Grisha too. The middle part of the book is your average, and sadly unoriginal, girl learning her new powers and getting a makeover scene. Seriously, you’ve all seen it before. Alina comes to the palace, is suddenly treated like the special snowflake she turned out to be, gets pretty dresses and make-up, and flirts heavily with the darkly brooding, mysterious and gorgeous dude that everybody wants. I was both groaning at the familiarity of it all and at the same time delighted because the writing was actually good. So, Leigh Bardugo may have written the exact same story that we know from endless other YA books, but she wrote it well.
Alina herself starts as a great character but then she turns into a passive girl who’s just there to be pretty and special. She rarely does things because she wants to but is mostly passed around and told what to do. This does get better at the end but it doesn’t excuse her blindly trusting a man called Darkling or the first person who is kind of nice to her. My take on this is that it was meant to be her story arc – to turn from the passive, naive, lonely girl into a stronger woman with agency. I hope I’m not wrong.
My favorite parts suffered in favor of the sort-of love triangle. It is not as infuriating as most love triangle and it’s resolved pretty quickly – a refreshing change. But what really interested me was the world building, the way magic is used, the legends and myths of this place. The book has a great map at the beginning, showing the Fold, a sort of ocean rift in the country, full of terrible creatures. I want to know EVERYTHING about this! We do get glimpses and hints here and there and my guess is that Bardugo is saving the rest for the later books, so I’ll forgive her for telling me so little about it. But seriously, guys, check out this map. I totally love it.
The other interesting aspects are the magic, as I said, and social norms. Most things I just kept assuming, but I’d really like to know officially how this world works, more about the war that left Alina and Mal orphaned, more about the world at large. If it hadn’t been for training sessions and beauty regimens, there would have been time for that, but I get the feeling more and more that YA authors write books to become movies. Visually, there is a lot going on here and I think – with all the beautiful characters and the stunning imagery – this would actually make a good movie.
Plot-wise, the make-over bit is followed by an obvious plot twist (seriously, how could anyone not see this coming), and then things get better again. Alina and Mal’s friendship, although the two are separated for large parts of the novel, was definitely a strong point of the book. The romance wasn’t all that romantic, but if I can choose between embarassingly flowery love scenes (looking at you, Sarah J. Maas) or this understated love-from-friendship, I’ll take the latter any day.
The ending was both satisfying and frustrating – can you see a pattern here, do you understand why this book left me “whelmed”? I really liked the way the story ended, except it didn’t really end. I sort trilogies into two rough categories. The ones where each book tells its own story, but the trilogy tells a larger story. And the ones where a trilogy is just one story, chopped up into three physical books. The Grisha trilogy seems to be one large story where each novel is just a chapter. I am okay with this because not only has the trilogy been completed, Shadow and Bone also ends in a way that makes me want to pick up the next instalment. There’s no evil cliffhanger but things are far from resolved. So, fine, I’ll go along with it and hope the next book leaves out the high school-like court drama.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good-ish
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