Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: ★★★★
Before reading Shadow & Bone: learn Ravkan pronunciations! You don’t want to end up like me and grow to love Genya as GEN-yah.
So, when can I read the second book? 2013, it says. Oh, well, that’s great, because I needed Siege and Storm two days ago when I finished Shadow & Bone. If I survive the prophesied apocalypse, I hope to not wait too long. No doubt I’ll quickly find another book to swoon over in time, but the Grisha trilogy is my current fascination.
Wait! I protested, but the Darkling was already turning away. I grabbed hold of his arm, ignoring the gasp that rose from the Grisha onlookers. “There’s been some kind of mistake. I don’t… I’m not…” My voice trailed off as the Darkling turned slowly to me, his slate eyes drifting to where my hand gripped his sleeve. I let go, but I wasn’t giving up that easily. “I’m not what you think I am,” I whispered desperately.
The Darkling stepped closer to me and said, his voice so low that only I could hear, “I doubt you have any idea what you are.”
I made several earlier attempts at reviewing Shadow & Bone, but I’m finding it awfully difficult. How can I convey the gratifying reading experience I had? Reading over my review, I believe I failed to capture it.
If you glance at Shadow & Bone‘s summary, a warning may signal. It may tell you the pages of this book offer nothing but an old plate of an often re-dressed premise: an unremarkable girl suddenly discovers a hidden strength, a power to help fight against an oppressive force and save her country. She’s in love with a boy who doesn’t seem to reciprocate the emotion, but you must be wary of the man lurking there on the side. That man is possibly the new love interest and — oh my — the villain. (I have to rephrase the last bit to better fit Shadow & Bone‘s antagonist: that’s the… villain? Are you sure? Because Bardugo does one hell of an excellent job at getting us to like him.)
Meet Alina Starkov: an orphan who never felt like she belonged anywhere but with her best friend, Mal. Not in the orphanage and certainly not in the First Army as a mapmaker. Her home is not a place but a person, but even this seems weakened as Alina and Mal prepare to enter the Unsea.
The Shadow Fold, or “Unsea,” — a long, dark swath — separates the land of Ravka from its only coastline, leaving those who travel through at the peril of flesh-eating creatures called Volcra. Alina Starkov, however, is the one who can change this. (Why? Because she’s Grisha extraordinaire. She’s Alina, the Sun Summoner!)
Inside the Fold and surrounded by Volcra, Alina’s convoy is attacked. Left and right, Volcra sink claws into bodies of men and women, carrying them further into shadowy depths where cries are eerily silenced. Before Mal becomes Volcra dinner, Alina unleashes a stunning power she never knew she had. A blast of light emerges, fighting off the Volcra swarm and saving many more lives than just Mal’s. Her ability and importance now recognized by the Darkling, Alina is whisked away to train and enhance her power as one of the elite Grisha.
“Do you think I care what you want? In a few hours’ time, every Fjerdan spy and Shu Han assassin will know what happened on the Fold, and they’ll be coming for you. Our only chance is to get you to Os Alta and behind the palace walls before anyone realizes what you are. Now, get in the coach.”
He shoved me through the door and followed me inside, throwing himself down on the seat opposite me in disgust. The other Corporalki joined him, followed by the oprichniki guards, who settled on either side of me.
“So I’m the Darkling’s prisoner?”
“You’re under his protection.”
“What’s the difference?”
Ivan’s expression was unreadable. “Pray you never find out.”
Torn away from Mal and all that she knows, Alina finds herself, alone, thrust into the foreign Grisha hierarchy. For the first time, she begins to find her place without Mal by her side. Under Baghra’s tutelage and the Darkling’s support (or would you call it favoritism?), Alina’s power grows as her character develops. Alina will have to discipline control over her skills, unearth secrets that cloak the Darkling in mystery, and learn who truly holds power over Ravka.
As noted by several (intelligent) reviewers, Bardugo’s portrayal of Russian culture and language is not accurately presented. From what I gather, this has sent many people into an understandable upset. I, however, know little about Russia and took no notice of these blunders. Be warned: if you feel knowledgeable enough, you may also feel eager to whip out your editing pen.
Other reviewers state dissatisfaction toward Alina’s character and/or Bardugo’s writing style. Reading through the book, and as I reflect on the story, I find a scant amount of shortcomings (per my literary taste). The writing is fluid as the characters are layered and believable. Female and male characters alike are never forced into contrived, stereotypical roles to fit a strained storyline.
On that note, one aspect I did not expect in Shadow & Bone is the “romantic” subplot, and I can count a number of ways this could have gone wrong. To start: Bardugo could have wrung it dry into the realm of over-fluffed love stories that side-sweep stronger, more important narratives. Fortunately, Bardugo doesn’t do this, and Alina, as well as other characters, keep sight of what’s significant: the Border Wars, the looming end of Grisha age, and the danger Ravka suffers in face of the Fold. With larger details to focus on, the love interests unfolded naturally and felt organic rather than forced. The writing itself strikes me as well-balanced: detailed, but not superfluous. The story sails forward in smooth direction as everything falls into place.
This was his soul made flesh, the truth of him laid bare in the blazing sun, shorn of mystery and shadow. This was the truth behind the handsome face and the miraculous powers, the truth that was the dead and empty space between the stars, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters.
Book one of the Grisha trilogy truly is one complete story in an ongoing arc. Once I started I found it difficult to walk away, lured and eager to discover what awaited on the next page. It feels thrilling and sad to become so absorbed into a story that I dub real life as an annoyance. Trekking deeper into the story means I grow closer to the book’s end, but once the end is there it better do justice.
I pay particular attention to how authors conclude their books, keen on finding a sense of wholeness — that all there is to the story has been said, and that it is here: sitting on my lap and neatly packaged. Some authors fail to bundle their stories when one book is part of a continuing adventure. The story can end abruptly or teeter at an odd cliff-hanger. Leigh Bardugo, however, did not disappoint me, and I anticipate Siege and Storm‘s release. If I could time-travel into the future…