Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. The Grisha Trilogy, #1.
My copy: Square Fish (Henry Holt and Company), May 2013. Paperback, 356 pages.
Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, she is sure of only one thing: her best friend, Mal–and her inconvenient crush on him. Until the day their army regiment enters the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters. When their convoy is attacked and Mal is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power not even she knew existed.
Ripped from everything she knows, Alina is taken to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. With Alina’s extraordinary power in his arsenal, he believes they can finally destory the Fold. Now Alina must find a way to master her untamed gift and somehow fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. As the threat to the kingdom mounts and her dangerous attraction to the Darkling grows, Alina will uncover a secret that could tear her heart–and her country–in two.
In Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy realm, which is greatly inspired and influenced by Russian culture, the magic-bearers of the world are known as the Grisha. Grisha have specific powers, and the three main ranks include the Corporalki, the Order of the Living and the Dead, the Etherealki, the Order of Summoners, and the Materialki, the Order of Fabrikators, each with more sub-ranks. Our protagonist is Alina Starkov, an orphan, a soldier, a map maker — and a new-found Sun Summoner.
The Grisha serve the kingdom Ravka, led by a two-dimensional King and his even less-memorable Queen (they appear on-scene only briefly). The Grisha are led by the Darkling, a powerful, dangerous, deceitful man who needs Alina’s help to deal with the Shadow Fold, also known as the Unsea, a terrible darkness that swallowed part of the land and is full of terrifying creatures known as volcra. The Darkling takes Alina to the palace in Os Alta so she can learn how to use her power.
The middle chunk of the book was definitely slower than the beginning and end, though it still was pretty fast, simply because it chronicled Alina’s new life as a Grisha, and that meant training, socializing, and letting her new servant-status Grisha, Genya, use her magic to make Alina “beautiful”. While I really liked Genya’s character — she was fun, encouraging, and optimistic — I did not like the focus of how the Grisha were all strikingly beautiful and how they were made that way with magic, all just to please the King’s wants and, I suppose, to put themselves above others. This attention to the Grisha’s beauty, and Alina going from plain to pretty, just seemed unnecessary and very superficial. (Although I wouldn’t mind if my dark circles were to magically disappear.)
Alina’s Grisha teacher was a strange old woman named Baghra. I didn’t care much about her; she was just a crabby lady with no layers for me to be interested in. And there was the Apparat, a priest, who kept creeping me and Alina out with his foreboding words. And then there was Zoya, apparently a very powerful Grisha but a girl who hated Alina for no good reason and went around being horrible, both verbally and physically. Zoya irritated me because her character had nothing to do that was plot-related, though I suspect we’ll see more of her later on. I suspect we’ll see more of these minor characters who don’t come across as minor at all as the series progresses…
While there were plenty of things at play during Alina’s stay at the palace, I actually wanted a larger sense of danger. Life was a bit too dandy for her, even with these strange supporting characters she was interacting with. I honestly wanted to see some more volcra. (And, non-spoiler, I liked the story behind the volcra.)
A large part of the story also revolves around Alina’s feelings for her childhood friend, fellow orphan, soldier, tracker, and crush, Malyen Oretsev. When Alina is forced to depart for Os Alta, she leaves Mal behind and can’t stop thinking of how they may never see each other again. She writes him letters — which mysteriously (or not-so mysteriously?) never reach him. She assumes he’s moved on, so she, too, moves on, though it’s painful for her. And when Mal shows up at the palace later, it does appear as if he’s moved on. But… when he and Alina meet up again, it’s obvious he’s fallen for her. While there was barely any time to get to know Mal in the beginning of the book, I did believe his and Alina’s close relationship that we saw toward the end.
And yet… there’s still the Darkling — can’t forget about him! I won’t spoil anything, but I will elude to how my feelings toward the Darkling changed over time. I questioned his actions — and my instincts were correct. So then… is the romance in the book/trilogy a love triangle? I wonder the same thing. I’m not sure. The Darkling’s pretty intriguing, though, and I can’t wait to get to know more about him as the series continues.
Shadow and Bone is a great, fast-paced story with an easy writing style. You do see Alina’s character grow and change throughout the book, and I liked how she realized she had grown. And that ending was pretty nasty… in a totally good way! Things are even worse now for everyone so the next book I bet is going to be pretty intense. And can I just randomly mention that I love it when books have illustrated maps? Keith Thompson drew the one of this fantasy realm, and it is gorgeous. I am a sucker for maps. They help me immensely when imagining the world and I absolutely love seeing how detailed the artist makes them. Ahem, moving along… Leigh Bardugo has created an intriguing story that, while not the most complex of fantasy worlds, is definitely worth diving into. ♦
Have you read Shadow and Bone?
If you haven’t, would you be interested to?
What’s a high fantasy book you’ve recently read?
Comment below letting me know!