Series: The Grisha #1
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on June 5th 2012
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
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.
Shadow and Bone is an exciting read but cannot quite reach the level of utter epicness. Nonetheless, Bardugo will pull you into a Russian-inspired world full of magic, torn between light and darkness. Also, this book undoubtedly features one of the most devastatingly swoon-worthy villains of all time – just saying, ladies.
So, Shadow and Bone was not the easiest book to get into, certainly a harder than what I’m used to in YA. Though the world-building is neatly executed overall, I felt flooded with information being thrown into a world with a lot of Russian terms flying around my head, making it spin (as I am not familiar with this culture, I cannot say whether the cultural influences are accurate, though I have heard much the contrary).
The storyline follows the typical YA recipe of a young heroine, hitherto regarded as weak and plain, gaining her magical powers and being thrust into a world of glamour, power, and intrigue. While I was thoroughly entertained and never lost my interest, I do not regard the plot as anything outstanding in YA fiction. The pace takes an exponential turn for the better, from a sluggish start to a fast-paced rollercoaster towards the end. Despite the flaws this book has, I raced through the pages, eager to know where the plot was heading (though I was certainly half-expecting what was going to happen).
The characters, with one exception, are rather unspectacular. Alina Starkov is what most reviewers out there refer to as a ‘special snowflake’, the grey mouse that turns into a swan with the discovery of her powers. Regardless, I was still able to connect better with Alina than with Mal, an immature character with no apparent personality whatsoever. Hence, there was no chemistry between these two, either. Then, of course, there are protagonists like Zoya who are here merely for the sake of an “evil archrival at magic school”. The only exceptional character is the Darkling, a mysterious, powerful, and morally grey (though definitely more black than white) villain. The chemistry between him and Alina was igniting, even though their relationship may have been slightly problematic. That each and every chapter featuring the Darkling was captivating comes as no surprise, given the fact that the antagonists are often among the most fleshed out, complex, and brilliantly written characters.
Now, seeing as it’s obvious there’s a love triangle in this book, I have to say it wouldn’t have been bothered as much if Mal hadn’t been such half-heartedly written character. Although most love triangles make little sense to me, as the plot can work well enough without the romantic geometry, I believe a tug-of-war between Mal and the Darkling could have been a great simile for the light/darkness struggle, but well… The fact remains that Mal is boring as hell, is the epitome of the “childhood friend” when it comes to love interests, and cannot bring any spark into this story.
Overall, I’d say this book lacked more character depth and development, whereas I was quite satisfied with the initial world-building, the plot, and the writing. Anyone with a soft spot for fantasy featuring magical powers and dark, seductive villains will surely enjoy Shadow and Bone.
If you’re interested in reading both the Grisha and the Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo, I would recommend starting with this series as a slow build-up and saving Six of Crows for dessert.