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.
Leigh Bardugo is an author who it’s impossible not to have heard of. Between the popularity of the Grisha trilogy and the sheer fangirling surrounding Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, I thought it was high time I jump on board the great ship Bardugo to find out if all of the hype is warranted.
Shadow and Bone starts off with some pretty standard stereotypes that will almost certainly be familiar to you if you’ve read more than three YA fantasy novels in your lifetime. Girl who thinks she’s ugly but is actually pretty hot fancies her best mate but thinks he’s not interested? Check! Darkness rising and war likely on the way? Check. Protagonist who thinks they’re as ordinary as Tesco value white bread but actually turns out to have a kick ass power that may or may not change the world? Double check. We have a full house!
Although I had my preconceptions when starting this book, I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite thematic similarities to lots of YA fantasy on the market at the moment, Shadow and Bone contains lots of nice things that make it pretty unique. The setting (a kind of fantasy representation of Russia called Ravka) carries this book. I’ve not come across a anything like it in young adult fantasy before, and I found the parallels with eastern Europe and the folklore drawn upon both curious and totally engaging.
The story follows a young woman named Alina, a cartographer in the First Army (pretty cool) and her childhood friend, Mal, a tracker. For as long as anyone can remember, Ravka has been cut in half by a swathe of pure darkness called the Shadow Fold. The Fold and the creatures which live within must be braved if soldiers are to make it to the other side of the country to receive arms and other vital supplies. During a trip across the Fold which goes awry, Alina uses a power she didn’t know she possessed to save Mal’s life. Confused and terrified, she is immediately whisked away to live and train with the Grisha; mysterious and revered elemental warriors who make up Ravka’s Second Army, led by the charming and otherwordly Darkling.
Alina was an easy character to relate to, and I felt like she was consistent in her behaviour throughout the story, which is definitely refreshing in the world of young adult fantasy. She was convincing as a confused young woman thrust into a new and dangerous world, trying to master a power she didn’t know she had. Despite being heralded as the potential saviour of her country, she didn’t come across as entitled and her sarcastic nature and quick wit added some much-needed humour into what was otherwise quite a dark story. It took me a little while to warm to Mal, but his character certainly had some good development (if a bit too much brooding for my liking) as the plot progressed. If you want to know what I think, though, the Darkling is where its really at. Both slippery and seductive, I immensely enjoyed trying and failing to work out what his motives and allegiances were. The supporting characters aren’t anything to write home about, but a special mention goes to the Grisha combat trainer, Botkin, who despite very few appearances, provided me with some welcome moments of comic relief.
The plot is tightly woven and sure footed, and it feels like a lot happens in the space of a relatively short read. There’s a good balance of action, romance and intrigue and I really enjoyed the tension that built throughout as Alina played out a dangerous game of cat and mouse across Ravka. The mythology in the book became more complex and important as the plot progressed, and although I felt like Bardugo had a good handle on what part magic and lore had to play, I didn’t always feel the same as a reader. One of my criticisms of Shadow and Bone is that the author dives into the world at a level above the reader’s comprehension, kind of like being given a university maths textbook to study from when you’re predicted a C at GCSE. Although it meant I could better identify with Alina’s confusion over her new position as Grisha, I would have been happy to forsake a little bit of pace for a deeper and more sound understanding of the basics of Grisha power and Ravkan culture and lore, not to mention the pronunciation of the words and names. Pronunciation guides are highly underrated, but they really can make for a much easier reading process and this is a prime example of where one would have come in handy.
The dialogue is brilliantly written, and Bardugo’s talent lies in the ebb and flow of communication that she creates between her characters. There’s never any stilted conversations or perceived awkwardness in their interactions, and that, combined with the intriguing world building, makes for an authentic-feeling read. I can’t say much more about the plot without ruining the lovely little twists for you, but I can say that I very much enjoyed the surprises along the way, which kept me guessing about what was going to happen at the end of the book. All in all, a unique and interesting start to what I’m sure will be an entertaining series.
Stars out of five:
- Publisher: Indigo (UK)
- Pages: 308
- Publication Date: 6th June 2013
- For fans of: Sarah J. Maas, fantasy, action and adventure, eastern European culture.