Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Series: Grisha Trilogy
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Maturity Level: 4
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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.
You guys, I had so many mixed feelings about this book.
On the one hand, Bardugo created a one-of-a-kind Russian-inspired fantasy universe. I loved the setting, the language, the magic (science?), and the terrible Unsea. And sand skiffs, kind of a sleigh/ship hybrid, YES. On the other hand, it was the same old plot we’ve read in every other young adult fantasy. Girl is chosen, girl gets taken away for long training sequence, girl becomes the mightiest of all, girl has epic showdown. There were so many cliches and so many tropes. Ugh.
Parts of this novel were deliciously dark and suggestive, which I loved. But unfortunately, most of it was shallow and petty. Why did Alina have to be so obsessed with being pretty? And, I’m sorry, can the most powerful women in the world not be above stabbing each other in the back and petty jealousy?
The world building was FANTASTIC. I really felt like I understood how and why society worked, and there were lots of little details that made the whole thing come alive. But the descriptions were inconsistent. At key points descriptions became too vague. The terrifying monsters called the Volcra, for example, have exactly ONE descriptive word attributed to them: scary. Yes. Scary. But at other times things, especially places, were over-described ad nauseam. I don’t need to know what specific stone was used as accent in the ceiling, but it would be nice to know if the monsters attacking the main character had two legs or four.
Alina, the main character, didn’t really work for me. As I said before, I found her shallow and silly. Most of the minor characters were equally frivolous. But the side-characters I adored. Mal, her love interest, was maybe not the deepest of men, but he had some good character growth. The Darkling was a wonderfully seductive villain. Alina’s teachers really grew on me. And I loved Genya, Alina’s Grisha friend. I think there’s more to her than meets the eye.
I was surprised to find that the supposed “love triangle” in this book was actually handled really well, and I probably wouldn’t have classified it as a love triangle at all. But Alina and Mal’s romance seemed very contrived and wasn’t particularly heart-stopping. I guess I just didn’t connect with it.
I think I would have loved Shadow and Bone a lot more if I had read it back when it was released in 2012. I’m sure so many of the things that felt tired to me were fresh and new back then. I have the feeling if I had read this in high school I would have been beyond obsessed. As it is, I definitely enjoyed it enough to blow through it in two days, and to immediately place library holds on the rest of the trilogy.
I would strongly recommend to fans of YA fantasy, but stay away if you like your “strong female characters” to be mature and intense.