It feels a little odd to write a review of a popular, NYT best-selling book published four years ago—not only does my review inherently veer towards obsolescence (what’s the point of reviewing a commercially popular book several years after its publication? Most people have likely already read it or made up their minds whether or not they’re going to), there’s a good chance I’ll compound its obsolescence by not having anything new or worthwhile to say. But hopefully people reading this are interested in my thoughts because they are my thoughts. (And if not, I hope you stick around anyway.)
A good friend of mine has been regularly prodding me to read this book and its sequels for over a year now, and now I’ve finally made a start. (Also I reeaally want to read the Six of Crows series, but I want to have read the Grisha Trilogy first for context.)
Shadow and Bone is the first book of the hit Russian/Slavic-inspired YA series the Grisha Trilogy. Set in the industrial, 19th-century-esque country of Ravka, protagonist Alina Starkov lives in a world where technology and magic mix and match alongside each other. The Grisha are “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”-type sorcerers who can do everything from work the weather, create fantastical material-stuffs, heal injuries, or kill their opponents without laying a finger on them. Grisha are invaluable in Ravka’s war effort, and they possess prestige, pride, and beauty in equal measures.
Alina Starkov is nothing but another child orphaned by Ravka’s constant border wars. When at age seventeen she saves her army convoy with unexpected, miraculous powers, Alina’s life is changed for good. She’s separated from her best friend Mal and whisked away to the capital and the royal court to enter the Grisha Corps and get trained in her newfound abilities. The leader of the Grisha, an ages-old, enigmatic figure known only as the Darkling, grooms her to be the savior of Ravka, the hero who will rid the country of the dangerous Shadow Fold, which divides the country in two and contains dangerous creatures that eat any human who trespasses its boundaries. But all is not at it seems at the court or among the Grisha. Alina’s abilities have the power to determine the fate of nations, and she’ll need to fight for their fates, and her freedom, in order to save them all.
Shadow and Bone is a compelling, page-turning read. Leigh Bardugo does a good job keeping the mounting tension and threat of danger meaningful and immediate throughout the book. The world-building is a bit on the sparse side, with the exception of the Grisha, who are an intriguing mix of scientist, nobility, and magician wrapped into one. The series takes as its inspiration Russia and surrounding countries for its world-building, which shows up primarily in the names of characters and cities and the food. I did encounter one glaring world-building hole, which is the offhand mention of people in Ravka attending church in society. (If this is an alternate universe, why does Christianity exist? And if it does exist, why and how do the churches in Ravka coexist seemingly peacefully with magic-users, with witches? We just don’t know.) However I was intrigued by the hints dropped about the Ravka’s neighboring countries and the lands across the ocean, and I’m excited to see what role these places will play in the next two books.
Alina is a fun protagonist to follow. Tall, gawky, and far more comfortable being sarcastic than not, she refuses to go complacently into her new life as a Grisha, and she’s more than uncomfortable over not fitting in with the rest of her new cohort, who are all beautiful, privileged, petty, and actually able to control their powers. Alina can be stubborn, but she’s also determined and resourceful in the face of danger, even when she’s terrified, and she’s full of heart. I also loved her relationship with Genya, a haughty Grisha charged with showing Alina around the palace who is another outsider in her own way.
Alina’s relationship with the Darkling, who takes charge of her upon discovery of her powers, is a complicated one, and it is here I have to thank Leigh Bardugo for doing the exact opposite with it than what I had been dreading. To elaborate would be would be spoilers, but I will say that what happens handily knocks off its pedestal the YA trope of “passionate romance developing between the powerful, thousands-of-years-old-male character and the impressionable teenage female protagonist.”
Regarding the actual developing, romance between Alina and Mal, I am tolerating it. I don’t hate it (Mal’s a decent character himself), and it’s not badly written. But it’s also not necessary. It can be difficult for me to pinpoint why I end up saying that some romantic relationships in books (especially in YA) and not others. It more or less comes down to this question: If Alina and Mal were portrayed as best friends throughout the book, and nothing else was changed, would their actions and the unfolding events continue to make sense? For me, that answer is yes. As such, Alina and Mal’s romance is another instance in which the romance feels like it’s being used as shorthand for “this is the only and/or main reason why the character(s) are risking their lives to save the other.”
(For the record, I am never not going to stop being cranky at the ubiquity of romance in literature, even (especially) in YA.)
I also could have done without the connection between possessing Grisha powers and physical beauty. The book opens with Alina and others around her despairing over her looks, which are plain and ordinary. Once Alina masters her powers, her hair and skin and stature improve and render her physical appearance just like all the other Grisha. It’s a shallow piece of world-building not utilized in any way other than to explain the beautiful appearances of all the Grisha, and so it’s unnecessary.
Overall I had fun with Shadow and Bone. It’s an immensely readable book, and fun, and I do plan on reading the next two in the series. If you’re in the market for the first book of a fantasy YA series with intriguing magic, characters, and social and political power dynamics, Shadow and Bone may be the book for you.