YA can be more fickle than its literary cousins. It’s notorious for trends. There were wizards, vampires, and what feels like a decade’s worth of dystopias. The result is a glut of books with sassy female protagonists who discover they have a unique power, are fighting to save the world, and struggling to decide which hunky love interest to pick from in their love triangle. Shadow and Bone doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in terms of avoiding these tropes, but what it does do is tell them in a fresh and innovative way.
Alina Starkov was raised in an orphanage alongside her best friend (and future love, obviously), called Mal. They live in Ravka, a fantasy Russia of samovars and Grisha — powerful magical soldiers that work directly for the king. If you don’t have magic, you’re bumped down to the common army, where Alina and Mal find themselves. As with most YA plots that require their protagonists to be embroiled in some ongoing war, it’s never entirely clear what the armies are fighting for, or who they are fighting against, but the lowly Alina makes a very convincing unremarkable solider, so Leigh Bardugo can be forgiven for the shaky plotting.
Alina’s regiment is marching straight towards the Shadow Fold, a magical cloud of impenetrable darkness full of volcra — savage winged creatures that once used to be men. It is rumoured that the Shadow Fold was created by some dark, powerful Grisha intent on dominating the whole of Ravka, but now the Shadow Fold just splits the land in two.
Upon entering the Fold, Alina is attacked by volcra and low and behold, it is Mal who comes to her rescue. When the volcra almost kill Mal, Alina throws herself over him and is then blinded by a searing white light. Their regiments miraculously escape the fold unharmed, but Alina finds herself called to face the Darkling, an all-powerful Grisha who is intrigued by Alina’s unheard of power: she can manipulate light.
So there you have the trope of all tropes: young, unremarkable protagonist realises they have unique powers that can be used to save or destroy the world. But Bardugo steeps the familiar ideas in so much more. Alina suffers heart-wrenching internal conflicts along her journey, and grapples with the constant feeling that she is not worthy of all the attention the Grisha suddenly bestow on her. Her unrequited love for Mal is compelling and moving, and despite the questionable love triangle shoe-horned into the story, Alina’s love for Mal is convincing.
One of Bardugo’s triumphs was pacing the story to perfection. She didn’t feel the need for continual breakneck speed which can be so tiresome in these types of novels. Instead the balance between worldbuilding, characterisation, and action was just right in Shadow and Bone. Having a debut novel shoot right onto the New York Times bestseller list speaks volumes, and if this first instalment is anything to go by, THE GRISHA trilogy promises to be an addictive series.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Leigh Bardugo‘s debut YA novel Shadow and Bone, but I do know I ended up really loving it. I was initially introduced to Bardugo’s work through a trio of short stories she had written as part of the cultural backdrop of her novel, and I was immediately attracted to her use of Russian-inspired themes and motifs to shape her world-building.
The country of Ravka (analogous to Russia) is at war with neighbouring kingdoms Fjerda and Shu Han; what makes matters worse is the existence of the Shadow Fold that divides Ravka right down the center. This magical stretch of darkness seriously undermines the country’s ability to transport weapons, soldiers and other supplies from the western cities, particularly since it’s crawling with monsters that thrive in the gloom.
Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev are two orphans enlisted into the Ravkan army, facing a dangerous journey right through the middle of the Shadow Fold. When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina unleashes a dormant power she never even knew existed — a bright and beautiful light that identifies her not only as a Grisha, but a rare Sun Summoner.
The Grisha are the magical elite of this world: soldiers of the Second Army and Masters of the Small Science. They are categorized depending on their abilities, whether it be healing, summoning or fabricating, and all answer to the most powerful Grisha of them all: The Darkling.
Alina is swept up into a new world of both luxury and intense training, struggling to control her innate abilities and missing Mal dreadfully. Her new lifestyle certainly has its perks: she’s the favourite of the handsome, mysterious Darkling, and she no longer wants for any material possessions; but she knows full well that she doesn’t fit in amongst the rest of the Grisha.
It’s only when the Darkling reveals his true plans for her that she begins to realize why her powers are so coveted. With them she can remove the Shadow Fold from the face of the earth and make Ravka strong once more. But when the Darkling’s true motivations in making her his protégé come to light, Alina must face a terrible decision — whether to stay for the greater good, or flee for the sake of those who stand in the Darkling’s way.
Bardugo’s first novel is impressive, with strong characterization, a smooth plot, exposition that is paced out evenly, and fascinating world-building that doesn’t get too convoluted. In my opinion, those three components are essential to any fantasy novel, and Shadow and Bone exists as a satisfying standalone novel whilst still allowing plenty of room for sequels. The GRISHA trilogy continues with Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising.
First-person narration is always a bit of a challenge, for if the protagonist’s voice is not handled correctly, they can come across as unbearably self-centered, but Alina provides a crisp account of her thoughts and feelings without wallowing in too much detail or angst. I was rather disappointed to see other reviews criticize her for low self-esteem and self-consciousness regarding her plain looks; I not only thought that they were appropriate reactions to suddenly being thrust in amongst the beautiful Grisha, but it hardly took up much of the word count anyway. (And let’s face it, if she had been cool and collected in the face of such a culture shock, everyone would be calling her a Mary Sue instead. Female characters just can’t win.)
Shadow and Bone is also full of rich imagery, from dark pine woods to the icy northern tundra, sleek black carriages to herds of white deer. As mentioned, Bardugo draws upon Russian culture to shape her world, and it results in a unique atmosphere that’s a refreshing change from the usual fantasy settings.
My YA daughter and I enjoyed Shadow and Bone. In the audiobook version, Lauren Fortgang is well-cast as the narrator. Her voice for Alina is convincing.