Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
Siege and Storm (2013) is the second book in Leigh Bardugo‘s GRISHA trilogy, and does what any good sequel should do: expands the world, deepens the characters and raises the stakes. On the other hand, it can’t quite avoid the pitfalls of a typical middle book — being unable to truly start or properly finish anything; it ends on a note that gives the impression the whole thing has been setup for the third and final instalment. But apart from this inevitability, Siege and Storm is a satisfying read.
Its predecessor Shadow and Bone introduced us to Alina Starkov and the concept of the Grisha. Born with the power to transmute certain elements (whether quelling fires, stirring winds, mending fabric or healing bones) Grisha are an elite force of Small Science practitioners that answer to the Darkling, the most powerful Grisha of them all. At least until Alina’s long-dormant powers are discovered.
Identified as a Sun Summoner (and therefore the polar opposite of the Darkling, whose gifts lie in the manipulation of darkness and shadows), Alina is whisked away from her simple life as a mapmaker in the Ravkan army to become the Darkling’s protégé and the country’s best hope in removing the Shadow Fold, a tract of land filled with monstrous creatures.
During the course of the story she comes to realize the true intentions behind the Darkling’s plans for her, and escapes his control with fellow soldier and childhood friend Malyen Oretsev. They take refuge across the sea, but the two of them don’t last long in Novyi Zem before the Darkling tracks them down again.
What makes it difficult to summarize Siege and Storm is that the first half is comprised of a number of little “mini-adventures” before the plot settles down and deals with Alina’s struggles to command an army, track down her next amplifier (a totem that increases her powers), manage the political intrigues of court, and cope with frequent hallucinations of the Darkling. Then there’s her fraught relationship with Mal, her growing sense of isolation, and her secret desire to accumulate more power.
Yeah, it’s a pretty dense book, but Bardugo handles her subject matter well, balancing a suspenseful plot with Alina’s internal anxiety that she’s losing herself to her own abilities. The characterization is marvellous, though I found myself more invested in the supporting characters than the leads. Alina is sympathetic enough, but Mal grows annoyingly sullen and jealous over the course of the story, leading me to grow more interested in the charming and enigmatic Sturmhond, and the battle-hardened twins Tamar and Tolya.
It’s the world-building that really sets the GRISHA trilogy apart from the usual YA fantasy fare. Taking its cue from Russian culture and mythology, we’re introduced to a world of icy tundra and choppy seas, dark forests and opulent palaces (complete with the iconic onion domes). Bardugo’s clear and descriptive prose brings this world to life in all its chilly splendour, adding just the right amount of detail to make everything seem rich and dense. Take this for example:
They drifted into harbour through an orchard of weathered masts and bound sails. There were sleek sloops and little junks from the rocky coasts of the Shu Han, armed warships and pleasure schooners, fat merchantmen and Fjerdan whalers. A bloated prison galley bound for the southern colonies flew the red-tipped banner that warned there were murderers aboard. As they floated by, the girl could have sworn she heard the clink of chains.
Beautifully done. I can see that vividly.
By the end Bardugo has set herself up for a strong finale in Ruin and Rising, one which promises to be filled with more machinations, battles, tough decisions and heartache.