Shadow and Bone
(The Grisha #1)
by Leigh Bardugo
Genre: young adult, fantasy, dystopia, supernatural
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.
REVIEW – with minor spoilers
I really enjoyed the book and the Russian-inspired world-building – it’s such a breath of fresh air from the usual fantasy settings and I love it. 😀 I always thought the palaces and churches in Russia look like something out of a fairy-tale, so imagining the splendour of the palaces and places in the book came very easy. I hoped to see more of the everyday folk of Ravka but I was fine with the palace setting as well despite the usual tour where authors dump a lot of information on us. Here I didn’t get a feeling that ever happened – the story flows very smoothly and the voice of Alina gives it this warm quality that utterly enchanted me.
The magical system is fascinating but not anything I haven’t seen in similar fashion before. It is detailed yet despite the feats we see the Grisha (magicians)perform there’s still much left to explore in next books. We are told other kingdoms treat them differently, some prosecuting them, while others sell them to Ravka – lot’s of stories here I bet. I’m also very interested in amplifiers – objects that can strengthen the Grisha’s power. Select Grisha get only one and this is such a cool concept and a great way to restrict their power. Yet there’s more behind them, I’m sure. Nobody really explained why they work; nothing concrete anyway and nobody can trust our villain when he says anything.
“Why can a Grisha possess but one amplifier? I will answer this question instead: What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men.”
The villain in this book fascinates me so much. The Darkling has a name that immediately conjures darkness and evil but he’s a far smoother operator than the name implies. Even though Alina’s initially afraid of him, there’s this pull of his powers that dazzles her enough to get caught in his web. He plays the long game and has managed to place his pawns in all kinds of strategic positions. Even I was fooled for a time about his intentions and believed he was just a brilliant but scary man helping fight a war. I just went with the flow of the book and therefore Alina’s perception of reality. Let’s be honest, the Darkling comes and goes constantly so she doesn’t really have a lot of interactions with him to come to any other conclusion than that he truly cares for her and the kingdom. He’s often alone with her and she has little chance to observe him in company where he has to interact with subordinate people – how anyone treats them is usually a good indicator of their personality.
“The problem with wanting,” he whispered, his mouth trailing along my jaw until it hovered over my lips, “is that it makes us weak.”
There’s something genuine about his reactions at times, a small moment when he shows true emotion, or at least so it seems. In hindsight everything is suspicious but I believe a part of him is not yet lost to his lust for power and yearns for a genuine connection. Maybe I’m a sucker for any redeeming quality, too optimistic to give up on people because that would mean there is nothing anyone can do to change their mind, to bring them back – and that is truly scary. But yes, the Darkling surely has a kind of ruthless intelligence to make your blood freeze. He may turn out to be one of the more gruesome villains of the YA literature – I’m not sure.
“This was his soul made flesh, the truth of him laid bare in the blazing sun, shorn of mystery and shadow. This was the truth behind the handsome face and the miraculous powers, the truth that was the dead and empty space between the stars, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters.”
As for our protagonist – I really like Alina. She’s not overly confident and can be a little too hard on herself, but deep down she has pluck and the ability to realise painful truths. How hard is it to admit to something that pains you? Alina does this – she analyses things, making her own opinions, drawing her own conclusions and acting out on them if that does not endanger her or ruffle too many feathers. The sudden change in her circumstances when the Darkling takes her away from her post as a cartographer may throw her off her game, and the loss of her closest friend may become a gaping hole she tries to fill with other people, yet she always knows there’s no one else like her childhood friend Mal and her old life. She is satisfied with what she has, being used to hardship as an orphan, and the opulence of the palace and rivalry of the Grisha do little to make her happy.
“So I’m the Darkling’s prisoner?”
“You’re under his protection.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Pray you never find out.”
Alina also has a very difficult relationship to her powers. She’s highly uncomfortable about them and this was a refreshing attitude. Sometimes fantasy characters are so happy when they realise they have this amazing power or take advantage of their new positions in some way, but Alina stays true to herself. She befriends people who treat her like a normal person even though she is extraordinary for being able to conjure sunlight. In this regard she is diametrically opposed to the Darkling who conjures darkness. The spark between them was beautifully described so I hoped he wouldn’t turn out to be evil despite the odds (hard to be anything else but a villain with this title, eh). I was dazzled by his mysterious persona too, I guess but yet there was a part of me that disliked this turn of events. I continuously hoped to see more of Mal because it was made clear she loves him, so I expected to see more of him.
“It’s probably for the best, I told myself. How would I have said goodbye to Mal anyway? Thanks for being my best friend and making my life bearable. Oh, and sorry I fell in love with you for a while there. Make sure to write!”
Mal is physically absent from Alina’s life for the majority of the book, so my fascination with the Darkling is understandable – he was a far more active agent in her life. The author helped to keep Mal relevant by making him a constant in her thoughts; so he was present in a way but I liked their banter too much to be content with only her memories. The opening chapters with him make him an instant sell. When they are reunited he has some of the most beautiful things to say to her about his feelings for her and yet they ring so true and simple. He basically describes what love is all about and how it snuck on him.
“I missed you every hour. And you know what the worst part was? It caught me completely by surprise. I’d catch myself just walking around to find you, not for any reason, just out of habit, because I’d seen something that I wanted to tell you about or because I wanted to hear your voice. And then I’d realize that you weren’t there anymore, and every time, every single time, it was like having the wind knocked out of me. I’ve risked my life for you. I’ve walked half the length of Ravka for you, and I’d do it again and again and again just to be with you, just to starve with you and freeze with you and hear you complain about hard cheese every day. So don’t tell me why we don’t belong together,” he said fiercely.”
I hope the next books don’t give us the dreaded curse of YA literature – the love triangle. This seduction attempt by the Darkling doesn’t really count. Let’s be honest, there’s no future for him with Alina, especially after what he tried to do with Mal. No woman can forgive that kind of thing nor should she. So my hopes are for a happy romance between Alina and Mal. I also want to learn more about new lands despite having a feeling we only brushed the surface with the lands our characters travel through in this book.
If the author lets us know what happened to David and Genya in the next book I won’t complain at all. She was a good friend to Alina at the palace and I was totally intrigued about a romance of a breathtaking beauty queen with the huge geek (or is it nerd?) David the fabricator. He seems to be an intriguing character and I wonder what happened to them both.