Written by: Leigh Bardugo
Synopsis: The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.
Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?
The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.
But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?
Challenges: RIP VIII
I can't remember where I first saw this book, it was probably on a Bout of Books or Top 10 Tuesday post, but I was instantly attracted to the Russian aesthetic of the cover and added it to my Goodreads TBR. On a whim last week I bought the kindle edition. After the giddy highs of Eleanor and Park I felt like I needed some light YA to negate a complete reading crash, so buy it I did and I ended up reading it in about two sittings.*
In a lot of ways it's a very traditional fantasy YA. There's a female protagonist who is strong in constitution, even though she's plain and wimpy looking. She's come up from nothing, so she's not afraid to fight for what she wants, once she works out what that is. She has a male best friend who she secretly loves but they seem to be drifting apart. There's magic, sort of, and a end-of-days type peril that hangs over the community. There's a mysterious and dashing older man, a grumpy trainer guy, and a beautiful girl who has trash for a soul. And yet, even though there were all of these overused tropes and characters crowding into this little book (the first in a trilogy) I actually kind of dug the hell out of it. Sort of.
In this Russian stand-in there exists a shadow fold. What is this shadow fold you ask? Well, dear reader, it is basically a giant black cloud that slashes down the centre of the country, isolating the two sides from each other. You can cross it, but there are creepy bird-like creatures that live inside it that delight in ripping your flesh from your body. So to cross it you need the Grisha. They don't guarantee your survival, but they do weigh the odds a little closer to your favour so that you can get across to do your trade and buy all of the supplies that your side of not-Russia can't produce. The shadow fold is an ever present shadow, literally and figuratively, looming over the country. Nothing can really progress while the country is split like this and much of their time is spent fighting not-China and not-(haven't worked out what this country's stand in is yet).
So who are these Grisha folk who can protect men from scary beasts? The Grisha are basically magicians. Some are healers, some are soldiers, and some are even dressmakers. Their magic is discovered when they're young (say 11...) and they're sent to a training school where they're taught to use their powers and are then enrolled into the army, where they protect the country. Their magic isn't really magic though, it's basically a manipulation of physics.
What looked like magic was really manipulating matter at its most fundamental levels. Marie didn't make fire. She summoned combustible elements in the air around us, and she still needed a flint to make the spark that would burn that fuel.So maybe they aren't technically magic, but it still looks cool and it's not something just anyone can do. Which is where Alina comes in. When we're introduced to Alina she's a pale, weak map maker for the army who is not pretty. In fact, people seem to have a real issue with her looks, so much that it's like they're enduring some tremendous burden just to speak to her. But as it turns out there's more to our meek mouse of a protagonist, as a botched trip across the fold forces her to reveal a power she didn't know she even had.
Instantly Alina is thrust into the spotlight. As a sun-summoner (the only Grisha of this kind) she holds the power to eliminate the fold, and is therefore very valuable to not-Russia and all the countries who are using the fold for their own advantage. She's taken to the Grisha school, where everyone's treated like royalty - a far cry from her childhood as an orphan and adulthood in the army. She's treated less like a student and more like an equal to the Darking, leader of the Grisha and mysterious man who May Not Be What He Seems. She struggles with her lessons, comes to a realisation and then begins to excel while also starting a relationship with Mr Darkling.
Whether she's called Alina, Katniss, Triss, Lyra or Clary - this is a character you all know pretty well if you've read any YA. But maybe because my childhood was so empty of YA books full of young women coming to terms with their own identity and the world they live in (that weren't based in the 1800s) I'm happy to keep reading these characters for a little while longer. Sure I wish they'd switch things up a little, maybe expand on the whole premise and add some depth to it, but female protagonists were so rare in fantasy/dystopian fiction for so long that I think we're owed this. And while Alina herself is a little forgettable, I did enjoy the journey she went on. From trying to fit in with the fancy Grishas at the school, to coming to terms with her power and letting go of the past. She has a road to follow, and even if it's one that's well-trodden it's a pleasure to follow nonetheless.
There's a predicatable love triangle which I can't even bring myself to discuss because COME ON his name is The freaking Darkling, what do you expect? And a shadowy priest-to-the-king called the Apparat who immediately reminded me of Grima Wormtongue. Even now I can't work out how good or evil he was, but he set off all my creep alarms immediately, mostly thanks to the line about him smelling "faintly of mildew and incense - like a tomb" - so well done there Ms Bardugo. And there's some class war stuff within the Grisha, but also between the Grisha and the regular population which I expect will be covered in the next book. And don't take too much notice of the Russian-esque names, because none of it is based on actual naming conventions in Russia (Alina Skarkov should be Alina Starkova for instance) but who really cares since it isn't actually set in Russia.
Shadow and Bone felt like so many other books out there (HP, LOTR, His Dark Materials, The Chrestomanci series to name a few) but it oddly didn't ever feel derivative to me. Yes there are similarities, and it definitely relied on YA standards for the plot and character types, but it felt more like a book by a woman who has read and learnt from these books rather than someone just converting fanfic to a manuscript. This might work against it since it isn't really anything new, but it also adds a certain warm familiarity to the characters, or a natural weariness to others. The writing and pacing is tight, the world is colourfully described and the shadow fold is a thing of nightmares. It's unlikely to become your favourite book, but if you're looking for some light YA fantasy to pull you out of a reading funk then this might be the book for you.
*Partly because it was so short/easy to read, part because I enjoyed it.