Bardugo, Leigh. Shadow and Bone. Henry Holt, 2012. 356p. Grades 6-12. Fantasy. (2013 ALA BFYA Selection, 2013 TLA Tayshas Selection).
In the war-ravaged land of Rafka, the world is divided into the Grisha, a elite group of magicians led by the mysterious Darkling, and the otkazat’sya, those without magical powers also called the Abandoned. Alina Starkov has spent her whole life believing she is otkazat’sya until the moment she saves her best friend Mal’s life on the Shadow Fold and becomes known as the Sun Summoner. Alina’s struggle to understand the nature of her powers as well as the intentions of the Darkling himself make up the core of this gripping, elegant debut novel.
Thoughts- This book. This book was, in a word, AMAZING. From the exquisite world-building to the fast-moving plot to the conflicted romantic triangle of Alina, Mal, and the Darkling, I thought it all worked brilliantly, and I did not want it to end. (Luckily for me, it’s the first in a trilogy, so I get two more Grisha books!) For me, the best aspect of this book is the world-building. Bardugo used nineteenth century Tsarist Russia as her model and has carefully constructed a setting that while it reflects those roots in its language, landscape, and costuming also stands alone as a separate world all its own. The description of Rafka is so lush and detailed I could see everything—the snow, the onion-domed churches, the jewel-lined halls of the Great Palace—perfectly in my mind’s eye. Also, Bardugo’s vision of magic, known in the novel as the Small Sciences, is very nuanced; the Grisha don’t have powers per se, rather they are capable of bending the existing physical world to their desires by focusing on the principle of “like calls to like.” I found this a refreshing take on the fantasy trope of magical gifts and also liked how Bardugo showed that Alina’s repression of her abilities has had a negative effect on every aspect of her life. She makes the point that only by accepting every part of herself is Alina able to live a healthy, fulfilled life—a little lesson in self-confidence I thought was really well done and not at all didactic.
The incredibly fast pace of this novel also astounded me. I was 175 pages in before I realized time had passed; I was that wrapped up in the story. Shadow and Bone manages to be both epic (war! magic! romance!) and yet intensely personal in scope and size as it switches between Alina’s internal conflict and the greater conflict in the country of Rafka itself. I think part of the intense narrative drive for me was how invested I became in the three main characters—Alina, Mal, and the Darkling. All three are finely drawn and complex with shades of grey I cannot wait to discover in the next two books. The supporting characters like the teacher Baghra and Alina’s confidante Genya also have a level of depth that raises them from mere stock players. My favorite character was, hands down, the Darkling. I love a good bad boy, and damn, did Bardugo deliver. The Darkling is, as his title suggests, a figure of deep mystery, shadow, and power. He wavers on the fine line between villain and love interest for the entirety of the novel, and I don’t think his true intentions are ever made clear. Yes, he callously condemns Mal to death even after Alina begs for mercy, but he also seems to struggle with his very human desire for Alina stating, “The problem with wanting…is that it makes us weak,” and telling her, “Fine…make me your villain.” I was obsessed with this character by the end of the book, and I’m pretty sure Alina is too, even if she leaves with Mal.
I think it is fairly obvious how much I adored this novel, and I really think other readers will as well. I kind of see it as a cross-over fantasy—it has elements of historical fiction, paranormal romance, even flashes of the canon with its echoes of great Russian nineteenth century literature—and I think readers who shy away from more fantastical works would still be drawn in by Bardugo’s excellent prose, characterization, and plotting because it seems familiar but not TOO familiar. I’ve been raving about this book for days now to everyone who will listen, and I hope the rest of the trilogy lives up to the debut—I can’t wait to get my hands on Siege and Storm (Book #2)* in June!
*I totally won an ARC of this book through a contest that Leigh Bardugo tweeted about…and I just finished it. EPIC.