Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: fantasy, young-adult, awesome
Series: The Grisha #1
Pages: 369 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected June 2012
Source: from publishers via NetGalley
Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, all she’s ever been able to rely on is her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’ve been sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.
When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. She is torn from everything she knows and whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes that she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the Sun Summoner. Only her power can destroy the Fold.
Overwhelmed by luxury, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to keep her wits about her without Mal by her side. But nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her mastery of her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha—and the secrets of her heart.
Impressive. Epic. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Unique and utterly captivating. Are the superlatives too much this early? But it's not hyperbole: his is the first book in well over a year to keep me up past not midnight, not one am, not two am but until two freaking forty-five in the morning (when I have to work at 7) racing through pages and chapters just because there's clearly no way I can sleep not knowing how things end. Well done, Leigh Bardugo, very well done indeed. This review will be hard for me on two fronts: #1. because I get very closely attached to things (read: books) I love and it's hard to view them objectively and judge merits when inside they (the books) make me feel all fangirly inside #2. trying to be as comprehensive as I can be without revealing all the extremely well-hidden behind authorial sleight-of-hand plot twists that Shadow&Bone has in store for its lucky readers and soon-to-be fandom.
Alina Starkov is the main character of this Russian-inspired fantasy tale, and she bears the burden quite well. I liked a lot about Alina from the beginning, but I liked most her self-awareness and self-deprecation. Like many YA heroines Alina isn't too self-confident or possessing of a great self-image, but unlike many of her written counterparts, Alina doesn't long to to stand out from the crowd, but rather to belong, to something or someone. In a book of fully complex and realized characters, Alina especially profits from the author's generous characterization. I can appreciate a heroine who isn't afraid or slow to defend herself and Alina is one of those. Even her predetermined reveal as the superspecial and rare Grisha she is didn't spoil my liking for this strident and grumpy young woman.
Shadow&Bone is a whirlwind of fun, magic, and emotion. Though here, in the obviously Russian-tinged fantasy land of Ravka, what the Grisha and its leader the Darkling (swoon) is not magic, but the "Small Science" - what the author says is the "manipulation of matter at its most fundamental level." But basically what the Grisha and Alina can do is magic. After all, this is a fantasy and what's a fantasy without magic? Though this isn't your typical fantasy, because magic isn't the most powerful. But even the magic feels Russian-tinged with the importance of animals and bones, not artifacts, rituals or incantations. In fact, magic/The Grisha of this novel are on the wane in influences and things like guns and muskets, modern inventions (tsarpunk?) are present, lending a further feel of individuality to this already standout debut high fantasy.
I loved the thoroughly Russian feel that this carries throughout (though as the eagle-eyed Tatiana pointed out, Alina's last name should be properly Starkova, not Starkov.) From kvass, to the exile-bound land of Tsibeya (Siberia, maybe?) to the mysterious and ominious Apparat, a mysterious priest I got definite ~Rasputin~ vibes from, this is clearly a love letter to the largest country, written in the form of a fantasy novel. Even the religion, with its emphasis on saints (aka normal people risen high through their deeds
like Alina) as opposed to an unknowable, terrible God/god/gods has a distinctly Russian feel to it. Added to those the tactile and gorgeous descriptions that could be for real Russian palaces and Kremlins, and this is a novel with atmosphere and place-as-character.
But good worldbuilding doesn't just begin and end with just the setting and location for events - it's in details and thought, in what supports the world that exists on those places created. Shadow and Bone doesn't neglect this important fact: the monarchist Ravka and the world outside it each have differences and an often-bloody history amongst them. The other nations mentioned in passing like Fjerda (reminiscent or influenced by Scandinavian countries), Shu Han (a fictionalized China) and a mostly unexplained place called Kerch complete the picture and engage in centuries-long warfare with the Grisha-backed Ravka. Ravka boasts a thoroughly regimented social pyramid, much like tsarist Russia, as well as a segregated army for defense under control of the Darkling.
This novel gave me severe emotional whiplash - I should sue the author for still not being able to figure out who I like more after finishing. <SPOILER> I love me a charismatic anti-hero with depth and a quirking half-smile, even after all that murder business and betrayal/manipulation. See also: Garald Tarrant from C.S. Friedman's excellent Coldfire trilogy. I should've seen it coming - even their titles are intrinsically opposed to one another, The Sun Summoner and The Darkling. Blinded by my affinity for half-smiles and figures in all black, I guess.</SPOILER> Leigh Bardugo would casually, subtly string me out on a line and then send my expectations and dreams and ships crashing back to a totally unforeseen circumstance, frequently. My sympathies and hopes were ricocheting all over the place/characters - just as she so carefully planned. When when I thought I'dfigured out the endgame, I turned out to get ten percent accuracy and 90% surprise. Can we talk about an author than can write convincing chemistry and credible couples and intensely hot makeout scenes (..."but all I could think about was his hands on my hips, his lips on my neck, the lean, hard feel of him in the dark." p.236 ARC)? Cause this author is
obviously one such. I wasn't struck by the beauty of Bardugo's prose like I am with Laini Taylor or Zoe Marriott, but this is a gifted storyteller who often hits upon just the right phrase/sentence for the moment. SPOILER WARNING: I thought the last sentence in particular was both beautiful and approrpriate. Do not read on if you don't want some minor spoilers that other can be inferred from:
"They are orphans again, with no true home but each other and whatever life they can make together on the other side of the sea."
Perfect ending - the events of book one have been resolved but there's an open-endedness left for the beginning book two. </spoiler>
I also love the paperback cover, its different title and its different blurb:
Sweeping, glorious fantasy romance about an orphan who must save her kingdom from the seductive and terrifying Darkling. The most compelling romance since Twilight.
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 fulfil 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?
(The ARC cover is neat, too.)
and so is this one: