This book gets: ♥♥♥♥ out of 5
Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo - Ravka is a country split in half by a dark slash called the Shadow Fold, where trespassers face total darkness and terrible, dangerous creatures. Alina Starkov is an orphan; after failing to display any mastery of magic during her Grisha exam, she is sent to serve in the Second Army and cross the Fold with her fellow orphan and best friend Mal. But when Alina displays an unusual power in the heat of the moment, the Darkling, the head of an order of magicians called Grisha, determines she is the fated Sun Summoner and whisks her away to Grisha headquarters to be trained (and pampered). The Sun Summoner is the only Grisha who can shed light on the Fold and save Ravka–but Alina cannot call upon or control her power. Without Mal, she feels alone and powerless, especially in the face of her growing attraction to the mysterious Darkling.
There are so many things to like about Bardugo’s debut fantasy offering: the dark backdrop of the Shadow Fold, the strangely imperfect landscape, the Russian-themed people and place names (I have a super soft spot for fantasy books with unified linguistic conventions)–there’s so much depth to the world of Shadow and Bone that I wanted to slip into it like a second skin and live there for a while.
But I just couldn’t. It’s as if Bardugo has a gorgeous, elaborate painting in mind, but only sketches out the edges. We’re given mere shadows of the King and Queen; they are talked about, but neither makes an appearance in person. We’re introduced to the Grisha and the three Orders (the Corporalki, the Etherealki, and the Materialki), but I failed to grasp at any point in the novel all of the names and nuances–the Etherealki aren’t ever called Etherealki, but instead are called Summoners. This may sound like splitting hairs to some, but to me this confusion greatly limited my enjoyment of the world-building; most of the time I felt that I was simply stupid for not being able to follow along.
This is, perhaps, a symptom of a YA trend that has gotten under my skin before–a trend I’m starting to call sequelism (I’m sure there’s another actual, academic term for it, feel free to post in the comments), where the first novel in a series skimps on providing satisfying world detail and resolution in order to lead into a second volume. It seems that Bardugo is setting us up for a much larger, more complex world to follow in the second and third books of the Grisha series. And I’m fine with sweeping, complicated worlds when it comes to fantasy; the problem with sequelism is that it sometimes limits the enjoyability of any single novel as a stand-alone work. Threads are left hanging, the world is outlined but not completely filled in, and the finish feels hollow. As a reader, I desire a certain amount of closure at the end, especially if a sequel is still a year out. Shadow and Bone, along with many of its contemporaries (Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, Kiera Cass’s The Selection, and Beth Revis’s Across the Universe) left me unfulfilled.
Nevertheless, I decided to grade Shadow and Bone on a curve so as not to let my prejudice towards sequelism bog down my rating on an otherwise fascinating novel. Bardugo weaves a complex and likable heroine. Alina is an honest rendering: easily swept into charismatic arms, but still uncertain and self-conscious. She is, in believable portions, both heroic and selfish. Bardugo doesn’t give away her cards too soon, either; I didn’t predict the central plot twist, and it made me miss a time when that was almost always true. Too often YA books are formulaic and predictable, and Shadow and Bone is none of those things.
The prose fluctuates between staccato and beautiful–it’s sometimes too clipped, but more often it comes across careful and poetic. Her dialogue is gorgeous at the least, and clever. I look forward to the second novel in the Grisha trilogy, Siege and Storm, and hope this time Bardugo gives us a little more to work with.
As a side note: Leigh Bardugo is awesome. She graduated from Yale, works a day job as a makeup artist in Hollywood, sings for a band called Captain Automatic and has a love of all things ghoulish. Plus, she’s totally hot–and her first book is a New York Times Bestseller.