Book Reviews

Grishaverse Re-Read: SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo


In preparation for the Netflix show, Thea is re-immersing herself in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse and rereading the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows books! Today, she tackles the book that started it all: Shadow and Bone.

Title: Shadow and Bone
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication Date: June 5, 2012
Paperback: 358 pages

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.

Shadow and Bone is the first installment in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, and part of the overall Grishaverse

How did I get this book: Purchased

Format: Paperback

Review

A mapmaker, a tracker, and an ageless power-wielder walk onto the field of battle, and nothing will ever be the same.

Alina Starkov–the mapmaker–has lived her entire life by keeping her head down. Always a little sickly, always a bit frail and clumsy and graceless and awkward, Alina enlisted in Ravka’s First Army partially out of civic duty (and by enforced necessity), but more importantly to stay connected to her best friend and unrequited love, Mal. Mal–the tracker–is young and handsome and carefree, renowned already throughout the ranks of his battalion as an uncannily good tracker and seducer of beautiful women (including Grisha), though he is Alina’s oldest and closest friend. Mal and Alina find themselves on the battlefield aboard skiffs and enter the Fold–a region severing Ravka from other countries with its unpassable, monster-filled darkness. When they enter the Fold, something very peculiar happens–when Mal is attacked by volcra and on the pair are on the verge of sure death, Alina unlocks an unforetold ability to summon light, and repel the monsters and the darkness.

No such thing has ever happened in Ravka. There are other Grisha–wielders of magic, experts of the Small Science, and fighters of the Second Army–including those who can manipulate the natural elements (Etherealki), those who are experts of the limits of the human body (Corporalki), and those who can manipulate composite materials to their ends (Materialki). The closest thing to Alina’s power is an Etherealki of unparalleled power: the Darkling, an ageless and immensely powerful Grisha who commands the Second Army, with an ability to summon darkness.

The Darkling–the ageless power-wielder–instantly takes interest in Alina, inviting her to train as a Grisha and unlock her true potential. Unlike Mal and the life Alina has known before, for the first time she grows into herself and her abilities. She becomes more confident, more powerful, and yet… more conflicted at each step along the way. As Alina adjusts to her gilded surroundings, she starts to question everything–especially the Darkling, and his motives.

When I first read (and reviewed) Shadow and Bone, I was both invested in the world, and slightly underwhelmed by characters. Upon this re-read, nearly a decade later, this initial observation still holds true. I *love* the concept of the “unsea” (the shadow fold), of Grisha, and a world sundered by monsters and darkness from some unknown source. And, this many years later, I know just how much time and effort Leigh Bardugo has invested in this world and its inhabitants, and can appreciate the grand scope of the Grisha, of Ravka, of the Shu Han and the politicking and choices that shape this world.

But I can’t deny that even upon re-reading this book, there are a lot of problematic elements.

All cards on the table: Alina’s entire character arc is a little… well, twee. I should note that it is slightly unfair reading this book in a vacuum because Alina becomes so much more in books 2 and 3, but judging book 1 on its own? Yeah, you can’t really deny the fact that her arc reads like a page from the post-Twilight-heroine playbook. Alina is consumed with what Mal will think of her, and what the Darkling thinks of her, and what the other Grisha think of her–her focus is entirely outside of herself, and her character growth seems tied to becoming more beautiful (and less clumsy and awkward) and other peoples’ perceptions of her. Both love interests in this book are similarly controlling, domineering, and unconscionably shitty. The Darkling is seductive and dark and broody and nigh-immortal and calls to Alina’s nascent power while trying to control her. Mal is overbearing, jealous, and judgmental, accusing Alina of liking her gilded cage (and the Darkling) too much. Not to mention the fact that Mal signs up for a secret mission to bring a powerful amplifier to Alina to feel, like, closer to her, and yet blames her for the Darkling’s manipulations, etc. In other words–all of the bad, abusive boyfriend red flags are flying full mast in this first novel.

And yet.

Despite these flags, there’s no denying that on its own, Shadow and Bone is still incredibly compelling. Alina’s arc, while utterly predictable, is still powerful in her choices. The fact that Alina is an outsider, that she feels alone and isolated, that she struggles with other Grisha as well as her best friend, is empathetic as hell and I deeply admire her ability to make choices the further out her story goes. Similarly, Alina’s bonds with other female characters–Zoya and Genya in particular–are nuanced, and have so much further implication for the rest of the series.

It’s impossible to re-read a series without also evaluating the things to come. Things that I didn’t notice as much the first time around but loved this time around:

The importance and quiet strength of Baghra, Alina’s teacher when she reaches the Palace.

The spectacle of the Grisha and how the entire kingdom of Ravka is slowly rotting on itself, with its preoccupation with glamor and beauty.

The beginnings of the understanding that absolute power corrupts absolutely–especially for Grisha, and including Alina herself.

Shadow and Bone is very much a first novel, lacking polish (and those aforementioned boyfriend red flags), but there’s so much promise in this book that it’s worth it to stick around for the ride.

I’m both more invested and more critical on a second read, and cannot wait to dive into the rest of the Grishaverse to evaluate the rest.

Rating: 6 – Good, but with some reservations

The re-read continues next with Siege and Storm (book 2 in the Shadow and Bone trilogy)

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