Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

These covers are gorgeous!

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
The Grisha Trilogy #1
St. Martin's Press; 5 July 2013
358 Pages
YA Fantasy
3 Stars
Barnes and Noble; Book Depository, Goodreads

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.

Before I get into everything Shadow and Bone is, let me break down what it isn't.  It isn't groundbreaking.  It isn't "unlike anything [you've] ever read" if you tend to read YA fantasy.  It isn't completely unique.

But what it did do (and very well) was grab ahold of me so fiercely that I could not put it down until I had finished it.

The first book in the Grisha Trilogy takes place in the kingdom of Ravka (a reimagining of Russia), which is besieged on the north by the Fjerdan and on the south by the Shu Han.  To the west it is blocked from the True Sea by the Unsea, or Shadow Fold, a rip through the land of pure darkness inhabited by Volcra, evil creatures that feed on humans.

Operating in this kingdom are the Grisha, or the Second Army, powerful men and women who have mastered the Small Science, this world's magic system.  They are under the control of the Darkling, the most powerful Grisha of all, who serves the King in turn.

In the midst of this is Alina Starkov, an orphan in the First Army along with her best friend, Mal.  When she gets taken into the Fold on a supply mission, a latent power within her is exposed, and she is taken to become a Grisha, entering into the politics of the Ravka court.

The bare-bones of this story are seemingly generic.  We have the female protagonist who feels plain and out of place, but then becomes a special snowflake when something unusual is discovered about her.  There's the boy who never sees her...until he does.  There's the guy she shouldn't like because he's set apart from everyone else.  Enter the love triangle.  Good versus evil.  All the classic moves.  However, right as everything is going along as planned, Bardugo puts in a plot twist that changes the game.  It's this move that differentiates this book from others.

The plot twist caught me completely off-guard.  There were other surprises that I knew would happen because they follow the formula, but this one totally shocked me.  In hindsight, there are clues all throughout the text so everything makes sense without giving anything away.  And I love the way she chose to take the story.  It turned everything upside down for me and made me have to question my allegiances to the different characters.

One issue I had was a lack of world-building, though.  The explanation of the magic system was really unsatisfying to me.  I understood that the Grisha manipulate the molecular structure of matter.  However, because Alina doesn't understand how it works, the reader doesn't get an explanation either, and that made me feel robbed.

"Everything in the world could be broken down into the same small parts.  What looked like magic was really the  Grisha manipulating matter at its most fundamental levels...But if I understood what we did, I was less sure of how we did it.  The grounding principle of the Small Science was 'like calls to like,' but then it got complicated.  Odinakovost was the 'thisness' of a thing that made it the same as everything else.  Etovost was the 'thatness' of a thing that made it different from everything else.  Odinakovost connected Grisha to the world, but it was the etovost that gave them an affinity for something like air, or blood, or in my case, light.  Around then, my head started swimming" (pg. 148-149).

And that is the only explanation that is given as to how the magic system works.  I wasn't expecting a full scientific breakdown, and I honestly wouldn't have needed to know how the whole thing works.  But after that woeful attempt to explain, I was left wanting.

I also really disliked the usage of Russian throughout the story.  Or, more precisely, the incorrect usage.  Females with male names, incorrect translations, the fact that the Grisha are basically being called Greg...I didn't feel that it added to the book at all, and instead it felt forced.

The pace of the book was excellent, though, and that's why I was able to finish it in one sitting.  It never lagged, and I actually wished that it would slow down in certain parts to reveal more about the characters involved.  But it was definitely an easy read to move through, and it kept me engaged the whole time.

On the whole, the writing was good but not spectacular.  It flowed well, and the dialogue was good.  However, Bardugo tended to tell more than show, so the story was lacking a lot of the description and character experience that would have made me feel more involved.

The characters ranged from being really good to just being acceptable.

There was nothing special about Alina.  She was the typical stubborn and sarcastic teen girl.  I did appreciate that she wasn't unbelievably foolish or impulsive, but there was a lack of depth to her.  She did undergo some growth throughout the book, but most of it was hurried and pointed out to the reader by Alina instead of left to be noticed.  She was likeable but not interesting.

I didn't like the way Mal was characterized in the story at all.  In the beginning, he was pompous and shallow, and the next time the reader saw him, he was dramatically different.  Yet, there was hardly anything in the plot to back up his changes.  He talked about a few things that happened, but they weren't fleshed out enough to quite solidify who he became.  He's the character I cared the least about.

But the Darkling!  Oh, the Darkling.  This was a character that I was on board with.  He was dark and set apart, but he also showed great feeling.  There was a complexity within him that all the other characters lacked.  As I found out more about him and his motives, I only liked him more because he seemed to be the only one with a true purpose and vision.  Were he not in this series, I wouldn't finish it, but I want to know more about him and about his past.  I really hope that there is more of him in Siege and Storm.  I could read a whole book from his perspective.

A few of the most interesting themes this book deals with are moral conformity, the means versus the end, and the ability of power to corrupt.

The aspect of the story I liked best, which I wish had received greater focus, was the question of whether a peaceful end justifies violent means.  Many of the characters sided with the antagonist even though he was killing and enslaving people because he would solve all the problems of Ravka.  Depending on how the motives of the antagonist continue to be revealed, this story could contain moral ambiguity, which I love.

The ability of power to corrupt was lightly touched on in this installment, but I really hope that it's a central theme in Siege and Storm as Alina continues to come into her own abilities.

Even for all of its flaws, the story and the Darkling have me hooked, and I have to read the next book.  I have so many questions about him and his motives and desires.  I want to find out if the villain of the novel has noble ends or if he's really just evil.  I just want more.

So, I give Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo 3 stars.