In a fantasy world heavily inspired by Russian folklore elements (which is also reflected in the gorgeous cover design of the books), Alina and Mal are orphans raised on the estate of a benevolent Duke. Growing up, they are inseparable, when they grow up, they (like most others) join the First Army, Alina as a mapmaker, Mal as a tracker. Alina is skinny, pale and insignificant, watching Mal mostly from afar. He’s grown up handsome, charming, popular and makes female conquests wherever he goes. Occasionally he’ll remember his old friend and come visit her in the camp.
The population of Ravka can be divided into the Grisha, the magically adept, and normal people. The Grisha can possess different power, some creative and some destructive, carefully advertised to the world by the colour of the clothes they wear. None is more powerful than the mysterious and sinister Darkling, the King’s right hand, and the only one allowed to wear black. The once prosperous nation has been divided in two by a large, barren area of constant darkness, known as the Fold, or Unsea, the result of a botched spell by one of the former Darklings. Nothing grows there, due to the lack of light. Unfortunately, you can’t get from one side of Ravka to the other without crossing it, using sand skiffs powered by wind. Frequently travellers are attacked by the terrifying flying monsters that roam the Fold, entering the Fold is never without peril. When the part of the army that Alina is with is crossing, there is suddenly an attack, and one of her mapmaker friends is carried off by the flying monsters. Mal is about to get attacked and Alina reacts instinctively. Before she knows what she is doing, she has covered the area in bright light, driving the monsters off and saving everyone. She passes out from the exertion.
When she wakes up, back in camp, Alina is told that she is in fact Grisha, and has a unique magical power. She is a Sun Summoner, and the Darkling has been waiting for her for a very long time. Thanks to her power, the ability to summon and control light, Ravka can possibly finally reclaim the Fold, win the wars with their surrounding countries and regain their prosperity. Of course, Alina has no idea how to control her power, and can only ever summon the light when either hurt or touching someone who can amplify her power. Told that her unique power make her a target for enemy assassins, she is speedily taken to the capital to undergo training. On the way, she sees the fearsome powers that the Darkling can wield.
While awed by the opulence of her new lodgings in the Palace, Alina is fairly miserable. Most children get raised to Grisha early, taken away from their families to be trained and educated for their future positions serving Ravka. Alina has to learn huge amounts of history and magical theory, as well as undergo physical training. Then there are her magic lessons, where she’s completely unable to summon a spark of light without someone with amplifying powers touching her. Having been declared the future saviour of the nation, she feels the pressure to succeed constantly. She makes one friend, Genya, who works for the Queen, able to cosmetically enhance anyone she touches. She shares gossip with Alina and steers her through the worst of the court’s intrigue.
After a bit of an emotional breakdown, Alina finally manages to figure out what has been blocking her power and she can start training in earnest. The Darkling is delighted and intends to have a special and powerful amplifier fashioned for her. They just need to locate an elusive and possibly legendary herd of magical deer first, so the horns of the stag can be used. When she’s actually able to improve her control in earnest, her trainer, the ancient Baghra strangely starts getting more agitated, not less. She warns Alina that she needs to get away, that the Darkling has dangerous plans and if he succeeds in getting the amplifier for Alina, she’ll be under his control forever. So Alina flees the capital, determined to find the stag herself.
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