When Leigh Bardugo’s first novel from a new series dropped in 2015 and started getting all kinds of raves, I knew I’d have to go back post haste to the ever-growing TBR and pick up the first series, which I had been intending to read for some time.
The Grisha Trilogy imagines a fantasy world based out of a Russian analog country, where those possessed of magical abilities are called the Grisha, and anyone who is not Grisha is probably either a peasant or a conscripted member of the First Army. Our heroine, Alina Starkov, was raised an orphan alongside her best friend and secret crush, Mal. She’s a junior mapmaker in the First Army, and Mal is a tracker in the same. Their kingdom, Ravka, is bisected by a ominous, dark dead zone called the Shadow Fold, and though in one sense it acts as a protective barrier between (East) Ravka and its enemies, when soldiers are required to cross the Fold for any reason, few expect that they will be the ones to survive.
And so, when Alina and Mal’s regiment is attacked during a crossing by volcra, the Fold’s resident shadow creatures, to protect herself and Mal, Alina ends up unleashing an inner power she didn’t realize she had — the power of light, to drive the shadows away. She is revealed as Grisha, and whisked away to the palace to undergo emergency Grisha training. Because, see, it turns out being a Sun Summoner is incredibly rare, and of her generation, she is it. Despite her novice status, her ability immediately elevates her in importance above all of the other Grisha except for their leader, the Darkling. As he can summon and create darkness, and she light, they are each others’ natural foils.
Shadow and Bone has some problem cliches that are typical of YA. Among them:
(1) Love triangle — apparently resolved by the end; however, I have read books before, and I don’t believe for a minute this is completely done.
(2) Alina is a pretty textbook YA heroine. This isn’t something I count against authors per se in the first book of what obviously is a longer series, but it’s impossible to deny that there is a type of heroine in the genre that emerges over and over again. She’s plain and unremarkable, but somehow attracts the attention of multiple handsome boys and, naturally, has a hidden power that’s the powerfullest of all. She’s idealistic and somewhat naive, but those qualities make her charming — not dreadfully irritating! — to all the cynics around her. This Baby Deer syndrome is balanced by a healthy measure of sass and a willingness to flout expectations placed on her by society and authority figures. But, yeah, all together, I’ve met this character before. Many times.
(3) Cliques and Mean Girls. Once Alina becomes Grisha, she quickly learns that theirs is a very class-based organization, with Grisha wearing different colors based on their type of magic, and that the skills are organized in a hierarchy of how important they are to the Darkling. Grisha are all very attractive, and it is strongly implied that the more they are in touch with or use their magic, the more beautiful they become. As such, when Alina arrives as an untrained novice, she’s noticeably more plain than the other Grisha and is treated badly by some — mostly female Grisha — because of it. Alina thinks herself above all of this cliquish-ness, choosing to associate mostly with a Grisha of the servant class. Ironically, though, she’s weirdly disdainful of two girls who are perfectly nice to her even before her looks and skills transform, assuming — possibly correctly — that they are just impressed by her unique ability. Nonetheless, they are friendly, inclusive, and helpful, but Alina can’t be assed to give them the time of day. Essentially, you get the picture of a young woman who is dismissive of other girls and women, instead choosing to focus her attention on the men she has crushes on. It’s not a great look, and Bardugo’s authorial voice doesn’t necessarily contradict Alina’s apathy toward her gender.
Evidently, though, I 4-starred this book. To put it simply, that’s because despite the above, I really enjoyed Shadow and Bone. I found the worldbuilding to be unique and engaging, and I just got rather swept away in the story and could sense its potential to explore some really dark and gripping themes over the course of the next two books. In other words, despite the book being guilty of relying too heavily on stock characters and tropes as a series opener, there was more than enough here to make me excited to finish the series.