Beware shippers, you guys.
Sigh. I ruined this review before it ever began, because right after I finished Ruin and Rising, I ran (internet-ran) to the reviews on Goodreads, excitedly, to hit the “like” button a bunch of times on said reviews, and instead, I was confronted with a bunch of one- and two-star reviews from people who were devastated that their favorite series would end this way. Some of them made valid points, that I nonetheless disagree with, but I understand their interpretations. But others?
Look — this may be a rant moreso than a review, and technically I’ll be 100% spoiling one aspect of the ending, but it’s actually only really a spoiler if you have never heard a story about war or war heroes or good/evil conflict. Ready? Here it is:
Alina does NOT end up, romantically, with the Darkling.
Yeah, the Darkling. Her adversary. Granted — he’s not 100% evil. In fact, the more we learn about him, the more we learn that a lot of his intentions, both at the beginning and even throughout the war that takes place in the series, were noble. But he unquestionably went about achieving them in a manipulative, dangerous, mass-murdery way that made his thirst for power and disregard for human life abundantly clear. So, while he’s a complex, interesting bad guy, he’s still a bad guy! And while Alina has some souls on her conscience, and is not without her own selfish impulses or power-hungry tendencies, she still was fighting against the Darkling’s blase annihilation of entire towns to ensure his successful dictatorship. The two are tethered by their unique powers, and they share a type of connection and respect borne out of each others’ understanding of their mutual isolation. But they are still enemies, and Alina is just straight-up too smart to fall, romantically, for a guy hundreds of years older than her, who has already demonstrated his willingness and ability to manipulate her into compliance. So I simply cannot fathom the reviews whose complaints — however obliquely stated — seem to boil down to “Alina and the Darkling were meant to be together and I am MAD that they are not.” Like, did you read the same book I did? Or, did you watch Marvel’s “Jessica Jones”? Two people aren’t meant to be together just because they have powers, ESPECIALLY if one uses their powers to manipulate and emotionally abuse the other. Do I personally love the guy she ended up with? No! But it made perfect sense, and if you read the books at all, it was not going to end any other way, except maybe for her being with no one, period.
This is such an issue with YA fantasy, and by extension much of the community who reads YA fantasy, because you have these epic stories of conflict, coming of age, and realizing one’s full potential, that are also inextricably linked with a romantic element. And so much of the time, the rest of the story takes a backseat to the romance, and if the readers don’t like the romance, well poof! The whole book goes up in flames. But it’s even a bit more complicated than that, because a lot of the time, either intentionally or by accident — because you’re writing about young people with geysers of heartfelt emotion — the individual arc of the main character becomes intertwined with his/her love interest, so it’s impossible to discuss their growth without considering the romance. There is a bit of that here, with discussion over Alina’s fate and how it services the romance. As I said earlier, I understand where those points are coming from, but I disagree that what happened is a unilaterally bad (and misogynistic!) thing. It’s impossible to be more specific without spoiling the ending, but for me, it just made complete sense, knowing Alina’s inner conflict and her relationship to her power and country.
In case it hasn’t been clear from the ranting and allusions to complex good v. evil decisions, Ruin and Rising really *goes there* with some heavy themes. Personally, I think it did a good job balancing a happy ending with the dark sense of desperation and harsh circumstances that led the characters there. It was a happy ending, to be sure, but it didn’t come without profound loss. I hate to belabor the point about the reviews I was reading, especially since overall this book was highly rated, but I am not sure what kind of ending some of the others would have preferred, particularly when it comes to the romance. Because any other pairing than this would not have been happy, based on Alina’s own stated feelings and experiences. So is the desire for the series to have ended up unhappily, thereby bucking the expectation for YA? I mean, fine. Bardugo could have done that. But why? What would have been satisfying, or profound, about bleakness ending in more bleakness? An unhappy ending just for the sake of an unhappy ending, just to make a point and “stand out,” is no better than a happy one for its own sake. An ending should mean something, and I rather think this one does. Again, no spoilers, but if there is anyone out there who wants to challenge me own this, I’ll happily oblige.
In total: is this a 5-star book? Well, I’ll concede that I didn’t spend as much time telling you why it is, as I did telling other people they are wrong, but in the pattern of giving the first two 4 stars when I really meant 4 and 4.5, I liked this one best of all, so 5 it is. Is it perfect? Probably not. But I loved it all the same.