I decided to read the Shadow and Bone series after watching the first season of the series on Netflix, and the general fantasy/magic world of the Grishaverse seemed like it would be my jam. If you’re looking to cut to the chase rather than reading my take on each book: if YA Fantasy is your thing, these books are worth reading! I tore through the whole series, and while it was certainly not perfect, it was very enjoyable and every book managed to be a page-turner for me.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Shadow and Bone definitely treads over some very recognizable ground for YA fantasy : seemingly non-descript, untalented orphan girl (Alina) pines for her handsome best friend (Mal), who sees her as a best friend/little sister. In a moment of crisis, Alina unlocks an unknown power and saves several lives, including Mal’s. As she learns more about her powers and those of other wielders of “the small sciences” AKA the Grishas, she finds herself pulled between her affection for Mal and her attraction to the powerful and mysterious leader of the Grishas, the Darkling. As she dives deeper and deeper into the secrets of the Grisha, she learns that unique ability to control light could be just as dangerous as it is miraculous.
As I mentioned, there are a lot of themes and tropes that you will find very recognizable if you have ever picked up a fantasy book. That said, overall the execution is good. While I found that the first book was a bit slow for my taste, it did a good job of setting up the characters for the rest of the series and effectively introduces readers to the magic system and world: Alina’s homeland of Ravka, which can be roughly equated culturally to Russia/Slavic countries, and it’s nearby enemies Fjerda (Finland/Scandinavia) and Shu Han (Mongolia/East Asian).
Since I came to this book from watching the Netflix series, I also wanted to make a few read vs. watch notes: (*light/not plot-specific spoilers for the series*)I thought that the series creators made an extremely smart decision by bringing the Six of Crows characters into the series right away – It brought a more mature vibe to the show than the first book had on its own. The first book was the only one in the series that I ever felt dragged, and having these additional characters helped eliminate those pacing issues for the streaming series. I haven’t read the Six of Crows books yet, but I’m excited to meet those characters on the page, now that I’ve grown fond of them on the screen! On another note, the Netflix series was also very smart to include a much more diverse cast than what is presented in the book. Making Alina and Mal have Shu parents gives the characters an additional layer of “otherness,” explaining the tightness of the bond further and providing an injection of much-needed Asian representation in the teen-television landscape.
Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
Siege and Storm picks up right where the previous book lets off. Mal and Alina are in exile and in hiding. Alina is suffering from hiding her powers, and also wracked with guilt and anxiety over the occurrences at the end of Shadow and Bone. She’s constantly looking over her shoulder, to the point that it’s almost a relief (for the reader, at least) when the past finally catches up to Alina and Mal.
The plot of Siege and Storm moves along much more quickly than Shadow and Bone. It continues to follow the YA Fantasy template that the first book began, in particular by showing Mal and Alina’s relationship deteriorate quickly while Mal’s character is reduced to mostly existing to complain and feel threatened by Alina’s developing powers and importance to Ravka’s future.
I honestly read this book so quickly that I wasn’t able to think too deeply about analyzing it. I think that Bardugo’s plotting was much improved in this book over the last, and she introduced some very fun supporting characters (including Nikolai, an alternative potential love interest for Alina who is SO MUCH MORE LIKABLE than Mal). Alina takes steps toward being more self-confident about her powers, her choices, and her place in the world – but is often undermined by her conflicting emotions for Mal, Nikolai, and the Darkling. Like the first book, Siege and Storm is not perfect, but it is a fast and entertaining read.
Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
Ruin is right – this book starts out with the characters in a bleak place. Alina is more or less imprisoned and cannot use her powers, the Darkling appears to be undefeatable, and many of the characters we’ve come to know are either dead, missing, or of questionable loyalty. However, there’s also the titular “rising” of the book, as Alina comes even more into her own and becomes a true leader for her band and finally takes on the Darkling for a final showdown.
Bardugo’s skill as an author is absolutely improving over the course of this series, which bodes well for future books. That said, Ruin and Rising shares some of the weaknesses of the previous books – Alina and Mal are often less compelling than the supporting characters, and it relies on many tried-and-true tropes of YA and Fantasy literature without providing much in the way of innovation to the form.
*SPOILERS* I was also not a fan of the ending. It really just made me feel exhausted when Alina’s powers were taken from her. Why can’t a woman still have power and authority in the world she’s just saved? I get it, there is an idyllic aspect to retiring from public life and living in the woods, and it’s presented as a happy (if bittersweet) ending for the story. However, Alina’s powers are depicted as being a core aspect of her personality, so when she loses them it makes it seem to me like she’s doomed to spend the rest of her life just…existing, rather than really living. She’s developed so much over the course of the trilogy, and losing her power literally sends her back to the orphanage she grew up in, with the boy she was in love with as a child. Seems like several steps backward to me! *END SPOILERS*
All of that said, I stayed up until 2AM on a work night to finish this book. Bardugo has a gift for keeping the stakes sky high, which keeps me reading! I enjoyed the world of the Grishaverse, and I can’t wait to see how Bardugo continues to grow as an author in future additions. I have a hold on Six of Crows at the library, and I suspect that once it’s available I’ll have another late night ahead of me.