Series: The Grisha #1
Published by Henry Holt & Co on June 5 2012
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.
Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?
The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.
But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?
And the hype machine strikes again. For a book that has received as much hype over the past two years as Shadow & Bone, I really expected something much more impressive. I’m not sure why I even bothered, as it appears that the blog hype machine is built to fail, at least for me. The only book I’ve read based on the hype surrounding it that I actually liked was Daughter of Smoke & Bone. This was no Daughter of Smoke & Bone, people.
Let’s start things off by quickly discussing the immensely irritating use of Russian culture in the worldbuilding of Shadow & Bone. It’s clear that Bardugo set out to write a fantasy novel set in a less expected locale – rather than writing about a pseudo-Europe, she chose to create an alternate universe Russia. This would have been great, if it had worked. The problem was that it was completely half-assed. The first clue that this book would piss me off was the disregard for Russian naming practices – namely the misuse of surnames throughout the book. It’s pretty common knowledge that in Russia, 'ov' surnames are masculine and 'ova' is the feminine variation. So it was rather frustrating to continually read about a main character called Alina Starkov, knowing that her name should in fact be Alina Starkova. There is also an instance in which a female character is given the male first name Ilya. And then there’s the fact that the book is chalk full of Russian stereotypes – bear rugs and squirrel hats and constant imbibing (on a drink called kvas, which is in fact a non-alcoholic beverage. Why not just call it something else??). I was also perturbed by the mixed use of real Russian words and made-up Russian-sounding words, not to mention the use of Russian words to mean completely different things. I have read some of Bardugo's defence of her decisions, in which she claims that these were conscious decisions that she made for the book, but I honestly don't think that excuses them. You can't just hide behind artistic license when it comes to things like this. There are few things that irritate me more than disrespecting other cultures, and this book does just that at every turn. I can’t imagine how I might react to it if it was my culture that was being butchered, but I can’t imagine I’d be impressed with Bardugo’s hack job.
The characters and plot were also quite lackluster. They were very reminiscent of things I’ve read a million times before – stock figures more than real individuals. This story is told in first person POV, yet I never really felt like I knew who Alina was at her core. She was constantly being manipulated and she completely lacked a backbone throughout the story. I’m getting pretty sick of the whole “chosen one” plotline, and Shadow & Bone is a good example of why. Alina discovers that she’s a Sun Summoner – the ONLY Sun Summoner – and then she does absolutely fuck all with her newfound powers. She doesn’t even try. She just sits around twiddling her thumbs and doing what people tell her to. What a waste. I was also really annoyed by the fact that the throughout the first half (or so) of the book, such a big deal is made of the fact that Alina isn't pretty - she's described as sickly looking, too thin and pale and sleep-deprived. Of course, as soon as she learns to accept & use her magic, she becomes beautiful. Because god forbid we have a main character who is anything but perfect.
I think that it would have made for a much stronger (or at least more memorable!) story if Alina had consciously decided to side with the Darkling. Not to be his slave, but to be his partner. I would have been interested in reading that book. It was impossible for me to connect with her, nor did I think that any of the other characters were any better. The only character I was somewhat interested in was Alina’s friend Genya, whose story I found quite fascinating, though we weren’t privy to many of the details of her life.
I was unimpressed with the Darkling both as a villain and as a love interest. He was neither scary nor sexy, not to mention the fact that the dude is 120 years old. Ew. I didn’t particularly like Mal either, though. He was very hot and cold – one minute he was furious with Alina, the next distant and cold, the next thing I know he’s professing his undying love for her and willing to die to save her. Double ew.
The plot was simply pedestrian. It was a traditional been-there-done-that light fantasy wrapped up in a bad Russian disguise. It lacked depth, and nothing shocking (or even really interesting) happened. It felt like it was just going through the motions of Typical Fantasy Novel – orphaned teenager, catching up at weird pseudo-boarding school, traveling by foot for a very long time and not getting enough to eat, big climactic moment, the end. Now, I don’t usually mind this – I’ve loved a lot of books that contain most of these elements – but there was just something forgettable about Shadow & Bone.
The one thing I enjoyed about Shadow & Bone was the writing. It was well paced and moved quickly and steadily (though that ending was just stupid). Bardugo’s use of words was simple but effective, and despite all of the frustrations I had with it, I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I’m even contemplating requesting the second book from the library, though I truly don’t know why.
It did have a very pretty map though. I like maps. It gets half a star for the map.