Title: Shadow and Bone (US) / The Gathering Dark (UK)
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (US)/Indigo (UK)
Publication date: June 2012
Hardcover: 368 pages/ 442 pages
Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha…and the secrets of her heart.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Grisha Trilogy
How did we get this book: ARCs from the Publisher
Why did we read this book: Because the story promises a Russian-inspired setting with magic, it had a fab blurb and a beautiful cover, plus really great reviews so far.
Hey look, here is Ana being a total party pooper again!
I was super excited about Shadow and Bone with its Russian-inspired setting, its brand of magic system and the promise of a lavish world. And in all fairness the first few chapters were quite good. I loved the close friendship between the main character Alina and her childhood friend Mal (and her unrequited love for him) as well as that first introduction to the nation of Ravka and its magic system controlled by the Grisha. The plot gets moving when Alina, Mal and their regiment are attacked and Alina displays an incredible amount of untapped power, saves the day, is made to join the ranks of the Grisha and starts her training at the Court.
Is it when the story moves to the Court and to Alina’s training as a Grisha that things went downhill for me and I ended being utterly bored by Shadow and Bone. It is not that it is a bad book, the writing is fairly competent, for example. But it was all just so familiar and I felt that everything was following super conventional fantasy tropes without really furthering/subverting/doing anything new or exciting with them. You have the poor orphan with low self-esteem, who turns out to be the most powerful person ever in the existence of the always. Her training is full of the expected highs and lows, difficult hurdles to overcome, complete with jealous rivals and a Yoda-type master that even sounds like Yoda (“Tomorrow, little comes early, trains with Botkin”). There is even a very powerful object that will increase her powers. It is just so…samey? Conventional? Not that there is anything wrong with following tropes but I thought this particular story to be uninspiring.
To make things worse, when I am this unenthused by a story, my mind tends to wander and I nitpick…and some of the things that popped into my head were:
Doesn’t the “Darkling” have a name? He kept being addressed and called “Darkling” throughout the book and every time I had this urge to giggle.
What in the world was this character’s obsession with beauty? If I had to read about one more beautiful, perfect Grisha and how Alina couldn’t possibly be a true Grisha because she was not pretty, I would have done something drastic. I thought things were really muddied in this arena, quite frankly: it is as though Alina aligns beauty with power and to my mind this is only reinforced by the fact that the more powerful she became, the more beautifully perfect she looked. It does not help that the vast majority of characters seemed very similar with their beautiful, perfect white skins. I was not comfortable with the extreme emphasis on beauty and perfection allocated to the characters.
The most frustrating thing is the fact that Shadow and Bone is not entirely without its great moments. As I said, the beginning showed a lot of promise, I actually thought the romance was quite sweet and there were kick-ass fighting moments that were cool but ultimately I was left underwhelmed by the whole thing.
I don’t really have a lot more to say about this one, I am afraid. It completely failed to leave a lasting impression, two days after finishing it and I can barely remember the details of the story.
Conversely, I actually quite enjoyed Shadow and Bone – even though I will agree with Ana on all counts. This is a very familiar story that employs very familiar tropes, including an orphan that is Powerful and Unique Beyond Compare, who Rises Above and Saves the World (well…sort of, as more danger is to come in the next two books). Alina’s tale is a variation on a story that has been told many times before in the fantasy canon – and yet for all of that, I found myself liking this heroine (for all of her insecurities), the romance, the world, and the central conflict of the book.
Alina Starkova (assuming it should be Starkova and not Starkov? I had an ARC so maybe this was changed?) is perhaps not your typical heroine, and certainly not the heroine that I usually prefer. For one thing, she’s insecure as all-get-out – because she has been sickly her whole life, scrawny, and plain, she is incredibly sensitive to the appearance of others, especially the beauty of others. This insecurity plays a large part of her narrative and her thought processes, so with this in mind, it makes sense that she is so ridiculously aware of the beauty of others. I am not a huge fan of novels where EVERYONE is beautiful and people wear beautiful clothes, and much time is spent on said beautiful people getting dressed in said beautiful clothes. And to be fair, there is some of that here in Smoke and Bone when Alina gets to the Little Palace and is ingratiated in Grisha life. But again, I feel like this all stems from her own very deep-seeded insecurities and issues.
I also love the unrequited love that Alina feels for her best friend and fellow orphan, Mal – who has grown up to become a charming, handsome, successful tracker that remains Alina’s best friend (but who will never see her as anything other than a friend, or so Alina fears). Theirs is a deep bond, and I love that we see them both as children and adults, and how they change as their circumstances change, but ultimately that bond remains. On the other character front, I love the character of the Darkling (silly name aside – though to Ana’s point about him not having a name, I think this is because he is so ancient and has gone through many names). Is he conflicted or truly evil? Does his plan have any merit, or is he a cartoonish villain bent on everyone serving his will? I think there’s more to the Darkling than we know, and I’m very excited to see what happens in the next two books.
Beyond the characters, from a pure story perspective, I found myself easily entertained and immersed in Shadow and Bone. The idea of these different magical people – Grisha – and the divisions they cause in court, and how they are treated across different neighboring countries is well done (if familiar). The world-building is sort of pseudo-historical in nature, with very loose (and liberal) ties to an older version of Russia – though again, these ties are dubious in the extreme. As a pure fantasy novel, questionable historical elements aside, I enjoyed the magic, the characters, and the struggle. The conflict at the heart of the book focuses on Alina’s gifts and her ability to one day bring peace to a sundered land – to restore the bleak death of the Fold and bring harmony and light back to a blighted country. Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and many betrayals, schemes, and power-hungry people stand in the way.
While Shadow and Bone may not be groundbreaking, it is a solidly entertaining book and I am excited to carry on with the series. Bring on book 2!
Thea: 7 – Very Good
Ana: 5 – Meh
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Standing on the edge of a crowded road, I looked down onto the rolling fields and abandoned farms of the Tula Valley and got my first glimpse of the Shadow Fold. My regiment was two weeks’ march from the military encampment at Poliznaya and the autumn sun was warm overhead, but I shivered in my coat as I eyed the haze that lay like a dirty smudge on the horizon.
A heavy shoulder slammed into me from behind. I stumbled and nearly pitched face-first into the muddy road.
“Hey!” shouted the soldier. “Watch yourself!”
“Why don’t you watch your fat feet?” I snapped, and took some satisfaction from the surprise that came over his broad face. People, particularly big men carrying big rifles, don’t expect lip from a scrawny thing like me. They always look a bit dazed when they get it.
The soldier got over the novelty quickly and gave me a dirty look as he adjusted the pack on his back, then disappeared into the caravan of horses, men, carts, and wagons streaming over the crest of the hill and into the valley below.
I quickened my steps, trying to peer over the crowd. I’d lost sight of the yellow flag of the surveyors’ cart hours ago, and I knew I was far behind.
As I walked, I took in the green and gold smells of the autumn wood, the soft breeze at my back. We were on the Vy, the wide road that had once led all the way from Os Alta to the wealthy port cities on Ravka’s western coast. But that was before the Shadow Fold.
Somewhere in the crowd, someone was singing. Singing? What idiot is singing on his way into the Fold? I glanced again at that smudge on the horizon and had to suppress a shudder. I’d seen the Shadow Fold on many maps, a black slash that had severed Ravka from its only coastline and left it landlocked. Sometimes it was shown as a stain, sometimes as a bleak and shapeless cloud. And then there were the maps that just showed the Shadow Fold as a long, narrow lake and labeled it by its other name, “the Unsea,” a name intended to put soldiers and merchants at their ease and encourage crossings.
I snorted. That might fool some fat merchant, but it was little comfort to me.
I tore my attention from the sinister haze hovering in the distance and looked down onto the ruined farms of the Tula. The valley had once been home to some of Ravka’s richest estates. One day it was a place where farmers tended crops and sheep grazed in green fields. The next, a dark slash had appeared on the landscape, a swath of nearly impenetrable darkness that grew with every passing year and crawled with horrors. Where the farmers had gone, their herds, their crops, their homes and families, no one knew.
Stop it, I told myself firmly. You’re only making things worse. People have been crossing the Fold for years . . . usually with massive casualties, but all the same. I took a deep breath to steady myself.
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