“I’ve been waiting for you a long time, Alina…you and I are going to change the world.”
Too much time has passed since I came across a novel so engulfing that its influence framed my thoughts even after putting the book down. A story of children fighting to their death and the incredibly brave and strong Katniss Everdeen was the last to hold such a permanent place in my mind, but in Shadow and Bone, the story of a seemingly lame and uninteresting girl entirely captured my attention.
Leigh Bardugo tells the story of an orphaned girl and her coming to realize that finding her self worth is not only important to her person, but also finding that it is crucial to the safety of her world. A common genre convention, maybe, Bardugo advances her novel to be anything but typical or ordinary. All possible cheesiness of a young adult novel are absent from the story, as the main character, Alina, develops and fluxes in this trilogy’s first book.
Since her youngest years, Alina never felt that she belonged, other than the times she spent with her best friend and fellow orphan, Mal. A scrawny and awkward girl, Alina did not feel adequate, but what she didn’t know was this self-image could not have been more skewed. For years, Alina saw herself existing as a shadow of a person; someone who was easily forgotten and unnoticed. It wasn’t until she was in complete darkness in the terrifying “unsea”, that she found her light, and that the Darkling found her. She is discovered to have a power so strong, that the most powerful man in Ravka believes her to be able to help him with something that he has not been able to do—destroy the shadow-fold, or the “unsea”. It is a “sinister haze” full of horrifying and deathly creatures, that “had severed Ravka from its only coastline and left it landlocked”. And the Darkling thinks that an orphan girl has a power stronger than his that is capable of destroying that? Woah.
What separates this book from other YA novels, in my opinion, is Bardugo’s expertise in character development, and her ability to convey how truly imperfect and human each character is. This is clearly shown in Alina’s “ordinary-ness”, but also so greatly seen in both Mal and the Darkling; the friend and the supposed foe in the novel. A girl who is described to look “like a glass of milk that’s turned”, Alina does not come across as anything special. When the Darkling tells her that she and he are going to change the world, all she replies with is, “I’m not the world-changing type.” These feelings are relatable to young girls trying to figure themselves out, and to those who have not yet realized their own potential. Bardugo writes Alina to be something reminiscent of a blank canvas, but slowly paints the portrait of her persona as the novel unfolds and as Alina simultaneously becomes a stronger version of herself.
“You know I’d be lost without you.”
Mal, Alina’s friend and soul sharer since childhood, is also an orphan, but he is admired and looked upon by both fellow peers and Grisha (the highest class) combined. Girls swoon over him and boys want to be friends with him, but it is his loyalty to Alina that is relatable to the audience, because everyone can understand what a really good friend looks like. We are able to understand Mal through Alina’s point of view as she is the narrator of the novel, so the reader comes to understand how she views him to be perfect, but we also have the knowledge that nobody is perfect, and that comes through. But that happens later in the novel, and I don’t want to give anything away!
“Only one Grisha wore black, was permitted to wear black…the Darklings were the most powerful of them all.”
The Darkling is perhaps the most interesting and complicated character in the novel. Having a name that is more so a title evokes the Darkling’s power and significance. His power is intimidating, yet there is a gentle side to him especially in relation to Alina. The Darkling is the single most important figure of power in “Ravka”, the fantastical portrayal of Russia, in which the novel takes place. He is described as “not natural”, and feels like a different breed than everyone else. Despite being feared by most of the people of Ravka, the Darkling shows a raw, human side to Alina, which made me question his role in the novel. He exposes that he is not flawless, when he admits, “of course I make mistakes…just not often.” Bardugo writes slight details and actions that bring the Darkling to a more “normal” level, which is relayed to the reader through Alina’s observance. She takes note that “he sat beside his soldiers on the cold ground, a man second in power only to the King.” I will not delve into the Darkling characterization further, because in my reading of the novel, attempting to figure out the Darkling was one of my most enjoyed experiences.
“…there’s nothing wrong with being a lizard…unless you were born to be a hawk.”
Shadow and Bone tells a story of finding self worth and identity and coming to terms with what destiny has in store for you. In the next two books of the trilogy, I believe power and to what lengths a person will go to gain power, will be more seriously developed than it was in this novel. I am excited to see how Bardugo will let that play out. In summation: this book rocked. The plot rocked. The characters rocked. Leigh Bardugo seriously rocks, and I can’t wait to see what comes of the rest of the trilogy.