English 177 | Mesle
Darkness, Power, and Magic in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone
What would you do if you suddenly found yourself in a new land, among new people all possessed of strange powers you could barely begin to fathom? For Alina Starkov, this is much more than merely a hypothetical situation. Though she’s been decidedly different from her peers all of her life, scrawny, weak, and rather unskilled in her assigned profession of mapmaking, she never suspected that her difference would extend to her very core. As she puts it, “A few hours ago, I’d been a frightened girl on my way into the unknown, but at least I’d known who and what I was” (59). Growing up in war-torn Ravka as an orphan on land set aside by the merciful and wealthy Duke Keramzov, Alina has never enjoyed many friends or much exposure to the world outside the tent where she is apprenticed to a mapmaker. The company and support of her best friend, Mal, are central to Alina’s ability to make it through her everyday life. Even once their paths diverge in the novel, Alina gleans strength and resilience remembering Mal’s words, “We’ll be okay, Alina. We always are” (117). The first-person narration through Alina’s perspective allows the reader to wonder right along with her about her own future, the future of her country, and her most intense and intimate relationships. This emotional immediacy lends the book the urgent and intense feeling synonymous to many with the teenage experience, presenting a parallel between Alina and the implied reader.
One day, without warning, everything in Alina’s world changes. Her and Mal, older now and enrolled in the King’s army, are sent to cross the Shadow Fold with a group of other soldiers. When an unexpected attack by horrifying creatures known as volcra threatens Mal’s life, Alina reaches deep within herself to protect him and discovers she is the long-awaited Sun Summoner, able to conjure the sun’s light for her own purposes and combat the “black, weightless, and absolute” darkness of the Fold (29). From this moment onwards, nothing can ever be the same for Alina and she is swept off into the care of the Grisha, the magical beings of Ravka. The Darkling, their ruler, takes her specially under his wing and sees that she is settled in her training and education under the Grisha paradigm. Bardugo develops the idea of magic in a new direction than most canonical fantasy as she grounds the Grisha’s abilities and training in natural phenomena such as conjuring fire, light, and darkness. By couching the various magical abilities in the novel in terms of nature, Bardugo brings the world of Ravka closer to the reader, increasing verisimilitude that this world could really exist. The natural character of these powers, furthermore, makes them more accessible and understandable for the reader who, presumably, lacks such powers.
Unfortunately for Alina, dark forces are at play in Ravka. Can Alina master her own powers in time to protect Ravka from destruction and ruin? Can she put her newly honed skills to good use? And, perhaps most importantly, will she allow her heart to stand in the way of her quest to preserve the lives of her fellow Ravkans? As the Darkling asks her, “are you so anxious to be like everyone else?” (111). Will she be blinded by the corruption and devastation that can stem from the possibility of gaining too much power?
Shadow and Bone is a breathtaking journey through a magical world, the gripping prose pulling the reader inexorably through the novel. An orphan with magical powers? Alright, maybe this is not completely new to a modern reader, but Leigh Bardugo’s story approaches many fantasy tropes in new and interesting ways that leave you laughing and loving right along with the characters and rooting for them against all odds. The simple yet evocative prose allows the text to flow with ease and keeps the breathless reader careening along with every adventure and development.
Alina and Mal, the two young protagonists of the novel, may have heightened capabilities beyond the average 18 year-old (though Mal does not have Alina’s power, he is the best tracker in the land), yet they nonetheless come off as thoroughly relatable and realistic. These two are obviously and heartwrenchingly human, despite their position in the fantasy world of Ravka. For example, even in crafting plans for future exploits and expeditions, Mal remarks that “It’s always just you and me, Alina” (25). His sentimentality and their close friendship make them more human to the reader.
The novel catapults the reader into a parallel universe where humans can control many of the elements of nature, bringing into question the limits of human agency and the implications of modern science (indeed, Ravkans refer to the Grisha’s magic as “the Small Science”). Shadow and Bone is a story of Alina discovering the ability to enact her own will and assert her individuality, sometimes with the help of others and sometimes against their best efforts to stop her. Highly recommended for any readers who seek their own adventure and want to see the way a girl (who could be any of us) discovers within herself the greatest power known to the inhabitants of her country. Ultimately, the novel is thoroughly successful as a story of developing a strong sense of self, as a demonstration of the danger of power, and as a playful and imaginative romp through an attractive and interesting fantasy world. Though various aspects of the novel have a familiar ring for readers well versed in fantasy fiction, this particular story is engaging enough that it certainly stands on its own merit. Readers will find a combination of the familiar and the unknown in this beautiful tale of discovery, adventure, magic, loyalty, power, and friendship.