“Unlike anything I’ve ever read.”
So says Veronica Roth, author of the “Divergent” series, on the front cover of Leigh Bardugo’s first novel, “Shadow and Bone.” It may seem ironic to slap this quote on the face of a book that fulfills nearly all young adult fantasy novel tropes, but the strange thing is, the tropes work. The book really is unlike anything else, and not just because it managed to escape the publishing trend of having a faceless (yet somehow pretty) girl on the front cover. Plucking the imaginative strings of readers’ minds, Bardugo crafts a world so enchanting that readers swear she has Grisha blood – elite, magical blood. And even if it’s not true, she certainly makes us want to believe in the possibility of it.
Bardugo tosses readers into the war-torn country of Ravka, in which a swath of literal darkness (the Shadow Fold) cuts across the land. After being evaluated as magic-less beings in childhood, war orphans Alina Starkov and her best friend, Mal, serve in the common army as cartographers. When their regiment is attacked by the Fold’s flesh-eating volcra, Alina discovers her rare, dormant power: the ability to summon light. The mysterious, powerful Darkling believes her to be the key to destroying the Fold, and awkward Alina quickly finds herself an object of curiosity among even the Grisha, the Darkling’s army of magical soldiers, healers and craftsworkers. Swept away within the walls of an overly opulent palace, Alina is exposed to power she has never dreamed of desiring. How she chooses to deal with that power – both within and outside her – will decide the fate of the kingdom.
Dramatic life-or-death premise, elemental mages, a brooding, handsome male figure of power, and a female protagonist who belittles herself and discovers she is actually exceedingly “special” – the conventions and archetypes are admittedly present. But they are the most attractive version of themselves, and Bardugo knows just how to deliver. Her richly imagined universe is enhanced by the conventions, made more intriguing with a Russian twist. She slowly introduces the classes of the magical Grisha in an effort to not lose readers in the ranks of the Etherealki and their elegant kefta robes. The shadow of their class politics creeps in as the plot trundles along. For as Alina and reader learn, beauty has power, and power has a price.
Bardugo leaves the face of that beauty up to the reader. She does not necessarily nail down concrete descriptions of all of her Russianesque terms, which is both a strength and weakness. The details of Ravka and its inhabitants, their clothes, and their powers offer a visual feast for readers, but the many invented words also leave it up to readers to fill in many of those details themselves. Ravka can only be as rich as the reader envisions. Thankfully, I get quite carried away in my visualizations, but the same may not ring true for readers unfamiliar or uncomfortable with secondary world fantasy. Those seeking defined borders may be frustrated with the ethereal quality and nature of Grisha magic, which is left largely unexplained.
Where the novel succeeds best on a universal level is in its underlying, very “human” message to young adults seeking belonging. Glimpses into Alina’s emotional and mental development deliver an unexpected heroine who is decidedly not average in both extremes. She is scrawny, sickly, and considerably less than average until she discovers her unique gift. And with that gift, she is thrown on the other side of normal once again. What is most fascinating about her character progression is that she continues to be the “mousy” Alina even after discovering her unexplained talent. Control over her powers does not suddenly blossom forth in fairy-tale-esque fashion. As the lovably gruff combat trainer in Alina’s camp shouts, “Botkin cannot build house from such little twigs!” Bardugo recognizes the importance of a establishing a foundation to build up Alina’s strength, layer by layer. She does not make it magically easy for Alina, and this push to earn ownership over her powers leads to a much more gratifying character development. In an iconic line from Botkin, Alina learns from real physical effort that even in a fantasy realm, nothing is handed out – rather, “Steel is earned.”
As much as I appreciated the emphasis on the process of earning one’s steel, however, I did find the plot pacing a bit slow at times. Alina’s incompetence lasted a few chapters too many without concurrent complications to drive the action, precisely when the reader could use additional details on her encounters with the Darkling. The Darkling is a tantalizingly ambiguous character, so I suppose a lack of him within the pages is necessary to maintain that aura of mystery. But more detail could be included about him aside from the sudden hush that falls when he speaks. His enigmatic character is clearly not human (he is, after all, 120 years old), but the gap in depth and motivation is a missed opportunity to stir more tension in what is clearly a page-turning novel. The same goes for Alina’s childhood friend, Mal, who is disappointingly absent throughout much of the story.
In fact, few characters receive as much development as Alina and her fellow outsider in the Grisha camp, Genya, an uncommonly beautiful servant “flesh tailor” who caters to the vain Ravkan queen. Some of the novel’s best sections occur during Alina’s and Genya’s mischievous moments together as they find companionship in a world where ambition drives people to keep to themselves. They bond over makeup, clothes, relationships and self-esteem – topics easily accessible to teenage girls. And between the scenes of glamour and magic, the theme of seeking belonging runs at the core of the novel:
One thing did stand out to me: the word the philosophers used to
describe people born without Grisha gifs, otkazat’sya, “the abandoned.”
It was another word for orphan.
The abandoned and orphaned of Alina’s world are the ones who are different, the ones who are seeking. Alina resonates most strongly with those characters who are at odds with the rest of the world, even as she desperately seeks to become what she believes is “normal.” Answering to the call of the lonely, Bardugo crafts a parallel world into which readers can easily project themselves. And Alina’s own realizations about her body, her power, and the politics of those assets help young readers understand that they must first be at peace before they can hope to achieve any balance outside of themselves.