a book review by Pao (Carol) Lee
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Only she is strong enough to overcome the dark forces at work. But will she embrace her power and rise up to save the kingdom? Or will she falter and prove her weakness, allowing evil to reign forevermore? Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone explores this central conflict in the character of Alina Starkov, our quick-witted and blunt narrator. But first, it must build the kingdom of Ravka and the intricacies of an impending war.
The novel opens in an orphanage, far removed from any political conflict. There, Alina becomes attached to Mal, another orphan boy who offers her the comfort and happiness of a true friendship. Years later, both are drafted into the army. Now handsome and charismatic, Mal attracts a flurry of friends and female admirers. Alina, however, remains on the sidelines and knows that the boy she loves is growing increasingly distant. In Ravka, people born with magical capabilities, called the Grisha, serve in a separate army commanded by the mysterious Darkling. They wear very specific coats called keftas and vary in their powers. This army provides magical protection to the kingdom and to those crossing the Shadow Fold, a rift of pure darkness with monsters ready to feed on the people passing through. When the army (with Alina and Mal in tow) attempts to cross the Fold, monsters attack as soon as they enter. On the brink of total annihilation, Alina saves them all with a magical power she never knew she possessed. As she struggles to reconcile her new Grisha status with that of her commoner roots, she must also entertain the beauty of her power, explore the meaning of her relationship with the seductive Darkling, and come to understand the subsurface conflict threatening the kingdom.
When a magic school, a lavish court, and a land on the verge of war are thrown together, we as readers yawn in unison. We recognize these plot patterns. Just because an author uses the pieces of an epic puzzle doesn’t mean the novel will rival the success of Harry Potter. Young adult fantasy plot tropes allow authors to create fantastical new worlds and intricate storylines and characters – only if done right. Shadow and Bone follows this familiar trajectory, but Bardugo’s vivid prose breathes life into the world of Ravka to transform a common story into one that shines and resonates with the reader, instead of falling flat. Bardugo’s strengths lie in particularly in her descriptions of food and clothing: “she… pulled out yards of rippling black silk. The sleeves and neckline were delicately embroidered in gold and glittered with tiny jet beads.” The language is both simple and detailed enough to appeal to the reader’s imagination. Bardugo often employs lists to describe various settings, creating a very specific world down to the last silk kefta. As a YA fantasy novel aimed to absorb readers into the world of Ravka, Shadow and Bone has indeed met my expectations in this regard. From the levels within the Grisha to their corresponding clothing colors, the novel’s world-building creates a structure and vividness that leaves readers contemplative long after the last page is turned. I found myself wondering, “If I were a Grisha, what power would I want to possess?” and materialistically enough, “Which kefta color would look the best on me?”
The characterization, however, strikes me as odd; of all the characters, the Darkling exudes the most intrigue and mystery: he’s seductive yet distant, powerful yet gentle (to Alina, at least). This does not bode well for Mal, who does not rise to the same complexity or appeal as the Darkling. Mal also falls into the “childhood friend turned love interest” plot trope. Usually, this might succeed if enough pull and passion tie the two characters together; readers root for the success of the “childhood romance”. For Alina and Mal, however, I did not find their relationship as passionate or interesting even after they develop more of a connection. For the central romance, Bardugo could have invested more characterization and made Mal more likeable to readers. As for Alina, she’s smart and different enough but easily falls into the familiarity of other female characters we’ve seen before in fantasy. She often plays the role of damsel in distress; men have to intervene to pull her out of tight situations several times in the novel. These instances may build the relationship between Alina and Mal or Alina and the Darkling, but I can’t help but think that Alina’s attractions are based on gratitude. Is a woman’s gratitude toward powerful men wrong or bad? No, but I personally don’t prefer relationships formed by such instances. Her humor and wit save her – Bardugo’s quick phrasings make Alina’s responses quite hilarious.
For a young adult novel, Shadow and Bone surprisingly does not skimp on the sex. The very palpable sexual tension between the characters also adds to the uniqueness of the novel; most YA stories skim past the sex and adult themes, but this one addresses it head-on. Alina is faced with temptation and she almost succumbs, but the novel gently pulls us back with the formation of her more innocent love. Those looking for perfection will probably nit and pick at the details of Ravka, but those eager to explore a new world should pick this up. The familiar genre conventions lie at the backbone of the story, but Bardugo arranges them in an innovative, gripping way. Shadow and Bone may not excel in its character development and is not necessarily complex, but is certainly satisfying. The parallel of the “Before” to the “After” section is creative, with efforts to segway into the second book. I look forward to the next in the series, awaiting more in the world of Ravka and in Alina’s relationship to her power. Of course, there’s always Mal… and the appeal of Darkling.