Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
“I’ve been waiting for you a long time, Alina,” he said. “You and I are going to change the world.”
I can’t even begin to explain my love for this book. It was a wholly original storyline with fantastic, loveable characters and incredible world-building. This creative book had me on the edge of my seat for half of the book, while the other half I was left gob-smacked at the plot twists, turns, romance, surprises and the magical elements.
Shadow and Bone follows the story of Alina Starkov, an unremarkable, ordinary map-maker in the King’s First Army, who serves with her best friend Mal, a soldier. She lives in Ravka, a country home to an elite class of warriors, scientists and healers called the Grisha, who have special, innate abilities. But Ravka is not the powerful country it used to be and is frequently threatened by enemy neighbours. Centuries ago, a power hungry Grisha called the Black Heretic created the Shadow Fold, an impenetrable swath of darkness that extends from one side of Ravka to the other, leaving Ravka severely weakened. On her first journey through the Shadow Fold, Alina discovers that she too is a Grisha when she attempts to protect her friend from danger and it is discovered that she has the ability to summon light, a highly sought after power. She soon finds herself in a dangerous world filled with politics, murder, adventure, betrayal and in the middle of a menacing plot that could destroy Ravka for good.
(warning: spoilers below)
The novel begins quickly and essentially throws you into the deep end, head on. The reader is immediately introduced to several characters as well as the fantasy element of the book. Usually, I detest this kind of pacing in a novel, especially in a fantasy one. It is quite confusing to keep up with everything, as the writer needs to thoroughly explain a complex magical world, along with the history and culture of said world. However, this is not the case here. Bardugo cleverly explains her world of magic in a quick, precise manner that I wish I knew how to emulate. The magical elements were incredibly fascinating and I often found myself wanting to read more about this interesting world. There is no time for the reader to pause and catch their breath, and for once, I enjoyed that. It made me hungry for more.
The characters were wonderfully animated and developed. Alina was a great protagonist: she was a funny, charming, insecure, rude, angry little ball of fire who I related to on a personal level. I am so thankful that Bardugo constantly emphasised that Alina was not classically beautiful, like so many other YA protagonists are. This is something many YA writers need to be made aware of. Your protagonists do not always need to be beautiful. They can still be badass women who get the guy at the end with plain, or ugly, or average features. Alina really grows throughout the novel: at the beginning, she is terrified of this power within her and convinced she will fail. Slowly, her training improves and her power develops, as does her confidence. I would have to say Alina is one of my favourite YA heroines; she’s up there with Aelin Galaythinus, Feyre Archeron, Rose Hathaway and Clary Fray.
Alina and her best friend, Mal, had a strong relationship. They grew up together in the same orphanage and joined the army to be close to one another. Alina harbours a secret crush on Mal, and has for years, one he is blissfully unaware of. They spend a good chunk of the novel apart, which allows Mal to realise his feelings for Alina were no longer platonic.
“I missed you every hour. And you know what the worst part was? It caught me completely by surprise. I’d catch myself just walking around to find you, not for any reason, just out of habit, because I’d seen something that I wanted to tell you about or because I wanted to hear your voice. And then I’d realize that you weren’t there anymore, and every time, every single time, it was like having the wind knocked out of me.”
My favourite character was, not surprisingly as I love a well-written bad guy, the Darkling. The Darkling is the only Grisha of his kind; he can summon darkness and is the most powerful of all the Grisha. The only person in all of Ravka who has power of him is the King. The Darkling even has his own army, dubbed the Second Army, full of highly trained Grisha. The Darkling is presented as the good guy at the beginning of the novel, and it is suggested he is Alina’s love interest. I know I thought there would be a love triangle between Alina, the Darkling and Mal, with Alina eventually choosing the Darkling. The Darkling continually references the fact that he and Alina are the only two of their kind. I thought this would go the way of every other YA book and was so happy when it didn’t. The Darkling, it’s revealed, was actually the Black Heretic and wants to use the power of the Shadow Fold to extend it rather than destroy it, as he stated he would with Alina’s sun power. I think my jaw actually dropped onto the floor when his true identity was revealed. Kudos to Bardugo on that one.
The plot was so original and exciting – I didn’t want to put the book down! Once Alina discovers her powers, she is taken to the Little Palace (the Darkling’s residence) to train and hone her powers in order to use them against the Shadow Fold and save Ravka. No pressure at all. After she discovers the Darkling’s true nature, she escapes with the help of the Darkling’s mother and decides to hunt for Morozova’s Stag, one of three magical creatures that will amplify Alina’s powers by killing them and fashioning them into cuffs and a collar. The Darkling had plans to control Alina through the amplifiers, so Alina plans to find them first.
What I loved most about this novel was the magical element. The Grisha do not have magic. It’s called the Small Science which they practise and are able to manipulate. The Grisha are divided into three orders: Corporalki, Etherealki and Materialki, and then further divided into specialised types. Their powers are extensions of the natural world, which is explained thoroughly in the novel. I really like that magic is not simply magic, it’s a science. Bardugo has developed a complex, interesting and original magic system here.
Bardugo is a great fantasy writer: concise and yet beautiful. I was able to easily visualise everything she described. I have never really been a fan of first person writing, but I think it worked for this type of book.
This was a fantastic first novel in a series. The world-building was rich, the characters wonderfully developed and the plot fascinating. I can’t wait to read the next!
Buy the book here.