Shadow and Bone
by Leigh Bardugo
Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.
Hoo boy. I don’t believe in not saying you didn’t like a book if you didn’t like it, but even I sometimes get nervous about criticising a beloved book on the internet – especially when everyone’s talking about said book because it’s being adapted for Netflix.
But here we are.
Now I’ve already told a bit of a fib there because I didn’t exactly dislike Shadow and Bone – I have read far worse books – but even going into it with lowered expectations, this is not the book I thought it would be.
As I’m sure a lot of you know I fell head over heels in love with Six of Crows last year and it’s now one of my favourite books of all time. Knowing that one of the characters from that book would be making an appearance in Bardugo’s forthcoming King of Scars, I knew I’d have to read her original Grisha trilogy even though it was never a series I was particularly interested in – and at least now I know my gut instincts about this book were right.
I’m not going to sit here and compare Shadow and Bone with Six of Crows because that’s not fair on so many levels. Six of Crows is a heist story while Shadow and Bone is very much a traditional ‘chosen one’ fantasy story, they just so happen to be set in the same world, and if nothing else this book reminded me just how much I love Six of Crows. I love that we can clearly see how much Bardugo is improving with each book because Six of Crows is a masterpiece, so I’m not going to hold it against her that her earlier novel isn’t as accomplished because that’s how being an author works. Usually, authors get better at their craft with each story.
Shadow and Bone has a lot in it to be admired. It’s easy to see how this trilogy took inspiration from and went on to inspire other Russian-inspired fantasy novels, and I did like the setting and the concept of the Shadow Fold.
My main problem with this novel was the characters. I’ve seen Alina Starkov on so many ‘Favourite Heroine’ lists (and that’s nothing against the people who love her at all!) but I found her so… frustrating, and kind of boring. I wanted her to make more decisions for herself earlier in the novel, not only when her childhood friend Mal was in mortal danger. I felt like she spent the entire novel letting herself be pushed around by everyone, and while it could be argued that this was to show her develop when she finally stood up for herself I felt like I never actually knew her well enough to care when she did.
Considering the country of Ravka has been at war for years and has a big shadowy mess of literal monsters in the middle of it, I felt like I spent far too much time with Alina’s boy problems. The Darkling and Mal, and I’m sorry to say this because I know the Darkling is beloved, were kind of boring. In fact especially the Darkling, for me. I don’t think I saw enough of Mal to really have an opinion of him, but I saw plenty of the Darkling and considering he’s literally described as ‘ancient’ in this book I didn’t expect him to act like an angsty teenager.
I’m sure he has some kind of tragic past, and knowing the kind of stories I know Bardugo can write I’m sure I’ll learn more about him and start to like him more as a character (not as a person) as the series continues, but in this book he was just a bully, and I have no interest in romanticising bullies. In fact he was the worst kind of bully by lying and making himself appear to be a friend first; even all the Grisha he was nice to he was essentially using for his own gain, which I would be fine with if he was doing it honestly, but trying to seduce Alina while she thought he was someone he wasn’t? Again I know he’s beloved, but I just thought he was a bit of a creep.
And I suppose that’s the point. At least I hope so. I can’t really be annoyed with the villain for being the villain, but he’s been so romanticised by fans that I was expecting him to be more sympathetic than he is.
As for Mal, I am so bored of the childhood friend who only wants the girl when he sees her with someone else. When he and Alina had scenes together I thought they were pretty sweet – I know, Grisha fans everywhere are aghast – but, like Alina, I didn’t know enough about him or the Darkling or anyone to actually care. Alina and Mal at least had a history between them, but the ‘romance’ between Alina and the Darkling came completely out of the blue for me – or at least it started a lot faster than I was expecting.
This book was published in 2012 and, reading it now, I could really tell. This is very post-Twilight YA with the love triangle featuring a girl with no gumption, a broody bellend and a childhood friend bellend. This is a better book than Twilight and, even though it might not seem it, there was stuff in this book that I did like a lot. My problem was I wanted to know more about the politics and the war and less about how Alina was wearing her hair.
I am going to continue with this series because I want to read all of it before King of Scars, and as King of Scars stars Nikolai, who’s another fan favourite, I have a feeling I’ll enjoy the second book, Siege and Storm, a lot more now that the real plot has got started. The majority of Shadow and Bone was essentially a set-up for a wider story, but I can’t help feeling it could have been a few chapters at the beginning of another book rather than a whole book by itself.
I do understand why this book is so well-loved and this is very much just my opinion! I think I was ruined for this trilogy reading Six of Crows first, but I’m glad I read the books this way around because I might not have enjoyed this trilogy enough to be inclined to pick Six of Crows up if I’d read Shadow and Bone first.
If nothing else, Shadow and Bone was fun and fast-paced and, even though I didn’t love it, I’m hoping I’ll enjoy the rest of the trilogy and I think a Netflix adaptation will be really fun to watch!