Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: YA, fantasy, paranormal
Publication Date: June 2012
Synopsis: 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 unlikely 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.
☆: 5/5 – a wonderful new addition to the YA high fantasy canon!
Review: Guys, guys, GUYS. How much did I love this book? I had some high expectations going in, and I was surprised to find each one of them fulfilled. Bardugo has a new hit on her hands with “Shadow & Bone” and I…can I just have that next book now? Please? This can’t be a standalone. It just can’t. ALL THE AWARDS FOR THIS BOOK!
Set in an alternate world (or an alternate Russia, maybe?), we have magic users and soldiers both being used by the government to further a war against its neighbors. Even from the first page, this world felt complete. Bardugo is very thorough in her worldbuilding, and makes the world itself as much as a character as Alina, Mal, the Darkling, and the rest. The fantastic felt very credible, and the idea of an Unsea was absolutely delectable. She starts us in Alina’s memory of the past, then in media res in terms of her current situation in the military. What was fabulous about this world is that even though there are limits to how far you can rise in power in terms of gender, it seemed pretty equal-opportunity in terms of who does what and in what position in terms of society and its structures. I loved that there was a militaristic court – right alongside the one we know from our own recent past the world over. The Grisha, while magic users, are also a huge part of the military, and are treated as such. The Darkling leads them, and weaves himself back into the world (especially the Unsea) that Bardugo created. Everyone tied back in so neatly, and that’s so incredibly hard to do, so snaps to Bardugo for getting her worldbuilding right on her first try.
Second, it’s made clear that this is Alina’s journey from the beginning. Not that of the Grisha people, not that of the Darkling (though he does tie into a pretty nice chunk of it), not that of the pseudo-Russia that everyone lives in. This is Alina’s journey, finding out that she is indeed a Grisha, and not just your usual one. As with any rule in high/epic fantasy that has magic/wizards in it, there’s usually a “chosen one” trope, and Alina’s it. She’s the chosen one for this trope. But you know what? Since so many people have done right by that trope in the past (and because Bardugo nailed it in her debut), I can forgive its use. But she’s not treated special for the whole book – only at first, but then she’s sent into Grisha bootcamp to catch up with everyone else her age, even though she does have the rarest power of all – one to balance out the Darkling. Life as a late-bloomer Grisha is not easy, and I love Bardugo for really torturing Alina and putting her through it all, because the payoff with the last third of the book is huge (and awesome).
Third, there is romance, but there’s the question of real attraction versus that of compulsion – or rather, that of being compelled forcibly by another into attraction. The Darkling is alluring, and then there’s Mal, the childhood friend – but this is not a love triangle. At first, I thought it was – it looked like it was going to be, and I was getting pissed. But the way Bardugo turned it on its head and asks the question between the lines of real attraction versus forced compulsion was very interesting. Even when Alina may not entirely be in control in terms of who she wants more, Bardugo makes her emphasis that this is all about Alina in the end, and her choices, and ultimately, not about the love interests themselves at all. It becomes a matter of going after power for one’s future, or for desiring a “normal” life instead. The love interests are used to mark the fork in Alina’s road in terms of her character arc, and who will she choose? The Darkling, who is power? Or Mal, who is normal? She twisted this all very intricately, and I did have to think about it for a bit afterward before I finally got all of the quieter connections she made with these romances.
Finally, her use of sensory language is some of the most powerful stuff I’ve read out of all of the debuts this year – and her competition in that has been huge in the amount of talented debut authors this year. I could taste the food, feel the fabric of the clothes, feel the words on my tongue, feel the chill of the air and the bruises from training, the terror of the Unsea and the thrill of lighting it up. She makes you feel things and it’s absolutely incredible. You can actually feel the magic. This is an experience you just can’t miss for that alone.
Final verdict? You simply cannot miss this debut. Really. It’s on my best of 2012 list so far, and hopefully it’ll make your list, too. “Shadow & Bone” is out June 5, 2012 in North America through Henry Holt BYFR/Macmillan, other places check with your local vendors. This is one you’re going to want to own, and it’s definitely going to be money well-spent.