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.
This book has gotten quite the love and five star reviews from people whose opinions I trust, so I went into it with some high expectations. With those high expectations, however, was that little voice at the back of my head that kept wondering if I was setting myself up for a fall. In fact, I kept putting this book off because I didn’t want to be disappointed in it. But after spending the last few days struggling through two other books, I finally decided to take the plunge, so around midnight last night, I took out my Kindle and started Shadow and Bone. And a little before 3am, was still reading, having not stopped for even an instant. I was completely and utterly engrossed in this tale, enchanted by the world and the magic, and thoroughly invested in the lives of the three main characters. I finally put it down because I knew I had to go to sleep, but then got up this morning and dove right back in. My one thought upon finishing was a resounding, “WHY did I wait so long to read this?!” Sorry, Goodreads friends, I shall never doubt you again!
First of all, let me talk about the characters. There are three main ones: Alina, Mal, and the Darkling. Alina is the main narrator – the book is told from her first person point of view – and admittedly I had some issues with her at the start. She doesn’t have very much in the way of self confidence, and basically lives her life in accordance with Mal, her best friend. This is not through any fault of Mal’s however: it’s purely Alina, and her unwillingness to leave him, to find her own place, and to do things to make herself happy. This was disconcerting for me, because I can’t imagine ever depending on someone so much that I would make my life decisions based on someone else’s. Then there’s also the whole part where Mal doesn’t realize that that’s exactly what Alina’s doing. They’re friends, but his world doesn’t revolve around her in the way that hers does him, and we have to deal with some internal conversation about how she’s in love with him but he doesn’t know, and she’s jealous that he pays attention to attractive women, and just, seriously, enough. But all of that changes when Alina’s power reveals itself in a truly frightening run-in with the volcra, terrifying beasts who eat the flesh of men, and she’s swept away by the Darkling into the world of the Grisha.
The Grisha are sort of like magicians, but each of them is good at one specific type of magic. Alina is the first of her kind in probably forever, so she’s instantly taken under the Darkling’s wings and set apart from the others. But Alina struggles with that whole self-confidence thing, and can’t believe that she actually belongs with the rest of the Grisha, mostly because she can’t call upon her power like everyone else, but also because she’s not as pretty as the rest of them. Yes, seriously, this is her actual thought process. Nevermind that she called out light in complete darkness, and that her power comes forth when she’s in the Darkling’s presence, oh no!, she’s not pretty so she can’t possibly be Grisha. And she spends much of her time at first pining away for Mal, writing him dozens of letters that go unanswered, and it did get tedious. But there was just something about the world, about the way the book was written, that made me continue to read compulsively. And I was rewarded, FINALLY, when Alina stood up and took charge of her power and became someone who did was SHE wanted and not what someone else wanted. From then on, Alina and I got along quite well.
Now let me talk about the Darkling, because I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some of this review discussing him. I was really unsure what to think of him – he’s described as being gorgeous and over-the-top powerful, but then he has these moments with Alina where I was just as swept up as she was, and wanted so much to believe him. He keeps saying all these things – “I’ve been waiting for you forever,” or “you and I will change the world” – and I wanted to believe that he was being truthful, that he really could feel something for her, mostly because SHE so desperately wanted it. And also? I wanted her to forget about Mal, because even at this point he was still in her thoughts. Of course, nothing about anything in the Grisha world was actually how it appeared to be, and things came to a head and a whole bunch of drama happened that I won’t get into because of spoilers. But I’m still torn about what I think about him – he’s dangerous, ambitious, but I’m still completely intrigued by him, and I am fairly certain (or hoping, whichever) we’ll be seeing much more of him in the future installments.
This book is set in a sort of pseudo-Russia, and the descriptions of the food and the places and the people was written in a way that was almost tangible. I think the author’s grasp of description and world-building is probably the biggest strength of this book; I felt like I was there, right beside Alina as she tried to catch up to the other Grisha her age, attending class to control her power, reading about the Grisha history, and getting the tar beat out of her in her self-defense class. There is also court intrigue, and some very steamily-written kissing scenes, and the amazing descriptions of what the Grisha can do with their abilities. I’ve seen complaints that it wasn’t Russian enough (even some reviews pointing out some downright errors, but the only one that bothered me was Alina’s last name, because it should have had an ‘a’ on the end of it), but I don’t think it was really supposed to be Russia – just similar to it – so that didn’t bother me quite as much. Still, if you’re big into Russian history, be forewarned about that!
All in all, I found Shadow and Bone to be a completely compulsive read, full of absolutely enchanting magic and realistic characters. It’s not perfect – again, I had some issues with Alina at the start – but it is very, very good. There’s the struggle for power, the struggle for love and acceptance, and the desire to just fit in and belong somewhere. Alina is a very real girl with very real problems, who’s trying to figure out where she belongs and what she should do. Because this is the first in a trilogy, it does set up the next book – there’s no solid wrap-up of the story, more like a pause in her journey. But if you’re looking for a truly magical book with wonderful world-building and engaging and complex characters, definitely give this one a read. Shadow and Bone will be released in North America on June 5th, 2012. I definitely recommend it.
An e-galley was provided by the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.