Why I Read It: After reading “The Witch of Duva” on Tor.com (review: Live Journal || Word Press), I couldn’t resist impulse-buying a hardcover copy of Shadow and Bone on Amazon. When it arrived, it went to the top of my non-Hugo reading TBR pile, so I was glad to give it a whirl.
The premise: ganked from BN.com: 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.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. I want to talk about some specifics regarding the narrative arc. If you don’t want to be spoiled, just skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be good to go. Otherwise, onward!
Discussion: Let me say that despite eager and excited expectations, my start with the read was a little… underwhelming. It doesn’t take long for the heroine, whose name I cannot remember without looking up (Alina!), reveals her love to the reader for her childhood best friend Mal. Let me be honest: this in and of itself is not a bad thing. I like romances, especially ones that sing off the page. And Bardugo handles the chemistry between her characters rather realistically. What may not be obvious to the characters is immediately obvious to the reader. Take page 25:
Suddenly, he reached out and took hold of my hand. I tried to ignore the little jolt that went through me. “This time tomorrow, we’ll be sitting in the harbor at Os Kervo, looking out at the ocean and drinking kvas.”
I glanced at Dubrov weaving back and forth and smiled. “Is Dubrov buying?”
“Just you and me,” Mal said.
“It’s always just you and me, Alina.”
There’s your love story. Right there. The trouble I had, despite liking these two characters together (their easy friendship made it easy to see how they’d develop more romantic feelings), was that 1) oh, look, another YA with a love story! I’ve never seen that before! and 2) to me, it’s obvious that Mal is into Alina, but she doesn’t see it. Later in the book, we learn that it isn’t until Alina is taken away with the Darkling that Mal realized he was in love with her, which strikes me as false for this passage right here. You don’t say things like that to a girl when you’re interested in who your next tumble in the sack is (especially when said girl isn’t your conquest). I dunno. Maybe he’s oblivious to his own feelings. That’s possible, but it’s frustrating, because the love these two felt for each other was SO OBVIOUS through-out the book that watching them miscommunicate or misunderstand felt like a cheap plot to keep them apart by the author. Whether or not it was intended that way or not.
Then we add the triangle. Of course the Darkling becomes a love interest. I was actually really hoping it wouldn’t happen, because he’s so much ridiculously older than she is, and this is a YA novel. Oh, but I’m being stupid: hello, Twilight! Edward was decades older than Bella, wasn’t he? That didn’t squick teen girls out, so why should THIS older guy squick girls out? Anyway, I will give the author credit here: I started to turn around, thinking that maybe the Darkling was a genuine competitor for Alina’s affections, so when the truth was revealed, I was nicely shocked and sickened, which allowed me to empathize with the heroine. But I still had a few nitpicks:
1) It’s not a real love triangle. Not when the Darkling is revealed to be the villain of the piece. I kept hoping that maybe he was just misunderstood, that maybe he really was going to save the world like he’d promised or that he really did love her, just in his own twisted way. No dice, which makes him pretty despicable as a love interest, which negates any tension from a triangle. And then there’s this:
2) The Darkling is able to use his power to kindle pleasure in Alina, which ensures she physically desires him, even after he’s revealed his true colors. I’m getting a little tired of seeing this done: Maria V. Snyder’s done it most recently in Touch of Power, and I rather hate the squickiness of the whole device. Why must the heroine feel be forced to feel pleasure because the villain can’t take no for an answer? We’re not talking sex scenes, mind you. Just mind-blowing kisses. But still, it’s ick-inducing.
And the Darkling had so much potential. Again, I loved the twist, being able to see their previous scenes in a new light, but I really wish he’d been developed a tic more. I loved how he was attracted to her but resented the attraction, and now I’m wondering if that wasn’t their complementary magics drawing them together so much as some kind of “playing hard to get” game to ensure Alina’s desire. But I did appreciate her own realization about her attraction (page 225):
I didn’t think he was in love with me and I had no idea what I felt for him, but he wanted me, and maybe that was enough.
At least she’s not swooning with TRUE LOVE after their passionate embraces, you know? If I’m going to get the standard YA love triangle, at least I’m getting a heroine who’s a wee bit more self-aware (though she was oblivious to the fact that the Darkling was clearly intercepting her letters to Mal; it never comes out and states that, but if that’s not the case, the coincidence is too great).
Let’s move on to the heroine, Alina.
Sheesh, what a brat.
Don’t get me wrong: I do like that she grows during the course of the novel. She starts out needing to be saved and goes to saving herself and others. But she also starts out intentionally saying things to hurt people, and not really feeling all that bad for doing it. Once or twice, I don’t mind, but when she kept doing it, I wanted to smack her and tell her to think before speaking. I hated her constant fear of the Apparat, just because he looked (and acted too, I guess) a little creepy. I didn’t want him to be the enemy, simply because he’d be too obvious a villain. I want to know why that book of tales that he gave her was important. I also want to see more of him in the later books, because right now, it’s disappointing that he’s exactly what Alina thought him to be.
I was engaged by the Grisha power and the various hierarchies of it all, even if I didn’t fully understand it all. I liked how using one’s power makes one stronger, how it can add to the life and vitality of the Grisha. It’s telling that Alina is weak and sickly because she suppresses her power; that when she finally accepts it and uses it, her health improves immensely.
And I did wonder: Mal’s ability to track was almost supernatural, you know? I wonder if he, like her, suppressed his ability during testing so he could stick with her as she chose to stick with him? In the prologue, the one Grisha sneers it’s impossible that both orphans would have the ability, but I can’t help but wonder otherwise. I hope this is explored in later books.
But I was confused how any Grisha could be used as a slave. Certainly, some Grisha are more powerful than others, but it didn’t ring quite true to me in practice (except when there’s an amplifier, as demonstrated by the Darkling’s manipulation of Alina later in the book). But I think that’s part of the overall story: Grisha no longer want to bow to kings and queens: they want to be in control of their own destinies, and in order to do that, they need to be in charge. I’m still processing it all, but it’s an interesting topic to process. I was particular fond of Genya’s power. Call me shallow, but that’d be an awesome ability to have. It’d make getting ready in the morning so much easier!
The overall tone and feel of the story reminded me very much of Maria V. Snyder’s work. It was the modern feel language, the way the romances play out, as well as Bardugo’s plotting and her descriptive abilities. Sometimes, I rather forgot that I wasn’t reading a Snyder novel, which isn’t a bad thing, but it was a rather surreal feeling.
I did like how Alina’s map-making background came in useful. I also loved it when she and Mal hooked back up in the story in terms of plotting (not hooking up as in romance), when they’re still ignoring the fact the other is clearing into them (page 263):
“Mal,” I whispered into the night.
“Thanks for finding me.”
I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, but somewhere in the dark, I thought I heard him whisper, “Always.”
I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the setting, and how said setting and world-building is heavily based on Russia. I’ve seen the term cultural appropriation brandied about, and frankly, I am the wrong person to comment on it. I will say that the only reason I know this world is modeled after Russia is due to artwork and the other reviews mentioning it. What little I know of Russia doesn’t lend itself to me recognizing the country in these pages (it rather felt like a better-than-general fantasy land where it’s really cold and there’s lots of terms I don’t recognize and therefore, when said terms apply to food, drink, or clothing, I can’t visualize what I’m supposed to), so if anyone is looking to find an extensive discussion on cultural appropriation, I’m sorry I can’t deliver. I am glad to see authors seeking other cultures in which to base their fantasy worlds on, because that provides variety, and because it’s fantasy, I don’t imagine anyone would take what’s represented in these pages as fact (unlike SF, where one’s expected to imagine a futuristic country/culture in the real world). In fact, it may inspire them to seek out the author’s influences, which would, in turn, lead said readers to learn more about Russia, and education is a wonderful thing.
And that’s all I can say about that: people are always crying for more variety and diversity in the genre, and fantasy lends itself to writers getting to pick and choose what they want. Whether or not one agrees with those choices is really a personal thing. Relying too heavily on stereotypes would be a bad thing, but what I know of Russia and its culture didn’t come out in these pages as stereotypes. Perhaps there are other stereotypes I’m not aware of. But if you’re looking for some thoughtful commentary on the setting and cultural appropriation, I’d recommend reading Brittany Warman’s rather thoughtful review. She doesn’t see it either, but she’s got the background in folk lore, and is therefore more qualified than I am to comment. ***
***EDIT: Warman has actually done some extensive follow-ups on cultural appropriation, especially in regards to this book. To indulge yourself on her research (and to indulge, you’ll click a link, read, then be inspired to click a link on THAT site, etc), visit here first and here second. People have done a great job explaining why Bardugo is using Russian culture as a pretty, shiny, superficial gloss, and why that’s a disservice to the culture.
My Rating: 6 – Worth Reading, with Reservations
I’m actually sorry not to give this a higher rating. A lot of people love it, and I’m glad. I definitely think it’s worth the read, but I found Bardugo’s short story to be more powerful. Perhaps that short story set my expectations a bit too high though. The book, in many regards, gave me a lot of what I’d expect out of a YA novel: there’s a romantic subplot, complete with a triangle, and some of the plot developments are really, really easy to see ahead of time. But the twist of the story, or at least the specific details regarding the twist, were done well, and you can’t discount the unique setting. Bardugo’s Russian-esque fantasy culture is a welcome change from what we usually see, and the magic system was an interesting one. The ending, though, is rather abrupt and while I know the author is setting her readers up for at least two more books, I was left with questions that I felt should’ve been answered now, not later (even though it’s obvious that what I think should have happened NOW has been pushed back to be the climax of a later book, probably the end of the series/trilogy). Shadow and Bone was an enjoyable read, and I’m glad I gave it a whirl. I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be getting the sequels, though. All of that will depend on my mood at the time and the reviews for said sequels.
Cover Commentary: I like this cover a lot. The coloring, the font choice, the varnish, all wonderful. However, I just know that when this book goes to paperback, a new cover will be designed, most likely featuring the heroine in a pretty dress, and that the subsequent hardcovers will follow that new design. Go ahead, prove me wrong! I dare you!