Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Shadow and Bone book cover
Rating 8.0/10
A rich fantasy world with an interesting cast of supporting characters.

“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.”

The first of a new young adult fantasy series, Shadow and Bone is a coming of age story where an orphan, Alina, finds out that she is a unique magic caster - a Sun Summoner, and her life changes completely. From being a mediocre cartographer in a vast army she suddenly becomes the hope of the entire nation - a chance to overcome the Shadow Fold, which for generations has cut Ravka off from the rest of the world and is seething with blind, winged horrors.

Alina has to leave behind her best friend, Mal, and is taken to the glittering Ravka court where the Grisha, powerful spell casters, learn their craft. As well as having to adjust to her new life, she also has to come to terms with the loss of Mal and her emerging feelings for The Darkling – a very powerful mage who can manipulate darkness and who sees her as the key to defeating the Fold. She has everything she could want, but in her new world of power and politics, her magic turns out to be a greater burden than she could imagine.

This is very clearly a young adult book aimed at teenage girls – Alina’s feelings for her best friend Mal and her new teacher, The Darkling, as well as the emotional upheaval of moving to the court and having to try and get on in a world of bitchy women and power plays is a major focus of the book. However, Leigh Bardugo skilfully sets this against the wider issue of the Shadow Fold and the kingdom’s politics, and makes Alina a strong and interesting main character. The story is never that complicated, making it clearly tailored at a young teenage audience, and possibly a greater level of complexity with regards to the political situation and the assassination attempts made on her life would have benefited it, but overall this is a great start to the series.

There is a general Russian overtone to the kingdom of Ravka, brought through mainly in people’s names, clothing and the names of the magical orders (Fabrikators, Corporalki Healers) for example, and this does seem to have polarised reviewers’ opinions to a certain extent. Personally, the ‘Russian’ theme was a general tone that never overpowered in any way, and if some words or phrases used seemed a little forced, it’s a common issue with fantasy authors who like to add in their own made up words and use unpronounceable names. However, it seems to be an issue with some other people who have considered the use of occasional Russian words as sloppy, inaccurate, or sometimes complete nonsense.

I think you could take this in one of two ways. Bardugo herself on her website highlights the research that she did, with a video of Russian images and something called Tsarpunk that inspired her, and here she says that she chose particular words for a reason and so on. You could feel that if she’s going to highlight this it should be done to a high standard. However, she also says that she never meant for the novel to be ‘authentically Russian’, and it’s more that she was inspired by it. In the end I just took it as it came without looking too much into it, thought it added a nice background feel and was never the main point of the story.

Told in the first person from Alina’s point of view, Shadow and Bone is a rich fantasy world with an interesting cast of supporting characters and it never wallows too deeply in teenage angst. I think it maintains a good balance between action and world building and look forward to reading the sequel.

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