Alina Starkov is an orphan who has never been remarkable. She and her childhood friend, Mal, have survived in the war-torn lands of Ravka by sticking together from the moment they met at the home for orphans. When a power suddenly manifests from her during a moment of desperation, Alina is thrust into a world of intrigue and hidden agendas, where everyone wants to use her for their own gain. Alina has to navigate this world as she learns about her new power and finds within herself the strength to make her own decisions in a world where lies are as much of part of it as the truth.
I started reading this because I was actually interested in reading Six of Crows but wanted to read the published works in order. I’ve heard good things about Shadow and Bone, so picking it up wasn’t that difficult. Overall, I enjoyed the story. I really liked the concept of the Grisha and the Otkazat’sya–those with power and those without–and how their pieces fit into the puzzle of the politics of Ravka. The plot was the standard young adult downtrodden-but-suddenly-special-protagonist-with-powers fare: with a love triangle, shadowy threat of the other lands attacking, and mysterious figures who don’t reveal their plans until the climax of the story. I absolutely can see why it’s an extremely popular novel. Leigh Bardugo’s writing is easy to follow and entertaining to read.
However, I didn’t feel like it really stood out from other young adult novels when you strip down the book to its bare bones. The things I mentioned above are very much the tropes of the genre. It obviously works, because I keep reading and enjoying them. Shadow and Bone could have stood above the rest if it had gone deeper into the Russian part of the world. Having the occasional italicized word does not make a setting Russian. Ravka is fictional, but I didn’t feel that the setting moved beyond the generic forested fantasy setting that make up so many other books. Granted, I don’t know much about Russia either, but if I decide to set my novel in a country (even fictionalized), I’m going to do some research. Some extensive research. The amount of research where I have to step back and remind myself to actually work on the novel. I didn’t get that feeling from Shadow and Bone. The “Russian inspired setting” was just a shiny bauble that was meant to get readers to check it out, only to find that the bauble was a normal stone polished until it shined.
Character-wise, it was okay. I didn’t really feel a connection to Alina but I didn’t hate her either. She just was kind of there to function as the lens for the reader to view the world. She wasn’t very exciting even when she was doing exciting things. I felt that she whined in a trope-y “I’m not pretty” way too much. The Darkling, who is the antagonist of the story, had a cool name. That’s about it. I’m a fan of antagonists / villains, but I couldn’t get a feel for him either. I think that he was sort of meant to be a love interest, but I didn’t really feel like it was developed in a way that was real. The attraction there only really functioned as a “hey, there’s a love triangle…maybe” thing. A lot of the character development relied too much on the stereotypes that litter the young adult fantasy genre, which was disappointing.
So why did I continue reading? The Grisha. I did truly enjoy the idea of light and dark powers, where there’s the typical “good” and then the contrasting “bad” one. I thought that Leigh Bardugo did a good job of showing that there are grey places in them. Even a Heartrender, someone who has the power to damage organs, has a reasoning behind why they decided to cultivate that instead of a healing one. It reminded me a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a series that I love. I would recommend this for people who enjoy young adult fantasy, but it absolutely does not go deeper into the culture, even if it was only “inspired” by it.