Shadow and Bone
Book Review by Debbie Winkler
Series: Grisha Trilogy #1
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company (July 2012)
Page Count: 358 pages
Target Age Group: teens
Orphaned at a young age in the Border Wars, Alina Starkov clings to her best friend, Mal, whom she grew up with. Now they are both in the Second Army – Alina as a mapmaker and Mal as a tracker. Alina is resigned to her life until a terrifying attack triggers an unknown power. Swept off to the capital of Ravka by the Darkling himself, Alina soon finds herself training as one of the elite Grisha. Alina is the hope of her country and everyone believes that she can remove the darkness of the Unsea, but Alina doesn’t have that confidence herself – especially when she cannot control her newly discovered powers!
When I read the synopsis of Shadow and Bone, the book didn’t strike me as anything unusual or special so it was a surprise to find myself immersed in a completely new and unique fantasy world. Most of the action takes place in the country of Ravka, which reminded me of Russia. Fjerda, which reminded me of Scandinavia, lies to the north where the fair-haired, magic-hating people live. Shu Han, which reminded me of Asia, lies to the south where a warrior-like people sell those with magic powers into slavery. Ravka is the only country that welcomes those with special abilities and they call them Grisha. The Grisha are the only defense that Ravka has against their technologically superior neighbors. But years ago, one of the Grisha accidentally created the Unsea, a swath of darkness that cut a path through the middle of Ravka and cut off the capital from the coast. The Unsea is filled with flying monsters with razor-sharp teeth and it is difficult to survive a crossing. None of the Grisha are able to remove the dark stain on Ravka, but Alina’s unique abilities might be able to banish the darkness.
The Grisha are separated by power and ability. The Darkling wears black, is the most powerful of the Grisha and the only one of his kind. He is second-in-command to the King himself and runs the First Army. Handsome and charming, all women hope to catch his eye. The Darkling’s powers are unique. He can cast darkness over anything, split objects in half with the power of his mind, and amplify the powers of any other Grisha. The Etherealki wear robes of blue and the color of the embroidery denotes their powers: pale blue for Tidemakers (water), red for Inferni (fire), and silver for Squallers (wind). The Corporalki wear robes of red and they are Healers and Heartrenders (mages who can kill with a thought). The Fabrikators wear robes of purple and can create amazing items such as bullet-proof fabric and unstoppable blades. Then there are those Grisha who are unique and don’t really fall into any of these categories. Alina is unique. She is a Sun Summoner and can pull the light of the sun to cast over any location. Genya, a servant at the palace, can change a person’s appearance with a touch. All of the Grisha labor to protect Ravka from its enemies, but the palace and court itself are perilous. There is a strict hierarchy amongst the Grisha and Alina has just jumped to the top of the heap.
Alina was a great little character. She is spunky, plain and stubborn. Alina has been in love with Mal ever since she was a little girl, but Mal grew from a chubby little boy into a handsome young man. All of the beautiful girls seem to flock around Mal and Alina just can’t compare. Not willing to risk their friendship, Alina doesn’t dare tell Mal how she really feels. Before Alina’s powers are discovered, she feels them growing further apart. Now that they are physically separated, Alina tries to cling to Mal, but he doesn’t even answer her letters. Through a relentless mix of physical and Grisha training, Alina struggles to navigate court life after a lifetime of living in poverty. The Darkling seems to be paying particular attention to Alina and it was only natural that she would begin to fall in love with him (I certainly did!). I usually don’t enjoy love triangles, but this one sucked me in. Alina has some difficult decisions to make and some really unexpected life changes she has to survive to choose between her two men. On the one hand, you have the Darkling. Handsome, powerful, and interested, the Darkling is close at hand and Alina is deeply flattered to have attracted his attention. On the other hand, you have Mal. Handsome and familiar, Alina has loved Mal for as long as she can remember, but she hasn’t heard a word from him since the Grisha took her away for training. I couldn’t decide between the two of them at first, but, once I understood a bit more about Alina and her powers, it became very clear who Alina’s heart truly belonged to.
Shadow and Bone is a classic fantasy book and there was nothing particularly unique about the characters in the book, but the setting was fabulous! I loved the whole idea of the Grisha and the different types of powers. The training for the Grisha takes place in a Little Palace right next to the Grand Palace of the King, who was just like the Tsars of Russia. The palace is gilded, bejeweled and absolutely dazzling while the populace struggles to find enough food to eat. The Court itself is cutthroat and every move Alina makes has repercussions. Friends, clothing, the food that she eats, every choice changes Alina’s life in subtle ways. I absolutely loved reading about this world and cannot wait to learn more about Ravka!
This book contains several scenes of death. Characters are cut in half, killed with a thought, slashed with knives and swords, shot with guns, and eaten by monsters. There are scenes of fighting and physical training. Characters take part in communal bathing and other activities where they are nude in large groups. There are a couple of scenes of kissing and heavy petting. There is quite a bit of violence and some swearing in a language that seems Russian, but isn’t. Recommended for ages 13 and up.