Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone was first published in 2012 and is Leigh Bardugo’s debut novel. It is a fantasy story about a teenage girl who discovers that her magical abilities may be the key to saving her war-torn world. The story forms the first part of The Grisha Trilogy and is followed by Siege and Storm (2013) and Ruin and Rising (2014). Bardugo is also currently writing a second trilogy, titled Six of Crows, which is set in the same world but focuses on a different set of characters.

The Country of Ravka is slowly dying. The Shadow Fold cuts the kingdom in half and prevents its people from uniting against the enemies that challenge its borders to the North and South. However, Ravka is also threatened by dangers from within. The peasantry are growing resentful of their Tsar, realising that he and his precious Grisha (magic users) live in luxury while they suffer.

Alina knows much about suffering. She’s both a peasant and an orphan and now is studying to be a cartographer in Ravka’s First Army (and she isn’t very good at that). However, she it does at least mean that she can be close to her best friend, Mal. Yet when Alina discovers that she possesses a unique power, she is whisked away to join the secretive ranks of the Grisha.

Alina struggles to adjust to her new life as one of the elite and finds herself drawn to the Darkling – a powerful Grisha whose powers seem to be the polar opposite of her own. The Darkling believes it is destiny that they should combine their abilities to destroy the Shadow Fold and unite Ravka once and for all. It’s not long before Alina starts to buy into his dream for her yet she has a problem. Her newfound ability is far beyond her control…

I’ve decided to take a look at this story purely because it’s one of the three young adult novels that have been showcased as part of the 2016 World Book Night. For those of you who don’t know, WBN is an annual event that takes place every year on the 23rd April. Its purpose is to promote the joys and benefits of reading, particularly among isolated and vulnerable people. To find out more about them and see if there are any WBN events in your area, please check out their website.

Unfortunately, my feelings towards Shadow and Bone were very mixed. I’m not sure if I’ve judged this novel a bit too harshly but due to the fact that it was selected for WBN, I was really expecting it to be something special. WBN books are selected by the public and therefore are (theoretically) all examples of utterly ground-breaking writing. While the novel did contain some really nice concepts and ideas, I found myself feeling underwhelmed on the whole.

To start with the positive, I did feel that the setting and world building were excellent. Shadow and Bone is a refreshing departure from your typical high fantasy novel. The Country of Ravka is loosely inspired by Tsarist Russia, taking much of its technology, political structure and aesthetics from this period.  It’s decadent and very beautiful, contrasting descriptions of drab peasant villages with those of opulent castles to further emphasise the vast divide between rich and poor. This social divide is further emphasised by the Shadow Fold (a physical boundary that splits Ravka in two) which further serves to underline the fact that a divided society is weak to attack.

I also really loved the magic system in the story. The Grisha are each only able to use a single magic power which in turn aligns them to one of three magical schools. The Corporalki manipulate bodies to either heal or instantly kill; the Etherealki can summon the elements; and, the Materialki (the most unique of the classes) had the ability to enchant cloth and metal to create durable magical artefacts. It’s a system with set rules that is very easy for the reader to understand and so I really have no complaints here.

However, masked by the novel’s original setting is unfortunately a really tried and tested story. Shadow and Bone is a very light read and can be easily devoured in a couple of sittings. It doesn’t contain anything close to the complexity of similar political fantasies like Red Queen or Graceling. It’s a world where only black and white exist and doesn’t even really try to disguise which characters are good and which are evil. Unfortunately, this made the story very predictable. I had the villain pegged from their very first appearance and the novel did nothing to dissuade me, peppering their dialogue with not-so-subtle hints that they were planning something horrible. While I did really enjoy the first half of the novel, the lack of twists made the second half really seem to drag.

The plot also relies heavily on deus ex machinas to save the day. It felt a little like Bardugo had written herself into a corner in the overuse of magical amplifiers across the second half of the tale. The properties of the artefacts seem to differ every time they are described. This especially causes issues over the climax, when there is a particularly problematic reveal as to how Alina’s amplifier functions. I won’t spoil it for you here as it is the novel’s one attempt at a twist, however I’ll just say that I was deeply unsatisfied. This reveal left rather a huge plot hole and caused me no end of frustration as a reader. The battle that followed was also brief and anticlimactic, causing the novel to end on rather a weak note.

I also found the fact that the story hinges on a love triangle to be frustrating. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I really dislike love triangles. It’s a personal thing but they rarely work for me. Shadow and Bone’s love triangle was a particularly mundane one. As with many YA novels, it simply boiled down to that of a naïve girl, a bland childhood friend and a (potentially misunderstood) bad boy. For me, this was the story’s weakest point. There really wasn’t enough time spend developing either of the relationships as Alina hardly spends any time in either boy’s company. I personally thought there was more space to develop a relationship between Alina and her closest female friend, Genya. Due to the lack of chemistry between Alina, Mal and the Darkling, I really couldn’t relate with the heroine when she found herself forced to choose between them.

The lack of chemistry was a problem I had with a lot of the characters in the story – I just wasn’t really given a reason to care for any of them. While I did like Alina most of the time, she had random moments when she suddenly flipped character and did things that I couldn’t explain. Like how she initially refused to wear the Darkling’s colours, yet didn’t protest when he sent her a black kefta to wear to the ball (indeed, seeming glad to throw it on).

Similarly, Mal just irritated the Hell out of me. His treatment of Alina in the second half of the story was really rather shocking. While he still seems far better for her than the Darkling does, I still felt as though he projected his negative feelings on to her. Sure, Mal did have a good reason to be unhappy with life but he never once expressed his love for Alina before the Darkling took her. To blame her for falling in love for someone else when he’d never told her how he felt before was just plain stupid. The Darkling was probably the most interesting character in the story, at least at first, as he seemed to have had quite an interest backstory. However, this was only briefly touched upon in this novel and so he proved to be rather 2-dimensional over all.

So, to conclude, this novel did have some interesting things going for it in terms of concept but was mired by some rather unoriginal plotting and bland characters. However, I do still have faith in the world building and intend to pick up the next novel at some point to see if things improve.

Shadow and Bone can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: The Wheel Mages | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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