Sunday, July 1, 2012

Review: SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo

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.
When I first heard about Shadow and Bone, I wasn't interested. The cover looked fine, but the title? Too close to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Book of Blood and Shadow, and all the other similar titles floating around recently.

But then people started buzzing about it. It's a fantasyland based off of Russia, they said. I do love Russia (the absolute best way to say goodbye - do svidaniya - is Russian, after all). There are flesh-eating monsters, and who doesn't love a flesh-eating monster from time to time? Most of all, no one would shut up about how GOOD the book was, so I picked it up.

And let me tell you, it was good.
The beginning bit is a third-person narration describing "the girl" and "the boy," two orphans and best friends. In the next chapter, we leap ahead and settle about a decade later where we learn that "the girl" is Alina and "the boy" is Mal. They've stuck together all this time and now are in the army, where Mal is a soldier and Alina is a cartographer, though admittedly not a very good cartographer.

Their friendship is important, because it's the catalyst for the first Big Event in the book. The group they're traveling with must venture into the Shadow Fold, also called the Unsea (what a name, huh? I love it.). Once inside, they're attacked by the volcra, the nasty, flesh-eating flying things that are the sole residents of the Fold. I'm not spoiling anything here, because right there in the description it says that Mal is "brutally injured" and that that's when Alina reveals her "dormant power."

She's taken away from Mal, her cartography work, and everything she's ever known to live in the capital city of Os Alta to train as a Grisha, Bardugo's version of a sort of wizard/scientist.

Usually, I'd write something like "and that's where the fun begins," but this book really was fun from start to finish. I loved feeling out the dynamics of Alina and Mal's relationship in the beginning. Mal is strong and caring and Alina has the biggest crush on him, but he sees her as nothing more than a friend. Really, they tend to treat each other more as brother and sister, which makes for some wonderful banter.

Also in the beginning is where we're allowed to settle into this Russia-esque world. In my opinion, the language is the best part. Ms. Bardugo explained in an interview that she was careful not to use straight-up Russian words, as Ravka isn't Russia. Instead, she chose Russian sounds and Russian suffixes and mixed them with English words to create nouns that sounded Russian but could still be understood by the layman without knowing a stitch of Russian. One example she gave is that instead of saying m'lord, everyone addresses the Darkling as moi soverennyi, giving the word an authentic Russian sound while still sounding close to the English root of "sovereign."

Speaking of the Darkling... Hoo, buddy. This is Bardugo's sendup for all the good girls wanting baaaad boys. He's tall, dark, and has everyone around him simultaneously shaking and fear and wanting desperately to please him (and not just because they don't want their lips sewn shut). Yet he and Alina get each other. They're both the only Grisha of their kind (he's a living amplifier and she's a Sun Summoner - don't worry, you'll understand when you read the book), so they both feel like outsiders. Add the fact that Alina has always been a nobody and now she's a really big Somebody, and you can see how she starts falling hard for the Darkling.
Mr. Adorable

(Minor confession: Whenever I read the title Darkling, I think of those delightful talking bits of goo from Tamora Pierce's Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen. Really, you'd enjoy them. They're like happy, mouthy bits of Morph from Treasure Planet.)

Oh, uh, did I mention there's a love triangle in this book? Well, not really. See, Alina likes both the Darkling and Mal, but not at the same time, so it wasn't nearly as frustrating as other similar situations are. At least, it wasn't for me. Once we were introduced to both the Darkling and Mal, I picked my guy and stuck with him to the end (but none of that stupid Team So-And-So business). Alina makes a few mistakes thanks to one of the guys, but she isn't stupid or flighty or maddening like some other girls (*cough*BellaandAmerica*cough*). Actually, I was proud of how she handled herself. I was also very proud of myself for sticking with my guy, because I was right in the end. And no, I won't tell you whom I picked.

The other characters were fun, though I didn't feel like we got to know them as well. I liked Genya, Alina's friend in the capital. Her tutors were a bit stereotypical (gruff barbarian for a fight instructor, sharp-tongued old lady for a magic instructor), but it was honestly a trial to pay attention to anyone else when I knew that at any moment the delicious Darkling could come strolling into the scene again. However, if I had to pick one minor character that I adored (and there always is one), I'd choose David, Genya's crush.

I honestly can't really think of anything I didn't like. I've gotten so used to reading dark, angsty books that this story felt a little light to me, but I'm certainly not complaining. Some bits felt a little lacking in action, but then I hit other parts like the one that made me tweet the following:

All in all, it wasn't a book that I finished and immediately wanted to shove a copy into the hands of every person I met (hi, Grave Mercy). On the other hand, it DID make it into the top five books on my birthday list, and that is a VERY hard list to crack. So I must stand and add my kudos to the long line now forming in front of Ms. Leigh Bardugo. Go read the book so you can join the line, too.

Points Added For: RUSSIA!!!, a really awesome language, the Unsea (too many times the "forbidden section" is modeled off of Fangorn Forest, so a sea is really cool!), David (he's so cute), Mal and Alina's friendship, The Little Palace (what kind of awesome and totally realistic name is that?), framing Grisha stuff as more of a not-yet-understood science than magic.

Points Subtracted For: Many unanswered questions (what meadow? wait, so what happens next? WHAT MEADOW?!), a kind of hokey thing involving mercy, not getting to meet fully rounded Grisha (David and Genya were the only two that came even close).

Good For Fans Of: Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi (somewhat similar love triangle and stakes), bad boys, Russian-based worlds.

Notes For Parents: One makeout scene, some scattered kissing, violence, some language (I'm trying to remember... I remember a couple a's and an sob, but that's all).

Added bonus: Check out this map of Ravka, you guys! So pretty. I'm especially in love with the Unsea part.

Click to expand

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