Review: Shadow and Bone / Leigh Bardugo

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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.

A wide-open meadow, awash with morning light, stretches out in front you, the mist curling around your feet. Scents, inlaid in the oddest of ways, whirl about in the breeze and fill your nostrils. Slowly, your body comes to life, raises from the restless slumber that it was kept imprisoned in; it mingles and, finally, becomes one with its surroundings… Strange figures emerge out of thin air, seemingly hovering above the misty soil, with their hoods hanging low, their faces barely recognizable under the heavy shadows. Around them, the murkily-alluring air currents sway hastily with their movements, causing the cloaks to thrash after them in whimsical strokes. Their radiating power drowns out all but darkness, the blood-moon bathing the world in red light. One of the figures holds out a slim finger, wavering ever so slightly. Far away, wolf-like cries ring through the air, crying in anger and frustration. The hood, only just covering the figure’s head, slides off, revealing a face, ancient and young at once. Its index finger touching the sensitive spot between your eyes, suddenly, a soulless darkness grabs ahold of you, diving you deep under – Growing anticipation are your constant companion, leading you through a dark, mysterious tangle of corruption in this first intallment of the Grisha trilogy.

This little piece of writing was supposed to give you somewhat of an insight as to what it was like for me to find my way through this nerve-racking treat, inspired by Russian folklore. It was a wild ride, that’s for sure. This book kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time and my heart skipped a beat or two as well. I seem to be on a review-roll, as of late, but, admittedly, I don’t see anything wrong with that. And I plan on marathoning all of Leigh Bardugo’s books in the near future; so beware of the forthcoming storm that will be brought about. Consider yourselves warned!

After reading Six of Crows I just had to get my hands on all her books immediately, needless to say that Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising and Crooked Kingdom wait impatiently for me to pick them up. One thing is clear, though; Leigh Bardugo is a genius when it comes to coming up with amazing titles for her books. This is beyond debate! So far, she’s also been blessed by the cover design gods themselves – I’m sure they’re real. Fight me on it – Hopefully the odds decide to stay in her favor for I don’t mind a beautiful exterior, every once in a while.

“He did not see the moment the girl ceased to bear her weakness as a burden and began to wear it as a guise.”

I’ll be damned if I keep on drooling over extravagant designs and, thereby, neglect the matter at hand – the literary aspects. Being the good reader I am, I won’t take this path but focus on the interior, instead; as all book enthusiasts should do. That goes without saying! So, talking about Shadow and Bone; I bet I’m able to make this piece of art very, very tempting for you, with just some keywords:

  1. Slavic/Russian folklore traits
  2. Epic fantasy
  3. Strong heroines
  4. Whimsical, exotic settings
  5. The Darkling being inspired by Koshei the Deathless

Was this enough to catch your attention? I bet it was! What else could you want in a book; you tell me! As for my part, I was sucked into the story from the prologue on. Every flipping of pages made me want to reach the finish line but, to be honest, I was dreading the end as well for it would mean a temporary parting of ways. School, you lousy, little thing… – But to push this exasperation aside for now; Shadow and Bone definitely lives up to its name, with a dark atmosphere and a ruthless world to showcase plus a sarcastic undertone crawling its way into your heart in an instant.

I thought I’ve already encountered the Grisha universe in Six of Crows but I was very much mistaken; Leigh actually wrote this series before Six of Crows and thus the events in the Grisha trilogy happened decades earlier from what I’ve gathered so far. My fear of being spoiled was the reason why I put it on hold in the first place. But in Shadow and Bone we get a completely different view on the Ravkan lands and this universe alike. I always wondered what it might look like in Ravka for it was mentioned quite often in Six of Crows, especially in connection with some of the main protagonists. Another thing that just wouldn’t leave me be was this scar-like abyss that strechtes out from the north to the south. Fortunately, the mystery surrounding this theme was revealed, either. Ravka is said to be the land of the Grisha and what they call their true home. Breathing in the cold winter air in dark, mysterious woods, ambushes by brutal warriors, wandering the alleys of worn-down villages, voyaging through darkness in its purest manifestation and dances in a ballroom occupied by countless aristocrats with their finest jewellery on them… Traversed by Russian elements this book was a living fairy tale. Leigh Bardugo takes the reader on a legendary journey and in this first book alone we got to see so much of this magical nation that it took my breath away at times; We travelled to Kribirsk, Os Alta and so many more places throughout this story and from where it left off I’m pretty sure we’ll get to see even more than that. But it’s not only the diversity and complexity of this world but they way she brought it to life and made it its very own that doesn’t cease to amaze me, still. Most of the time, it felt like I was there, like I was part of its rough und untamed nature. I let myself get floated away, through its unforgiving borders, gladly biding my time for the next page turner to come.

And here I am, talking about Grisha like you should know about them, too. I don’t want to go too much into detail but I try to give you a very brief summary regarding their characteristics. Grisha are masters of the Small Science and members of the Second Army. Their powers are to be seen as extensions of the natural world. The Grisha are divided into three orders – Corporalki, Etherealki and Materialki – and within those orders there are many subdivisions as well. In Shadow and Bone the reader is being introduced into this magic system and exploring it bit by bit, slowly getting familiar with all it ways. It was sort of refreshing to see this kind of wizardy come to life, for it is unlike anything I’ve ever read about. This magic felt raw, its power radiating right through the book, with an unique and untamed undertone to it. My desire of being Grisha became a wild creature of its own, fighting to break through, in the course of this book.

Everyone who know’s me just a bit, will be well acquainted with the fact that I’m a big sucker for mythology and folklore alike. Just hand me a book and tell me it was inspired by either of these and I will drown myself in its pages, eager to absorb all its whimsical and peculiarly gloomy elements. Shadow and Bone will offer you just that; Leigh Bardugo wove these inspirational Russian and Slavic traits so flawlessly into the story, and combined with her writing style this novel was literally a feast for every fantasy and historical fiction geek. Taking in this story felt like being thrown into its midst, with no way of escape. It almost read like an old fairytale or legend and this very fact made reading this book such an intoxicating adventure. I thought I was prepared, but think again! Her writing blew me away once more. With her talent for crafting word after word in such a disarmingly beautiful way she managed to enchant me with every flipping of pages.

“The problem with wanting,” he whispered, his mouth trailing along my jaw until it hovered over my lips, “is that it makes us weak.”

Shadow and Bone isn’t your typical story of a hero/heroine and villain. It’s a lot more twisted and complex in its ways to get labeled as such. It was just the same with Six of Crows; this concept really does wonders in regard of dark, epic fantasy and underlines the gloomy and dark atmosphere of the book perfectly. Another thing I very much appreciate is the fact that the protagonist, Alina, is not one of these unearthly beautiful creatures that every so often make their appearances in books. I’m tired of seeing this trope and it was nice, for a change, to meet a character who doesn’t have flawless skin, a character who is by no means unaware of her striking looks… Arghhh! We definitely need more Alinas in all our lives. But to get back to the point; The reader does not only get to meet perfectly imperfect Alina, but Mal, the Darkling and Genya, who, in my opinion, are the most important characters next to our protagonist.

Together with her best friend Mal, Alina grows up as an orphan. Nothing and no one would be able to separate these two nor stop them from spending time with each other. Their relationship is a very delicate thing at that. Living in the same house for years, chasing the same demons left its marks upon both of them but, quickly, they realized that, together, they could outrun them and, eventually, chase them off. Alina, despite her flaws, is just another girl, though, and she avoided mirrors all her life. She never felt like she fit in the way the others did, Mal included. So it was always these two against the world, but under the given circumstances, things, eventually, start to turn upside down. In the course of this book Alina is not only on her way to find her destiny, she also learns to fully accept and even embrace herself. Her character development was such a dainty thing to behold. Seeing this progress unfold throughout this story stirred something inside of me and even though I fell in love with all of these characters, it was her, I rooted most for at the end. Rightfully so, if you ask me! And as for Mal, he was always there for her and he still is but, without giving too much away, at the beginning of this book, you could almost feel the distance that somehow crept its way between them, seemingly unnoticed at first. But when push comes to shove, the priority of each other’s safety drowns out everything else. Honestly, Leigh didn’t give to much away regarding his character but I have a feeling we’ll get a closer look at him in the sequel. And then we have the Darkling… His name alone gives me goose-bumps. Savior, warrior, destroyer, killer,… he is all of these things and, still, nothing quite seems to suit him as much as his name does. A Darkling is a special kind of Grisha, with the power of bending the shadows to his will. With this character Leigh Bardugo created the perfect addition to the gloomy atmosphere of the story and, if you ask me, it was him, who gave it that certain something either. He is corrupt, mysterious and alluring, making him the perfect antagonist.

With a world full of magic, intrigue and romance, this first installment of the Grisha trilogy is going to leave us all in ruins and, still, craving for more. A writing style, sweeter than honey, takes the reader on a journey through untamed beauty in all its facets; all the while being accompanied by unique characters. Once more, Leigh Bardugo, you’ve amazed me!

Rating: 4.5/5

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