When I picked up Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, I never bothered to read the back flap or even half the prologue. I am generally not a fan of prologues, but when I finished the book and read the epilogue I had to go back and pick up what I had missed, because they bracketed the story so perfectly. And as Shadow and Bone surprised me with its prologue, so it surprised me with the skill of its narration, the endearing qualities of its characters, and the strength of its world. It seemed at first glance like the kind of book I would like, but it turned out to be the kind of book that I love.
Alina Starkov is just an army mapmaker, and not a very good one at that. Shadow and Bone opens with her regiment of the First Army about to cross the Shadow Fold, a mysterious and dangerous band of darkness that runs through the nation of Ravka, separating it into East and West, and inhabited by flying, man-eating creatures called volcra. Crossing the Shadow Fold is an incredibly dangerous endeavor and Alina is terrified to go, despite the reassurances of her friend, the charming and talented tracker, Mal. When the crossing does happen, however, and the volcra attack the travelers, it is Alina who suddenly discovers an amazing power, finding herself blazing with light and driving the volcra away.
Not understanding what she has done, Alina is shocked when she is brought before a man called the Darkling, head of the magical order called the Grisha, and accused of being a Sun Summoner. The Darkling whisks her away to the city capitol and the Grisha schools, where Alina is forced to learn to use her powers, struggling all the while with being separated from her friends and the only life she has ever known, and the idea that, just maybe, a nobody orphan girl could be the savior of all Ravka.
Shadow and Bone starts out a little slow, but once the world and rules are established and the plot has been set in motion, it picks up a lot of speed. Because Alina is removed from her life and brought to the capitol city and the Grisha home, her position as an outsider allows the narration to include the reader more fully, without ever feeling like overwrought exposition. Furthermore, the language of Bardugo’s narration is rich and vivid, and even lengthy paragraphs of description kept my attention and my imagination.
In fact, all of Bardugo’s world-building is very good. I liked Ravka, her fictional magical Russia, and I enjoyed the concreteness of the rules that governed magic, or the Small Sciences, as they are called in the book. There are basically three types of Grisha. The summoners, who deal with elements, can control either wind, water, fire, or in Alina and the Darkling’s case, light. The fabrikators’ powers deal either in construction (i.e. metalworking) or alchemy. And the corporalki deal with the body; they are either healers or heartrenders. Even though the Darkling and Alina rise above the categories in the uniqueness of the powers (and the strength of his) they are ultimately summoners, and their abilities never seem too far above or outside the established rules of magic.
Magic is also a very real, concrete thing in the world of Ravka. I enjoyed such details as the fact that other nations do not honor magic users in the way that Ravka does, or the fact that some Grisha (including the Darkling) express the belief that technology (there isn’t that much in Ravka, but they do have rifles, and other countries have better, more advanced weapons technology that Ravka does) will eclipse them and make them obsolete. One of the few things that still makes the Grisha and the Second Army valuable is the fact that the are needed to navigate the Shadow Fold.
Still, for me, great characters are the most important part of any story; the thing that is most likely to win my attention in the beginning of a book and to keep me all the way through. Bardugo’s characters do not disappoint; in fact, there isn’t a person in the book who I didn’t love. Even the minor characters and those who—when viewed objectively—are clearly there to service the plot, are provided with interesting personal details and unique voices.
Alina is in many ways a typical YA heroine. She is stubborn, feisty, and struggling to understand her heart and what she wants in her life; she mixes snarky comebacks and moments of fierce determination with an almost crippling self-doubt. But as much as she reminded me of Katniss Everdeen, she equally reminded me of Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars film, and I enjoyed the duality of her as a sometimes clueless and guileless peasant girl who suddenly discovers she has a precious gift that others are trained to use and understand when they are much younger. Her desire to master her power and use it to aid her country strikes just the right balance between true heroism and the human desire to be special, loved and important, making her both likable and believable.
Although there were aspects of Alina’s character that I found frustrating in the beginning, all that melted away as I came to understand why she was the way she was, even at the same time she did. When the reason why her powers were never discovered earlier (all children of Ravka are tested for Grisha abilities when they are very young) finally came to light, I was very impressed with the way it had been set up. Moreover, I was struck by the comments that Bardugo seemed to be making about the way everyone treats their own abilities, and the things we sacrifice, often unknowingly, for our home and the ones we love.
The character of Mal, the best friend/romantic interest, also proves to be unique enough to stand out from other characters of the same ilk. Mal is everything Alina is not at the beginning of the book—talented, handsome, good with people and surrounded by friends—but by the time she is reunited with him, he has become a more troubled figure. The romance blooms only as their relationship becomes more complex and adult, and I enjoyed Mal’s particular brand of humor and determination, so complimentary to Alina’s own.
But perhaps my favorite character in the novel is the person of the Darkling, whose dark charms and mysterious powers worked on me just as well as they did on Alina. The Darkling is attractive, brooding, and very very powerful, and his control over darkness and ability to amplify the powers of other Grisha make him an intriguing foil to Alina’s light and her inability to control it. All the other characters circle around him whenever he is involved in the action, and the reader is just as drawn in as any of them.
Within the plot, only once did I feel that Bardugo broke, or at least failed to explain, her magical rules; the loophole that allows Alina to escape from the villain’s hold over her during the final climactic scene didn’t really make sense to me, and seemed almost to demand my suspension of disbelief in order to allow the author to do something clever and dramatic with the plot. It didn’t ruin anything in the end, but it did feel a bit rushed. Still, the payoff was a good one.
And just a note for any villain lovers out there; in the thank-yous at the end of the novel, Bardugo mentions that she loves villains, and it shows. Theme and plot-wise, I should have guessed who the bad guy was long before it was revealed, but she made me adore that character so much that when the betrayal came, I was as floored as Alina was. And then proceeded to love the villain even more once they were free to be all villainous.
The plot itself is nothing particularly remarkable; it proceeds straightforwardly and doesn’t have many twists (although there are some little surprising bits here and there that really make it). Ultimately, it is the way it is delivered that makes Shadow and Bone such an excellent read, the engaging prose and characters. Close to the end I was desperately turning pages, reading as fast as I could because I just had to find out what happened, even as I lamented the fact that I was rushing. If the mark of a great book is reaching the end and immediately wanting more, then Shadow and Bone is a great book. Leigh Bardugo, hurry up and write me a sequel.
Kelsey Ann Barrett is a brooklyn-based reader and writer who prefers their stories epic and their narrative verbose. You can follow them on Twitter and read their first published short story in Lightspeed Magazine, starting on June 19th.