Hello there, Tor dot readers, and welcome to the reread of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy! I did the reviews for the first two books here on Tor.com, so I’m pretty excited to be back to enjoy them a second time with all of you.
This post will cover chapters 1 through 13 of the first book in the trilogy, Shadow and Bone. Obviously there will be spoilers ahead, including mention of events that occur in later sections or later books as I consider craft and foreshadowing and things like that.
So, what is it about these books that so many people love? Is it the characters? The Russian flavor added to the fantasy world? The elemental powers of the Grisha? Or something else? I remember how much I loved the books when I read them, but it has been awhile, so this question is one of the things that I’d like to explore as I read them a second time. I’m especially interested in how the character of the Darkling reads to me on the second go-round, both in the sense of how the mystery is constructed as well as how much the character appeals. The pull between Alina and the Darkling is such a crucial element to the story, and I think one of those things that readers really responded to when the books came out.
Alright, enough talk. Let’s get to summoning. (I mean recapping. But summoning sounds cooler.)
Prologue to Chapter 3: Summary
Shadow and Bone opens with a prologue in which we meet the boy and the girl, two young war orphans living on the estate of a philanthropist Duke. We learn that the boy and girl are inseparable and that they have no one but each other. We also learn a little bit about the Grisha, whose powers are viewed as magical by the general populace, although the Grisha themselves consider their abilities to be a kind of science. These Grisha have come to examine the boy and the girl to see if either of them have Grisha powers, and the two children realize that if only one of them has such abilities, they will be separated.
Chapter 1 takes us forward to the girl and the boy as young adults during their army service. Our narrator is Alina Starkov, a mapmaker and scrawny, sickly girl with few friends. The boy is Mal Oretsev, the handsome, popular tracker. And of course, Alina has a huge crush on her best friend, and he seems to have eyes for all the prettiest girls.
Mal and Alina’s regiment is preparing to cross the Shadow Fold, also known as the Unsea, a mysterious band of impenetrable darkness separating West Ravka from the rest of the country. After nearly getting run down by a carriage carrying Grisha soldiers and the highest ranking Grisha of them all, the Darkling, Alina muses over the origin of the Shadow Fold, which was created hundreds of years ago by another darkling known as the Black Heretic. The Fold decimated once fertile lands and disappeared the people who had lived there, and now it cripples Ravka by separating the main part of the country from the port cities. Worse still, it is inhabited by monstrous winged creatures called the volcra, which eat people. Alina is terrified of crossing the Fold, but Mal reassures her; he reminds her that they have Grisha fire wielders, or Inferni, to fight off any volcra if necessary, and promises that the two of them will sneak off for a drink together by the sea once they make it safely to West Ravka. Alina is still scared, but she’s also pleased at the idea of spending time alone with Mal, they way they used to, instead of her being a tag-a-long with the gregarious young man and his friends.
Unfortunately, the journey across the Fold does not go as smoothly as Mal had hoped, and the travelers are set upon by a swarm of volcra. Mal saves Alina from being carried away, but he’s injured in the process, and the soldiers and Grisha are quickly overcome. Panicking at the thought of losing Mal to the volcra bearing down on her, Alina puts herself between her friend and the oncoming monsters, and, as she’s overwhelmed with fear and anger, she finds her vision exploding in white.
When Alina wakes up, she’s a prisoner being returned to the same camp that they left, having somehow driven the volcra away and terrified everyone in the process. She is taken before Darkling, and the battered survivors of the attack slowly reveal what they saw; that Alina somehow summoned light and drove away the volcra. Although it seems impossible that no one knew that she was a Grisha, the Darkling and the others confirm that she is, in fact, a Sun Summoner.
It feels odd to say I love these books and have my first comment be a criticism, but I have to be honest here—I don’t really like prologues as a device. The thing is, the whole point of this particular brand of prologue is to set the reader up with a little piece of information that they don’t yet have the context to understand, but that will be very important to the central plot later down the road. For me, I think this prologue gives away too much. It’s made very clear that the boy and girl are completely reliant upon each other, and are so alarmed at the prospect of being separated that they face the examiners like “a man defending his home with nothing but a rock in his hand.” Even on my first read, I was quickly able to deduce why Alina’s powers had been suppressed for so long, and why she goes on to struggle with being able to call her power as a result. There was no mystery there for me. I had all the clues up front instead of having them revealed slowly as I worked through the mystery with Alina. Given that Bardugo uses a first person narration in the main body of the book, restricting the reader’s knowledge to only what Alina knows, it doesn’t make sense for us to have this bonus info. Even if it hadn’t given too much away for me, I don’t think you gain anything more by having the scene in a prologue than you would if it was in a flashback at the relevant moment in Baghra’s hut. In fact, most of the information is repeated in Alina’s memories as she works through her emotions before her ultimate breakthrough.
Also, without the prologue we can start right into chapter one. I really love the way the chapter opens, because it is full of action, and because Bardugo is really great at description. Whenever she details a scene, or a person, or a location, I always feel completely immersed in it. The start of the first chapter drops us right in the middle of Alina marching with her regiment, and we get a great taste of the world, the people, and of Alina and Mal and their strained relationship. I liked Alina’s snark immediately, and I also liked that one of the first things that we understood about her was her fear. It gave an immediacy to the story and I also think it gave us a very good look at Alina’s position in life; she’s not just an orphan without a real home, but she is in a greater sense directionless and unsupported. When they cross the Fold we get to see for ourselves how and why it is so frightening for everyone, but I found the vulnerability in Alina’s expression of fear particularly compelling. As a low ranking member of the army, doing conscripted service, her terror of the Fold is about more than just a dangerous supernatural occurrence that exists in this world. It’s about her completely lack of control in her life, and her lack of agency.
When Alina contrasts herself with Mal, she sees something different than what I see. She is, after all, not without her own set of talents; she’s quick-witted, observant, and she has enough drawing and mathematical talent to be a mapmaker, which is actually a real skill, although she seems to dismiss it as unimpressive. The thing is, Alina’s self-doubt and lack of friendships don’t really come from her being useless or ugly or any of the things that she attributes it to; it’s the fact that she is aimless, and therefore completely reactionary. She’s only quick-witted in comebacks, she never uses her humor or sarcasm to make friends or engage with people, only as a defense. She misses Mal, but she never makes any movement to bridge the gap between them. She wants friends, but doesn’t seek them out; even Alexei, her mapmaker buddy who she loses on the Fold, seems to make all the overtures in their friendship. She clearly cares about him too, but she doesn’t engage actively in the friendship very much.
Mal, on the other hand, wants friends, and has them. He enjoys his work, and is very good at it. He is making a life for himself, even though their situation is limited and impoverished, and it is that, more than any other difference, that separates Alina from Mal and makes it impossible for them to connect the way they did when they were little.
And of course, when Alina gets whisked off to the Little Palace to go to Grisha school, none of this changes. Yes, she likes the idea that she can maybe help Ravka, she likes the idea that she might have a place to belong. She has a crush on the Darkling and wants him to be proud of her. But what she really wants, for herself, is as elusive as it was when she was a mapmaker, and that thread carries us through the long montage of her life at the Little Palace.
Chapters 4-11: Summary
Alina is taken to the capital of Ravka, surviving an assassination attempt and several fraught conversations with the Darkling along the way. In Os Alta, she encounters the denizens of the Grand Palace, including the King and Queen of Ravka, and the Apparat, a strange and creepy religious figure who lurks around trying to get Alina alone to talk about the power of the saints and their suffering. She also meets Genya, a Grisha girl whose unique abilities to alter people’s physical appearance have led to the Darkling making her a servant to the queen of Ravka, and who becomes Alina’s only true friend at the Little Palace, where the Grisha live and train. Alina is subjected to lessons, both in books and physical trials, such as her combat training with the old soldier, Botkin, and her summoners training with Baghra, a mysterious old woman who lives in a hut on the grounds and has the ability to amplify a Grisha’s power simply by touching them. The Darkling also has this power, but although she struggles and trains and does her best to navigate Grisha politics, Alina finds that without the touch of one of the living amplifiers, she cannot summon her power at all.
Alina does learn more about Grisha abilities in her time training at the Little Palace, and she makes new friends among the Etherealki, or Summoners, the Grisha group to which she technically belongs, although as the only Sun Summoner she stands apart in many ways, just as the Darkling does. She learns that there are other kinds of amplifiers, items made from parts of animals, that can enhance a Grisha’s power. When the Darkling suggests that he would like to get an amplifier for Alina, and not just any amplifier, but the most powerful one conceivable, made from an antler from the (somewhat mythical) Morozova’s stag, she is overjoyed by the idea. Unfortunately, the stag proves difficult to find, and Alina has to be content to wait, and to trust the Darkling, as he asks.
Full disclosure, I’ve always loved long, Tolkein-esque descriptions of scenery entirely too much, so I’m pretty susceptible to Bardugo’s lengthy exposition about locations. The fact that she’s so good at it helps with the book’s odd pacing and the way we get big chunks of action followed by long winding chapters dealing with Grisha politics or Alina camping alone in the woods. I don’t really feel like, from an objective, plot-driven standpoint, some of the long descriptions of the palaces or the clothes really add anything to the book, but boy did I enjoy reading it all the same. I feel like I can picture everything exactly how Bardugo describes it, and that is such a gift in a fantasy novel.
Also, for all that Alina usually has little active impulse to connect with people, she makes a real friend in Genya, and it is Alina who reaches out, rather than the other way around. I don’t think it’s any wonder that Alina feels more at home with Genya than any of the other people she meets at the Little Palace; although Genya has been raised in the luxury of the court and Alina grew up orphaned and poor, Genya’s position as a servant rather than a regular Grisha allows her and Alina to share a sense of being outsiders as well as—and I find this most significant—a lack of agency in their own future. Genya could have been either a Corporalki or a Materialki, but instead the Darkling directed her fate in a different way, and that has led to ostracisation and suffering for Genya. As we know from where she ends up later in the book, Genya is also waiting on the Darkling and for his plans for her to unfold. She and Alina both are waiting, trusting him, and letting him decide their fate.
I also love that Genya is a caretaker. Her desire to look after Alina is not quite motherly, but there is a nurturing aspect to it that I find very interesting, and that manifests itself in simple things, such as her genuine caring about making Alina feel better about herself, from helping Alina with her looks to more serious situations such as her impulse to protect Alina from her feelings for the Darkling. A lot of Alina’s other interactions with women her age involve a lot of cattiness, faked friendships, and downright hostility, so I really appreciate seeing a woman using her more worldly understanding to look out for her friend.
I’ll be revisiting Genya again, but I think Genya’s role in facilitating Alina’s breakthrough is important thematically; Genya and Alina are each other’s only friends in a very similar way to the duo Mal and Alina were as children, and Alina ends up losing her friendship with Genya by the end of the book, even as Mal has been restored to her.
Chapter 12: Summary
But the amplifier isn’t the only thing Alina is waiting for. Despite all the glamor of Grisha life, the nice clothes and the plentiful amount of food, the room all to herself, Alina continues to feel as useless and out of place as she has her whole life. She sleeps poorly and has little appetite, and she is constantly hiding her inability to summon from the other Etherealki she spends time with. She desperately misses Mal, and despite writing him copious amounts letters, she hasn’t heard a word in return. Finally, she asks Genya to see if she can find out where Mal is stationed; his name has never come up on the lists of those killed in battle, but Alina fears that her letters aren’t reaching him because his regiment is moving around too much, or worse, because Mal was gravely injured and is lying wounded in a hospital somewhere. But when Genya confirms the location of Mal’s regiment and that he is safe and well, Alina feels as though another terrible fear has been proven instead. Mal doesn’t care enough to write her. Despite their childhood closeness, Alina has long felt that she and Mal were drifting apart, and now that she is out of his life completely, it seems that he has forgotten her.
Hurt and angry over the loss of the one thing that gave meaning to her life, Alina goes down to visit Baghra, but she doesn’t feel up to trying anymore, and her temper flares easily under Baghra’s customary nagging and teasing. When Baghra presses to know what’s wrong, Alina answers that nothing is wrong, again and again, eventually turning to leave. But when Baghra asks, mockingly, what is waiting for Alina outside the hut, Alina’s grief comes flooding up, and she finally confronts her feelings over being left behind by Mal. For so long Mal was all she had, and now she realizes how hard she has been holding onto Mal, and for how long.
A memory comes flooding back, and suddenly Alina remembers the Grisha examiner taking her arm, and something deep inside answering a strange call. It is the same call, she realizes, that she feels when the Darkling or Bagra touch her, and she remembers the power that was ready to rise up to the surface at the examiner’s touch. And she remembers, too, how she suddenly knew that she was different from Mal, and that she would be taken away from him to learn to be a Grisha, and she made a decision not to let her power show. Ever since that day, she has been fighting to keep her power locked away, and it has taken all her strength, leaving her weak and sickly and helpless. Even though she thought she had been trying hard to summon her power in her lessons with Bagra, the truth is that she had still been holding onto hope that she wouldn’t really be a Grisha, wouldn’t really be the Sun Summoner, and that she would be sent away. Back to Mal, the only person who has ever been her home.
But now Mal has let her go, and Alina realizes that she has to let Mal go, too. And as she does, she turns her focus inward, apologizing to that piece of herself that she has suppressed and hidden for so long. She tells it that she is ready now, and the light comes.
This brings us back to my observations about Alina’s character in Chapter 1. I’ve seen some reviewers complain about Alina’s particular brand of uncertainty and self-deprecation as being too much of the same old teenage girl trope that is so common in YA right now, and I think those people are really missing the point. Alina’s journey is about how she has suppressed a huge part of herself, what that has done to her, and how the question of being true to this part becomes increasingly complicated even after she realizes that it is there.
The Darkling makes several comments about how Grisha power works, and although Alina doesn’t fully understand it yet, there is enough information given that the reader can begin to put things together. Alina’s weakness, her lack of appetite, her constant fatigue and inability to sleep, are all caused by the suppression of her power. When she finally realizes that she has been suppressing it, she realizes that she “used up every bit” of herself to keep the secret of her power buried. But it isn’t just that she exhausted herself with the effort, but also that she was not a whole person without her power. When she finally begins to use it she becomes stronger and healthier yes, but also, that lack of direction, of agency that I was talking about in Chapter 1 starts to disappear. Alina starts caring about things, having more concrete desires than not wanting to be useless at everything. She craves food, she wants more time with other people, and she even starts taking joy in the physical challenges of Botkin’s training and in learning to use her power. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we even see more of her taking an interest in court gossip and Genya’s life after her breakthrough.
Chapter 13: Summary
Alina immediately shows off her power to the other Summoners, from whom she has been hiding the fact that she has not been able to summon unassisted until now, and she finds herself newly invested in her life at the Little Palace. Food and sleep are suddenly desirable and pleasurable, she finds some of Botkin’s instruction an exciting challenge, and she enjoys learning more about her power, even though she still doesn’t exactly love Baghra’s lessons. She also experiences her emotional and physical transformation through her time spent with Genya, who takes her to try on some of the Queen’s gown and shows her a girl in the mirror who is very different from the sickly reflection that Alina is used to seeing.
Baghra pushes Alina hard, now that they finally have something to work with, and Alina feels herself grow stronger and more confident every day. But one day when she is training the Darkling shows up to confer with Baghra, and they both agree that her power won’t be great enough to do what needs to be done. Alina is eager to prove herself, and her rising confidence leads her to agree with Baghra’s suggestion that the Darkling should give up on the stag and give her a different amplifier. But the Darkling insists that he cannot risk Ravka’s future on a less powerful amplifier.
The Darkling walks Alina back across the grounds to the Little Palace, and the two have a frank conversation about Alina’s desire to be useful and her fears that she hasn’t lived up to his expectations, and he surprises her by apologizing in turn for asking her to trust him about the stag and then not being able to deliver. He seems to have let his guard down, and Alina asks him why he cares what she thinks about it. “I don’t know, ” he answers, “But I do.” And then he kisses her.
The two are interrupted by a messenger and go their separate ways, but although Alina tries to distract herself by spending time with her Summoner friends and by practicing with her power alone in her room, the memory of the Darkling’s kiss proves too much of a distraction.
There is some powerful imagery in the last sentence of this chapter. The light shatters, leaving me in darkness. I didn’t call the Darkling as the villain when I read the book the first time, but now I can see how he uses Alina’s romantic attraction to him to distract her from her important questions. As soon as she starts pushing him, as soon as she starts asking about Baghra, there he is with his kisses and his cute reactions to her snark and it’s just really convenient, isn’t it? I think the first person narration was really helpful in distracting me from being more suspicious of the Darkling’s motives the first time round; Alina doesn’t pick up on any weird vibes, and the Apparat’s creepy and gross behavior makes for a very good red herring. But once you get a more knowledgeable perspective, that manipulation really hits you where you live.
Of course, even before adding a sexually suggestive element, the Darkling’s physical relationship with Alina is already manipulative in ways she doesn’t really think about. In Chapter 4, she was struggling with fear and revulsion toward him after he used the Cut on the Fjerdan assassin. She wasn’t comfortable riding with him, so he took off his glove so he could touch her neck. He literally uses his Grisha power to control how Alina feels about him. And if that sense of power and surety can calm her from her trauma so easily, what is it doing to her physical reaction to being kissed? She mentions feeling the “familiar sense of surety” along with her other reactions, but she doesn’t give it any weight in the experience. Doesn’t consider how that might be coloring her perception of the experience.
The visual at the end of Chapter 13, of the Darkling’s actions distracting Alina from being able to use her power on her own is the perfect segue into the next chapter, in which we will see the Darkling make some more moves towards his possession of Alina, and Baghra come to Alina with truth about the Darkling and his plans for the Fold and the future of Ravka…
Join us next week to tackle court balls, romance, betrayals, long boring journeys in the woods, magic deer, and the price of sacrifice. In the meantime, how do you feel about the Darkling’s manipulative ways? The relationship between the other Grisha at the Little Palace? Prologues? And we haven’t even touched on the Apparat or Zoya yet. Let me know what you think down in the comments!
Kelsey Jefferson Barrett is a Brooklyn-based writer and reviewer. If he were a Grisha, he’d love to be a Sun Summoner, but would honestly probably be one of the Materialki.