Welcome back once again to The Grisha Reread! It’s kind of hard to believe we’re already on the third book, kinda like it’s a bit hard to remember that it’s only been two years since Alina unleashed her power on the Fold to save Mal’s life. I always have trouble keeping track of timelines in the novels I read, but I’m pretty good at tracking symmetry. Let’s see how that sacrifice and that love work out for our intrepid orphans in part one of Ruin and Rising.
Prologue – Chapter 3: Summary
In the prologue of Ruin and Rising, we find the boy and the girl trapped in the White Cathedral, part of the Apparat’s secret tunnels. Prevented from seeing each other, the girl feels herself devoured by the darkness, leaving only the Saint behind. And the Saint is broken, weak and sickly, trapped by the Apparat despite how he tells her people that she will one day be their Queen. Above, a Dark King demands the Sun Summoner’s return as his rule is threatened by an outlaw who some call the Prince of the Air. And all the while the Saint and the boy, who were once just two ghosts in the orphanage at Keramzin, share a hidden language, and the Saint begins to grow strong again.
In Chapter One, we learn what Alina and her followers have been up to in the months since the battle with the Darkling at the chapel. Alina is still weak, still physically transformed by her near death experience, but she is slowly growing stronger again while hiding under the guise of sickness to lull the Apparat into underestimating her. More troubling to Alina than her physical health is her inability to summon, trapped underground far from the light of the sun that her power calls to. Held prisoner by the Apparat, under close watch and barely able to speak with anyone (all in the name of her protection) Alina can only manage furtive meetings with Genya, under the guise of seeking Genya’s healing and tailoring abilities, in the kitchens, sometimes known as the Kettle. While there she hopes to have the flues for the fireplaces opened wide enough to gain access to light to summon, but so far she has had no luck.
Doing her best to appease the Apparat with mild speech and acquiescence to all his wishes, Alina manages to secure permission to visit the Kettle, but since it’s Alina she doesn’t do a good enough job seeming meek to avoid a sort of “talking back” punishment of two hours spent in archives. While there she sees David, who is studying Morozova’s journals (the ones the Apparat clearly collected from the Darkling’s rooms) looking for the location of the firebird. Alina’s suspicion of the location of the firebird has been kept a secret among those who were there when she made the connection, and especially from the Apparat. Alina collects a salve from David that he has been making to help with Genya’s scars, a normal occurrence, but today Alina is startled to see a nervous restlessness in David that she cannot understand.
Finally down at the Kettle, Alina has time to talk to Genya in peace, because the Priestguards who follow her everywhere are scared of Genya, believing, as most do, that her scars mark her as cursed. Alina puts the salve on Genya first, then sits back and allows Genya to work on her looks, with the stipulation that Genya only do enough to ensure that the Apparat will keep allowing them to meet. But as she sits under Genya’s ministrations, Alina finds a waxy piece of paper under the lid of the jar with David’s handwriting on it that just says “today.”
Genya clearly takes some kind of meaning from the message, but before she can explain to Alina, the Apparat arrives with David, Nadia, Zoya, and Mal in tow, accusing them of conspiracy and treason. Tolya and Tamar are their accusers, having discovered a pouch of blasting powders in David’s possession. They claim that Alina’s Grisha, including Genya, plan to drug her and bring her to the surface to turn her over to the Darkling, and that Mal, desperate to free Alina, was duped into helping them. Alina argues against the allegations, not willing to believe such things of her friends, but she struggles with doubt at the apparently airtight case the twins and the Apparat have against her friends. At the same time, she realizes that this accusation, whether real or created by the Apparat, is the chance he has been waiting for to isolate her completely from her Grisha and few loyal friends, to claim that she is too kind and too sick to see the truth of those who would harm her, and so make her isolation complete. But something Tamar says about how Alina trusts Genya tips Alina off to a new suspicion, and she decides she must place her trust in someone, and that it will be in Mal and the people she has called her friends all this time. Using a strange tiny piece of power she somehow picked up from the Darkling during the time they were connected, Alina makes the shadows in the room jump, startling the guards and giving Mal and the others the opening they need. He and the Grisha break free of the Priestguards and Mal tosses the pouch of blasting powder up into the master flue, then, with Zoya and Nadia using their power to blow it even higher up into the flue, Mal takes aim with a stolen pistol and shoots the pouch.
The resulting explosion opens the flue, and Alina can finally feel the light, miles above her on the surface. For a moment she doesn’t think that she can reach it, and then suddenly it comes to her in a rush, and she forms the Cut, but Mal steps between her and the Priestguard she intends to use it on, and instead she turns her power onto a big table, slicing through it an opening a huge gash right into the kitchen floor. That stops the fighting, bringing the Priests and the Apparat to their knees, and Alina knows that she must use the momentum of this rebellion to establish her position as a more proactive saint. She chooses the youngest Priestguard and uses her power to burn his chest with her hand, branding him with her mark, after he swears fealty to her. She gives the Apparat her decrees of how she would have him treat her followers, outlawing the use of child soldiers and commanding that he find refuge for any who seek it. She commands that he will give his blessing to Alina and her people leaving to find the firebird, and she shows the people that there is a unity between her and the Apparat.
After putting on a display for the other pilgrims, Alina retreats to her room to rest and prepare for her departure to the surface. She has all the other Grisha who survived the battle at the Little Palace released from the Apparat’s imprisonment and brought to her chambers, and everyone gets filled in on the day’s doings. David, Genya and the others reveal that the whole debacle, including getting caught with the blasting powders, was all part of their plan to get the flue open for Alina, and that they knew the Apparat couldn’t resist the bait. Alina tells the others that she will be leaving for the surface and that her first move will be to attempt to make contact with Nikolai, who she suspects is the “Prince of the Air” that has been apparently giving the Darkling so much trouble. Despite Mal and Alina’s warnings about the dangers they will be facing, all the Grisha, with the exception of a healer named Maxim, decide to come with them. Once alone, Mal and Alina discuss their plans to search for the Firebird, whether or not Nikolai might really still be alive, and Mal’s amazing shot at the blasting powder pouch. He promises Alina that, if Nikolai is still alive, he will find him for her, and that he “won’t fail her again.”
After Mal leaves, Alina contemplates his words with some discomfort, then sets out to conduct an experiment that she has been trying off and on since she woke up in the White Cathedral and attempts to reach out across her connection to the Darkling to go to him the way he had come to her while she was living in the Little Palace. At first she has no success, but after contemplating how much she may be becoming like him, and how much more she might be once she has the third amplifier, the connection suddenly opens up and Alina flows through it all the way to the Os Alta, where she finds the Darkling sitting on the throne in the Grand Palace.
He is surprised to see her, but she also finds admiration in him, and he calls her an “apt pupil.” Alina finds herself no longer afraid of the tie between them. They talk, and once again he tells her that he wants her to rule at his side, that he always intended for her to have the amplifiers and be his equal, that he only turned against her after she turned against him first. Alina feels the pull of his words, responding with the part of her she refers to as “the pathetic orphaned part” of herself. But she knows better than to give in to it, and even manages to catch him off guard by offering a sultry moment before tearing it away, just has he had done to her in times past. Then she rushes back into herself, leaving him alone.
Each book of the trilogy has opened the same way, with Alina weak, sickly, and unable to summon. In Shadow and Bone, she was unaware of the cause of her weakness or the fact that she had this hidden power. In Siege and Storm, she is hiding from the Darkling and running from her power, missing it but also desiring to be free from its hold on her, and from the amplifier that makes her so much stronger. And now in Ruin and Rising, she is weak from nearly dying while using merzost against the Darkling. But there is a distinct difference in Alina now compared to Book Two; then she was frightened and helpless, and it took quite a few chapters for her to begin to take control of her own destiny. Now, despite her frailty, she is an active prisoner, making plans to try to secure her freedom. She handles the Apparat, putting on the guise of capitulation while all the time using it to manipulate him and keep him from guessing her true strength, which is a far cry from the terrified Alina who was the Darkling’s prisoner in the last book, begging for his mercy because she had nothing else to fight with. It’s exciting to see her now, more determined, more cunning, more experienced, and I especially appreciate that she chooses to trust Tolya and Tamar and her friends when they stage their coup against the Apparat, that she is a participant in her own rescue, that she takes on that help rather than being carried along by it the way she was when Tolya and Sturmhond rescued her from the Darkling.
Mal’s newly found determination is also refreshing. His struggle with his feelings for Alina are more relatable in this book I think, because he also seems more active in his fate making choices even though they hurt him. I was sympathetic to him in Siege and Storm, but I wasn’t as interested in his breakdown as I am in his struggle to rebuild himself.
David still hasn’t really come into his own yet as a character but I am really glad that Genya begins to recover her self confidence almost immediately, although of course it will take a long time for her to fully heal, physically or emotionally, from the torture she suffered at the hands of the Darkling and his nichevo’ya. The way that she uses the fear inspired by her looks to get privacy for her and Alina to talk is reminiscent of the way she used her beauty as a disguise before, and her sly humor about her looks really shows her inner strength.
And then there is Alina’s confrontation with the Darkling. Once again, Alina is so much more confident, and it really changes the way the dialogue between them is written. As a reader, I am not spending so much time trying to read past Alina’s observations to guess at the Darkling’s true thoughts but rather am working with her as an equal participant. When she decides that the Darkling is referring to their combat as a “skirmish” purposefully, to unsettle her, I basically yelled “yes” out loud. I think the Darkling is right that Alina is meant to be his equal, I think he just completely misses how much she is also meant to be his opposite, his opposition, the foil to his ambition and his long life. It’s funny, considering the obvious symbolism of powers of summoning darkness and powers of light.
You know, that observation leads me to another question about how the Darkling’s power works. He is technically considered a Summoner, like Alina, and like the Squallers, Inferni, and Tidemakers, but that designation seems wrong. An inferni Grisha, for example, summons combustible elements in order to create and control fire. A Squaller summons and controls air. Alina summons light, literally drawing it to her from wherever it is in the sky and then manipulating it to her will. But darkness is not a thing, it is an absence, so what the Darkling does should then be considered, I don’t know banishing, rather than summoning, shouldn’t it? Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I’m going to come back to it later in the book, when we learn more about how Alina’s power works, and what the Small Science really is.
Chapter 3 – 7: Summary
Alina feels guilty for doing something so reckless as to visit the Darkling through their connection, but she doesn’t regret it. She is glad that she was able to learn how much information the connection could provide to either of them, and she enjoyed getting to have one over on him for a change. She goes to the last prayer session with the Apparat, something that they have been doing regularly, but her new display of power and confident words are a far cry from when she was a silent backdrop to the Apparat’s sermons while an Inferni used mirrors to simulate the light she couldn’t summon. Her followers are amazed and emboldened, chanting her name, and Alina instructs them to be her eyes while she is gone, hoping that they will protect each other even if the Apparat does not keep his promises. She says goodbye to Ruby, a member of the Soldat Sol, or sun soldiers, who once served in the same regiment with Alina and Mal, back when Alina was just a mapmaker.
Travel through the tunnels is long and arduous, with Mal using his extraordinary tracking abilities to guide them safely through the maze to a predetermined exit point near Ryevost, where they hope to find one of Nikolai’s old smuggling rings still active. The group struggles to form cohesive bonds, with Zoya’s snobbery rubbing some of the others the wrong way, the new Inferni, Harshaw’s seeming instability setting Alina on edge, and David’s insistence on carrying all 15 of Morozova’s journals with him slowing up everyone’s march. Also hanging over their heads (quite literally) is the danger from the Darkling’s Inferni on the ground above them, as they have been using explosives and their Grisha power to bomb and collapse the tunnels. And finally, Alina is struggling to understand her new dynamic with Mal, who seems to have taken a somewhat formal and distant approach to interacting with her.
But when the group is caught under a random bombing by the Darkling’s forces, they discover an ability to work in a team that surprises Alina. Mal, the only non-Grisha in the group, takes a leadership position, and Zoya and Natalia, Harshaw, and even young Adric, prove that they have the metal to use their power to help the team in a crisis.
Finally, Mal leads them up to a trapdoor, and the relieved team emerges into a graveyard at night. Alina is so grateful to be above ground that she actually summons without realizing that she is doing it, coating herself in starlight, and she and Zoya share a few words that are just a little bit kinder than their usual exchanges.
They find a place to make camp and agree that Tamar will go alone into the town to scout for any of Nikolai’s smugglers. Alina is still a little nervous about the twins, unsettled by their faith and devotion to her as a Saint, but she is also heartened by the fact that they proved their loyalty to her over the Apparat. When Tamar departs, Alina learns two phrases in Shu that the twins’ father taught them; “Despise your heart” and the response “I have no heart.” Tolya tells her that the meaning is more akin to being able to do what needs to be done, even if it means you have to be cruel, and Alina spends some time meditating on the idea as they wait for possible news of Nikolai. She knows she wants to be cold and calculating, unhampered by emotion, but is less sure if she can be.
When Tamar returns the news is negative, no sign of Nikolai or any of the smugglers, despite the fact that she waited all day in hopes of being recognized by a former ally. Alina takes the news down to Mal, who is getting water from a nearby stream, and discovers him barefoot and stripped to the waist, fishing with his hands in the river. Alina is a little distracted by Mal without a shirt, but the two decide it is best to leave the area and look for Nikolai elsewhere rather than linger and risk being spotted. Then Alina catches sight of a tattoo on Mal’s back, a huge sunburst shape with the words “I am become a blade” written below it in ancient Ravkan. Alina traces the tattoo with her fingers, but the two are suddenly interrupted by a group of militiamen, including a man named Luchenko who recognizes Mal from army training. Realizing they have the Sun Summoner and one of Ravka’s most famous deserters, their captors reveal that they plan to turn Alina and Mal, along with the rest of their camp, over to the Darkling. Attempting to distract Luchenko, Alina offers other suggestions such as auctioning her off to Fjerda or Shu Han, or even ransoming her to Nikolai Lansov, when suddenly a voice no one can quite place starts offering observations on the Prince, including that he is handsome, brave, smart, and a great dancer. And then the militiamen are attacked.
Nikolai and a group of his soldiers drop from the trees and, despite being heavily outnumbered, are able to help the captives break away and race to a field, where they are lifted into the air by Nikolai’s new airship. At Nikolai’s instruction, Mal and Tamar and a few others drop back down to the ground to make sure none of the militiamen survive to give account of seeing the Sun Summoner, and when Mal is nearly caught by a survivor, Alina severs him in two with the Cut, saving Mal’s life. Then she throws up over the side of the Pelican.
Nikolai catches Alina up on his doings since the attack on the Os Alta; how he’d managed to get his parents and Baghra out safely, and how he did come back to look for her, as he had promised. Alina explains what happened with her battle against the Darkling, and realizes how much she missed Nikolai. She is also glad that Nikolai doesn’t recognize Genya under her scars, and reminds her Grisha not to use her real name.
Nikolai takes them to his new hideout, although hideout is not really an adequate description for the huge temple, once a pilgrimage destination modeled after the constellations, in the Fjerdan mountains out of which Nikolai runs his resistance. There Alina is reunited with Baghra and her servant, Misha, and she tells Baghra what happened in her battle against the Darkling in the chapel, and how she used merzost. Baghra again lectures her against the foolishness of her desires, calling her out for her hunger for power and pointing out that merzost is too dangerous to use. Something about the way she talks about Morozova sparks curiosity in Alina, but before she can press the old woman, Mal comes to tell her that there is a problem with Genya.
It turns out that Sergei somehow let Genya’s real identity slip, and now the King is demanding to see her. Genya is terrified, but Alina and all her Grisha rally around her, and Alina assures her that she will not be hurt, despite the fact that she poisoned the King of Ravka and is therefore a traitor to her country. They go before the King and Queen and Nikolai, and Alina intends to defend Genya and point out how she turned against the Darkling, but before she can, Genya says simply that she will accept her punishment if the King accepts his. She claims that she did poison the King but that she never tried to kill him, and then explains that she crafted her own special poison that could not be traced, that would cause irreversible damage to the King’s organs and body, stealing years from his life but never causing his death. She tells everyone that the King was poisoned by his lust for her, that she put the poison into her own skin so that he would take it in when he touched her or kissed her, and that afterwards she had to purge what remained from her body and heal the burns that it left behind. Nikolai asks if the King forced her, and she says yes. The King claims simply that she was a servant, and so he didn’t have to force her.
Nikolai decides that Genya will be tried for treason once the country is reclaimed, and forces his father to choose between abdicating his throne and retiring to the colonies with the Queen or waiting to be tried for rape. Despite the King and Queen’s protests, Nikolai stands up to them, telling them that they have failed in their responsibilities to protect their subjects and pointing out that the men will not follow his father the way they will follow him. The King is forced to concede, and although he throws parting shots at both Nikolai and Genya, they each refuse to bend, despite the toll it takes.
Afterwards, David and the others attempt to offer Genya comfort, but she pushes them all away, saying that she doesn’t want their pity and that none of them understands what she has been through. She is especially harsh with David, who she believes only notices her now because she is broken, something to be fixed. But when David awkwardly explains that he knows the difference between the fragile armor her beauty had been and the real steel that she is truly made of, Genay realizes that his love for her is real and embraces him.
Back in Alina’s room, Mal comes to talk to her about everything that has happened. They discuss Alina’s use of the Cut to save Mal’s life, and she admits how good it feels to use her power even when it’s for something as terrible as taking a life. She lets him see a little of her fear of what she may become, but Mal tells her that he has sene her reject the chance to be cruel over and over again, that he has watched her stand up for her friends, and that he has finally recognized who she really is, a strong person who would make an excellent ruler for Ravka. He gently pushes her to get closer to Nikolai, but when Alina asks about the tattoo, he admits that while he is trying to dedicate himself to serving Alina, what he still wants is for them to be able to be normal and together. But he can’t giver her a title or an army or any of the other things she needs, and Alina has to admit that he is right.
The next morning Alina has to go see Sergei, who is clearly not going to recover from the trauma he suffered during the attack on the Little Palace and Alina offers to have him sent away somewhere safe, to one of Nikolai’s other encampments, away from the fighting. Then she goes to train with Baghra, who teaches her to extend her ability with the cut. Using her old phrase “like calls to like” Baghra instructs further by pointing out that there is already light in between the spaces between the rock of the mountain she wants Alina to use the cut on, and Alina connects this talk with her reading of Morozova’s journals, where he talks about how everything would be the same if you broke it down into small enough pieces. Alina is able to take the entire top off the mountain easily, even with a hoard of spectators watching and betting on her success.
Is it just me or are these chapters weirdly paced? There’s a lot of fun action and dialogue once Nikolai shows up, enjoyable to read but not really giving me much in the way of meaty stuff to dissect until we get back to Genya. I actually found myself drifting a little while I was reading the description of the Spinning Wheel; I usually enjoy reading Bardugo’s descriptions but I found these sections less engaging than, say, the long slow chapters about the Grand and Little Palaces in Shadow and Bone. It might be because there is just so much stuff to pack into the third and finally book of the trilogy that I am less willing to wait for it.
I do love that even Baghra isn’t immune to Nikolai’s charms, and there’s some really good, subtle foreshadowing hidden in people’s conversations. My favorites are both in Chapter 6; when Nikolai promises that he still has some surprises for the Darkling and Alina says she hopes that Nikolai is going to “dress up as a Volcra and jump out of a cake” and when Baghra reacts to the sound of Mal’s voice when he comes to tell Alina about Genya. “He sounds like…” is such a tantalizing little bit of information and we never get to hear her finish the sentence, but we will get to make our own conclusions soon enough.
I think Genya’s entire arc is handled extremely well. Rape is always a difficult subject to treat respectfully and realistically in fiction; you run the risk of sensationalism on the one side, especially in a larger story that is as dark as the Grisha Trilogy is, but it can also not be given the weight it deserves. The way Genya handles both her abuse at the hands of the King and her abuse at the hands of the Darkling shows the toll that it took on her, acknowledges the real pain of it, but also allows her to reclaim her own fate. Genya has been a victim, placed in a position by the Darkling for a specific reason, made powerless, but when it comes down to it, she reclaims her own power for herself. The fact that it’s the Darkling’s fault that she was so vulnerable to the King’s assalts is never brought up by Genya and only glancingly addressed by Alina in the narration, but Bardugo brings it back through the symbolism of Genya’s refusal to be defined as being “ruined” that these two men. “I am not ruined,” she tells the King, “I am ruination.”
But no one’s strength is infinite, and she still needs the support of David and her friends to get through her ordeal. That is an important message all on it’s own, but it’s also noteworthy as a parallel to Alina’s journey. Like Genya she has been used by the Darkling, contaminated by him, and like Genya she struggles with the feeling of being “ruined” and the desire to be “ruination,” even carrying that phrase with her the way she does with Tolya and Tamar’s “despise your heart” and Mal’s “I am become a blade.”
But Alina’s journey is also about friendship. In Shadow and Bone she is a lonely girl who doesn’t connect well with people, Genya being her only friend at the Little Palace partly because she sees something similar in the only Grisha who is made into a servant. In Siege and Storm, Alina has started a relationship with Mal and then begins building alliances with Nikolai and with the other Grisha of the Second Army, but she still doesn’t connect with people personally. Now, finally, she is making real connections with people, even people she used to hate like Zoya. She is closer to Tolya and Tamar, to Harshaw even, than she was with anyone besides Mal in Book Two.
And yet at the same time Alina has finally decided that she wants to be a warrior. She wants to be brutal, unemotional, to detach herself the way that she has accused Nikolai of in Siege and Storm, the way that the Darkling is. She and Mal have really come to a similar conclusion in that vein, both trying to set aside personal dreams and focus on the task at hand. I think Alina’s back and forth about her emotions is the most interesting part of these longer, slower chapters; it’s really realistic and shows how much thought Bardugo put into how war affects people. Alina’s fear of not being ruthless enough holds hands with her fear of becoming a monster, of becoming just like the Darkling, once she gains the third amplifier. But however much she struggles with it, she doesn’t balk from either; she has chosen her course and will stay it, no matter the cost. It is the only way she can hope to defeat the Darkling, but it is also the only thing her hunger for the power will accept.
The pull of the amplifiers to all be together is something that I’ll save to talk about next week, in part two of the Ruin and Rising rearead. This book is so meaty I’ll actually be doing three parts for it, so there’s lots of time for me to get into all my feelings about Morozova, about how I think none of the characters really understand what power is, or why it is desired, and whether or not I think Baghra qualifies as the Wise Guide of Alina’s journey. In the meantime, what do you all think? Is Zoya winning you over yet? Do you think Alina is wise or foolish to use the visitation connection against the Darkling? What do you think of Mal’s newly crafted devotion to Alina and her cause? Let me know in the comments!
Kelsey Jefferson Barrett thinks that Genya and David flirting about poisons is just about the cutest thing. I mean, it’s kinda creepy, but most of the relationships in this trilogy have a bit of creepiness too them. Right? That’s what makes it fun.