Review: Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Trilogy #1)

[rape mention tw]

Lately I’ve found Young Adult books tiresome. They recycle the same old plots over and over. Here’s a special girl who has special powers and despite everyone falling for her, she still thinks of herself as plain, even ugly. Here’s a love triangle. Here’s that one Alpha Bitch who is always picking on our poor protagonist, and the terrible writing doesn’t help matters. Thanks that old chestnut, peer pressure, however, I found myself with Shadow and Bone in hand.

It captivated me from the first page all the way through to the end of the bonus materials. In fact, it was probably one of my quickest reads this year.

This is doubly surprising because when you break it down it’s easily one of the most cliche books I’ve ever read.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Alina Starkov is an orphan who lives in the care of a duke with her love interest best friend Malyen (called Mal). Since there aren’t many employment opportunities for orphans, Mal and Alina join the army, but when their regiment is attacked while attempting to cross the treacherous expanse of darkness known as the Fold, Alina awakens a power within herself that even she didn’t know she had and saves her regiment from destruction. She is promptly separated from Mal and sent to be a part of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling, and told that she is a Sun Summoner, destined to rid the world of the Fold. Plucked from her simple life and suddenly immersed in a lavish magical world where nothing is as it seems, Alina will uncover a terrible secret that could destroy everything and everyone she holds dear.

To recap, Shadow and Bone is about:

A young woman with special powers, special powers that are so special she stands out even among people with special powers.

A love triangle between Alina, “normal” Mal and “otherworldly” Darkling.

Tension between Alina and “Alpha Bitch” Zoya.

In short, Shadow and Bone has pretty much everything that I despise in a YA novel.

So then, why do I like it so much? Why was I so captivated by it?

Well, for starters, the writing didn’t grate on me. Bardugo has a very accessible style. Ravka is based on Tsarist Russia, and while the book has drawn criticism of incorrect use of the Russian terms in the book, at times reading this felt almost like reading a Russian folktale. Bardugo takes a more scientific approach to her magic system. The Grisha call their abilities the “Small Science” and cannot create something out of nothing like many fictional mages seem to do, only manipulate things like air pressure and combustible gases to create storms and fire respectively. It’s a very logical approach to magic, and Bardugo doesn’t bombard the reader with pages and pages of rules.

I also like that Alina actually manages to make friends, like actual female friends who aren’t secretly jealous of her, and she also doesn’t disdain “feminine” things like fine dresses and perfume (spending an entire afternoon playing “dress up” with her friend Genya and giggling like a child over it). She is a reluctant hero, who insists on wearing blue like the other members of her Order instead of black, which would indicate very high status in the Grisha’s status-obsessed society. On an unrelated note, I love the cover. It is beautiful, instantly evokes a feel for the setting in my mind, and most importantly, avoids the cliched image of a single woman in an awkward pose, probably tattooed (although there’s no reason for Alina to be tattooed).

Many of the negatives I have to throw at this book are the things that I’ve mentioned above, namely that it has almost every one of my most hated YA cliches in one book. I wish Alina would stop thinking of herself as “ugly” because she has brown hair. I wish Zoya didn’t exist. She’s literally only there to make eyes at Mal and bully Alina and it’s a really tired trope. Most of all, I wish YA authors would get together collectively vow to never have love triangles ever again. Shadow and Bone’s saving grace is its writing and its interesting world, or maybe I just have a higher tolerance for insufferable cliches in YA novels by now.

Other things of note. Alina seems surrounded by very perverted men. There’s a clear reference to Rasputin in the character of the Apparat, but the king himself is heavily implied (read: outright said) to have had his way with Genya, which is a cliche in and of itself. Alina is also the recipient of a couple oblique rape threats but nothing comes of it other than the assailants suffering grievous bodily harm. The one POC I remember was a Shu Han (this, I’m assuming, is the fantasy equivalent of China) man who is Alina’s teacher who is the only character who speaks broken English Ravkan.

Shadow and Bone is chock full of cliches, no two ways about it, but at the same time, it managed to keep me interested enough to want to continue the trilogy. (Proof that even horribly cliched writing can be engaging.) It’s not as earth-shattering as I was led to believe, but it didn’t make me want to bash my head against the wall either. I guess if I had to summarize it, I would say that it’s a mess of cliches, but at least it’s well-written and presented in an interesting way.

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