Few books have ever managed to make me so angry and frustrated. 3/5*
Shadow and Bone is the first instalment in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy. It is a story of a lonely refugee Alina Starkov, who discovers a dormant power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. To be able to do that, she must train as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
To be honest, I only started this book to help me get over the gruelling book slump I was in after I finished A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. My expectations weren’t very high and I didn’t want to start something that would be hard to abandon. All the bigger was my surprise when I found out that I was really, really enjoying this book.
I fell in love right at the beginning with the world itself. The fictional country Ravka, in which the story takes place, is loosely based on tsarist Russia and Russian myth and folklore. The use of the word loosely is very intentional. I am no expert on Russian history, but my first impression was that the inspiration doesn’t go deeper than replacing some English words with their Russian counterparts. This aside, I was intrigued by the magic system and found myself always wanting to know more. Especially about the Shadow Fold, a stretch of dead land crawling with monsters, dividing Ravka in two and raining down terror on everyone trying to cross it, and the war conflict which lies at the base of the story. This wish, unfortunately, still remains unfulfilled, as there isn’t much world building incorporated.
Things first get exciting the second Bardugo introduces the Grisha. This mystical military order with the power to command a form of magic known as The Small Science was the true source of fascination for me. I was desperate for every piece of information about who they are, where their powers come from and what is their purpose in the war. The Grisha could have been made more intriguing only by the dark and mysterious force that commands them.
The Darkling falls under what seems to be the new young adult cliche. He is powerful, beautiful, dangerous and most likely evil. Yet you still want him to be your boyfriend. This is a trend I certainly don’t mind because if I can’t resist something, it is a troubled bad boy with a heart of gold. Our main character seems to suffer from the same lack of judgement. Even though she was basically kidnapped and forced into military training to help her dark and brooding master save the world in a closely unspecified way, she falls right into his arms.
“I’ve been waiting for you a long time, Alina. You and I are going to change the world.” – The Darkling
And this is where the frustration begins. Alina, our heroine, is a typical protagonist of an unoriginal piece of young adult fiction. She is a plain and uninteresting girl, who discovers she has some special power no one else does, and her mastering of this power is the only hope to solve whatever misery her world suffers from.
“If I told you I’m trying to save the world, would you believe me?” – Alina
Alina starts her journey as a foolish little girl, who does little else apart from whining and moaning. No matter what situation she finds herself in – being an orphan in a war camp, the Chosen one in a palace, or in the arms of a hot guy. The problem is that she also ends her journey on the same note. There is absolutely no character development to be found in either one of the characters.
What makes Alina especially annoying is that I couldn’t detect a hint of a personality in her. She is inconsistent in her decisions and relies on other characters to tell her what to do and what to think. This is apparent right at the beginning with Mal, her childhood friend and first love, who she abandons for The Darkling. She then has a change of heart again by Baghra in less than three pages. The circle is complete when she performs the same dance again with Mal, even though their relationship has nothing to do with the plots big revelation. If she, at least, stopped to ask ‘Why?’ every time someone tried to explain something to her, this book would be much shorter.
“Well, if I plan on doing anything exciting I promise to give fair warning so just…take a nap or something.” – Alina
The frustration only continues when feelings get involved. I struggle to see why everyone falls in love with our protagonist without a personality, even though the author spends half the book convincing us that she is ‘ugly’ and there is absolutely nothing interesting about her. This aside, you know something is off when the romance is written so badly you can’t tell if there is a love triangle situation going on or not. I get why she falls for The Darkling (because really, who wouldn’t?) but what continues to unfold between them is just weird and confusing. The plot twist later on in the story tries to explain this strange and disturbingly fast relationship development, but I’m already too frustrated with the poor execution of the most important moments to care.
“The problem with wanting is that it makes us weak.” – The Darkling
As a contrast to The Darkling, we have ‘the good guy’ Mal who is utterly unimpressive right up to the point where he’s just pissing me off. He is the guy who comes running to save Alina but all I see is that he didn’t care about her until she was powerful and important. Now he suddenly ‘sees her’. Mal, to me, is the walking definition of ‘too little, too late’ and this girl needs to raise her standards.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to see you, Alina. But I see you now.” – Mal
At about 65% of the book is when I start to get really angry. Alina has an ‘eye-opening moment’, again courtesy of another character instead of her own ingenuity and the story starts going from exciting and original to the most predictable and boring thing I have ever read. I understand the author was trying to introduce ‘the plot twist’, but this is the kind everyone expected but no one wanted.
I’m struggling to keep on reading throughout the third act because of the frustrating turn of events and painfully slow pace. However, I’m still pushing on, hoping that this had all been some kind of misunderstanding and everything will be revealed in an exciting finale. It wasn’t.
Nevertheless, I am not giving up hope. This is, after all, only the first book in a trilogy. There can still be a lot of exciting revelations, plot twists and amazing character development moments waiting ahead. The first book fooled me in the past, and then pleasantly shocked me with where the series went in its later instalments. I finished the book rooting for the bad guy. It is his story and the story of Ravka that are going to make me keep on reading, even though the ending showed hints that there could be more to our plain and uninteresting heroine after all.