Shadow and Bone, Book 1 in the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, 416 pp, RL: TEEN

There was a lot of great buzz around  Leigh Bardugo's debut novel Shadow and Bone when it was published in June of 2012 and rightly so. Newly out in paperback and just in time for the release of the second book in the trilogy, Siege and Storm, I have finally gotten around to reading it! As I sometimes do, more often that I care to admit, really, I am starting off my own review with the words of another reviewer. Sometimes other writers put things so succinctly and perceptively that I feel like plagiarizing or quoting are my only options when talking about a book. In the case of Shadow and Bone, it is a review by Laini Taylor, acclaimed author of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, that sums things up so well:

Some fantasy novels deal out the tropes of the genre like cards from a dog-eared deck. Others affirm the elemental power of these tropes, reminding us not only why we read fantasy, but also why we read at all. There may be nothing new under the sun, but a good story makes you just not care. Like the expert strike of a reflex hammer, it hits precisely the right spot.  Leigh Bardugo’s first novel, Shadow and Bone, does so straight from its opening lines, pulling the reader into a mesmerizing exploration of one of the most potent fantasy novel motifs: the discovery of hidden strength within oneself. Writers turn to the plot conventions of high fantasy for a reason. They satisfy fundamental human desires — not merely to belong but to surpass, to be special, to have power, to be loved — and they do so at a louder volume than does ordinary life. They give us what we crave. The test lies in whether, as we are reading, we feel the dull, inward sinking of “This again?” or the exhilarating, grasped-by-the-hair lift and thrill of vicarious experience. Shadow and Bone imparts some of both, but in the richness of its Russian flavor, there is much to relish.

Having spent so many years reading middle grade and YA fantasy, it is hard for me to find anything new under the sun when it comes this genre and I do often find myself with the sinking "This again?" feeling. But, as Taylor says, a good story makes you just not care, which Shadow and Bone definitely does, at the same time surpassing the tropes and conventions of the fantasy novel. Bardugo achieves much of this by setting the world of her novel in Ravka, a country that suggests Tsarist Russia, but with a horrible blight - the Shadow Fold - and with her main character Alina Starkov, a young soldier and mapmaker about to cross it. This eternally dark, devastating void splits the country of Ravka in two, the result of magic gone wrong. The Shadow Fold has meant that the citizens of Ravka have suffered for decades. While it is possible to cross the Unsea, as it is also known, and make it to the other side of the country on sand skiffs, the volcra - winged monsters akin to a harpy - attack at the slightest sound, making the journey perilous and often deadly.

In Ravka, magic is possessed by a select few called the Grisha and expressed in a number of ways that remind me a bit of the magical abilities possessed by the characters in the brilliant animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender in that their gifts are linked to the control of fire, air and water. The Inferni, Squallers and Tidemakers known as the Etherealki, are part of the Order of the Summoners and they control the elements. Then there are the Materialki, the Order of the Fabrikators, with the Durasts, gifted at creating weaponry and armor and the Alkemi, specializing in poisons and blasting powders. The highest ranking order, the Corporalki of the Order of the Living and the Dead, are Heartrenders and Healers, able to take life and restore it. Then there is the Darkling, the most powerful magician in the land, capable of spreading darkness as a weapon but also a living amplifier of the magical abilities of others. It is the Darkling's ancestor who is said to have mistakenly created the Shadow Fold. Together they are known as the Second Army, the first being composed of more traditional soldiers. The Darkling's most gifted soldiers are allowed amplifiers - totemic objects akin to a rabbit's foot that, after the animal is killed, give the bearer enhanced powers. However, the Darkling himself is an amplifier and before the book is over he will have traveled thousands of miles in pursuit of a mythical creature that could be the most powerful amplifier ever.

An orphan raised on the estate of a Duke along with several other children, Alina was a weak, dour child befriended by the boisterous Mal. Also in the army, Mal has grown into a handsome, gifted tracker and a lady's man who seems to be drifting apart from Alina, leaving her truly alone in the world. I won't be giving too much away to tell you that, as they enter the Shadow Fold on their skiffs, the army is attacked, Alina doing her best to save Mal from the fierce claws of the volcra, when something happens. She finds herself alive and back in Kribirsk, the city the army departed from, and in the presence of the Darkling who is demanding to know what she did, how she survived, and how she saved Mal. It seems that Alina possesses the power of a Darkling - but in reverse. She is a Sun Summoner, the only one of her kind and potentially the only one capable of undoing the damage of the Shadow Fold.

From a young age, Alina sensed that if she ever let the powerful force that she feels inside her rise to the surface, she would be separated from Mal forever. So she forced it down and ignored it as much as possible. The toll is her health and her strength, an aspect of the novel that feels fresh and innovative. Under the Darkling's command, Alina is taken to Os Alta, where the king and his court live in opulence that astounds her and is sure to astound the reader. Housed in the Little Palace, only slightly less opulent, Alina trains with the other Grisha, learning physical and magical strengths. As she begins to use her power, her health and strength return to her and she finds a friend in Genya, a girl who is not quite a Grisha but gifted in altering appearances to make people beautiful - kind of magical botox and hair dye. Genya is such a complex, fascinating character - especially knowing that Bardugo is a Hollywood make-up artist in her other life! Discovered by the Darkling and made a gift of to the King, the vain queen tolerates implications that Genya is the King's mistress so that she can benefit from her talents. As the months pass and Mal does not respond to her letters, Alina finds herself drawn to the Darkling. After all, he is handsome and enigmatic and he tells her that he has been waiting for her for a very long time. They are going to change the world. When he touches her, his ability to amplify her power is thrilling beyond compare.

At this point in the novel, I was definitely hooked but still feeling a twinge of the "This again" phenomenon, especially with the potential love triangle. This is exactly when Shadow and Bone takes a big left turn, shifting from an interesting, intricate story to a breathless race to the end, catapulting Alina out of any stereotypes you might have when it comes to orphans who discover magical abilities they never knew they had. In fact, I found myself so wrapped up in the plot of Shadow and Bone that I did something I never have time to do - read the second book in the trilogy! And, if you get as sucked into this book as I did, be sure to check out Leigh's website here where you will find all sorts of cool graphics and great information. For some even more awesome visuals, visit Leigh's Pinterest pages here where you can see some really fantastic inspirational images and other artwork created for the books. Also, check out this great interview with Leigh where she describes her book in this way:

Shadow and Bone brings to life a world of saints and samovars, assassins and superstition, dark magic, court intrigue, and romance. Plus a guy gets cut in half. Always a hoot.

And, in a very rare instance for me, I have read/listened to and reviewed the second book in the Grisha Trilogy, Siege and Storm! I loved Shadow and Bone so much that I allowed myself the luxury (time-wise) of continuing on with the trilogy. Don't worry, I don't give away any of the twists and turns. Now I just have to wait a year for Ruin and Rising to conclude this phenomenal story!

You can read The Witch of Duva: A Ravkan Folk Tale for free at Tor.com

illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Book 2, Siege and Storm - out now!

Book 3, Ruin and Rising, due out 2014!

Source: Purchased Audio Book

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