*This review will contain spoilers!*
Over the last few years, I've heard so many people going on about the Grisha trilogy, but I didn't hear anything specific - everyone seems to be really against giving spoilers for this series! It meant that I didn't know what to expect, and I went into this with quite low expectations of just another generic YA dystopian novel. I was completely wrong.
'Shadow and Bone' is a complex and well-executed high fantasy YA. Ravka has been partially enveloped by a Shadow Fold: the darkness was created by a Darkling (I'll explain in a second) from generations ago, and it destroyed the healthy and fertile land, separating Ravka from the remnants of West Ravka. In the darkness, terrifying creatures roam - they're called the volcra, and they sound like ginormous, man-eating bats, with creepy dried skin and thin, membranous wings.
Our protagonist, Alina Starkov, was orphaned at a young age due to the war that has been ravaging the country at its borders; she gets taken in by a kindly Duke, who also takes in her best friend, Mal Oretsev. The two grow up together and end up joining the war effort together - Alina as a cartographer's apprentice, Mal as an extremely gifted tracker. When we join them at the start of 'Shadow and Bone', they're prepared to make the long and dangerous crossing of the Shadow Fold to get to the other side, where trade blooms next to the True Sea.
Alina is, quite understandably, scared to hell. She's heard horrifying stories about the volcra, and she knows that the survival rates for those crossing the Fold are not very high - men manage to do it, but many more die in ratio to the few who survive. She's right to be terrified, because when they're on the sand skiff sailing across the land in the Fold, a (herd? gang? influx?) of volcra attack their transport, ripping one of the cartographer's assistants from off of the deck right next to her. When Mal nearly gets taken, Alina is frantic - she manages to ward off the volcra, then when she nearly gets taken she passes out in a flash of bright light.
When Alina comes around, no one will answer any of her questions - she's returned to Ravka, where she takes part in a trial. It's said that she's a Sun Summoner, the other half to a Darkling, and she will be the only one able to destroy the Shadow Fold and reunite the country. Alina protests - there's no way she can be a Sun Summoner, she's not even that good at map making! - but the Darkling is an amplifier, and when he puts his hand on her arm he calls forth her power, and the burning white light fills the tent where the trial is taking place. It's official, she has powers.
As a Sun Summoner, Alina becomes part of the Grisha. The magic in this novel isn't covert and underground; rather, the Grisha are part of the upper class of society, and they stick their noses up at all of the non-Grisha who inhabit Ravka. There are different classes of Grisha: the Corporalki (which separates into Heartrenders and Healers - those who work with death and those who work with life), the Etherealki (which separates into Squallers, Inferni and Tidemakers - controllers of wind, fire and water respectively), and the Materialki (who create things; the carpenters and metalworkers of our world). The Grisha are all led by the Darkling, who is second in power only to the King of Ravka; he can bring darkness to the world, and he's the most powerful Grisha who has ever existed.
It took me a little while to get into the world, because you do really just jump straight into it. There's no world building, no easing you in to the history of Ravka and the story of the Shadow Fold: it just is. You pick up a lot of bits as you go along to make a full puzzle piece, but I do think I would have enjoyed this book even more if it had been more crafted at the start. There's almost a cast list at the beginning of the book - it sets out the classes of Grisha and the subcategories that they fall in to, but without the context of their roles and their meanings, it does feel a bit intimidating to try and get your head around so much information that you cannot understand.
But other than that, I thought this book was pretty flawless. After Alina finds out that she's a Sun Summoner, she's taken to the Darkling's Little Palace, where she undertakes lessons to hone her fighting skill and her summoning abilities. Alina is completely inept and cannot do a thing correctly, no matter how hard she tries. I do love it when you can see a heroine having real struggles in fulfilling their destiny, because often it's just too easy - "oh, I never knew I had these powers, but I'm really bloody good with them!" - and it felt much more realistic to have Alina completely floundering in her new life. The teachers, Baghra and Botkin, were both awesome characters; I think they're some of the most genuine teacher characters I've ever encountered, because they weren't unnecessarily mean to Alina and they didn't have grudges against her - they sincerely wanted the best for her, and the best for her was to become competent with her abilities. When Alina did get control of her powers, it made sense! There was a reason why she'd had the mental block, and once she overcame that she came into her own.
Now, here's the thing. I love the magic and the story behind the world and the minor characters, but the love triangle is just seeming a bit pointless to me. Alina has been in love with Mal her entire life, but as soon as the Darkling comes along she feels this magnetic pull towards him. They nearly get together and they have a few spontaneous make out sessions, but then she realises that anyone with Dark in their name is pretty evil, so she goes on the run. While on the run, Mal finds her and helps her escape, and then he realises he's been in love with her this entire time. She knows she loves Mal, and they're all happy happy, but then when the Darkling shows up on the scene again she can't deny she still feels the feelings for him. It's all a little bit annoying. If I'd been in love with someone my whole life and they liked me back, I definitely wouldn't be having romantic thoughts towards the guy who was attempting to become the crazy dictator of my country by using my powers for evil.
I mean, I love the Darkling. The whole misunderstood villain thing is always appealing to me, because it adds so much depth to the character. Because he lies constantly, you can never tell when he's being genuine and when he's telling fibs - it keeps you on your toes, and it means you don't feel comfortable with the character because you cannot work out his motive. I'm excited to see what happens with him in the later books in the series.
It's just... Mal. I'm not sure why I don't like Mal, but I just don't. It might be because I had the whole "I'm in love with my best friend" thing in my life, and he turned out to be a massive tool - I'm just not expecting good things from Mal, especially now him and Alina are in a relationship. He didn't notice her their entire lives, when she was plain and weak and tired, and as soon as she gets her powers it brings energy into her life - she shares the fact that her skin looks perfect and her hair looks shiny and she looks really healthy, just because of the magic flowing through her. Yes, maybe Mal did realise he was in love with her because they were separated, but I can't help but think he only loves her now she's beautiful, and she deserves much more than that.
I do like Alina, even if her relationship situation does really bug me... She's very realistic, and it makes it easy to like her character and to feel for her and the crazy situation she's found herself in. I'm definitely rooting for her in her quest to save the world. I'm hoping that now her and Mal are on their way to the other side of the world in an attempt to avoid the Darkling, she'll stop thinking about boys so much and will start thinking more logically about what to do with her powers and helping Ravka... Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing the other side of the True Sea, and finding out even more about the brilliant world that Leigh Bardugo has crafted. Her writing style really is something special, and it stands out for me amongst the other high fantasy YAs that I've read over the last year.
I'm really excited about what's going to happen throughout the rest of the series, so I'm just going to go straight ahead and start 'Siege and Storm' - keep an eye out for the review of that over the next few days.