Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, the one thing she could rely on was her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’re sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.
When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. Ripped from everything she knows, she is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the one person with the power to destroy the Fold.
Swept up in a world of luxury and illusion, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But as the threat to the kingdom mounts, Alina uncovers a secret that sets her on a collision course with the most powerful forces in the kingdom. Now only her past can save her . . . and only she can save the future. June 5th, 2012 | Henry Holt & Co.
Shadow and Bone transports you into a world as fantastic as it is dark. The story takes place in a snow bound version of ancient Russia, a land haunted by shadows and demons. There are things that lurk in the dark places of this world that thirst for blood and dream of rending flesh.
The world building here was nothing short of breath taking. Every scene in the book was perfectly drawn out in a beautiful language. Leigh’s prose transports you through the pages of her book into the world she created. Her characters possess magic that is both unique and beautifully cinematic. Skeins of shadow shoot out from clasped hands, engulfing and consuming enemies. Characters explode in blazing white light, piercing darkness, and rending creatures of shadow.
There are layers upon layers and twists galore in the plot of this novel. The story is complex and intricate. Alina’s training takes her into the capitol city, where a childlike and corrupt king sits on the throne beside a vapid queen. Hovering behind the king like a spider is a seemingly mad priest with his own agenda. Then we have The Darkling, the most powerful Grisha (mage) alive, who also controls the military. All these players seem to be vying for power, struggling for control. It’s left to us as readers to distinguish the puppets from the puppet masters. The villains from the saviors.
While Shadow and Bone’s greatest strengths lie in its world and intricate plot, I felt its greatest failing was Alina herself. She felt weak to me. There’s a fine line between writing characters with failings that serve as growth opportunities and writing characters so weak they frustrate the reader. Ultimately we expect characters in fantasy stories to have something heroic in their nature. They may be flawed and broken, but there’s something about them (not just the powers they wield) that makes them epic, and worthy of our admiration.
Alina had amazing powers, but there was nothing about her that inspired me, or filled me with admiration. I’m not saying she was unlikable, she just wasn’t heroic. She fights her destiny tooth and nail in the beginning, insisting she possesses no magical powers, despite all evidence to the contrary. There’s a point in her training where she just gives up trying, complaining that things are just too hard. Over and over the story throws challenges her way, obstacles to be overcome, and she consistently backs down, gives up, or fails.
Sadly, the greatest success she experiences was one that seemed almost accidental, a challenge she fails but a twist of fate ends up turning her defeat into a victory. As a reader that appreciates strong heroines, this element of the story seemed like a failing, thus Alina is the main reason I gave Shadow and Bone four stars instead of a resounding 5.
While Alina did not resonate with me, I’m happy to report I loved all of the other characters. The strongest, most well-developed and interesting character in this story is the Darkling. He’s centuries old, powerful, and deliciously mysterious. His motivations are difficult to ferret out and his aims are unclear. I spent an entire book getting to know his character, but still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes him tick. He’s an incredibly complex man. One moment he’s warning Alina to not expect fairness from him. The next he shows surprising tenderness and even kindness. He seems to care what Alina thinks about him, and even seems hurt by careless things she says. He is drawn to her and at the same time repelled by his own feelings. He’s dark, multifaceted, and utterly fantastic.
The romance in this story is full of as many twists and turns as the plot, and it’s another area where the story didn’t quite work for me (at least in the beginning). There is a love triangle but it’s executed in a way that spares you the most painful and annoying elements of triangles. There’s never a time when both men are actively fighting over Alina.
Darkling is of course one of the contenders to Alina’s heart (and my favorite). The other leg of the triangle is Alina’s childhood friend Mal. He starts the story as a womanizer that barely recognizes Alina as a member of the female species, much less a desirable part of that species. He’s her friend but nothing more.
Mal’s inability to really see and appreciate her did little to endear him to me. All the while, Alina nurses a hopeless and unrequited crush on him. Long after their paths part, she’s still pining after him. We’re talking 50% of the book here, people. While I understood the reasons Alina loved Mal (they were orphans together and he was the only constant in her life growing up), I was never given a chance to love him as a reader. The book opens with them traveling together but her training separates them almost immediately. So her pining for him was more annoying than heartwarming.
Fortunately we do get a chance to get to know Mal a bit better later in the story, and he ends up being a pretty fantastic character, but I’m still going to keep rooting for Darkling because he was the one I got to know and care for first.
Shadow and Bone really is a fantastic story that deserves 100% of the acclaim it has received. I’m still haunted by visions of frozen forests and the chilling reaches of the Shadow Fold. Despite my relatively minor character complaints, I loved the story and will gladly read it again. I’ll also be counting the days until the sequel.