Shadow and Bone: Same tropes, new story

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Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo YA fantasy book reviewsShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

YA can be more fickle than its literary cousins. It’s notorious for trends. There were wizards, vampires, and what feels like a decade’s worth of dystopias. The result is a glut of books with sassy female protagonists who discover they have a unique power, are fighting to save the world, and struggling to decide which hunky love interest to pick from in their love triangle. Shadow and Bone doesn’t do anything groundbreaking in terms of avoiding these tropes, but what it does do is tell them in a fresh and innovative way.

Alina Starkov was raised in an orphanage alongside her best friend (and future love, obviously), called Mal. They live in Ravka, a fantasy Russia of samovars and Grisha — powerful magical soldiers that work directly for the king. If you don’t have magic, you’re bumped down to the common army, where Alina and Mal find themselves. As with most YA plots that require their protagonists to be embroiled in some ongoing war, it’s never entirely clear what the armies are fighting for, or who they are fighting against, but the lowly Alina makes a very convincing unremarkable solider, so Leigh Bardugo can be forgiven for the shaky plotting.

Alina’s regiment is marching straight towards the Shadow Fold, a magical cloud of impenetrable darkness full of volcra — savage winged creatures that once used to be men. It is rumoured that the Shadow Fold was created by some dark, powerful Grisha intent on dominating the whole of Ravka, but now the Shadow Fold just splits the land in two.

Upon entering the Fold, Alina is attacked by volcra and low and behold, it is Mal who comes to her rescue. When the volcra almost kill Mal, Alina throws herself over him and is then blinded by a searing white light. Their regiments miraculously escape the fold unharmed, but Alina finds herself called to face the Darkling, an all-powerful Grisha who is intrigued by Alina’s unheard of power: she can manipulate light.

So there you have the trope of all tropes: young, unremarkable protagonist realises they have unique powers that can be used to save or destroy the world. But Bardugo steeps the familiar ideas in so much more. Alina suffers heart-wrenching internal conflicts along her journey, and grapples with the constant feeling that she is not worthy of all the attention the Grisha suddenly bestow on her. Her unrequited love for Mal is compelling and moving, and despite the questionable love triangle shoe-horned into the story, Alina’s love for Mal is convincing.

One of Bardugo’s triumphs was pacing the story to perfection. She didn’t feel the need for continual breakneck speed which can be so tiresome in these types of novels. Instead the balance between worldbuilding, characterisation, and action was just right in Shadow and Bone. Having a debut novel shoot right onto the New York Times bestseller list speaks volumes, and if this first instalment is anything to go by, THE GRISHA trilogy promises to be an addictive series.

Published in 2012. Young Adult. Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee. Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha…and the secrets of her heart.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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2 comments

  1. I liked SIX OF CROWS for many of these same reasons. Bardugo has really created something special here, and I like the Grisha more and more.

  2. Well, you’ve convinced me: I need to read this!

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