Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review - Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: June 5th, 2012
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Alina and Mal only have each other. Orphaned in the wars they grew up looking to each other for everything. Now they are in the first army together, Mal's a tracker and Alina's a cartographer. But little does Mal know Alina's true feelings for him. The way her heart thumps when he's near or how she worries that they might be parted. Their parting is near at hand. The land of Ravka is divided by a darkness, a nothing. The capital is cut off from the ports and the country has been vulnerable for hundreds of years while creatures roam the blackness killing those who try to cross. Mal and Alina are about to attempt the crossing with their units; only everything goes wrong. The evil creatures with their blind eyes attack and it looks as if they are both going to die, but then a light as bright as the sun shines out and cuts the creatures down. Little does Alina realize that the light emanated from her.

Being called before the leader of the second army, the Darkling, Alina thinks that for some reason she is in trouble, but doesn't know why she is brought before the Grisha. The Grisha are masters of the small science, innate abilities in them that classify them as Corporalki, Etheralki, or Materialki, with powers ranging from stopping a human heart to metallurgy. Summoning the Sun means that Alina is a Etheralki who somehow avoided detection. Finding out that she isn't in trouble but is in fact what their country has been praying for since the arrival of this dark rift puts pressure beyond measure on Alina. Not only is she trying to forget being separated from Mal, but dealing with the cosseted little world of backbiting Grishas, all while she's trying come to gripes with a power she never knew she had and hoping that it's all a big mistake or joke. Yet what if the Darkling has a different purpose in mind for Alina's powers the banishing the darkness? Will she be able to withstand his magnetism and the allure of life at court?

I remember reading a review about Shadow and Bone wherein they said it was dark, Russian, and left a vivid impression on me of a girl wandering a desolate landscape of evil shadows. Now that I've read the book I wonder if the reviewer had actually bothered to pick it up because this isn't some Russian Dorthy Gale lost in the wilderness, but the reviewer I guess could be said to have done their job because it did make me pick it up. And you know what? I wasn't disappointed that the only thing the reviewer really got right was the Russian and the darkness because it was a fun fast read. There's nothing overly original or revolutionary in this book, it is too obviously like other books then like itself to be called first rate literature. The plot set up is typical YA in structure, outcast has an ability they never knew they had and can save everyone... sounds familiar right? It's Tamora Pierce meets Buffy meets Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games meets The Neverending Story meets on and on and on. But somehow Bardugo makes it work more for her then against her. Even if Mal is too obviously Nathan Fillion in Firefly, name and all, it just works. Plus, I've a habit of wanting Nathan Fillion in all my books, so here I didn't even have to make an effort!

The real reason this book works more then it fails is that it was fun having a different setting then usual. YA literature tends to break down into a few distinct categories; post apocalyptic society, fairy tale re-tellings, or fantasy world. You rarely get to see re-imagings of past time periods but with fantastical elements, their are of course exceptions to this rule like Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assassin Series, but Russia, Russia is rarely tackled. Yet, with all things there are the parts that work and the parts that don't. I was enthralled with the court life and how Bardugo took a simple coat and was able to hint at the culture, but also was able to break down that culture with the use of colors and the distinctions in the threading. It was the little things, the details that she got just right. But she also got some big things quite wrong. Sometimes the place names or wordings, well, it was kind of overly kitschy or bang your head dumb. Kind of a when in doubt add a "ki" or a "nik" to the end of the word worldbuilding. No, I'm sorry, that doesn't make it Russian. Also Tsibeya for Siberia... not really feeling that. Funny spellings, no. The worst is Fjerda, which I'm taking to be Norway, because of the Fjords that the country is noted for. The problem I have with this is every time I see the word Fjerda or Fjerdian, the way it sounds in my head is like the Swedish Chef trying to talk, so it's the land of Børk Børk Børk.

But it's the subtler undertones of Mother Russia that coheres the book versus the more absurd elements (Børk). The mirroring of the political situation of Russia at the beginning of the last century was spot on. Strip out all the Grishas and the magic, take out an evil nothing and what have we got? We have a country with a widening gap between the haves and the have nots. The King is just a figurehead that no one respects and has a mysterious religious leader as counsel. The power of the country resides in the army and out of this a megalomaniac leader will take the country's reigns for his own will. So the Darkling is Stalin or Lenin, with the Apparat as Rasputin. I would not be the least bit surprised to see the Tsar and his family hurried into a cellar in the next book so that they can never be a threat to the Darkling ever again. Yet by seeing this through a filter of fiction and fantasy it somehow makes it more real then less real. When we travel with Alina from her life of drudgery in the army to her life of splendor in the Little Palace, we get to see in stark relief the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. Sometimes it takes another medium to filter events for us to get at the truth of something, and that is what Leigh Bardugo has done in Shadow and Bone. It might not be perfect, but it is memorable and echoes down the ages to our shared history.


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