I thought “Shadow and Bone” was a good first novel in the Grisha trilogy, it both worked well as a story on its own and set up some interesting plotlines for the later books. The first sequel does deliver on some of that potential, although I think it does have a few weaknesses.
I think possibly the biggest issue with the book was the inconsistent pacing. The beginning wastes little time before throwing Alina and Mal back into a dangerous situation and with some new characters and concepts introduced this is a strong start to the book but it also feels a bit rushed, I think more time could have spent on some of the plot points such as the hunting of the Sea Whip.
The book seems impatient to return Alina to the centre of Ravkan politics, unfortunately once she gets there the pace slows dramatically with the majority of the book consisting of Alina trying to adjust to her new role and responsibilities as well as trying to come up with a way to fight against the Darkling’s forces. I did think this part of the book allowed some good character development for Alina, as she becomes more confident in her abilities and as she has to provide leadership for her allies. She does become less likeable while starting to show more ambition and occasional ruthlessness, making her a more interesting character. Some of the supporting characterisation is also good, I liked that some of Alina’s strongest allies are fairly unsympathetic characters who were initially antagonistic towards her while some of the more sympathetic characters become her enemies. Sturmhond is an entertaining addition to the character list, although he’s got such a wide range of things he is brilliant at that he could have been the protagonist in a Guy Gavriel Kay book. Unfortunately, there were also a few characters that felt lacking in depth (particularly Sturmhond’s elder brother). The weakest scenes tend to involve Alina and Mal repeatedly failing to talk to each other and spending half the time sulking about the other being inconsiderate. It’s perhaps not an implausible depiction of a teenage relationship but it’s not very interesting to read about and Mal’s increasing insecurity makes him an irritating character. It does seem to spend about as much on the breakdown in their relationship as on the upcoming war against the Darkling’s forces.
The long and slow middle section of the book is partially redeemed by the final section as things to start to go badly wrong when a disastrous sequence of events threatens everything Alina has been working for throughout the book. I think this is the most compelling part of the book and no character really feels safe with some being abruptly killed off. It is a great ending, and sets up the final book very well, but like the beginning of the book it feels a bit rushed. A bit more time spent on the beginning and ending of the book and perhaps a bit less on the middle section might have made it a stronger book.
Rating : 7 / 10
“Shadow and Bone” (a.k.a. “The Gathering Dark” in the UK) is the debut novel by Leigh Bardugo. It is the first novel in the Grisha trilogy, the title of the series referring to the caste of magicians whose powers make them both envied and feared. The book is set in the Kingdom of Ravka which is divided in two by the ‘Shadow Fold’, a region of the country shrouded in eternal darkness and haunted by the monstrous Volcra ever since an arrogant and powerful Grisha’s magic escape his control centuries ago. Alina Starkov is a timid young cartographer taking part in her first crossing of the Shadow Fold who suddenly finds herself catapulted into the spotlight after she manifests a power previously unseen among the Grisha which could be a way of fighting back against the darkness of the Shadow Fold.
“Shadow and Bone” is a novel that improved significantly as it went on. The first section of the novel is reasonably entertaining but also undeniably formulaic and at this stage in the book the main character tends to be quite passive and reacts to events rather than making her own choices. This is partly due to her lack of confidence and partly due to the circumstances she finds herself in when she is abruptly plucked from obscurity after she inadvertently reveals that she has a unique power that could be the key to saving her country. She does show occasional defiance at doing what she is told to do which does show some spirit, although it can be a bit incongruous that she is so timid most of the time but can then be impertinent towards the Darkling, when he is feared by virtually the entire country. The plot appears to be going in a familiar direction when she ends up at the Little Palace, the training ground where the Grisha learn to control their magical abilities and at this point the novel does feel a bit predictable, although there are some interesting elements in the form of the magic system, the Russian-themed setting and some intriguing supporting characters.
The first half of the novel is a fairly standard Epic Fantasy coming-of-age story but it becomes more interesting after a key revelation halfway through the book which is initially surprising, but which makes sense in retrospect. Alina is forced to make a difficult decision and she becomes a more interesting character after this who gets much more character development in the second half of the novel than she does in the first. The second half of the novel is much less predictable with more dramatic tension and there are some effective scenes, what happens at Novokribirsk is particularly memorable. The characterisation of the supporting characters is a bit varied in terms of effectiveness, some of them are a bit shallow (such as Zoya, who seems to have little purpose other than to antagonise Alina) but there are some intriguing characters as well. The Darkling is perhaps the most interesting of the characters and for much of the novel it’s difficult to tell whether he is a genuine villain or misunderstood by those fearful of his powers, despite being a brooding antihero he manages to avoid feeling too much like a cliché. Genya is also an interesting character, due to the conflict between her seemingly genuine friendship with Alina and her own desires to strike back against those who have abused her, even if that might have serious consequences. Hopefully the sequels will continue this interesting character development, and introduce some other equally interesting characters.
For a debut novel this is well written and refreshingly fast-paced with a complete story (albeit one with several things left unresolved for the sequels) told in about 300 pages. After recovering from a slightly weak start this does manage to be a satisfying read and hopefully the sequels will build upon a good first book.
Rating : 7.5 / 10