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“Shadow and Bone” by Leigh Bardugo


“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

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