Shadow and Bone review
Set in a world inspired by Russian folklore, this is the first book in a young adult fantasy trilogy that had all the ingredients to be a great read. Unfortunately, so many things fell short of the mark, they didn’t even get off the ground. The first being the name of a group of people called the Grisha, mainly because this sounds like a nickname. It’d be like calling an army Becky; that’s how much sense it makes.
I found the magic system to be superficial. Was it because I wasn’t paying attention or was it because there wasn’t a lot there to begin with. In the land of Ravka, there is an ongoing war that threatens the people. Creatures called Volcra infest the Fold and the Darkling and the other Grisha are fighting at the front line. I wasn’t sure who the antagonist was supposed to be. The Darkling, the king, the volcra? All that was clear was the Alina was the hero and she was special even though noting in the plot, her characterisation or her abilities pointed to this.
Alina apparently exhibits some special ability that means the Darkling, the most powerful Grisha, needs her to help defeat the Fold. But as I read the scene where this amazing talent manifested, I didn’t get the impression she was doing anything ground-breaking. It is a simple and effective structure of a fantasy story. The protagonist has powers that have been hidden or gone unnoticed for most of their lives, they discover their powers, they learn to control them and then they save the day. But Alina’s power as a Sun Summoner didn’t read as special as the author wanted to make her out to be. I may be incorrect, as a reader who found nothing convincing in this book, but Alina could make a blinding light; that’s it. That doesn’t seem like something to get excited about but this isn’t my fantasy world so let’s just see where the story goes and fully understand the world Bardugo has built.
Alina is quickly hidden away amongst the elite Grisha where she must learn to control this Sun Summoner ability that apparently no one else can do. She struggles to learn how to even manifest her power let alone control it. Again, a normal plot point in fantasy, yet it irks me how she seems quite useless and she is important for a reason I am completely dissatisfied with. Instead of developing how to channel powers, show the reader how Grisha use their abilities, we are given the briefest encounters with any actual instruction and instead given pages and pages of her getting her hair and makeup done, some magical and non-invasive cosmetic treatments and how much she is attracted to the Darkling. It wouldn’t be so annoying if it helped justify the authors premise, but it doesn’t.
There are so many inane gender and cultural stereotypes that it’s difficult to know where to begin the critique. The emphasis on how female characters are deemed worthy because of their beauty is oversaturated. Genya is too beautiful and therefore unable to be liked or considered useful in any practical capacity. But Alina is not so attractive that she’s a threat but not so plain that she could be looked over. This is an awful way to categorise the female characters, especially as the book is aimed for a young adult audience. The level of girl hate is also cliché and poorly executed. Zoya hates Alina because she’s a threat to her position and Alina hates Zoya because Zoya hates her. We are given no substantial ground for most of the superficial conflict between the Grisha, they hate each other simply to keep he plot moving. There is no logic behind this other than a conformity to the patriarchal ideology that all women are in competition for a man’s affection, in this case, the favour of the Darkling. Aside from this, the secondary characters are flat, nothing of any consequence rendering them memorable or in fact personable; they are simply there to either reinforce Alina’s superiority or to directly tell the reader what they need to think. Many character could have been edited out of the story because they served no purpose other than to tell the reader something important.
That brings me onto the unimaginative cultural concepts. As someone with a thin grasp of the Russian language, I was surprised by my apparent superiority as I found the references and attempted use of language to be completely under-researched. It’s like most of the apparent Russian cultural references were quickly googled when writing and not even fact checked. I personally wouldn’t have named a place Novokribirsk because it just looks like she spelled Novosibirsk (An actual place in Russia) wrong. I’m not even going to get started on the “Little Ghost” phrase. Also, the way the Asian cultures were constructed was equally as offensive.
“He was almost handsome, but he had the king’s weak chin and eyes so heavy lidded that it was hard to tell if he was tired or just supremely bored.”
This quote sound like an ignorant ethic description unapologetically throw in because it would be too much hard work to find inoffensive ways of describing people. I could have forgiven the weak plot as this is a trilogy. I could have forgiven the weak characters if the plot was good and I could have forgiven the weak plot if the characters were compelling but alas, none of it was.
As Bardugo’s first book, I dearly hope she learnt what not to do in any piece of writing she partakes in the future.