Ravka: fantasy Russia, with magic. This country’s only access to the sea is cut off by the Shadow Fold, a stretch of land full of darkness and demon-like creatures, so the Ravkans are landlocked and stuck in a decades-long war with their neighbours. Their economy sucks and their politicians are all idiots. Or evil. Or both. But, hey, at least unemployment is down because the army’s always looking for fresh recruits. Our protagonist Alina is a trainee mapmaker in the army, and the story starts with Alina and her team preparing to cross the Fold. I liked that. There’s one obviously interesting place on the map, where I as a reader know that some interesting action will take place, and we’re already starting from here instead of taking a long boring journey from the protagonist’s home town.
…Obviously my hopes were dashed: they take two steps into the Fold and then realize that Alina has magic, so she’s sent back for training in the boring part of the map. The middle of the book was very stagnant, with the usual plot of the protagonist trying to control her powers, but I thought starting the book near the Fold was cool because it gave me a taste of what was outside the Little Palace and made me eager to read on and see what would happen when Alina finally went back. What also kept me interested was that the book subverted many of my expectations. I literally groaned when I saw the signs of an impending romance, and even considered giving up on the book because it felt like the author was just throwing a love triangle in to be like every other YA writer (between a childhood friend and a tall dark stranger, to boot!) but in the end I stuck with it. I’m glad I did: the resolution of the love triangle was very satisfying and not at all what I expected. I’d say more, but I think this book is more enjoyable to read with a minimal amount of spoilers.
As a protagonist, Alina was okay. I got very frustrated with her during the middle of the book because at first she scoffs at the ostentation displayed at the Little Palace, but then she wastes almost a whole chapter describing how she got ready for the ball, and her new clothes, and how her hair was all pretty, to the point that she didn’t seem the same person any more. But later on Alina herself recognizes that she’d been dazzled by life at court, so it’s okay Alina, I forgive you. I don’t mind characters fucking up and having some serious flaws, as long as that’s acknowledged, and in that respect Shadow and Bone was very good. It also does a good job of walking the line between Alina feeling guilty because she doesn’t have the power to vanquish the Shadow Fold and Alina knowing that she shouldn’t feel guilty about that because it’s kind of a tall order for someone who only just found out about her powers. What I didn’t like about Alina was that she spends most of the book being ordered around: she almost never decides what to do for herself, and when she does she’s only choosing between what one person told her or what someone else told her. She only truly makes her own choices in the last couple of chapters, and then she kicks ass, so I’m really hoping she’ll do more thinking for herself in the sequel.
My only real quibble with the book is that the secondary characters were very secondary. We don’t get much about Mal, Genya, or the Darkling, and as for everyone else there might as well be cardboard cutouts instead of people living in the Little Palace. The short story The Tailor (spoilery, read after the book) delves a little into Genya’s backstory, but there’s still little depth to the characters. Even Alina is not as fleshed out as she could be. Did everyone at the orphanage join the army, or did she join because Mal was going to? Why become a mapmaker in particular? The magic system is cool but I wished for more details. Do the Grisha make gestures when casting magic? Or is it all in their head, so to say? The setting also feels bland: the characters are dressed in keftas and fur hats, they drink tea and kvas, they address their sovereigns as Tsar and Tsaritsa and pray to their Saints, but that felt purely aestethic. Yes, they’re in fantasy Russia, but they may as well be anywhere else. They didn’t have that way of thinking and talking that made me think “yes, this is a completely different world”.
Overall it’s a good start for a series and I’m hoping there will be more details about the setting in the next book. Plus, y’know, the Darkling. Okay, he’s a douche, but I have a literary type and that type is manipulative assholes, so he’s right up my alley. There was some initial squick because ew a hundred-year-old dude hitting on a teenager, but when I got to his backstory I totally understood why he did what he did, while at the same time hoping that… er, spoilers. Suffice to say that I was very happy when I figured out the meaning of the title, because that’s one cool piece of foreshadowing.