Saturday, February 22, 2014

May It Be A Light in Dark Places

Title: Shadow and Bone
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: June 5, 2012

Synopsis (from Goodreads) -
The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?

Glorious. Epic. Irresistible. Romance.

My Review:
Oh, Shadow and Bone... what can I say about you?

Well, for starters -

(I suppose I ought to elaborate)

I initially read this back in 2012 when I was on the reading committee for CLAU when the short list for the Beehive Awards was being compiled for the 2013-14 season (which is being voted on right now). And my vote was YES! YES! A THOUSAND TIMES YES!!! I even harbor a slight hope that it will win this year, even up against the likes of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (side note: I read that one. I don’t see what the big deal is about it. For reasons I put in my Goodreads review. But I realize I am in the vast minority on that opinion. You may now proceed to take away my bookworm cred).

Anyway - Shadow and Bone. You know that quote about writing that goes something like "If the book you want to read doesn't exist, you must write that book"? In this case, I'm going to have to turn that statement around a bit and say that this is the book I have wanted to write for years, but I just haven't been able to make it work (I'm still gonna try, though - in my own way). But I was thrilled beyond words to discover this book the first time around and I have no idea why I never wrote a proper review of it before now.  But I re-read this recently and I got up the gumption to write about it, so here we go -

Alina Starkov is an orphan girl with one friend who has been there for her and that is Mal Oretsev. They end up in the army for the kingdom of Ravka when Alina discovers that she has the power of the legendary Sun Summoner.  The Sun Summoner has been looked for over the centuries by the Grisha, a powerful order of mages who are only beneath the king in terms of power in Ravka. The Grisha are both beautiful and terrifying to the ordinary people, being an order separate and apart from the rest of the country, but they are necessary in combating the volcra, which are creatures that live in the Unsea which divides Ravka and threatens to consume the entire country. And then, you have the usual political enemies and antagonistic neighboring countries making war with Ravka all the time - so someone like the Sun Summoner would be pretty great to have around.

Alina, however, doesn't want to be the Sun Summoner. She doesn't fit in Grisha culture (it's much like the Jedi Order, where young children are identified and taken from their families and trained in the Jedi Temple and that's the only culture they know for a long time) and it's hard for her to adhere to traditions.  She befriends Genya, a Grisha girl who is a servant of the queen (and when you find out why, you kind of want to punch something), which is truly remarkable to the other Grisha.  And the leader of the Grisha, the Darkling, basically puts himself in Alina's back pocket for reasons that I don't want to spoil because that's part of the FEELS. But really, all Alina wants to do is go back to being Mal's best friend and back to being an ordinary girl.

What makes this story work so well rests within Alina and Mal's relationship - and this is a HUGE reason why I adore this book so much.  From the start, it is established that Alina and Mal are all each other really has in this world. They grew up in the orphanage and they left the orphanage together. Alina's power is discovered when Mal's life is threatened.  In terms of love stories in YA fiction, this is honestly one of the best ones there is anywhere.  It feels real and sincere and like it could happen to anyone.  Even as Alina learns about her powers and finds out a lot of really marvelous things about herself - Mal is always that central touchstone in her life.  And it goes both ways, which is absolutely fantastic. In fact, the only reason that there is any conflict between them at all is because Alina’s powers as the Sun Summoner come out into the open and the Grisha pull them apart because that’s just how things are done with the Grisha.  You don't tell the Grisha "No." You just don't.

That kind of dovetails into my next subject - but I also love how Alina has been thrown into this new culture and she doesn’t feel like she fits in. Not because the people are bad or mean to her, necessarily. But because the Grisha are typically found as very young children and they don’t have time to learn any other way to live. In fact, the Grisha characters - particularly Genya - are so multi-faceted and multidimensional. It could have been easy to write all Grisha as narrow-minded and villainous - but they aren’t. They all have distinct personalities, even if they aren’t “on-screen” (as it were) for very long (my favorite of these minor characters is David - read the book and find out).

I also have to talk about the Darkling. Oh my holy crap, the Darkling. I’m not sure how much I want to spoil, since I want my reviews to encourage people to read these books if they haven’t already... oh, what the hell... it’s kind of obvious if you look hard enough. I love how ambiguous his character is at the beginning, though the hints are there that is is just bad news. And his interactions with Alina are so well-paced and so well-written that you do find yourself wanting them to end up together and you’re almost disgusted with yourself afterward (which makes it easy to sympathize with Alina when what happens happens). If heroes are only as good as their villains - then Alina is shaping up to be an incredible hero.

The world-building in this story is absolutely incredible. It’s more or less based around Russian culture which, between watching the Olympics in Sochi and reading a book I found on NetGalley about the Romanov sisters, has become a bit of an interest for me recently. It’s one of those hidden gems in history that gets overlooked - mostly because so much of Russian history was suppressed until comparatively recently (at least, within the course of my own lifetime - I was six when the Soviet Union fell). Western European culture becomes a template for so many fantasy novels - mostly because that’s kind of a literary touchstone for our own culture and that’s what we know the best. But it’s really cool to see other cultures being mined for ideas for fantastical settings (another excellent example is Avatar: The Last Airbender with its Asian and Inuit influences). And not just being mined for ideas, but being mined well.  In the case of Shadow and Bone, there are points where it's hard to tell where the Russian influence ends and the made-up stuff begins because it's just so seamless within the narrative.  And I appreciate that in the world building.  I like that I can say - "Okay, that part's from Russia, that part's made up, that part... um... I'm not sure..."  Then again, I like to get lost in a book's culture and background, so I like that I can just say "This is all Ravka" and be totally okay with it.

(Also, I can totally pinpoint the moment I realized why the book was called Shadow and Bone. I won't give it away, but I was quite pleased with myself when I figured it out. I'll give a hint: it was the same point I understood the cover art).

In conclusion - Shadow and Bone. Go read it NOW! And then go find the second one, Siege and Storm. And then go preorder Ruin and Rising because the ending promises to be one hell of a finale.  And then go cry because this story is so great we still have a few more months to wait.

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