Review: Shadow and Bone

When it came time to decide on my next read I was tossing up between this book and another fantasy novel. I decided on this and put the other one aside for another time and I have to say that I’m damn glad I did. Shadow and Bone is one of the most entertaining books I have read in a long time and definitely one of the best of this year for me.

Shadow and Bone is set in a fantasy world, Ravka, which is split in two by a large area known as the Fold, a great wasteland of darkness inhabited by cruel and fearsome creatures known as the Volcra. Anyone who tries to travel through the Fold to the coast on the other side faces danger and almost certain death. Ravka is populated by people that are split into two overall groups – those that are ‘normal’ and those who carry magical abilities within them, known as the Grisha. This world is ruled by a human King and the Grisha are overseen by a powerful, mysterious and terrifying being known as the Darkling who, to his chagrin, is subservient to the monarch.

The book essentially tells the story of war orphan Alina Starkov and her journey from sickly outcast who is nothing special, to her rebirth as a unique Grisha – the Sun Summoner. Her childhood friend, fellow orphan and eventual expert tracker, Mal, is very important in her life. Her relationship with him is her touchstone, something she has taken strength from in her most difficult moments. This becomes complicated and fraught as she moves away from the girl he knew to the woman she is growing into. We are taken through Alina’s awakening of spirit, mind and heart as she navigates danger and the unknown.

As with most of the fantasy I have read (not a whole hell of a lot) there is a ton more going on but I don’t want to spoil it for any of you that might want to read Shadow and Bone in the future. But I do want to talk about what I loved about it … which was pretty much everything.

Even though the story is set in a fictional world, it appears to be drawing heavily from the Russian culture. Many of the words of the native language of Ravka are intimately related to that of the Russian language and while I’m not an expert on Russia, the natural landscape seems modelled on that vast land. And it’s not just that. The actual structure of society seems to hark back to the time of Imperial Russia and the Tzars. There is a grotesquely wealthy elite right at the top, enjoying the best of everything in life, vast palaces, the finest clothes, the most delicious food. And on the other side or should I say many rungs below are the peasants or normal folk who live a simple life off the land as farmers and are the ones most affected by the wars being fought and the dangerous power games being played.

I think this book is really well written. It sets a fast pace when moving the story through its various stages which is quite an achievement considering all the world building that is taking place. Some books get bogged down and slow to a narrative crawl as they try to set the scene but not so here. And this tempo is not at the expense of the story. We still get everything we need to understand and enjoy. But beware – the ending is very open ended with no overall resolution to the long term issues and problems facing the world of Ravka and the characters. This is of course because it is the first in a trilogy of books so there are many more trials and adventures to take place before we as readers reach that final end point. I had no problem with this whatsoever. I was left satisfied with the immediate conclusion to events but very much hooked into wanting to know what happens next.

And there are other signs that this is a beginning. Some seeds are sown for future plot stands the most obvious being a pointed reference to an absent younger son of the King who sounds like a hero in waiting and I am certain we will be seeing him at some stage – I can’t wait!

I also really enjoyed the characters, especially Alina, our heroine which was a good thing (if she hadn’t worked that would have been a real problem). I thought she was multi-dimensional, intelligent if more than a bit naive, sassy and strong willed without being annoying, strong yet vulnerable, loyal and persistent. I was really willing her to succeed as the controller and overseer of her abilities and in her pursuit of a true happiness as well as trying to grapple and understand her new responsibilities. Mal, her closest friend was equally likeable (if a bit boring compared to others in the narrative) although he did exit the direct narrative for a bit and I missed him when he did. And we can’t go a beat without mentioning the Darkling who was seductive, menacing, scary and dammit, I liked it when he was around, being super mysterious and elusive. I know he is the ‘baddie’ but he presents such a fascinating character that we all want to know more about. Yes, some of the secondary or minor characters were two dimensional representations of certain traits but that didn’t bother me. If the author included the backstory of every named Grisha, the book would have been much longer. They served the purpose they were meant to and hey, they may reappear in the later books.

The themes present in Shadow and Bone were also very interesting and able to be sympathised with. Identity and belonging were strong within the story alongside connection and friendship. Not wanting to feel alone and isolated from people, not in the physical sense but emotionally. If we are closed off we lose the ability to empathise and become open to darker influences. Manipulation and corruption of the soul rear their head and we are shown the devastating consequences of this. Evil, both of a subtle insidious nature and an open, blatant force, is constantly there and the author shows how people can be seduced by it and become tolerant of it. But of course to counteract this there is love. We are shown how love can survive even the most difficult of trials and push people to do things they never thought possible. All is not lost if there is love.

And I also loved the magic system that exists in the universe as presented. It was interesting and to my inexperienced fantasy eye, unusual. I thought the different facets of Grisha magic and abilities were well explained in that it was understandable without being dense  and unreachable especially for someone like me who has not read much of this genre. And the book as a whole laid a great foundation for more to come from that aspect. 

As I said at the beginning, I totally enjoyed this wonderful book and it is a great introduction to the world of Ravka, the Grisha and the life and journey of Alina Starkov. I am thrilled to have read it and am very excited to delve again into the series in the near future. 

Rating: 5 Stars

(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)