The protagonist: Alina Starkov, an orphan of the everlasting Border Wars, now a teenage cartographer in the First Army defending the (fictional) country of Ravka. As the novel begins, Alina–and the powerful Grisha nobility that rules Ravka–learns that she has an as-yet-undiscovered power that could be the key to saving the country.
The gist in 100 words or less: Ravka is perpetually plagued by the Shadow Fold, a pitch-dark slice of land overrun by man-eating monsters that thrive in darkness. As the First Army attempts to cross the Fold, Alina discovers her own rare power…and all of a sudden, she is Very Important. Alina is torn from Mal and the Army and taken to live and train with the magical, opulent Grisha and serve the Darkling, their brooding, powerful and mysterious leader. As she becomes engulfed by the pretentious Grisha lifestyle, Alina struggles with her new identity, her power and the truth behind the Wars and the Fold.
Great stuff: Ravka is so real and so delightfully dark. Its culture and lore play an important role in the story, and I loved how Bardugo doesn’t really explain any of it–we have to figure out historical and cultural references in context just as Alina would. This also prevents Shadow and Bone from becoming too descriptive and laden with background information, even though it’s set in a Very Different World.
The scenes at Os Alta with the Grisha are terrifically over-the-top and Great Gatsby-esque, and Alina struggles very realistically with the existence of this wealth given her pretty destitute background…and yet is very tempted to give herself over to it.
Also, the Darkling is an excellent character, mysterious and quiet and powerful and quite swoonalicious.
Meh: Alina. She was too typical (“I’m so plain!” “I don’t want this power!”) and pretty whiny. Her power is kick-butt, though, and she ultimately makes the right decisions, but it takes her too long to Get With It.
Also, there is some frustration on Amazon and Goodreads regarding how much research, or lack thereof, Bardugo has done in order to accurately incorporate “Russian” language and culture into the story. Let me be clear: Cultural sensitivity is extremely important despite how flippant we often are about it. But…it’s not actually Russia, and this is a fantasy novel, and a fun, dark, compelling one at that. So…can we just…
Best quote: “The grounds surrounding the Grand Palace had been lit up to showcase tableaus of actors and little troupes of acrobats performing for wandering guests. Masked musicians strolled the paths. A man with a monkey on his shoulder ambled past, and two men covered from head to toe in gold leaf rode by on zebras, throwing jeweled flowers to everyone they passed. Costumed choirs sang in the trees. A trio of redheaded dancers splashed around in the double-eagle fountain, wearing little more than seashells and coral and holding up platters full of oysters to guests.” (211)
Parent/teacher alert: Moderate violence–someone gets magically cut in half, and the Volcra, well…they eat people. There is quite a bit of kissing and the suggestion of More Than Kissing, but not an explicit one. This book is dark–dark places, dark intentions, deception, opulence, oppression, fear, war etc.
Not good for: If you don’t like fantasy and/or don’t like dark stuff, I would avoid this one.
What my students think: I had a couple literacy students pick it up but I’m not sure they finished. I’ll definitely recommend it to my fantasy-lovers much more highly now that I’ve read it, though.