Published: 5th June 2012
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Trigger warnings: Animal death, sexual exploitation
Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.
The Grisha trilogy has been a long-term resident on my TBR, but it was only the impending arrival of a Netflix adaptation that finally prompted me to make it a priority read. Having now breezed through this opening instalment, I can reflect on an enjoyable and engaging book that is brilliantly imagined and teeming with strong, thoughtful concepts.
It is a story that fits perfectly into the young adult fantasy genre, creating a world with vivid settings and characters, while also providing an injection of humour and a steady pace that ensures action is rarely very far away. These positive aspects were accompanied by the occasional flaw, but there was more than enough to look upon the rest of the series with anticipation.
Alina Starkov and Malyan Oretsev are both orphans who have been taken in by a wealthy duke in the kingdom of Ravka. When they are eight years old, three mysterious visitors arrive to assess them in order to find out if either possesses a special power that sets them apart as Grisha; a group of people who practice the Small Science and have the ability to control the natural world.
Neither of them are found to be Grisha, and years later Alina and Mal are now members of the Ravka First Army. They attempt to cross the Shadow Fold, a treacherous place inhabited by savage creatures called Volcra. When her life is put in danger, Alina somehow conjures a blinding light that rescues them, and she is brought before the mysterious Darkling.
Serenaded as the Sun Summoner, Alina is taken to the Little Palace, a majestic place within the royal court where she learns to enhance her newfound Grisha abilities. The Darkling clearly has special plans for her and she is determined to impress him, but as the full extent of her power is unleashed, she also realises her unspoken feelings for Mal.
The book was a little slow to get going initially, but soon the pace picked up and it became an absorbing ride with the help of a great – and rather sudden – twist about two thirds of the way through. There were some interesting themes explored along the way and with an impressive degree of subtlety, the result of which is that some characters turned out to be much more complex than it had appeared in the beginning.
I may be in a minority here, but I had some issues with the world-building. The settings are rich in detail and brilliantly described, from the lavish extravagance of the Little Palace to the icy and oppressive landscapes. However, there was a lack of emphasis on important aspects such as the hierarchy of Ravka and the various types of Grisha, so I hope this is expanded on considerably more in the remainder of the trilogy.
With the exception of the prologue and epilogue, the whole book is told in the first person from the perspective of Alina. I found her quite a likeable character, and what impressed me most about the way she was written was that the author really captures her feeling of not having earned her place as a Grisha. Alina may not be an optimist, but I found her to be humble and believable in the context of the story.
By contrast, I did have some problems with Mal. His relationship with Alina is a powerful driving force in the book, but he is badly underdeveloped and that made me feel a lot less invested in him as a character. Although he grew up with Alina, we are barely given much of a backstory and there was nothing that enabled me to build any connection towards him.
In some way, the supporting characters were much more compelling, and certainly very memorable. The Darkling is shrewd and contains many different sides to his personality, which leaves you hanging on every word he says. There was more than an element of mystery about the Apparat and his vague pronouncements, so I am intrigued to find out more about him. Meanwhile, Bhagra was a fun character to read, and I was very much taken by Genya, who is the most multi-layered of them all.
The final chapters are dramatic and suspenseful, and although there is a romance within the book which I expect will continue through the series, here it never supersedes the main plot. For the first book in a trilogy there are relatively few things that are left unresolved, but plenty of the concepts will surely be revisited further down the line. I loved the setting of the Little Palace, so I am hoping for more events to take place there.
Overall, this was a fun and fast paced read which had me absorbed and continuing to turn the pages. With the exception of Mal, the characters were fascinating and brought so much to the story, while the plot was very well thought out. This was my first foray into the Grishaverse, and I am looking forward to the next one.
Since publishing Shadow and Bone in 2012, Leigh Bardugo has become one of the most popular authors in the fantasy genre. It is the first of multiple novels set in the Grishaverse, with this trilogy followed by the Six Of Crows duology and the standalone books King Of Scars and and The Language Of Thorns.
In 2019, she released her first adult fantasy novel Ninth House, which won numerous awards and is being adapted by Amazon. A Netflix series for the Grisha trilogy is currently in post-production. Bardugo was born in Jerusalem, and currently lives in Los Angeles.
There were a lot of things to like about this book, and I am excited to see what the rest of the Grishaverse has in store.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5