I’m not sure why it took me so long to read this book. I think it was the fact that I didn’t like the original British edition and that, for some weird reason, my legal deposit library doesn’t have it. So when I came across it in Waterstones on one of my many bookshop trips with Victoria, and that I saw the improved AND holographic (yes, you’ve read correctly!) cover, I decided it was time to splash out. A mere £4 later, thanks to Victoria’s mum’s Waterstones card, I kept eying my newly acquired precious, wondering whether to stop reading what I was reading already and start it, or be reasonable and wait.
In the end, I decided to be reasonable, until Samantha Shannon started tweeting all these bits and bobs about the book. I hadn’t realised how heavily Russia-influenced it had been before all her tweets, but that’s when the Russian graduate in me kicked in. Behold, drinker of fermented potato juice (that’s vodka for you and me), it was time to see what this book is made of!
Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev have been friends since the day Mal arrived at Keramzin, Duke Keramsov’s estate and orphanage. Respectively enrolled in the First Army as a cartographer and a soldier, both are on their way to the Shadow Fold, a deep and nearly impenetrable darkness that constantly grows and is home to a myriad of horrors.
The mission is to go through the Shadow Fold – also known as the Unsea – in order to reach the coast of Ravka. But the expedition is greatly perilous and it is hard for Alina and Mal to ignore their fear. As their ship enters the Shadow Fold and is quickly swallowed by the darkness, hordes of volcras (flying creatures that feast on human flesh!) assail them, taking one of Alina’s fellow cartographers and attacking Mal.
With Mal bleeding to death, Alina’s feelings of anger and grief know no limit and spark to life the extraordinary source of power that was kept deep within her. Although Alina had tested negative for magic, the considerable and unique power she possesses has drawn the attention of the Darkling, the youthful and powerful leader of the elite magical fighting force known as the Grisha.
Taken back to Os Alta to train as a Grisha, Alina discovers what her new position entails and, through the hardship of learning to control her power, realises how much she longs for Mal and her old life. But as her skills improve and life at court becomes more bearable, things are about to change drastically on the night of the yearly performance in celebration of spring. Warned by the Darkling’s own mother that she is in danger, Alina escapes, leaving Os Alta, the Grisha and Mal behind…
Now I’m not gonna lie, it took me a while to get the spark that would hook me. At first all I could see was the lack of patronymic, one too many mentions of that horrid thing called kvas (if you ever see some, stay away from it. It’s vile!) and the fact that the genderisation of surnames was all over the place. And then I told my inner Russian graduate to fluff off, because I was the only one who cared about these things, and that it’s a book of fiction and it was simply inspired by Russia. It doesn’t have to be accurate about anything, so why bother noting all this stuff?
So yeah, forget Russia, Ravka is not the Motherland. Although at first I did find the story a tad tedious because I was so eager to get to the really exciting part, I can assure I was not disappointed when that part came. Oh boy. It comes hard and fast, and leaves you breathless, wanting even more.
I love it when some kind of training or teaching or learning is involved, and I thoroughly enjoyed Alina’s time at Os Alta. The transformation she went through, her getting used to being Grisha, the loss of Mal were all intricately written and exquisite on the eye. The heavy Russian folklore influence made it easier for me to identify to the characters, the places and the story in general. It felt a bit like being told tales, and I greatly admire Bardugo’s work and research in that respect.
Shadow and Bone has that distinct foreign feel, but the «russianised» backdrop allows the reader to feel more at home. Packed with magic, I feel an epic in the making and I am looking forward to reading more of it! I want to learn more about Ravka and its surroundings, about the Darkling and the Shadow Fold. Leigh Bardugo’s debut novel is a promising one and I highly recommend it.