Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo

The first book in a YA fantasy series often feels like a first date with a guy you met off Tinder. Their are three likely outcomes: hit, miss or meh. I’ve yet to decide how I feel about this book, so I guess my reaction falls into the meh category.

There were bits of it that I liked. I know that world-building is a key element in YA fantasy and its something that most book reviewers will discuss ad infinitum when deciding whether a series has merits or not. Fine. I get it, we need the kind of writing that will transport us to another world figuratively if not literally.

But for me, the characters always come first. And I like the cast of characters that Leigh Bardugo has assembled in this book. The Grisha are a fascinating lot – equal parts magicians, scientists and (from the author’s descriptions of them) incredibly good-looking supermodels. They can heal, stop your heart, forge weapons without fire, or summon light and darkness.

Alina, the main female character, is less annoying than your usual teenage protagonist. Sure, she succumbed to the usual flaw of YA heroines everywhere (finding herself in the middle of a love triangle) but I’m beginning to think that this trope is the lynchpin that holds the entire YA fantasy genre together. Its like an unwritten rule: if you write YA fantasy, you need to make your heroine choose between two equally fascinating guys. I would blame Stephenie Meyer for this, but I’d be wasting my breath.

I will instead adopt a new attitude and choose to accept and even embrace the idea of love triangles.

I empathise with Alina, truly. Reading this I really couldn’t decide whether I was more in love with the bad boy Darkling – the most powerful of all Grisha – or boy next door Mal. So who am I to stand judgment on Alina for dithering? I would dither myself. Some readers would probably hate that the romance sort of took over the latter half of the book, but I think the bonds Alina created with both these men were essential to us understanding the choices she made in the end, and sets the tone for what the rest of the series would be like. I, for one, find myself excited to explore how these tangled relationships will turn out.

That’s not to say that we don’t get our share of action and magic. I’ve always loved the scenes in books and movies where a hero or heroine is in training and are just starting to come to terms with the things they can do. I especially like when they start out as underdogs, doubtful of their worth or their place in the world they now find themselves in – just like Harry Potter and Hogwarts. It makes that moment of revelation and understanding, that moment when they use their powers for the first time, even more satisfying – overused as that trope may be.

I liked the blending of influences found in the fantasy elements of the story. The concept of amplifiers, an object that both enhances and checks a Grisha’s power, is something I’m looking forward to learning more about in future books. I like that the purported villains in this book – the Volcra, the things that hide in the shadows, and even the Darkling himself – are portrayed with care and depth. Nothing and no one is as they seem, and there are motived behind motives, secrets behind secrets.

We also get taken on a journey through Ravka as a country. Here the critics can explore whether or not Leigh Bardugo’s world-building skills are up to scratch. For me, though I was a bit underwhelmed by the setting, I didn’t think she did half bad. The descriptions of the places and people were vivid and atmospheric enough. I can see the glittering halls of the Grand and Little Palace through my mind’s eyes, feel the snowflakes falling on my skin and the cold wind biting into my bones.

I do wish that we could have spent more time in the Shadowfold – that sinister stretch of land covered in darkness that makes Ravka a divided nation. For something so crucial to the plot, the scenes in that place almost felt like an afterthought or just another plot device. Maybe that was deliberate. I have a feeling we’ll be going back to it when we move forward with the books. The Shadowfold is where it all began, I have a feeling there is where it will all end.

I try not to go into Goodreads before starting a series because I don’t want to be influenced by other reviewers…but I couldn’t help myself. There seems to be a great deal of different opinions with this one, and I think its the kind of book that polarises readers: you either really love it or hate it. As I said, I’m still firmly in the meh, we shall see category. The only thing I can say for sure at this point is that I will be going to my nearest Waterstone’s and buying the second book in the series to find out what happens next.

Bring on the second date.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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