Double Book Review: Shadow & Bone

We were both a little hyped about this book even though we tried not to be. For Krispy, it failed to pan out; for Alz, it failed to pan out even more.  We both read this one and so here's a double review!

(Alz speaking here: Since I'm putting the final post together, I'm going to jam in as many awesome pictures of colorful dome-topped Russian buildings as I can because I love the eye candy and got overexcited when trawling Wikipedia.  There are similar buildings mentioned in the book, but not nearly as many as I'm going to scatter throughout this post.)

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Pros: Russian-based fantasy setting, the ambiguous maybe-evil-maybe-not Darkling, awesome prologue.
Cons: Alina is a mopey self-pitying self-victimizing heroine; too many plot devices; too many plot-twists & character epiphanies that have little to no setup.

Intellectual Rating: Krispy:  4 out of 10 stars /
                                  Alz:  3 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: Krispy:  C/C- / Alz:  D

Book Blurb: (from Goodreads) 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.

Krispy's Take: While there were definitely elements that I liked about this book, I came away from it feeling underwhelmed. I suppose that's what I get for letting the hype sway me, but that isn't to say this is a bad book. As usual with a very hyped book, I can see why so many people love this. I certainly liked aspects of this book as well. So let's start with those.

I enjoyed the world-building, though I wish there was more depth and look forward to this in the next book. While not as mind-blowingly original as some have touted it to be, Ravka was still refreshing and even at times enchanting. The Russian-inspiration is loosely threaded throughout the world so that there's just enough of it to be recognizable without it becoming "Russia but with magic!" I've seen some criticisms of the inexpert use of Russian influences but since I'm woefully unfamiliar with Russian culture, I don't feel comfortable commenting on the accuracy (or lack thereof) of that. Suffice to say, it didn't bother me because of my lack of familiarity, but I understand where this kind of criticism comes from since I tend to be more sensitive to fantasy worlds built on Asian cultural influences that end up being exoticized/inaccurate/or too much like a direct transposing of the real world culture into a magical world & just slapping another name on it.

All Religions Temple.

Still, the Russian/Eastern European feel of Ravka was a nice change of pace from the usual. From the deadly and intriguing Shadow Fold to the fairy-tale-like gilded halls of the king's palace to the frigid but beautiful terrain of Tsibeya, the world felt expansive. The settings were familiar but new, and I loved that the in-universe folklore continued to pull from Slavic and Scandinavian influences. (E.g. I really enjoyed the Celestial Quadruped. No, seriously. I took a Scandinavian folklore course in college, where I learned about this motif/mystical creature and I loved it.) I also liked the set-up of the Grisha and the idea that their magic is sort of a science. I liked that we actually get into the Magic System/ Magic Theory of the world (though again, not quite enough of this), and I hope to see more of that in the next book.

Celestial Quadruped as depicted by Alz.
My favorite part of the book was The Darkling. He is powerful, mysterious, feared, and (my favorite thing) ambiguous. His reputation seems to be at constant odds with the way he treats the main character, Alina. Every time he appeared, I had to wonder what his game was, and while I was (again) a little underwhelmed by the reveal regarding his plans, I appreciated the reasoning. I liked that his shadiness had a line of logic to it, and there was always something change-able about his character that I found intriguing. I think this was one of the strengths of the book; attention was paid to its antagonist.

That said, I think my main issue, why this book is ultimately not something I loved, is Alina. I just can't get behind Alina as the narrating MC. I appreciate that she's insecure and lonely and desperate for a sense of belonging, but seriously, the lady doth protest too much! A good chunk of the book is spent with Alina adamantly insisting that she COULD NOT POSSIBLY be special because she is just so PLAIN and ORDINARY. Even when her power manifests and is proven to be legitimate, she clings to this idea that she can't, oh she just can't be special, really. No really, she's can't be. CAN'T.

Except that she is. And I know realistically, insecurity like that doesn't go away even in the face of proof, but it was a little MUCH how absolutely convinced she was of her flaws. Also, it frustrated me that instead of taking her "specialness" as maybe something to be positive about, she goes about it in a resigned way. I get that she really wants to belong and her "specialness" separates her more, but it's like it never occurs to her that it might be kind of cool to have the power she has or have the opportunities that she now has. And at one point, it's like she actually gives up and decides she's just going to wait for (literally) a Magical Plot Device to fix things for her, at which point, I actively disliked her.

And it's also a little peculiar that she feels so strongly about her being an outcast because in any given situation, Alina seems to always have at least one ally/friend, and it doesn't seem like groups at large are especially keeping their distance from her. If anything, she seems to be the one actively distancing herself from the group, and while I can understand this desire to be alone or to protect oneself from rejection by avoiding it all together, her "outcast" status seems at least partly self-imposed.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

While Alina didn't actively annoy me (most of the time), she was very frustrating and if I were to describe her in one word, it would be "mopey." I can deal with mopey heroines when the situation calls for it, but after a while, I really didn't think Alina's situation warranted this level of constant mopey-ness. Her insecurities do play into her character arc / a driving point of the plot, but the execution of that was lacking. There were aspects about Alina that I didn't realize until a third of the way through the book that might have made me more sympathetic to her insecurities if I had known them, and they would have set up for her realizations and subsequent transformation. For example, I thought something about her physical description was caused by her recent stressful environments, not that it was a long-term condition of hers. But since these things were not clear, the resolution/change in Alina happens too quickly. I'm cool with psycho-somatic issues that are solved or vastly improved by some kind of character-driven breakthrough, but for Alina, it was literally like a switch flipped and she went from Ugly Duckling to Swan Princess. Again, it was a little much.

Not to mention predictable. That was the other big reason why I came away from this book underwhelmed. The plot was fairly straightforward and typical in the sense that maybe it wasn't exactly predictable, but every time a plot twist happened, I found myself not surprised.

For example, in any 90s teen romantic comedy, the nerdy/geeky/outcast boy/girl always somehow gets picked up by a popular kid or group, who help him/her break into the upper echelons of High School society. There's always a Mean Girl or Jock to deal with, and there's always a dramatic makeover in which the outcast is shown to actually be very attractive. And given these premises, you can probably guess how the rest of the movie is going to go.

Anne Hathaway (Princess Mia) post-makeover in The Princess Diairies.
Because you know, we couldn't tell that Anne Hathaway is gorgeous.

Both Alina's character arc and the plot follow a prototypical path, which is fine (I mean, I'm totally into some of those 90s high school flicks) but not what I'd call amazingly original. Plus, the book's plot takes a long backseat to Alina's character arc, which would have been okay if it had been more interesting or if I had liked Alina more.

The writing itself is serviceable with some moments that lend itself to real loveliness (e.g. some of Alina's memories of Mal and their childhood, and particularly the beautiful prologue), but I also found it to be at times a little too "telling." Like paragraphs that made it clear what Alina thought of a person in a subtle way would then be followed up by a line that explicitly told me what Alina thought of that person, which was not only unnecessary but also made it feel heavy-handed. However, I did like how the Epilogue works with the Prologue to book-end the story in quite a nice way.

Krispy's Conclusion: Alz, of course, has more to say on a number of things - inconsistencies in character and plot, logistics and plausibility - and I do agree mostly, but my section is getting long. So these were my main thoughts about the book. I think, overall, it has a lot of good elements and a good framework, but it just doesn't quite come together for me. I kept wanting MORE depth, and I hope to get that in Book 2. Because, I'm not gonna lie, despite the flaws Alz pointed out in his character & plans, and despite the fact that he may or may not be evil, I'm quite enthralled by the Darkling. What can I say? I've got a soft spot for shady dudes with dark powers and beautiful faces. (And he's called THE DARKLING, which is awesome.)

So yeah, I'll be back for Book 2. I just pray Alina's over her Mope.


Alz's Take: I hated this book. Not a deep and abiding hatred worthy of a spot on my Crime Against Literature shelf, but a blah-how-typical gosh-this-is-predictable WTF-this-plot-only-makes-surface-sense sort of hatred. Since Krispy read it first and warned me beforehand that I'd probably dislike it, I was prepared for the experience, which still undercut my grossly lowered expectations. Nevertheless, like Krispy, I can see the appeal and there are a few good elements.

The world is atypical since it's Russian-based fantasy, and the settings and culture come through nicely clear. I have marginally more familiarity with Russian culture than Krispy but not enough for me to pinpoint most of the instances where the author was playing fast and loose with facts and language. I won't comment on it because I don't have the awareness, but the fact that there is so much outcry does rub me a little the wrong way since it brings to mind how aghast I was when I learned that many Avatar: The Last Airbender fans didn't know it was Asian-based and thought it was pure fantasy.

Church of the Savior, St. Petersburg
I did have a few issues with the Shadow Fold, namely because it ended up being just another plot device. I thought we'd get more insight into how it was made and maybe what has been done to combat it or other interesting stuff. But we never find out much about it—it was created and there it is and it's a problem and that's it. Meanwhile, I'm just sitting there trying to figure out how this kingdom has existed for 500 years split in twain and suffering "massive casualties" (10) every time they cross the Shadow Fold—which they seem to do pretty frequently. How big is the Fold anyway? There's a map in the front of the book, but it sure seems like the Fold is pretty narrow/quick to cross considering events in the book—i.e. it seemed like minutes instead of hours.

Unlike Krispy, I felt that the Magic System/Magic Theory was barely touched upon. Yes, they regard their magic as a science (they call it "the Small Science") and there's a token paragraph or two talking about the theory of "like calls to like"—but as I recall, Alina actually says something like, "Oh, and there's more, but it's kinda complicated and I don't get it." Ah, here we go:

"[Couple o' paragraphs on how Grisha magic is just manipulating matter on fundamental levels.] But if I understood what we did, I was less sure of how we did it. The grounding principle of the Small Science was 'like calls to like,' but then it got complicated. Odinakovost was the 'thisness' of a thing that made it the same as everything else. Etovost was the 'thatn'esso of a thing that made it different from everything else. Odinakovost connected Grisha to the world, but it was etovost that gave them an affinity for something like air, or blood, or [SPOILER]. Around then, my head started swimming." (148-149)
I appreciate that she touches upon it, but that's all the explanation we get. If you're going to be both vague and specific as well as teasery, don't even bother. I expect this will be expanded on in the sequel but I don't even understand why they call it a science since they don't appear to treat it at all like a science except for the Fabrikators, whom we barely glimpse and all they're doing is creating things in a magical process that is never explained.
For a great example of magic-as-a-science as well as magic-in-the-military,
check out the anime/manga Fullmetal Alchemist.
I did like the Darkling though. He is an ambiguous, powerful, mysterious figure, and his relationship with Alina is equal parts intriguing and suspicious. But whenever any Big Reveals concerning the Darkling happened, I found myself rolling my eyes. All that mystery and intrigue went the way of Surface Logic Only—dive any deeper and the plot/motivations/explanations start falling apart. I also disliked what was revealed because it fell along the lines of extremely genre-typical Grandiose Plot.

Incidentally, it also bothered me that Alina took everything at face value and started drawing connections from extremely vague bits of ambiguous dialogue. Nor did she ever consider that hey, maybe all this [BLANK] might be a good thing, considering [BLANK] and what everyone else thinks of [BLANK] and how [BLANK] has been at [BLANK] for [BLANK]. Do you like how I avoided all those spoilers?

But let's talk Alina. She was the most unbearable part of this book and since she's the protagonist and the narrator, that's why the book has 3 stars and a D-grade here and 1.5 stars on my Goodreads. Alina is so plain! She's so ordinary! She can't possibly be a gorgeous Grisha! She even says "gorgeous Grisha" multiple times in the book! She doesn't have any special powers! Not even when it's proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (har har) that she does have them! She doesn't belong anywhere! She's never belonged anywhere!! WOE IS ALINA!!!

This whole "never belonged anywhere" thing pops up like 2/3 into the book and I was all like, "Bwuh? Since when have you never belonged anywhere? Why was there no evidence of this feeling before?" There are several things about Alina that suddenly surface out of nowhere, from physical facts to impulses and conveniently forgotten-and-then-remembered memories, all of which surprised me because I'd been reading for like 200 pages and this was the first time I'd heard of it.

Setup. That's what this book seriously lacks. When not riddled with extremely stupid plot devices and authorial/narrative trickery, Alina's character arc isn't an arc, it's more like a set of uneven steps where her character is in a static plateau of self-pity and resignation only to suddenly inexplicably jump up into her next bit of character "development." So I hate her because she's badly written as much as because she's a loser who gives up in favor of Magical Plot Devices saving the day.

Want to read a spoiler-free quote about her giving up?

"'You're not even trying anymore!' she shouted. 'You're waiting for [A MAGICAL PLOT DEVICE]?'

When she started railing at me, I just shrugged. She was right. I was tired of trying and failing. I wasn't like the other Grisha, and it was time I accepted that. Besides, some rebellious part of me enjoyed driving her into a tizzy." (175)
This part sealed my hatred for Alina. Not only does she totally give up and resign herself for waiting for external things to save her, she also gets enjoyment out of being a bitch to the one person who is trying hardest to teach her to use her powers. Never once does she try to turn situations to her advantage or exercise some agency on her own. She's so pitiable because she's not a real Grisha, boohoo, even though there are actually Grisha who are nice to her and who in general try to make her welcome. Alina is too busy angsting about how they're not really her friends and she's not one of them, while at the same time having bizarre feelings of contempt for them because they're so catty.

Too many mixed signals. Just like how Alina's character is a bag of nonsensical contradictions, i.e. she's so insecure and convinced she's plain and ordinary and so overwhelmed by everything, and yet she'll randomly snap insults at people or be snarky in her head. All her snark felt artificial, as if it was supposed to show she had spine. Jellyfishes have more spine than Alina.

Closeup of St. Basil's Cathedral
And the plot. Oh god, the plot. There's hardly any. 70% of the book is typical high school drama, with Alina as the new country girl who transfers into Grisha High and makes friends with the outcast girl and has to deal with the Queen Bee Bitch, etc., exactly what Krispy says. And this was another one of those vastly un-setup lame things, since the Queen Bee shows up, is mean to Alina, and gets her comeuppance—all literally within 5 pages. This makes Alina's little "vengeance" on her several chapters later seem petty and mean-spirited.

When the deeper plot finally surfaces in the last third of the book, it was so head-bangingly typical I had to put the book down for a moment. I took it back up in the hopes that there would be some big reveals and plot twists to change what was fast becoming a very generic fantasy plot, but nope, there were none—except for a couple near the end that came up out of nowhere with no setup for the sole purpose of getting characters out of certain situations.

There is some romance in a kind-of-sort-of love triangle. I'd say that romance isn't really the focus except that apparently it is—yes, it's another one of those badly-setup things on one side, where I wasn't aware of the sheer and utter transcendent depths of Alina's feelings for this other character. I'd thought it was more of a crush. At one point it seemed pretty clear to me that she'd gotten over it except *GASP* TROO LUV 4EVAH AFTER ALL. All right, maybe not quite so bad as that, but I didn't buy it.

Alz's Conclusion: Shadow and Bone ought to appeal to readers who enjoy fantasy and/or maybe contemporary high school drama stories. But don't come here expecting anything new except for the setting—that includes plot, deeper world-building, and characters (except kind of sort of the Darkling). If mopey self-pitying heroines incite loathing within you, avoid this one.


Julie Dao said...

I have seen this book EVERYWHERE but haven't had a chance to read it yet! Thank you for the thorough review as always, both of you. I don't know anything about Russian history myself, but you guys made me nervous because one of my WIPs is a fantasy set in an Asian-inspired world. I'll have to get you two to rip it to shreds when the draft is done, to make sure I'm not committing any egregious errors/no-nos! Not sure if I will pick up SHADOW AND BONE. Maybe I'll give it a try.

Connie Keller said...

I've heard a bit about this book, but really didn't know much about it. I like a lot of YA books. But since I don't usually enjoy the high school cliques genre, I'll probably think twice about reading this book.

BTW, I loved the Russian onion domes.

L.C. said...

Thanks for the reviews! I, ruefully, already bought it a few weeks ago, but since hearing there was a lot of error in how she used Russian influences I've been putting it off. Good to know I can keep putting it off until I've read the other books in my pile. (Like "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman. I hear it's spectacular.)

Lori M. Lee said...

Aww, I'm so sad you guys didn't like it. But I can see where you're (both!) coming from. Weirdly enough, Alina didn't strike me as that mopey when I was reading (I could relate to some of what she was feeling), but there was something about her that bothered me that I couldn't put my finger on, and I kept worrying I was just being unfair b/c I loved the Darkling so darn much. But after reading your thoughts, I can see it now XD

Great book review. I always love reading your reviews, especially when it's a low rating for a book I enjoyed b/c I love hearing your perspective!

Golden Eagle said...

Thanks for the review!

I'm not a fan of characters who pity themselves and wait for plot devices, so I probably won't read this book.

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

No, no! You must resist the hype! I'm one of those people that tends to dislike a book before I've read it when it's overhyped. Lol. It's stupid, and I usually will cave and read a book (I'm about to do it with 50 Shades of Grey), but eh. You never know.

Well, one things for sure--you guys give serious thought to your reviews. I love it. I hate it when reviewers say they don't like a book but don't explain why. You guys are awesome because you see the bad, but don't neglect to mention the good either. Or vice versa.

Lydia Kang said...

Another razor sharp review. I haven't read it but I'd heard good thing about it too. Hmm. It's still on my list, for now!

linda said...

Great reviews! I've seen so many glowing reviews of this -- thanks for cutting through the hype. I don't think I would catch the errors with Russian influences, either.
Along those lines, have you guys ever done a post about fantasies influenced by Asian culture and your thoughts on which things bother you? I'd be really interested in a post like that.

Angela Brown said...

Another fab review to give perspective on a very hyped book. I've heard lots regarding the good imagery used to describe the Russian based fantasy world but I haven't heard much of anything about the MC. I'm thinking, after reading this double review - I understand why there's been little talk on Alina but lots about the world created by the author.

Emy Shin said...

I haven't had a chance to read my copy of this yet (so many library books to get through first!) -- but I did have high hopes for it after reading so many glowing reviews. However, I'm now adjusting my expectations accordingly. :)