There is something about stories of childhood best friends that I find utterly compelling no matter how used and abused they are by authors across genres. Maybe it's because I am almost always guaranteed themes of survival, dramatic separation, and romance - all of which were wonderfully executed in Shadow and Bone.
So what's this about? Alina and Mal were among the orphaned children taken in by the Duke of Keramzin in his estate where they were taught how to read, write, and learn a trade. Ten years later, they left the orphanage to join the First Army, the military unit in the land of Ravka. Their current mission was to head to the west coast to bring back home items and creatures unique to West Ravka. But to get there they must first cross the dreaded Unsea, otherwise known as The Shadow Fold, where people have been injured or killed in the dark haze, feasted on by dragon-like creatures known as the Volcra. In addition to their skills and weapons they are accompanied by the king's soldiers - the Grisha - gifted warriors who practice magic the Small Science. As luck would have it, a flock of Volcra attacked their boat as they were passing the Fold, leaving many injured and Mal almost getting killed, forcing Alina to summon a power inside her that she didn't know she had. As it turns out, Alina is a Grisha, albeit an untrained one. She's then taken away from Mal to join the Darkling, a mysterious and powerful man-boy who leads the Grisha.
As with other epic fantasies I've read in the past, I had a hard time getting into the story at first, which, I guess, is a typical reaction since so much world-building is going on at first. I had to pause my reading several times to look up several Russian-sounding words, only to find out that they were mostly made up so I just put two and two together from the context. Tsifil
means syphilis, right? Kvas
is, well, kvass. And kefta
robes are, disappointingly, non-existent. For a good portion of the book I imagined Alina's power to look like this.
But apart from the initial brain bleed I found myself going through the book smoothly.
The writing is good, the storytelling pulling, but my single gripe lies within the characters. I found Alina to be likeable, albeit a bit lackluster and emotionally weak. She did redeem herself in my eyes as the story progressed, what with her unwavering hope and determination to survive and rescue Mal. Mal reminded me of the stereotypical handsome and popular jock in high school who seemed to be good at everything he does. Don't get me wrong. There's absolutely nothing wrong with him. He's nice, he's sweet and he's protective of Alina, which really makes him too good to be true. The most enigmatic characters for me were the Darkling, that mysterious, handsome sonovawitch who, I am still hoping, will turn out be one of the good guys. GAH! Please let me close my eyes and open them again to find that he was just put under a spell! Please!. And then there's Genya, the beautiful tailor who provided me with giggles and comfort knowing Alina had a friend in her. And of course, there's the enchanting boarding school/palace setting which I pictured to be like the onion-domed structures, Kremlin-style.
Overall, I found this to be a page-turning read after I got over my initial hurdles. The plot was amazing, the story heart-racing. I honestly don't know why I don't read enough of this magical stuff!