Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and followup Siege and Storm have been catching my eye for a while, but I hadn’t had time to sit down and actually read them. And when I say they were catching my eye, I don’t just mean the gorgeous covers; they were attracting very favourable reviews, and they were on a subject that appeared to be right up my alley, combining high fantasy with Russian folktales.
I finally had a chance to pick them up recently and I ended up reading them both in about two days, which is perhaps testimony enough to their greatness, but I suspect you want more than that. If only you would just trust my book recommendations, people!
The story revolves around Alina, an orphan who’s grown up and entered the army of Ravka alongside her childhood companion Mal. Alina loves her life as a mapmaker’s apprentice while Mal excels at tracking, and they think their lives are ordinary until one day Alina’s magical powers are inadvertently revealed, and she joins the ranks of the Grisha, a class of people with magical abilities who form up the so-called Second Army, overseen by a powerful Grisha known as the Darkling.
Thrust into a new life, Alina is uncomfortable and alienated, struggling to fit in, and while at first she thinks the Darkling is an ally and friend, she quickly learns that’s not the case…and starts to develop her power far beyond any dreamed capacity, turning herself into the Sun Summoner, capable of creating shimmering daylight and heat from thin air. Enter stage left: a national crisis as the Darkling tries to overturn the government, Alina’s fight against the Shadow Fold, and the human dramas that make life so very difficult for fantasy heroes who are just trying to save the world.
Bardugo has some absolutely stellar worldbuilding going on here, which is fantastic and delightful to see, as always. Ravka is a complex nation with its own social classes, and she’s done a superb job of tying it to Russia in many ways while almost making it an independent world. As I expect from high fantasy, Bardugo’s works are intensely immersive, plunging you deep into a world of magic, myth, and fantasy, but a world that’s also populated by very real people who are relatable on an interpersonal level, not just as heroic characters within an outsized world.
The relationship between Alina and Mal is fascinating, as are her friendships and struggles with other characters in the books, like Prince Nikolai, who desperately wants the Ravkan throne but also has a rich and colourful history as a privateer. One thing impressive about these books is that while there are romantic themes, they don’t become central elements of the story, and Bardugo mercifully spares us multiple pages of mooning; her characters have way too much on their hands to deal with prolonged romance, even as they’re also negotiating matches for power and control.
That said, there is an important romantic dynamic between Mal, Alina, and Nikolai, as the paths of the three characters collide and Alina struggles to find out who she is, and who she’s going to become. Even as she clings to her peasant roots and wants to be the girl she was, she’s also getting drunk on the power of being a Grisha, and the added power her abilities bring her, and she finds herself becoming estranged from Mal, who is a poor fit at the capital city. All the more so because Mal sees Nikolai pursuing Alina for both personal and political reasons and clearly loathes it.
There’s a complex dynamic tension between the three that speaks not just to the usual love triangle, but to actual stakes, and to the real things that happen as people grow up and grow apart. While not everyone suddenly finds out they have magical powers beyond imagining and realises that life has reached a critical turning point beyond which there is no going back to the old days, many of us experience key milestones in life that mark major shifts. Changes that are irreversible, and forever alter who we are. Sometimes, the people we love can follow us through those changes and we’re made stronger by having them at our sides. At other times, they can’t, won’t, or don’t, and the results, as they are for Alina and Mal, can be heartrending as we realise that we can’t change for the people we love, and we can’t demand that they do it for us, either.
I promised that these books aren’t all about romance, though, and I mean it. Think oodles of swords and sorcery, adventures on the high seas, and oh so much more as Alina battles with the Darkling across continents, seas, and nations. Bardugo writes in a vivid, clear, accessible voice that brings people and landscapes to life; I could almost feel myself sailing with Alina or wrinkling my nose at the filthy conditions of the common room at a cheap boardinghouse, experiencing the book alongside the characters instead of just watching as a passive observer.
I’m looking forward immensely to book three, which will bring us to the stunning conclusion of this trilogy and will hopefully contain more of the same greatness. And after this, I’d say Bardugo is definitely a writer to watch. Like Rae Carson, she is an amazing emerging young adult high fantasy author, and I suspect this is not the last we will hear of her.