Author: Leigh Bardugo
Title: Shadow and Bone
After reading The Language of Thorns and finding it a light, well-written and quite entertaining read I decided to push my luck a bit and actually read the trilogy that The Language of Thorns is a spin-off of. I am not happy to say that I won’t be completing that task – the first installment of the series, Shadow and Bone, was more than enough for me.
But ab ovo. Advertised as a unique YA literature heavily inspired by Russian folklore, Shadow and Bone introduces the readers to the Grishaverse, specifically – to the country of Ravka. Ravka is basically an alternate version of imperial Russia, with a sickly, childlike tzar and a barely disguised Rasputin figure as the de facto ruler of a country constantly at war with its neighbors. There we find an orphaned girl, Alina Starkov, who – as in majority of the contemporary YA – turns out to be The Chosen One. As we read the story from her point of view, we cannot help but very quickly realize that she is also a hopeless case of Special Snowflake Syndrome. Her unique, one in a century (or three) magic talent mixed with a whole heap of insecurities, general lack of intelligence and the fact that she aroused interest in the most powerful person in the country (obviously, the villain of the story) propel the plot forward. There is a promise of a cringe-worthy love triangle that never gets realized due to a timely Mother Ex Machina intervention (yes, I made that one up. I’m not ashamed), a prolonged series of declarations of undying love in various sceneries, from mountains to sea, and all the requisite drama of unanswered letters and teenage angst. Add to it an unhealthy dose of court gossip that sounds more like high-school gossip (maybe there’s no difference, after all), an obsession regarding the protagonist’s self-proclaimed lack of beauty that others try to remedy by magic and a fashion session in the queen’s wardrobe, and the general feeling of being different and trying to fit in – and voila! You’ve got yourself a generic YA plot in a pseudo-exotic setting.
Don’t get me wrong. Not one item of the list above is damning in itself (well, maybe except the Special Snowflake disease – I can’t stand it in any form). I’ve read many books containing one or more elements mentioned in the previous paragraph, and enjoyed them. I even expected some of this stuff in Bardugo’s novel. But it was simply too much. Shadow and Bone contains all of the above and almost nothing else. The great threat feels superficial, the villain seems made of cardboard, and the great sacrifice hinted at many times throughout the novel never really comes into play. The story of the main protagonist is painfully generic, copying the Chosen One arc described by Joseph Campbell. Even the sides in the novel follow the simplest choice between dark and light. And although Bardugo’s writing is quite smooth and at times engaging, her chosen form of narration, i.e. the first person POV, unfortunately emphasized the shortcomings of the plot, the worldbuilding and the psychological makeup of the characters. It all fell flat and unconvincing, and the deficiencies of the storytelling as well as my lack of investment in the characters’ fate made me focus on the wordbuilding – to my even greater woe.
It may be only my opinion, but I strongly believe that when you base your book on an existing setting, with its own unique history, culture and language, and you advertise it as such, you should really do your research beforehand. The pseudo-Russian setting was grating on my nerves from the moment I noticed the unfortunate name of Bardugo’s universe. “Grisha” is Russian diminutive for Grigorii. Gregsverse wouldn’t sound well either, and so wouldn’t calling every person with an ounce of magical talent “Grisha”. Getting drunk on kvas, as many reviewers noticed before, is a feat in itself, since the amount of alcohol in kvas is usually below 1%. Ok, I realize that since it’s an alternate Russia setting people there might have lower alcohol resistance, or their kvas might be much stronger. Still, when you use an existing beverage name but change its properties, it’d do well to clarify it. In general, if you borrow elements from an existing reality but change them somehow, the change needs to be explained – otherwise the readers will assume it works just as usual.
But it’s a minor thing, all things considered. Totally botching the Russian last names declension while preserving its inherent logic isn’t – I was honestly quite baffled by the fact that females had male surnames, and Ilya Morozova is a mystery to this moment. I still don’t know if it’s a male (as the first name would suggest) or a female (as indicated by the last name). And by gods, painting the alternate Ravka as an empire reaching from the alternate Scandinavia (Fjerda) to China (Shu Han), and making it so generic and uniform, was bound to raise my hackles: there are no conquered peoples, no internal strife, no differences of language or cultures on such a swath of land, the only divergence of note being wealth or the lack of it. And again – it’s a fantasy setting, so there’s no rule whatsoever about preserving the real differences. It’s a made-up world. Yes. But then, even fantasy worlds should be ruled by certain amount of logic – at least internal logic, that gives all its elements a coherent structure.
I know I shouldn’t have expected ambitious literature – and I didn’t. No, really. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I was looking for an entertaining, fast-paced, well-plotted, light read. Instead I got a bumbling, unevenly paced, generic “girly” fantasy. Disclaimer: “girly” is meant here as an adjective describing things that are stereotypically associated with or marketed toward young girls and heavily concerned with themes such as physical beauty, sexual desirability, and general outward appearance, as well as Western pop-culture notion of romantic love. I had to fight with myself to finish it – and I finally did mainly because I wanted to write a scathing review :P. I do take into account the fact that Shadow and Bone was Bardugo’s debut novel, and that there’s a five year gap between it and The Language of Thorns, during which the author’s writing skills have been considerably honed. Yet, all things considered, reading Shadow and Bone turned out to be a chore – one that effectively discouraged me from reading any more books by Bardugo.