My rating: 2.5/5 stars
Shadow and Bone is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover, but in reverse. I admit I was drawn to it because of its dark and moody appearance, hoping for a satisfyingly atmospheric read. However I found it to be generic and forgettable, a high school drama wearing a lite-fantasy suit. The synopsis proves the author has imagination and scope, however the plot, characters, and magical system were never fully fleshed out, and therefore I had a hard time feeling fully immersed into this imaginary world.
Alina Starkov, a skinny, plain orphan, grows up alongside her best friend, Mal, in the Russian inspired fantasy world of Ravka, where some kind of magical human called Grisha serve a mysterious man, The Darkling. Alina believes herself to be a common member of the King’s Army, spending her days making maps and harbouring a secret love for Mal. On the day they enter an ominous darkness across their countryside called the Shadow Fold, Alina discovers she has a hidden power which she uses to protect Mal from the viscious Volcra, creatures that inhabit the Fold. She is then abruptly whisked away against her will from Mal and everything she knows to study to be a Grisha under the Darkling. During this time, a seemingly mutual physical attraction between Alina and The Darkling develops, despite his hazy moral code and motives.
I was left scratching my head at most of the character’s actions. There is seemingly no rhyme or reason to them which gives the sense that you’re reading a story driven by the author rather than the characters. It felt very contrived, with more telling rather than showing. As well, the focus on physical beauty (or lack thereof) was a cringe-worthy distraction from the atmosphere of the story. It’s pretty difficult to think the characters are in any kind of dire peril when they are flirting and revelling in each other’s hotness.
And let’s talk about Alina for a minute here. I have a bone to pick with her. Considering the formula of ‘insignificant female character discovers a secret ability and it turns out her ability is the most rare and special’, Alina fits the bill perfectly. Yet in spite of her new found ability, she remains a timid, mousy girl for most of the book without an original thought to her name. She is constantly tossed about by her emotions which cloud all reason and thus finds herself in some pretty sticky situations. At that point I lost all sympathy because, well, she basically asked for it. She mopes, she cowers, she pretends she is above the meaningless drama of the teenage Grisha, but allows it take over her thoughts regardless. Alina is just along for the ride, a passive participatant in the events around her. Rarely is the plot moved forward because of her.
The pacing was tiresome – Bardugo hurries through the plot-driving action, yet chooses to linger on pointless filler. After a few strong opening chapters, the story comes to a jarring halt for far too long, during which a Mean Girls inspired drama takes over, and side characters who have absolutely no purpose other than to take up space and give Alina makeovers (and help her try on dresses..and gossip.. see the trend here?) get too much spotlight. The story almost lost me for a while but thankfulky picks up again for an action-packed ending.
To Ms Bardugo’s credit, her prose was engaging enough that the pages turned quickly and brought me to an ending that held my attention enough that I will still likely read on in the series, despite it’s mentioned flaws. The Darkling was intriguing as we never get to know whether his duplicitousness has any genuinity. Alina does finally show a spark of strength that gives hope of further development in the next books.
It wasn’t a terrible book (well, yes, it had its moments), just nothing sets it apart as unique amidst an oversaturated genre. If you enjoy a light, fluffy book with elements of fantasy mixed in, you may very well find this an entertaining, quick read.