TL;DR – Alina serves the Ravka army as a mapmaker. Assigned to cross the Shadow Fold, an expanse of darkness filled with demonic winged monsters, she almost dies but discovers a long dormant power that allows her to summon light and fend off the creatures. This discovery leads to a chain of events where Alina is thrown into the world of politics and manipulation to try and save her country from its enemies. Fans of young adult fantasy will devour this story.
Alina Starkov and Mal Oretsev are raised in an orphanage in Keramzin. Thick as thieves, the pair grow up together with a bond that is stronger than blood. When they come of age, they enlist in the First Army of Ravka. Alina is a mapmaker and Mal is an expert tracker. Their regiment journeys to Kribirsk where they see the Shadow Fold.
The Shadow Fold, also known as the Unsea, is like a gaping wound that runs south of Ravka to the border of Shu Han and all the way north to the border Fjerda. It is filled with demonic flying creatures known as the Volcra. Cut off from the coast, East Ravka struggles to survive and must often send soldiers through the Fold in order to access West Ravka so they can access the imports it receives from other countries that cross the true sea. Ravka has been at war with Shu Han and Fjerda for over a hundred years, and the Fold is a blight that traps the country between two enemies.
When Alina and Mal board a sandskiff and commence the perilous journey through the Fold, they are set upon by a swarm of Volcra. Among the blood and chaos, Mal becomes badly wounded and Alina rushes to his side. When a Volcra swoops down and latches on Alina to carry her away, all looks lost until she unleashes a blinding white light that destroys all the nearby Volcra. Alina loses consciousness in the process and awakens to find herself back at Kribirsk and is escorted unceremoniously to meet the Darkling.
The Darkling is the leader of the Second Army of Ravka. While the First Army are non-magical, the Second Army is comprised of Grisha (humans capable of conjuring magic). When the Darkling confirms that Alina is not only a Grisha but has the rare ability to summon light, she is whisked away to the Little Palace to commence training in the Grisha arts. There she is plunged into the political machinations and internal power struggle between Ravka royalty and Grisha. Alina is anointed the Sun Summoner, a being capable of freeing Ravka from the Fold, reuniting east and west, and finally making the country whole once more.
Will she save Ravka from its enemies (and itself) or destroy it?
Book 1 of the Shadow and Bone trilogy introduces the world of Grisha, masters of the small science, who are capable of conjuring magic. Corporalki are able to manipulate the human body; they can heal and harm with a wave of their hand. Etherealki control the elements wind, fire and water. Materialki are inventors that have powers to change compositions of various chemicals and substances such as steel, glass and textiles. Collectively, they are known as the Second Army of Ravka.
Leigh Bardugo has built a fantasy world that establishes firmly magical arts that follow a set of rules. She then surrounds this fantastical element with real life common themes that humans see, experience and struggle with. Whether it is the emotions of love, joy, envy and jealousy experienced by the main characters or the broader impacts of war and political backstabbing, readers will identify with these as the familiar and thus be fascinated by the fantastical.
The greatest strength of Shadow and Bone comes not only from the character relationships between Alina, Mal, the Darkling and supporting cast but also from the established prejudices, suspicions, and power struggle between non-magical humans and Grisha. Ravka is ruled by a king and queen who are non-magical. The King has the First Army, soldiers who use armour and weapons to wage war against the northern Fjerdans and the southern Shu Han. The First Army is seen as the protectors of the country, the Second Army supports the First Army, and Grisha are perceived to be secondary. They all serve the King.
This does not sit well with the leader of the Second Army, the Darkling, who seeks to establish a world where Grisha are on equal footing. Actually, that’s not true, the Darkling wants to establish a new order where he is the ruler of Ravka and Grisha are respected as the higher beings. Forget equal footing, the Darkling wants to not only free Ravka from the Fold, the Fjerdans and Shu Han, but he also wants to be rid of serving a King that he perceives as inept.
This leads to what I felt was the greatest weakness of Shadow and Bone. The story that unfolds reveals that the King really is inept, he treats Grisha (including the Darkling) as servants. He surrounds himself with riches and comforts while the rest of Ravka starves and struggles to survive. Both he and the Queen are largely figureheads who hold parties and live lives of indulgence. Why the soldiers of the First Army along with all the non-magical peasants and serfs of Ravka follow the King is bewildering. There is no insight as to how the King holds on to his power, how he utilises it to control the Darkling and the Grisha. I can only assume that the King’s ancestors were wiser, stronger, and more powerful rulers, but this is never mentioned in the book.
Instead, I am left baffled why the Darkling and the Grisha put up with any of this nonsense. The Darkling could do away with the King in any number of ways and establish a new order, but he chooses not to. The only inference in the book is that he mentions to Alina that the age of Grisha power is coming to an end, and weapons technology of the First Army is advancing and will surpass Grisha power. From what I can tell, the Grisha population is substantially less than the non-magical population, so by pure numbers the Second Army cannot defeat the First Army.
Bardugo even goes even to the point of saying through one of her characters that everyone (including the Ravka First army and the non-magical people) knows who is the real leader and that’s the Darkling.
Still, putting this aside. Bardugo delivers a wonderful character in Alina and captures her naivety and eventual transformation into maturity well. Arguably, it is as much a coming-of-age story about Alina as it is a fantasy adventure. The interactions between her and the Darkling, and her and Mal, carry the story through to the end.
Plenty of symbolism will also have readers chomping at the bit. Alina is the Sun Summoner, the Darkling is the Shadow Summoner, who will prevail? Who can Alina truly trust while she is at the Little Palace training to use her power? Is it Genya, the Grisha tailor who Alina feels a genuine friendship because she is like a slave to the King? Is it Baghra who tries to teach Alina how to use light summoning magic? Is it Botkin, a former Shu Han mercenary, who teaches Alina in hand-to-hand combat? Is it the Apparat, a priest and spiritual advisor to the King who totally creeps Alina out because he seems to be stalking her? Or can Alina actually trust the Darkling and what he seeks to do (i.e. reunite Ravka)?
The one constant, Mal, is not with her. He has been sent off north to track down a mysterious stag that can act as an amplifier for Alina’s powers. Their separation is both heart wrenching and a driver for the story because you want them to reunite. And you know they will reunite, it is just a matter of when and under what circumstances.
Shadow and Bone closes in a dramatic but satisfying fashion and a key realisation for Alina comes in the form of an act of mercy. The writing flows easily and while aimed at young adult readers, it is imminently enjoyable for older ages who enjoy fantasy also. I look forward to reading book two – Siege and Storm.
4 out of 5.