Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Lauren Fortgang (Narrator)

I can’t recall exactly how I stumbled upon Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Trilogy) by Leigh Bardugo.  Likely either social media or Shelf Awareness I would guess. It seemed like an interesting start to a potentially interesting series so I put it on my wish list or to read lists or something. Then I had the bright idea that this would make a good book for the car. I recently changed jobs and have a slightly longer commute so audio books are good.

So I requested the audio book from the library and recently finished listening to it. What is it, you ask?

shadow-and-bone_hi-res-677x1024Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha…and the secrets of her heart.

It was an enjoyable listen with some creative world building and interesting characters. The story had a tad too much romance and was a smidgen too melodramatic for my tastes but I have a hunch that listening to it was easier than reading it for some reason. I like the concept (Russian tinged alternative country, Grisha, etc.) and much of the execution but didn’t need all the kissy-kissy stuff (yes, I am a guy) and it felt a little over the top in places. But it is fantasy for young adults so some of that is to be expected.

Once again the voice actress did a great job with the narration and it certainly kept me entertained on my daily commute. Which is why the simplicity or straightforwardness of the book didn’t bother me as much.  In the car and the twenty minute or so commute I wasn’t looking for a deep and complex book to get lost in.  I have a feeling that reading the story on the other hand, particularly if you like deep and complex, might be disappointing.

Much of the plot is basic stuff using familiar fantasy tropes and characters.  Orphan destined to save or destroy the world, petty jealousies and court intrigue, heroine who must discover her true power on her own, etc.  The Darkling was a nice exception and the interplay between him and Alina really is the strength of the book to my mind; the way she is pulled toward power and the world of the Darkling even as a part of her is repelled and disturbed.

I would think, however, that if you like big fantasy books with female protagonists and a strong romance side this is a must read.

Laini Taylor in the New York Times offers a largely gushing review (with some caveats):

Writers turn to the plot conventions of high fantasy for a reason. They satisfy fundamental human desires — not merely to belong but to surpass, to be special, to have power, to be loved — and they do so at a louder volume than does ordinary life. They give us what we crave. The test lies in whether, as we are reading, we feel the dull, inward sinking of “This again?” or the exhilarating, grasped-by-the-hair lift and thrill of vicarious experience. “Shadow and Bone” imparts some of both, but in the richness of its Russian flavor, there is much to relish.

And Kirkus gets at both the weaknesses and strengths:

While Alina’s training borrows familiar tropes (outlander combat teacher, wizened-crone magic instructor, friends and enemies among her peers), readers will nevertheless cheer her progress. But the worldbuilding is continually undercut by clunky colloquialisms; such phrases as “Well, that’s completely creepy” and “It’s okay” yank readers out of this carefully constructed, mostly preindustrial world. Readers may also be troubled by the sexualization of power found in its pages. The plotting is powerful enough to carry most readers past flaws and into the next book in the series.

For my part, I plan on listening to the next book in the series just to see where the story goes. Beats listening to talk radio after all …

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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