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The Redhead

Taylor Kowalski, babbling about books.

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Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy)

Shadow and Bone - Leigh Bardugo I posted my initial thoughts on this book earlier, which can be found here, if you’re interested.

This is a tough book to review. I genuinely did not enjoy the vast majority of it. The only thing that kept me reading was that I spent ten dollars on it and had written in it at one point and surely couldn’t return it now.

Despite that, I might give the next book a shot. Elaboration below.

Plot
If you read the back of the book, you’ll think that this is going to be something with political intrigue and violence and maybe even sex. If you read the inside of the book, you’ll find it’s only one of those things, and even that is falteringly and easily remedied by the Grisha Healers. (So, no. It’s not sex.) You’ll also find that it takes Bardugo 236 pages—maybe 53,000 words, if my math and cross-productin’ are right—to arrive at the blurb’s stakes.

So, what are the first 50,000 words of this book about?

Alina getting pretty and going to school.

Really.

After she makes some glowy stuff with her hands to ward off some freaky shadow monsters, a gang of greedy Grisha haul her away to Os Alta, the Little Palace, to exploit her power. They’re led by the Darkling, who’s smoking hot because of course he is. From there, she spends the next 150 pages getting makeovers, trying on pretty clothes, and going through tedious descriptions of her schooling.

If I’d known I was signing up for the nineteenth century Slavic edition of Gossip Girls, I wouldn’t have read this book.

The ending rushes towards some violent conflict that resolves itself too quickly. This book exists as buildup for the second book, as the only worthwhile thing that happens is in the last quarter of the thing. A better writer could have done twice as much in half the word count. Unfortunately, Shadow and Bone wasn’t written by a better writer; it was written by Leigh Bardugo, and you gotta take what you can get.

Characterization
Alina Starkov. Main character. Blatantly dislikable. She’s a passive aggressive, vapid, weepy, bitchy, and generally selfish human being. What was probably intended as cutesy sass is little more than Alina being a twat.

The secondary characters surrounding her are overwhelmingly flat. There’s the senselessly mean girl, Zoya; the carbon copy Mr. Miyagi, complete with a cheap pseudo-Chinese accent, Botkin; the fairy godmother/guide Genya. We’ve even got a love triangle in the works, one corner occupied by Alina’s childhood best friend Mal and the other by the Mysterious and Steamy Newcomer ™, the Darkling.

The characters are strung together by cheap stereotype after cheap stereotype, shambling around as if some vaguely Russian names are diverse enough to salvage their identities.

Also, 99.99999% of them are beautiful or gorgeous or stunning or whatever. It’s nauseating.

World Building
Much like her plot and characterization, Bardugo’s world building was shallow, her culture middling and vague. It felt like she let the Russian inferences establish her world, rather than doing it herself.

The biggest problem with that is that it’s lazy and cheap writing. Smaller problems arise, however, when she makes some pretty big cultural divergences from traditional Russian history. For example, Bardugo warps several names by breaking the rule that Russian first and last names need to be of the same gender. She has masculine first names with feminine surnames, as with Ilya Morozova, feminine first names with masculine surnames, present in the very narrator’s name, Alina Starkov. She also mentions people getting drunk on kvas all the time. Which would be hard to do, since kvas has a less than 1% alcohol content and is essentially nonalcoholic beer. These small details ruined the credibility of her already thin world building for me.

Another thing that bothered me about this culture is how modern the dialogue and narration sounded. This book is set in a time when guns were only recently introduced for military use. That’s the nineteenth century, more or less. Her Ravka is clearly based on imperialist Russia. However, the dialogue sounds like these people could be from the twenty-first century. It’s hard to believe in a fantasy world set in the past with contemporary diction.

All those qualities squished together made Shadow and Bone more than a little underwhelming. If you like light fantasy, boring characters, and aristocratic drama, here you are.