The Shadow and Bone trilogy is Leigh Bardugo’s debut work and it had taken the YA fantasy world by storm and in a few short days, that stormfront will hit the mainstream when its highly anticipated Netflix adaptation premieres. Even though the TV series will bring in stuff from the Six of Crows duology (Ms Bardugo’s follow up books set in the Grishaverse), the story really began with these three books:
- Shadow and Bone
- Siege and Storm
- Ruin and Rising
I gave the first two books in this trilogy a score of 2/5 because they almost read like parodies of YA romance. The protagonist, Alina Starkov, is the narrator (first person view of course) and we are constantly soaked in her indecision and insecurity. Her thought process mostly goes “he won’t like me/why would he like me/I think I am ugly even though I am still attractive in a skinny, waifish kind of way/wow, everyone else is hotter than me”. There is a love triangle because it seems to me that every YA must have one of those these days. And almost every single character in these books talks like a sarcastic teenager who thinks they are walking paragons of witticism. Kill me. It is a trilogy of books that confirms the worst suspicions of readers who don’t like YA because of how stereotypically YA it is.
The only reason I didn’t rate the first two books lower is because the world-building and setting of the story is relatively interesting, even though the author had caught flak for misappropriating Russian culture. While most of the gaffes flew over my head, I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for this series’ Russian readers. I learned that the word “Grisha” is a dimunitive of the name Grigori (Gregory)—similar to “Greg”—so Bardugo’s book series is basically named “Gregverse” and the magic users in the books are “Gregs”. A Russian person also told me that the character Ana Kuya’s name roughly translates to “why the fuck” in Russian, but “even more vulgar”. There is also Bardugo’s decision to avoid gendering the surnames as per Russian conventions (e.g. Alina Starkov should have been Alina Starkova, and Morozova is in the feminine form when it should have been masculine) which is a creative choice, but I can see why it would bother Russian speakers.
I think as books go, these are pretty easy to read. There is not a lot of story and the overarching plot can fit comfortably into one typical good-sized adult fantasy novel. I would be glad to learn more about the Grishaverse world instead of spending so much time with Alina’s adolescent romantic entanglements, especially later in the second book when the love triangle became a love quadrangle with a new character entering the crowded ring—a character who was written specifically to be hotter, cooler, richer, funnier, smarter, more glamourous than the original designated love interest. I know Ms Bardugo wanted me to swoon for him, but no thanks, I already ate.
Still, most of my major complaints are found in spoiler waters, and that is where I am sailing to right now. So expect this review to spoil the entire Shadow and Bone trilogy from this point on.
That new character designed to charm the socks off readers is Nikolai, and he is basically Iron Man—a wealthy inventor with quips for days. And because that isn’t sexy enough, Ms Bardugo also made him a pirate captain and also secretly a prince. I know he is a fan favourite but I just wanted him to die so badly the moment he appeared because he just added more fuel to the aspect of the story I like least: the romance. All Mal (our hapless designated primary love interest) does in the first two books is be constantly jealous of Nikolai and the Darkling, and I can’t say I blame him since both those dudes have obvious designs on Alina—though it does make Mal an unbearable character for most of the series.
Also, there is this borderline ridiculous effort by the author to keep Alina chaste. Private moments which would naturally lead to sexy times are repeatedly interrupted, so much so that you can make a drinking game out of it. At the same time, Alina also gets sexually assaulted repeatedly by dudes who would kiss and touch her without consent, and because we are in her head all the time, we know she is both pissed off by it and kinda wants it too? It’s one sly way the author uses to sneak Alina some side action while keeping her technically faithful to Mal.
Seriously, Alina is so goddamn thirsty that she lusts after her main enemy constantly. I felt like hurling every time she describes the Darkling as “handsome”, “perfect” or ugh, “beautiful”. At one point, she goes to his room when he isn’t there and luxuriates in his scent, which she thinks smelled like the “crisp edge of a winter wind”, “bare branches”. and “night”. This is a man who had murdered countless people, tried to murder her boyfriend, and created an unnatural disaster that resulted in an entire region of the country to be covered in a shadow plague that twisted humans into winged demons, and she is so wet for him that I was surprised she doesn’t leave a snail trail everywhere she goes. She also shares a psychic link with him and even psychically makes out with him all while she and her allies are fighting to stop him (she is “forced” of course, even though she closes her eyes to enjoy it), and this is after he tortured and disfigured her best friend. What even is this woman?
So, when I give the third and final book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy a score of 3/5, I gave it in spite of all these issues I have with the series. I do like where the story ultimately went with Morozova’s Amplifiers, which the author foreshadows over three books by telling us how extraordinary Mal’s tracking ability is while all the characters around him remained strangely incurious about it. When the climactic dilemma was presented, when Alina had to sacrifice Mal to unleash the power of all three Morozova’s Amps, I thought that the way around it would be for Alina to FINALLY fuck Mal. It’s one way to possess Mal’s bone, if you know what I mean. It is the Shadow and BONE trilogy, after all. Okay, forgive me for that juvenile joke. Anyway, the final book wanted to have its cake and eat it too—because Alina gets to both kill Mal, and yet Mal does not end up having to die after all. And Nikolai also got better. I might actually have given Ruin and Rising 4/5 if it would only kill ALL of Alina’s suitors in the end but no such luck.
One side plot that did stick with was Genya’s story, and in many ways, I wish we followed her instead. Unlike Alina, she doesn’t enjoy being sexually assaulted all the time, and while it was satisfying that she ultimately got to call out her rapist, I thought he got off easy.
I’ll just say that I don’t think I am the intended audience for this, and that’s okay. I definitely enjoyed the Six of Crows duology more, and I wish the Netflix show would just focus on that instead. But who knows, maybe the TV show will improve on the original trilogy since presumably, we won’t be spending all our time in Alina’s hot mess of a mind.