Russia occupies an interesting place amongst the many other European nations, particularly from the point-of-view of travelers. It is often considered European, but at the same time it is not, either. Historically speaking, it has had a complicated relationship with the more “familiar” Western nations, both before and after the rise of Communism, and in many ways that relationship is still complex and ambivalent. As for its culture, some of it will seem familiar, but more often than not, there is something unfamiliar underlying that familiarity, something that does not fit quite right.
And therein lies the appeal, I think, of Russia as a whole: that dichotomy of familiarity and unfamiliarity, and how a country that gave the world Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky can also be the same country that produced Stalin and the gulag. There is also the deep, and deeply fascinating, well of folklore and fairytale that has, I think, not yet been completely mined by scholars and writers: a well from which a plethora of amazing genre writing can come.
In many ways, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, the first book in the Grisha Trilogy, is an attempt at this. Set in a world Russian-esque fantasy world, Shadow and Bone is the story of Alina Starkov, an orphan girl who discovers that she might be one of the Grisha: magic-wielders who hold a great deal of power in the kingdom of Ravka. Taken in by the Darkling, Ravka’s most powerful and most terrifying Grisha, Alina finds herself thrust into the Grisha’s glittering world, where she must train herself in the use of her powers so that someday, she might destroy the deadly Shadow Fold and unite Ravka once again. However, an unexpected revelation reveals to her the dark truth underneath the gold and jewels of the Grisha’s world, and she realizes that everything she has been told might very well be a lie – and that it is up to her to make sure that the world is not destroyed by one man’s greed for power.
I was rather looking forward to reading this book, mostly because of the Russian elements in the story. It’s not often, after all, that one reads a fantasy in a Russian-esque setting, which made Shadow and Bone quite appealing to me. I have since found out, however, that a lot of people – and I do mean a lot – are unhappy with the way Russian culture has been treated in this novel. I cannot say for sure how badly it has been portrayed, since my understanding of Russian history and culture is limited, but from what other reviewers have said, the book makes an utter travesty of it.
Perhaps they are right: many Russian readers have been quite outspoken about the misrepresentation of their culture – particularly with the way the Russian language was used in the story, which seems to form the crux of the complaints about this novel. Take the term “Grisha”: reviewers have claimed that the word is a diminutive of the given name Grigori, thus making it silly to use as a term for a group of magic- wielders, but given the way the Grisha are portrayed in Shadow and Bone I suspect that Bardugo thought “Grisha” could be used as another term for the angelic Watchers mentioned in Biblical and Judaic apocrypha, who are known as grigori in Slavic languages (though I wonder how other reviewers might have missed this connection, given how strikingly obvious it was to me once I found out that Grisha was a diminutive for Grigori), in which case the term “Grisha” would seem apropos for a group of magic-wielders.
Of course, I am certain I could be wrong about that interpretation, as I am not familiar with the Russian language in the least and how naming conventions operate, so perhaps my Grisha-equals-grigori-meaning-angelic-Watchers theory won’t truly hold up. There are also multiple other issues related to the use of the Russian language in the story that make it quite clear that Bardugo could have stood to do a bit more research before using the words she did in the context they appear in in the novel. This is unfortunate, because it appears to indicate that Bardugo did not give enough thought to her possible audience, choosing to write what she pleased without having any real care for what she was doing and how her writing might be received.
That being said, I can appreciate whatever effort Bardugo has put into her world-building – certainly it is far more solid than some of the other young-adult novels I’ve seen put out in a while, and that is something I can appreciate. Describing magic as a system no different from science (as well as an attempt to work some proper physics into the whole structure of it – such as Inferni being unable to produce fire out of thin air, but having to use a flint to get that initial spark) is something I can appreciate, though it appears that some characters are an exception to that rule. There is also the attempt at a class-divided social structure for Ravka, though much of the focus (in this book, at least) is on the upper class. I raised my eyebrow somewhat at the hierarchical structure for the Ravkan court, which is very French a la Versailles in the 18th century with its emphasis on beauty and fashion, but it is entirely possible that the Russian courts operated in just such a manner for a while, despite my misgivings. In all other respects, however, this is a pretty good Russian-esque world – and I use the term “Russian-esque” for a reason, because it’s obvious that Bardugo is not attempting to recreate a period, or periods, of Russian history. To think otherwise would be patently silly, rather like expecting the Middle-Eastern world of the Arabian Nights to be a true and accurate reflection of the medieval Middle East.
As for the characters, they are intriguing enough to hold my attention, though they are not capable of inspiring a great deal of fangirlish love in me. Alina, in particular, has a rather good narrative voice, which is fortunate since she is the main narrator for the novel. She is not, however, all that interesting a character – at least, not right now. Perhaps she develops into a more interesting character further down the line, though the fact that I need another book to see if she will become an interesting character or not is already rather worrisome for what she might be in subsequent books. The Darkling is also quite interesting, with an intriguing plot twist where it concerns his motivations, though as with Alina I find myself hoping that he will become more complex as the series develops – again, an equally worrisome thought, though not to the same degree as Alina. It is mostly the supporting characters who I find the most interesting: Mal, in particular, intrigues me to no end and I hope to read more about him in later books. Genya, Ivan, and Zoya, too, are all quite fascinating, and I hope to see them again further down the line.
Thematically speaking, this novel is not that different from a whole host of other YA books: growing up, the acceptance of one’s destiny – and the need to rebel against it – are at the core of Shadow and Bone as they are in a lot of other YA novels. What this novel does have going for it, though, is that while romance is still present, it is not the end-all and be-all of this novel. Love is something Alina struggles with, of course, but it is not the main point of the whole plot – and this is something I am very much grateful for. There is also the potential for other, darker, and more mature themes, mostly to do with class, but it remains to be seen whether or not Bardugo does address these other (and, I feel, rather more important) themes in later books.
Overall, Shadow and Bone is not a bad start to a trilogy, nor is it that bad a book overall. There are myriad issues with it (mostly concerning the amount of research Bardugo did or did not do for this novel), but for the most part, it functions – and that is also the most worrisome aspect of it. A truly enjoyable book should not merely function, it should come alive for the reader, and while some parts of the novel do this quite admirably, there are also parts that do not. Reading the next book is the only way to find out whether or not this trilogy is as noteworthy as the hype makes it out to be – but I am not entirely eager to get to it right away, despite the cliffhanger. It can wait a while, I think.