Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: Shadow And Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Oh. My. God.

How the heck did I not read this last year? I must have been really, really out of it between grandma and doing round 2 Sealer's Promise revisions. Because this ... this is just totally epic, and gut wrenchingly heart shattering, and an absolute freaking tease and about a thousand other things.

In short: It was amazing.

Yes, this is me totally tripping over my own tongue. (Or trying to write like I'm tripping over it like it's a slimy carpet that has come out of my mouth and which is now dangling at my feet. Yes, I know: ew.)

If you can't tell, Shadow And Bone has left me totally enthralled. Now, let me collect my wayward tongue and actually try to tell you why you need to read this if you, like me, missed out last year.

The Plot: (Summary from GoodReads)
Surrounded 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.

The first thing that I am going to praise is the double-set of bookends, or perhaps we could call it a circular structure, that the plot followed. I loved how the story began and ended in a 3rd person narrative as if it was being told to us from a book of fairytales, while the vast majority was first person from Alina. It gave the whole thing a very whimsical feel, sorta like I was zooming into the story and then being placed back in the real world again when it was finished. Which was probably a good thing: I was totally sucked into this story as if I was watching a movie, and having it just 'end' would have likely jarred me pretty bad. 

The reason I'm saying it was 'double' was that the bookends nature goes beyond the physical structure and actually mirrors to Alina and Mal. I won't go further then that, since I don't want to start telling you in vivid detail how the story goes, but it's gorgeous touch of writing / planning / putting forth theme and it really impressed me. Okay, I'll break a little. We have, essentially, three parts. Before the palace, at the palace and after the palace and there are mirrors and echoes that carry through all of this. 

The magic users in this story, the Grisha, have one of the most awesomely designed magic systems I have ever seen. A lot of classic elements, such as the (actual) elements, healing / death magic, etc. are presented in new and unique ways that defied the usual expectations and made me hungry to dig into the lore and mythos behind them. I also really loved Alina's title, "the Sun Summoner". I thought it was really pretty and I love how it was handled. 

For anyone curious, this is in very many ways a "school" story. A lot of the plot deals with Alina going to the Little Palace and learning about her abilities. I love stories in this type of setting (school, a character learning new and exotic things, having to cope from being away from what one knows)... but Shadow And Bone is so much more, and this whole idea is used to such a richer, deeper, more aching and beautiful depth then (I think...) I've ever seen anyone use it before. Things happened in this book that utterly blew me away, and they often came at times or from people I wasn't ready to see them come from. 

The Characters: 

Alina was a character that I clicked with right away. I found her personality spunky and gutsy, but in more of a smart and cheeky way, rather then in an I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass way. She could fight, and improves at this (and other things) as the story goes on, but that's usually not a drawing card for me. I liked how she worked to roll with what was thrown at her--even when some of it was absolutely freaking nuts. I like it even better that she does this after struggling with and freaking over smaller things. This may bug some people, but to me it showed strength in light of vulnerability and humanity, and I find that very endearing. 

I wasn't a big Mal fan at the beginning, but I did like him alright by the end. He started out feeling very generic to me, we "lose" him (read: he's not a key player) for a huge part of the book, and yet he's one of the love interests--more importantly, he's the good guy best friend love interest that I'm TERRIFIED we're going to end up with in the end because the alternative... well, let me just tell you about the alternative... *fans self* (Really, I don't have anything else to say about Mal. Sorry, dude: I wish they'd ... *stops self to avoid a spoiler*) 

Introducing Kat's first obsession of 2013... The Darkling! Okay, I see you over there looking at me like "Kat, you've totally lost it. How could you possibly fall for a character named the Darkling? It's so obvious he's going to be evil!" ...sigh. Trust me, there are layers here. With a name that *should* be that blatantly forthtelling, there had to be layers for it to work, and Leigh's portrayal of this guy absolutely 100% delivered. Can he be a totally ruthless badass who's gonna have your mouth hanging open and your eyes shimmering with tears? You betcha--it would be absurd otherwise. BUT... and this is a big BUT... if you're anything like me (some are, some aren't) you're gonna love the guy anyway, because his motives are well thought out and that's not all he is or is about. 

The rest of the cast that fills the book does what they need to do while still being entertaining and memorable. I really loved Genya. Baghra was very complex and threw me for a heck of a loop. Zoya was the girl I loved to hate and I loved the shades of gray used for Marie and Nadia--were they Alina's friends or not? It's never made clear, which is something I found very interesting in contrast to the characters who either loved or hated her. It felt very *real*; we can't always know what people think of us and in a book that is very much about shades of gray (in every sense of the term) this fit very well. 

The Romance:

Hang on a minute, I need to try and get my heart back from Mal and the Darkling. They're using it to play a game of tug-of-war right now. Shadow And Bone has one of the best, most complex and interesting love triangles that I have ever read. Emotionally, I actually don't know who I want to see Alina with. I know for sure as a writer--I would LOVE to see her with the Darkling. It would shatter so many "rules" that I would have to stand up and cheer. But as a reader? It's tough, because both of these guys are worthy of our heroine in his own way, and both have their own issues and flaws. 

Let's be totally honest here: you guys know me. If you've been following my blog for any length of time you aren't going to be shocked by my next statement: you'll have been waiting for it. :) You just know, if you've read this or have read anything about it, that I bought it because of the Darkling. This guy just totally absolutely and utterly sucked me in. I was totally wrapped up in his charm and I would have done (and wanted Alina to do) anything he asked of her. There's SO MUCH I want to say here but won't  because this is a book you need to truly experience.

And Mal... Just wow. I didn't care for Mal at the beginning. He was okay, but I found him a tad predictable and generic. Later in the book when he shows back up I actually tweeted that I wanted him to get lost and leave Alina and the Darkling alone. *laughs* BUT ... and this is a tremendous but ... by the end of the book he won me over to a point where, as I said earlier, I'm not sure who is the best choice. I *know* it's not as straight forward as it looks. I just *KNOW*. (As with my comments on the Darkling--this is another area where the obviousness of the way things turned out for now cannot persist--it won't work within a trilogy structure, especially when at this point I'm ready to say Leigh isn't going to give us any easy answers.)

Lets put it this way: the romance is gonna screw with your head. I finished this book on Wednesday, it's Monday night, I'm just finishing my review and I'm having trouble getting into another book because I'm still trying to wrap my brain around this one. Yes, it truly is that awesome.

In General: 

There's still so much I'm aching to say, but odds are high that I've already said more then enough. If Shadow And Bone is any indication of how good the books I'm going to read this year will be, then I am very fortunate indeed. I honestly can't think of anything else I've read, in the entire time I've owned this blog, that has haunted me, hounded me and connected so profoundly with me. I can't think of another book that has ever had this effect on me, where I feel like I'm still half buried between its pages days after finishing it.

Filled with action, intrigue, magic, romance and wonder, Shadow And Bone is so good that I am tempted to flip back to the beginning and start reading it again. If, like me, you missed out on this absolute gem of a story last year, wait no longer. Shadow And Bone is an absolute must read, a spellbinding novel that will suck you into it's world and never fully let you go.

2013's First Recipient Of... 

1. A Real and Loveable Heroine: I absolutely adored Alina. I've heard people criticize her for being weak willed, niave and insecure about her appearance. And she was. But these things made her real and relatable for me. She seems like the kind of person I would actually want to be friends with, and that's not always something I can say about YA heroines.

2. A Love Triangle I Actually Loved: I'm usually not a fan of love triangles. They are usually too obvious and the guy I like best usually loses. Here, the love triangle actually feels vital to the story, it raises a ton of questions and I actually don't know who I want Alina with--even if *she* thinks *she* does. I'll say this much: I don't know how it'll end, but I bet we're in for a hell of a ride before we reach that point.

3. The Use of Beauty as a Theme: I've heard a lot of people get upset about this and now that I'm done the book and have looked back on the whole of it, this has me scratching my head. On the surface, I can get why people think "teens will feel they need to be beautiful if they want to connect to this"... But that's not the message here At All. Alina's strength and heroism don't come about because of some miraculous makeover, nor does her insecurity about her appearance (or inability to fix it) become a weakness. Instead, this "plain" girl's beauty comes through in her courage, integrity, honor and determination to save her people. I plan to do a video talking more about all this, but I had to bring it up here because this has been driving me crazy.

4. The Darkling: I love him. I'm obsessed with him. If I was Alina... okay, we'll just let that one hang. :p I think this one is pretty straightforward and obvious, and I've already gushed a ton about him in my review. But he's just so utterly amazing ... Yet again, something I want to talk about later.

5. I'm Still Inhabiting The Pages: I know that I mentioned this in my review, but it's important I credit it here, as it's the deciding factor that sets this apart as a Kat's Meow recipient. I keep lots of books, but I often keep them in crates in my closet since I read a lot of series. Not so for Shadow And Bone. It will actually have a place on my keeper shelf, because I'm getting ideas for some pretty big plans for this book in 2013. If you have read it and are interested in helping with an event, let me know. If you haven't read it, keep your eyes open around here. I'm sure you'll get at least a couple chances in the coming months.

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