What if you believed yourself to be completely and utterly ordinary, and you were afraid that this lack of “specialness” was going to cost you your best friend, who is charismatic and talented? And then, in a single moment, you became someone unique, valued, and even perceived as a threat. In the process, you are sent to live in a palace and presented to the king, but you also have been separated from your friend and now may never see him again. Can this be real or is everyone mistaken? How can you possibly be the person who will save your kingdom? And is it worth it if you never see your best friend again? These are just some of the questions explored in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone.
Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev are both orphans who lost their parents to the war that has raged in Ravka for more than a century. They relied only on each other as they grew up together in an orphanage. Both were tested by the Grisha for magical abilities at a young age, and both failed. As a result, they were trained to fight in the war. Mal has grown into a handsome young tracker (one of the best), while Alina has remained somewhat unremarkable and is being apprenticed to work as a cartographer. As their battalion prepares to enter “the fold,” a mysterious area of impenetrable darkness filled with ravenous flying creatures called volcra, Alina worries that she and Mal are growing apart, which may not make a difference, if neither of them makes it through alive to the other side of the fold!
As expected, their group is attacked by the volcra and, as the casualties mount, Alina releases a heretofore unknown power that repels the volcra and saves Mal. But this revelation changes everything for Alina. She is whisked away from her platoon (before she even learns if Mal survived the attack), and rushed to the palace under guard. When she arrives, she is tested, questioned about how/why her power wasn’t discovered earlier, and ultimately learns that she is the “sun summoner,” a light manipulator whose appearance has been anticipated for centuries. Alina alone may finally be able to end the war—if she can master the power she didn’t even know she had.
Growing up is never easy, and countless fantasy novels have been written over the years exploring and juxtaposing the trials and tribulations of coming of age with fantastic worlds and magical abilities. In this way Shadow and Bone is a typical fantasy novel (normal girl with fantastic hidden powers may be able to save the world), but it is told in such an unexpected and skillful way that it is easy to forget the familiarity of the territory being covered. Bardugo’s characters are strongly drawn and the setting, an alternate/fantastic Russia, gives everything an interesting spin. The Grisha, with their melding of magical and scientific pursuits, are fascinating, and the world Bardugo creates is compelling and complex, filled with all the ceremony, rules, and pitfalls, both magical and political, of any royal court. Alina’s journey, infused with the longing and alienation of someone who desperately wants to stand out and and also to fit in, will be familiar to younger and older readers alike. Shadow and Bone is a compelling and emotionally resonant story.