It has occurred to me that I haven’t really reviewed anything recently where I outright hated something or didn’t have at least a little something nice to say. That ends with this post. I’m about to review a book that is by far one of the worst books I’ve read in quite some time. The book is Shadow and Bone, book one of the Grisha trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo.
The story is set in a fantasy version of 18th Century Russia known as Ravka. It follows an orphan girl named Alina Starkov. While traveling across the Unsea, a realm of darkness that divides Ravka in half, she discovers that she has the ability to summon light. Before long Alina is whisked away to train with a group powerful wizards known as Grisha. However, it isn’t long before Alina finds herself in the middle of a tangled web of intrigue that could determine the future of Ravka.
Let me start off by saying that it is very rarely that I find myself the lone voice of dissent in a sea of praise. Indeed, this book has received several glowing reviews, including from other fantasy authors such as Cynda Williams Chima and Rick Riordan. I initially found out about this book when Rick gave it a recommendation in his list of books he’d recently read. The cover had such a nice design and the map was, well, how about if I show you?
I mean, just look at that map! It’s made by the same artist who did the illustrations for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. At that point I was pretty much sold, but looks can be deceiving, as I found out the hard way. There were many times I wanted to quit the book, but I was determined to make it all the way through in hopes that there might be some redeeming diamond in the rough. Alas, there was none, but let’s look at this book in more detail.
We’ll start with the characters, and specifically with the protagonist Alina Starkov. Ms. Starkov is, without any competition, one of the most annoying characters I have encountered in some time. The book is told from her point of view, and very much to the book’s detriment because of this. Alina frequently whines about how unworthy she is, and how she isn’t pretty even though everyone tells her otherwise, and how she’s doesn’t deserve the affections of her many suitors. By frequently I of course mean pretty much every other thing she says is whiny and incredibly irritating. Let’s see here, a character who has great power, is incredibly beautiful, loved by everyone and yet has a severe inferiority complex. Two words: Mary Sue. Also, in proper Russian her name ought to have been Starkova, but that’s hardly the only Russian language error in this book.
Now, some of you might think I’m being a bit harsh here. I mean Alina has had a somewhat rough life before the Grisha showed up. Well let’s compare Alina to some more positive heroines such as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Annabeth Chase from Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Amy Martin from Across the Universe. All three of these fine ladies have gone through considerable hardships in their lives, and they do take time out to deal with their feelings of doubt and sadness. However, what sets them apart from Alina is that they don’t wallow in their doubt and sadness nor do they allow it to define who they are.
Now let’s talk about the other characters. We’ve got Mal, whom Alina is constantly swooning over and is a childhood friend. His primary personality trait is being Alina’s perfect boyfriend and…well, that’s basically all there is to him. The other significant man in Alina’s life is The Darkling, the shadowy leader of the Grisha. I can best describe him as a more bluntly abusive version of Edward Cullen from Twilight. He’s dark, dangerous and slightly rape-y, but Alina is oh so attracted to him. For that matter, thought this book is often billed as Harry Potter in 18th Century Russia, it’s really much more like Twilight in 18th Century Russia.
There were plenty of minor characters throughout the book. Most notably were the workers at the palace of the Grisha. They all have magical abilities, but not enough to earn a place among the Grisha. On the whole I find them to be much more interesting than the main characters, and I often found myself wondering why this book wasn’t about them. I should point out that there is an audio version of this book narrated by Lauren Fortgang. She tries her best with the narration, she really does, but unfortunately it just isn’t enough to save this book its terrible writing. I actually kind-of wish I’d bought the physical book just so I could have something to throw against the wall in frustration.
Now let’s talk about the worldbuilding. Ravka is very much a serial numbers filed off version of 18th Century Russia. Now, I’m not opposed to fantasy cultures being based recognizably on real world counterparts, but there should be at least some difference. For example, the primary religion of Ravka is based around the worship of saints and angels, rather like the Russian Orthodox Church. The citizens of Ravka wear kaftans and drink tea from samovars, and there’s a scene where a character gets drunk on kvass…which is known as children’s beer due to its low alcohol level. Even the geography parallels real world Russia. To the north we have Scandinavian sounding Fierda, to the south we have Chinese analog Shu Han and to the west we have the frozen wilderness of Tsibeya as the Siberia stand-in. Also, apparently Shu Han eats their Grisha while Fierda burn theirs. Yeah, the one Asian-esque nation is full of cannibals. Again, let’s look at someone who did it better. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in a world model off of the Middle East during the Golden Age of Islam, but it isn’t an exact carbon copy of that time and place, and there are enough difference to keep things interesting, unlike with this book
What really irks me about this book is how it failed to utilize a potentially interesting premise. I’ve seen interviews with Leigh Bardugo she’ll talk about all the little details she planned out for the book, like how the magic of the Grisha’s is really more like a science. Unfortunately, it seems Ms. Bardugo forgot to include these details in the book. Based on everything she’s said in these interviews it’s clear that Leigh has both potential and passion as a writer, but I feel she significantly dialed it all back and severely dumbed this book down. Now, some of you might suggest that the series gets better with future books. The reason that doesn’t hold is that you must capture the reader’s attention and interest by the end of the first book. If you fail to do so then we have a problem and they aren’t going to pick up any more books from the series.
Also, there’s the issue if the book’s moral. It’s revealed that Alina could have gotten into Grisha school way earlier, but she’s been intentionally suppressing her powers to stay with Mal. Combined with her total obsession with Mal, despite him having the personality of a wet cardboard box, this put a really bad taste in my mouth. It felt like the moral of the story was something along the lines of “Throw away your talents, and anything that makes you special or unique, to get your man because that’s what’s really important in life.” That is an absolutely horrible message to be sending to teenage girls, and one I sincerely hope Ms. Barugo didn’t intend to send.
Yet despite the numerous flaws with this novel it’s received a nearly ceaseless shower of praise. Professional authors call this book original and refer to its main character as strong and even as a role model. I find myself wondering if these other reviewers were reading a different book than I was. There’s even talk of a potential movie adaption to be produced by one of the producers of the Harry Potter movies. If this does come to pass I very much hope that considerable liberties are taken with the source material. Don’t ask me how any of this can possibly be; your guess is as good as mine.
In summary, and to paraphrase the late Rodger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated, absolutely hated this book. I hated almost everything about it. Hey, if nothing else I’ve proved that I know how to write a negative review. Don’t bother wasting your time with this stinker.