I admit it. Shadow and Bone is probably not a book I would have read had it not been for a recommendation given to me by a librarian acquaintance during a week when my to-read stack was dwindling. Something about the title made me think that this was going to be overly dark for my taste and on the upper end of young adult. (Perhaps it was a slight confusion somewhere in the back of my mind with the similarly titled, Daughter of Smoke and Bone.) Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the recommendation because I thoroughly enjoyed a book I would have otherwise missed.
On the surface the story feels familiar: poor orphaned girl, neglected and unappreciated, discovers she has special powers and is drawn to those who recognize her importance. Will the allure of power and recognition pull her into dangerous pathways or will she safely navigate her new world? Yet, this story is not a stale rehashing of something you’ve read before. Leigh Bardugo weaves a fresh tale by creating a world filled with political intrigue where the practice of the Small Science brings power and privilege and the desire to belong feels achingly important.
Alina and Mal are orphans of the border wars that have plagued their country for over 100 years. Taken in by Duke Keramsov, they grow up together in what is essentially an orphanage on the Duke’s estate, relying on each other for support and companionship. As chapter one opens, they are headed, as members of the First Army, into the Shadow Fold, a nearly impenetrable dark expanse that is home to the man-eating volcra. Alina, a junior cartographer’s assistant, is unremarkable and largely unnoticed, but when volcra attack her and Mal in the Fold, she discovers she has unique abilities that may help reunite her country. Almost immediately, guards take her from life in the army (and Mal) to the Little Palace behind the double walls of Os Alta, where she trains with other Grisha who practice the Small Science. For the first time in her life she is important, and other people recognize that, but she still feels ties to her childhood friend.
Vivid descriptions flavored with a Slavic accent bring Alina’s world to life -- I particularly like the term “exhausting extravagance” to describe the Grand Palace (104). Entering the Fold “was like standing at the end of everything” (29). Baghra “with her head cocked to one side and her eyes glittering black in the firelight . . . [looking] like a very mean sparrow” scared me when she said, “And there’s nothing wrong with being a lizard either. Unless you were born to be a hawk” (178-79). And I could keep going if I wanted to spoil the plot.
What I like most about the book, though, are the interactions between Alina and Mal that portray a genuine relationship. The barbed letter that Alina writes to Mal expresses her frustration with not hearing from him:
I haven’t heard from you, so I assume you’ve met and married a volcra and that you’re living comfortably on the Shadow Fold, where you have neither light nor paper with which to write” (176).
But her final plea, “Please write” confirms her longing to hear from him (177). And while Mal can be insensitive, almost to the point of callousness at times, when he whispers, “I’ll meet you in the meadow” the reader hears in his words what he feels for Alina (33). Finally, after Alina tells Mal, “Thanks for finding me,” he answers, “Always,” and I forgave him all previous stupidity (263).
I'm anxiously awaiting the next book in this trilogy.
Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy)
by Leigh Bardugo
published by Henry Holt and Co.
Recommended for young adult readers.